Anita Rowland

Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox is taking theatregoers back to the beach this autumn. Audiences should pack up their cars and head not to the shore, but to Haddon Heights, NJ. Something more entertaining than sand and surf awaits them there. The company is presenting first volume of Neil Simon’s Eugene trilogy: Brighton Beach Memoirs. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, 11/02/19 performance.

What is it about families that makes them so interesting? Director Steve Allen inquired in the playbill. If one is to use Mr. Simon’s fictitious Morton family as an example that answer is “a lot.” The clan included a mix of both lovable and quirky characters. Their dreams and flaws made for a lot of conflict and confrontations in a show billed as a comedy.

Ostensibly a story following Eugene Morris Jerome’s (played by Ricky Conway) transition from adolescence into manhood, the show really focused on the trials facing the Jerome’s family. Eugene’s Aunt Blanche (Jennifer Wilson) and her two daughters had moved in with his family after her husband’s passing. She’d become withdrawn and emotionally lost following the tragedy. Her youngest daughter Laurie (Sofia DiCostanzo) had a heart condition that limited her physical activity. Nora (Madeline Johnston), the elder, harbored aspirations of quitting high school to become a Broadway dancer.

Eugene’s father Jack (Dave Helgeson) worked several jobs to earn the money needed to support this extended family. The strain impacted his heath. Eugene’s brother Stanley’s (Jonathan Wallace) immaturity caused him to make reckless financial decisions. Eugene’s mother Kate (Amy Bannister) endured the most difficult task of all. She had to hold this unit together: while trying to find Blanche a husband.

Ricky Conaway played Eugene: a challenging role. Eugene served as both the narrator and a character in the story. Mr. Conway brought passion and energy to his performance. He rattled off the myriad zingers in Mr. Simon’s script with ease. The more memorable included:

“I love tense moments! Especially when I’m not the one they’re all tense about.”

“The tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Which is more than I could say for the liver.”

“If only I was born Italian…All the best Yankess are Italian…My mother makes spaghetti with ketchup. What chance do I have?”

Fittingly, Eugene longed to become a writer.

Mr. Conway also showed the same skill when performing dramatic scenes. He and Jonathan Wallace worked very well together. The two performers made it easy to visualize them as brothers. They showed the characters’ love for one another while still fighting like siblings. During their confrontation scene Mr. Conway showed Eugene’s change from the mindset of a child into that of an adult.

Amy Bannister wrote that she was elated to be in her sixth show by her favorite playwright in her cast bio. Her enthusiasm came through in her performance as Kate. Ms. Bannister captured her character’s essence by enacting her diverse traits. She portrayed the wise and stern mother when telling Eugene to put away the cookie he took from the kitchen. She became the empathetic confidant when telling Jack that the family would find a means of managing their financial problems. Mr. Bannister expressed strong feelings during her confrontation scene with Jennifer Wilson.

Ms. Bannister and Ms. Wilson engaged in a heated argument. As Mr. Helgeson said when refereeing this dispute, “You’re having the fight you should have had 25 years ago.” Ms. Bannister became emotional to the point of crying. She and Ms. Wilson made the fight so genuine that it became unnerving to watch.

Steve Allen has a skill for finding the latent nuances within argumentative dialog. He possesses a profound understanding of the underlying emotions the characters are experiencing. Scenes that could turn into shouting matches become much deeper and meaningful through his interpretation of them. His direction of Jennifer Wilson’s confrontation scene with Madeline Johnston served as an excellent example.

Ms. Wilson’s character loved Nora, but didn’t know how to show it. Ms. Johnson’s character wanted Blanche to love her, but didn’t feel like she did. The two performers contrasted one another very well. Ms. Wilson played the low-key character to Ms. Johnston’s more animated one. Ms. Johnson is a very expressive performer in both the way she says her lines and through her non-verbal actions. The two different styles added to the conflict and made the scene much more powerful. Thanks to Mr. Allen they did so without rattling the audiences’ eardrums.

The crew at the Village Playbox always shows remarkable skill at maximizing the space allotted to them. For Brighton Beach Memoirs, set designer/builder Gary Kochey transformed the stage into the Jerome house. It contained two upstairs bedrooms, a living room and a dining room: all with the appropriate furniture. The layout allowed performers not involved in the main action to remain on-stage. It gave the audience a real sense of being in a Brooklyn home circa 1937.

Other members of the production crew included: Producer, Stage Manager and Costumer Anita Rowland; Stage Manager Donna Allen; Set Construction and Lighting/ Sound Effects Gary Kochey and Amy Bannister along with the cast also handled the costuming.

On the weekend South Jersey residents turned the clocks back, the Village Playbox turned back time to the late 1930s. The cast and crew showed that what may seem like a simpler time was anything but. To borrow one of Mr. Allen’s observations, it did show that family can be so many things. One is a wonderful evening of entertainment when described by talented playwright and a portrayed by an outstanding cast.

Brighton Beach Memoirs runs through November 16th at the Village Playbox. After that audiences can add this production to their memoirs.

 

Seussical at The Village Playbox

The Village Playbox proved that imagination isn’t just for kids. Using Seussical’s opening number “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” as inspiration, Director Anita Rowland along with the cast and crew used all their powers of creativity to bring this show to the stage. The script required that they transform the set into the worlds of Whoville, the Jungle of Nool and into the realm of everyone’s favorite troublemaking tabby, The Cat in the Hat. I attended the Saturday, May 4th performance at the First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights.

