Antonio Flores

Disaster! at Burlington County Footlighters

Take a spoof of 1970s disaster movies, include a soundtrack that sounds like a best of K-Tell Records compilation add a cast of South Jersey community theatre legends and you’ve got Disaster! A 70s Disaster Movie…Musical! (To save readers the time of going back and re-reading that title: I know. I never thought I’d see those words written in that combination, either.) So theatre fans grab your roller skates, your pet rocks and hook up your CB radios. This September 20th my “20” was Burlington Country Footlighters.

Scott Angehr and Tracey Hawthorne directed this rib-tickling tale of terror. Drawing on the suspense of films such as The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and Jaws with the farcical wit of Airplane!, Disaster! told an old story with new twist.

Unscrupulous business man and Lothario wannabe Tony Delvecchio (played by John Romano, Jr.) came up with a clever scheme to avoid New York’s gambling laws. He owned a floating casino. As this was the 1970s, the establishment included a discotheque. Mr. Delvecchio’s ethical lapses also caused him to avoid spending money on the necessary safety measures.

To add to the potential for misfortune, scientist and disaster maven Ted Scheider (played by Evan Hairston) informed Mr. Delvecchio that a fault line lay underneath his casino. Mr. Delvecchio addressed this matter with same diligence that he managed the casino’s other safety concerns.

The late 1970s television series The Love Boat may have provided inspiration for the show’s characters. They were both quirky and the types of figures one would like to see the victims of misfortune.

The passenger list for this ship included a gambling addicted nun (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), a washed-up disco diva (Mikayla Nelson), the sappily married Summers pair (Alan Krier and Lisa Croce) and a wealthy couple (played by Antonio Flores and Kelly Scott) that made Thurston and Lovie Howell look like the Clampetts before Jed found “Texas tea” on his homestead.

The casino’s employees were even more idiosyncratic than its passengers. They included lounge singer Jackie Noelle (Alex Davis), waiter and malapropism prone pick-up artist Scott (Aaron Wachs) and a flamboyant chef (DJ Hedgepath).

Disaster! writers Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick infused their script with the philosophical wit of comedian Bill Hicks. The latter observed: “It’s only funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.” And Disaster! was hilarious.

Dramatis personae this eccentric, a wacky script and a soundtrack that featured radio staples of a decade, required performers with the right skills to execute these unique challenges. Directors Scott Angher and Tracey Hawthorne made strong casting choices: many of whom are Footlighters’ legends.

John Romano, Jr. made the reprehensible Tony Delvecchio a pleasure to watch. He performed the most comical near-death scene I’ve ever watched. While crooning a melodramatic version of “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, Mr. Romano battled rising waters and a school of sharks. He made the scene and the outcome hilarious.

Ally Masson played investigative reporter Miss…Excuse me, that’s Ms. Wilson. Ms. Masson played a stellar straight performer opposite Mr. Romano’s comical concupiscence. She displayed perfect chemistry with the character’s love interest played by Vinnie DiFilippo. The two delivered a fantastic duet with “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” Ms. Masson also performed a memorable version of “I Am Woman/That’s the Way It Always Should Be” accompanied by BCF Mainstage newcomer Makenna Renbjor.

What Jim Frazer is to set-design, Vinnie DiFilippo is on his way to becoming as a theatrical performer. Mr. DiFilippo turned in another strong performance through the role of lovelorn Chad Rubik. The performer reciprocated the chemistry Ms. Masson displayed while working with him. While Mr. DiFilippo enacted all facets of the role perfectly, I especially enjoyed the soul he added to his vocals on “Without You.” He shifted the mood at the song’s conclusion by curling into the fetal position. This touch of comedy made the track even more memorable.

Evan Hairston played the deceptively complex character, Ted Scheider. Mr. Hairston delivered the sine qua non of this character type’s usual modus operandi. He ran around the casino and warned everyone who wouldn’t listen about a pending “disaster.” He executed this maneuver like the character’s namesake (the actor Roy Scheider) did in the movie Jaws.

Mr. Hairston added the requisite comedy to the role. His actions recalled those of another disaster spoof hero: Ted Striker, the protagonist of the film Airplane!

The performer still inspired empathy for Sheider. With his lamentations on the fate of the character’s deceased wife he showed Sheider’s personality deeper than that of a dispassionate scientist. He best did so through his interactions with his character’s love interest: nightclub singer Jackie Noelle (Alex Davis).

