April Johnson

All Shook Up at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Theatre fans grab your bobby socks, hula hoops and put on your 3D glasses. Get ready for a trip back to the 1950s courtesy of Haddonfield Plays and Players. This summer they’re providing an entertaining theatrical journey featuring the music of Elvis Presley. I attended the Saturday, July 13th performance of All Shook Up directed by Ed Doyle and assisted by Rico Santiago.

Playwrights have incorporated Rock and Roll songs into musicals for some time. 1967’s Hair, 1992’s Tommy: The Musical and 1996’s Rent are some popular examples. In 2004 Joe DiPietro crafted a piece of musical theatre for Rock and Roll purists. The soundtrack consisted of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits. Now that’s real Rock and Roll.

I had high expectations for All Shook Up. Shakespeare’s work influenced the story. Elvis Presley provided the songs. That means the greatest playwright inspired the narrative. The King of Rock and Roll supplied the music. How can an audience expect better than this?

The script contained serious conflict; especially for a comedy. Like many comedies, it contained a complex plot. In essence all the main characters fell in love with another character who loved someone else.

The story began as Chad (played by Jake Hufner) entered town on his motorcycle. Combining the personality traits of a rebel, a Rock and Roll crooner and ladies’ man, he longed to liberate the community from its suffocating mores. In response, Mayor Matilda Hyde (Lori Clark) vowed to enforce the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act. The law banned things such as Rock and Roll and public displays of affection.

Another plot line focused on the circumscribed social world of the 1950s. The Mayor also harbored a special dislike for interracial dating. Following that pronouncement, her son, Dean (Vinnie DiFilippo) began a romance with an African-American woman, Lorraine (Kyra Moon).

All Shook Up contained outstanding dance routines. Choreographer Allison Korn organized some mesmerizing sequences. The show opened with two attention getting performances through “Jailhouse Rock” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Ms. Korn incorporated 50s dance moves as well as some of Elvis’ trademark maneuvers. The cast’s high energy and sophisticated sequences made the choreography the most memorable part of this musical.

It seems redundant to write that the show included fantastic songs. Anyone with the most remote interest in Rock and Roll already knew that. The playwright arranged them for maximum impact on the story.

Somehow, Musical Director Chris Weed and the cast managed to present some of Rock’s greatest cuts in a humorous way. I liked how Natalie (Jenna German), Chad (Jake Hufner), Jim (Jim Dennis), and Miss Sandra (Faith McCleery) all had the opportunity to sing a portion of “One Night with You.” The location of each character’s segment provided excellent comedic effect.

Lori Clark led the show’s funniest scene through her rendition of “Devil in Disguise.” While the ensemble accompanied her, Mr. Hufner played a pitchfork like a guitar. I’d also credit Omaira Parrilla-Dunne for the lighting design and light board operation on this number. The red lights she projected during the choruses made the routine even more humorous.

The playwright applied Elvis’ songs to enhance the drama, as well. Vinnie DiFilippo and Kyra Moon performed a strong duet on “It’s Now or Never.” As Sylvia, April Johnson delivered a soulful rendition of “There’s Always Me.” Wes Hopkins (as Dennis) sang a moving version of “It Hurts Me.”

Jake Hufner played an excellent “roustabout.” Mr. Hufner adopted a bit of an Elvis voice while still making the songs his own. He mimicked the King’s mannerisms very well as evidenced by Courtney Bundens’ repeated fainting spells. He still kept the role funny. He expressed good frustration and persistence over Miss Sandra’s lack of affection. The confusion he displayed over his unexpected interest in “Ed” was classic.

Jenna German performed the role of Natalie/Ed. Ms. German delivered strong vocals throughout the evening. Even when her character didn’t speak, Mr. German made her feelings clear through well executed facial expressions. I also enjoyed the witty way she showed her character’s interest in Chad with “A Little Less Conversation.”

Wes Hopkins played the lovelorn Dennis. Natalie didn’t return his affections. He found himself in the position of helping her gain Chad’s interest while serving as his “sidekick.” Mr. Hopkins convincingly portrayed his character’s turmoil over this unsettling situation.

Ed Doyle designed an excellent set. Mike Snyder constructed it and Courtney Bundens painted the scenic design. They placed platforms in the shape of guitar bodies at stage right and stage left. A road stretching into the horizon adorned the center.

Renee McCleery designed authentic costuming. Cast members wore items such as a leather jacket, blue suede shoes and period eyeglasses.

The cast also included the following performers: Pat DeFusco, Amanda Barrish, Andrew Chaput, Trisha Dennis, Brennan Diorio, Kayla DiSibio, Joe Grosso, Mark Henley, Jr., Johanna Johnston, Gre Jones, Jenn Kopesky, Allison Korn, Renee McCleery, Jacqueline Spence, Aaron Wachs and William Young.

HPP didn’t have to say “don’t be cruel” to me before I wrote this review. After watching this phenomenal performance, “I don’t’ want to” be mean. “It hurts me” if theatre fans missed All Shook Up’s opening weekend. “That’s alright.” You can still “let yourself go” to Haddonfield Plays and Players. Come August 3rd, it will be “now or never”, however. So “c’mon everybody.”

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Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.