To borrow a line from The Cat in the Hat, “Folks, this ain’t Mother Goose.” Upon encountering The Cat in the Hat (Sidney Manfred Maycock III) Young Jojo (Presley Terch) took an amazing journey. The Cat transported him to the miniature world of Whoville. In this place, he became the son of the Mayor (Doug Cohen) and Mrs. Mayor (Debbi Heckman). A teacher chastised Jojo for using his imagination too much. In order to discipline the boy, the Mayor and Mrs. Mayor placed him in the army. General Genghis Khan Schmitz (Christopher Schmalbach) vowed to make him conform.

Horton the Elephant (Shawn Simmons) discovered Whoville on a speck of dust. He placed it on a clover for safety. First the Wickersham Brothers (a group of monkeys) and then Vlad Vladicoff the eagle (Steve Allen) took the clover. The latter dropped it into a clover patch.

Horton’s quest to relocate Whoville became interrupted by Mazie LaBird (Rachel Smith). She asked Horton to sit on her nest for “an afternoon.” After Horton agreed, Mazie abandoned her egg.

A group of hunters captured Horton and placed him in the Circus McGurkus.  Gertrude McFuzz (Haley Schmalback), another bird, struggled to locate Horton’s clover for him. Her desire for his affections served as her motivation.

This plot summary doesn’t adequately explain the level of imagination needed to present Seussical. Much to their credit, the team at The Village Playbox made this fantastical premise very believable.

Director Rowland utilized the entire room for this production. During several numbers, the ensemble left the stage and performed in the rows surrounding the audience. I liked the stereo effect it provided. It also allowed those in the show to interact with the audience. During one number The Cat made eye contact with me as he passed. “Now there’s a man who likes to mambo,” he said to me.

I normally don’t like it when performers break the fourth wall. In this case I felt flattered that someone acknowledged my ruffled shirt. I paid good money for that thing.

Donna Allen, Nikki Zane and Amy Bannister did an excellent job with the elaborate costuming. As someone who’s color blind, even I could appreciate their intricate use of color. The Cat’s bright colored red and white striped hat looked authentic. The different shades of the Bird Girl costumes added a nice visual effect against the varying hues of the backdrop. The yellows worn by the Mayor and his wife enhanced the cartoonish ambiance.

Jan Johnston performed extraordinary work designing the set. Even though based on a fantasy world, I found it very realistic. The stage became the domain of Dr. Seuss. The cartoon trees looked as though they’d been transplanted out of the pages of his books. Mazie’s nest perched several feet above the stage. In front of it was a multi colored clover field. Credit goes to Gary Kochey and Christine Dziczek for constructing this wonderful set.

In addition to transforming the theatre into the world of Dr. Seuss, I also thought musical director John Demchak and choreographer Haley Schmalbach turned Haddon Heights into Motown. The numbers included sophisticated melodies, elaborate background vocals and stellar dance moves. Jessica Shockley delivered soulful vocals on “Biggest Blame Fool” and during “The People Versus Horton the Elephant.” Rachel Smith sang a sultry version of “Amazing Mazie” accompanied by Haley Schmalbach, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Colotti and Madeline Johnson.

Upon seeing Sidney Maycock’s in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels I wrote that he possessed a genius for comedy. With his performance in Seussical, he personified Arthur Schopenhauer’s observation that, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Mr. Maycock took a high-energy approach to a demanding role. He spent most of the show on stage; either pantomiming reactions or leading the action. The entire evening he wore a fur covered cat suit. I attended on a humid night. Mr. Maycock never showed any signs of fatigue. He pranced around the room like a performer impassioned with his role.

When Act Two opened, The Cat impersonated an orchestra conductor. During the scene, the character sat down out of exhaustion, took a drink of water and patted his forehead with a towel. Mr. Maycock put a lot of energy into that maneuver, too.

Mr. Maycock utilized a series of voices for the role. Employing a Texas accent he ran an auction. He mimicked a doctor with a Russian dialect. Using The Cat’s voice he performed excellent renditions of “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” and “It’s Possible” with Presley Terch and “How Lucky You Are.”

Seussical included many outstanding musical numbers. Shawn Simmons and Mr. Terch sang the most beautiful song in the score. They sang a beautiful rendition of  “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Simmons and Haley Schmalbach delivered an equally poignant version of the track towards the end of Act Two.

I marvel at the barrage of rhyming couplets playwrights Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty included in the script. The most challenging came during Mr. and Mrs. Mayor’s initial interaction with Jojo. Doug Cohen and Debbi Heckman impressed by delivering these tricky tongue twisters clearly and without stumbling over the words.

I found one concept in the show dated. General Genghis Khan Schmitz launched a war against people who buttered the bottom side of their toast. With the current state of American foreign policy, that concept won’t seem as bizarre to American audiences as it did when Seussical first appeared in 2000.

The show contained an extensive cast. I’d like to compliment everyone for their work on this production: Sidney Maycock, Shawn Simmons, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Collotti, Madeline Johnston, Aaron Wachs, Paul Rather, Gabrielle Allen, Daniel McDevitt, Steve Allen, Lily Allen, Colin Becker, Margo Mullin, Amy Bannister, Jennifer Campbell, Rachel Grodzielanek, Madelyn Grodzalinek, Nicolette Malinowski, Audrey Mitros, Juliette Pacana, Ella Samuel-Siegal and William Young. Steve Allen assistant directed and Ed Frazer designed the lights.

Seussical played to a sold out house during its opening weekend. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll bet you feel “alone in the universe.” I’m “havin’ a hunch” you’d like to watch it. Before saying, “how lucky you are” to those who have, get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.”

So don’t you lament and come to grief.

See Seussical at the Village Playbox no later than May 18th.