Alex Davis selected the perfect voice for the role. Ms. Davis spoke in a sultry high-pitched tone. It well suited the lounge singer’s vocal style on “Muskrat Love,” “Mockingbird” (accompanied by Mr. Hairston) and the “When Will I Be Loved” duet with Makenna Renbjor. Ms. Davis added her own brand of comedy to Jackie Noelle through the shuffle she used for her character’s walk.

Makenna Renbjor made her BCF Main Stage debut in the dual roles of Jackie Noelle’s children, Ben and Lisa. She selected a challenging show with which to do so. Ms. Renbjor managed the quick wig changes without flaw. The performer also showed strong vocal prowess as mentioned earlier. One has to credit her for the courage to perform along such outstanding performers as Ally Masson and Alex Davis during her first foray onto the Main Stage. Ms. Renbjor’s wonderful performance proved that she earned the right to share the stage with them and her real life mom, Jillian Starr-Renbjor.

Yet another Footlighters legend, Jillian Starr-Renbjor added her talents to this extraordinary cast. Ms. Starr-Renbjor played Sister Mary Downy, erstwhile gambling addict turned moral crusader turned gambling addict again. In a departure from the nun’s usual deadpan delivery, the performer expressed her character’s passion for one-armed bandits through her emotional rendition of “Torn between Two Lovers.”

A production consisting of this much talent and entertainment makes it difficult to select a most memorable moment. For me the casting of the Summers couple provided highlight of Disaster! Two of the best comic performers in South Jersey community theatre took on these roles: the extraordinary Alan Krier and the incomparable Lisa Croce.

Alan Krier provided his usual comedic genius for the production. He performed a perfect imitation of Ms. Davis’ shuffle. In perhaps an even more impressive feat: he did so without wearing heels.

Mr. Krier also returned to his roots in musical theatre for this role. He served as part of the group that performed “Ben.” He also delivered a fun duet with Lisa Croce on “Still the One.”

Lisa Croce’s fans will be ecstatic with her performance in Disaster! This show is an absolute “must see” for them. Ms. Croce treated them with her usual proficiency at comedy. Her portrayal of her character’s unusual medical condition, including Tourette’s like symptoms, delighted the audience. She sang a duet with Mr. Krier that was both comical and, in its own way, poignant.

Ms. Croce impressed most with her dancing ability; a skill that’s a bit out of her comfort zone. When I interviewed her on June 22, 2016, I asked about the most difficult role she played. Ms. Croce replied:

I feel much more confidence in my acting than my singing or dancing these days (age will do this!). Therefore, playing Rosie in Wedding Singer where I had to sing solo and dance was difficult for me. I needed to get out of my own head and just do it! I lean more towards plays or non-singing and dancing roles in musicals when I can.

Fans wouldn’t have suspected that for her performance in Disaster! She proved the old cliché that we’re our own harshest critics.

In this show, Ms. Croce performed a tap dance number. Part of the way through, Ms. Davis and Mr. Hairston accompanied her. Ms. Croce still occupied center stage while leading the ensemble. She executed the routine beautifully.

Set designer extraordinaire Jim Frazer worked his usual magic with the Footlighters’ stage. For Disaster! he turned it upside down: literally. Mr. Frazer transformed it into a dock, a lounge and a host of other settings one would find in a casino.

The show featured a live band under the direction of bassist Peg Petti-Smith. Ms. Smith led the Diablo Sandwich Band & Friends through the pop music of the seventies. The group performed tunes written in a range of styles. The songs included the contemplative “The Lord’s Prayer,” the upbeat “Saturday Night” and the disco masterpiece (now there’s an oxymoron) “I Will Survive.”

Tom Shaw, Jr. choreographed, Leslie Romanuski stage managed, Amanda Cogdell managed the costuming and Scott Angehr produced. The following performers completed the cast: Mark Henley, Christian Decolla, Shannon Ewing, Shannon Forbes, Mackenzie Smith and Abby Zahn.

Disaster! runs through September 28th at Burlington County Footlighters. As of this writing your correspondent hasn’t confirmed the rumors that FEMA: A New Musical will follow it. Sources do tell me that production is lacking the needed financing.

I found the performance of Disaster! at Burlington County Footlighters as anything but. Theatre fans can only hope we see the members of this talented cast perform again. If we don’t, it wouldn’t be a disaster: it would be a catastrophe for the arts in South Jersey.

 

Sister Act at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Many South Jersey community theatre fans have attended at least one Sister Act production staged this year. When the Maple Shade Arts Council announced that they’d be producing it this July, I’m sure some asked, “Do we really need another Sister Act show..again?” Well, theatre legend Michael Melvin directed this one. So don’t think of it as “just another Sister Act” show. Think of it as the New Testament. I attended the showing at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium on July 15, 2017.

Since Sister Act has been such a popular show this season, I’ll spare readers the usual plot summary. However, to paraphrase director Michael Melvin, I will report that the cast and crew “put together one hell of a heavenly show.”

Watching Phyllis Josephson take the stage again was a true pleasure. I’ve seen her perform in numerous shows; in fact most recently in Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players. She delivered a rap number in that one, but this is the first time I experienced her ethereal vocal style. I found her emotional rendition of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” very moving.

Ms. Josephson turned in a supreme performance as Mother Superior. She balanced the character’s austere nature while still getting laughs at the proper times. After her passionate rendition of the number mentioned above, she followed it up with a stellar on-liner. She also shared great chemistry with her nemesis, Dolores, played by Danielle Harley-Scott.

Ms. Harley-Scott played a wild free spirit and aspiring disco diva forced to masquerade as a nun. This required some range and she executed the challenge very well. She crooned the upbeat numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby!” with spirit. Later in the show she adjusted and delivered a passionate rendition of “Sister Act.” Maintaining her focus while the lights reflected off her sequined blouse was an achievement in itself. Her comedic attempt to lead the nuns in grace made one of the funniest moments of the show.

In a bit of ironic casting, Darryl Thompson, Jr. played “Sweaty” Eddie. I wrote ironic, because I didn’t notice him sweat all evening. The challenging number “I Could Be That Guy” would’ve given most performers a reason to perspire. Mr. Thompson already earned a reputation as a phenomenal vocalist through his previous work. With that acknowledgement, he sang a version of the song that would’ve impressed Berry Gordy.

Casey Grouser (as Sister Mary Robert) displayed extraordinary talent in this production. This performer possesses the strongest voice I’ve ever heard. The brilliant way she modulated it all evening impressed me. Unlike many singers, Ms. Grouser managed to hit high notes without her voice sounding piping. Ms. Grouser shone in her passionate rendition of “The Life I Never Led.”

In other scenes, Ms. Grouser captured her character’s initial timidity by hugging a book, looking down or quickly shuffling off stage. She believably enacted the character’s transformation into a self-confident person. Her overall performance deftly brought out Sister Mary Robert’s inner feelings.

I called Antonio Flores “brilliantly comical” when he played a gangster in City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters. I delighted in watching him step up into the role of crime lord, Curtis. The witty flair he added to “When I Find My Baby” enhanced the tune’s unusual lyrics.

Lori A. Howard and Vitaliy Kin demonstrated great comedic collaboration. Mr. Kin possesses a unique ability to stand out no matter what role he’s playing. Ask anyone who heard him sing Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish during The Wedding Singer. Listening to him shout in Spanish while Ms. Howard translated became my favorite moment in the show.

Erica Pallucci choreographed some extraordinary high-energy dancing. Casey Grouser, Gina Petti and MacKenzie Smith put on a clinic. There’s no question the choreographer deserves some credit for the routines. I’m just thinking these dancers found a lot of inspiration from the funky moves Mr. Melvin showcased when he played TJ this January.

The way Sister Act combined comedy, singing and dancing in the same scenes made it distinct. Matt Maerten, Evan Hairston and Vitaliy Kin combined their talents for the “Lady in the Long Black Dress” number. It made for an unforgettable scene.

I’d also credit performers Jillian Starr-Renbjor, Brian Blanks, Debra Heckmann, Andrea Veneziano William Smith and the ensemble for their comedic and vocal contributions to this stellar production.

The live band made the show even more special. Cameron Stringham did an excellent job coordinating the music. It sounded spectacular without overshadowing the vocals.

One of the advantages we community theatre critics enjoy is the opportunity to interact with influential people. I’ve had the privilege to sit next to famous performers, directors and producers at various shows I’ve attended. The Maple Shade Arts Council took this perk to a whole new level. Michael Melvin occupied the next seat over from me when he played Pius VI. (I give him credit for staying in character while doing so.) So this time, I got to sit next to the director, the organization’s president and a Pope. Now I’ve made it as a writer!

So do we really need another version of Sister Act in South Jersey? After watching the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production, an emphatic YES answers that question. This performance contained phenomenal singing, dancing and acting. Just perhaps, a series of Sister Act Two shows may be a welcome addition to the 2017 – 2018 theatrical season. For now, fans can see the original at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium through July 22.