Brennan Diorio

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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A Trip to Oz at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Dorothy opined that “there’s no place like home,” but this weekend there was no place like Haddonfield Plays and Players. The company presented a musical tribute to L. Frank Baum’s classic tale. The encomium occurred in the form of a musical cabaret titled A Trip to Oz. Fans put on their ruby red slippers and marched down the yellow brick road until reaching the Emerald City that is Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Talk about serendipity. Last weekend I attended an online watch party. It featured a 1974 live recording of Pink Floyd performing The Dark Side of the Moon. This weekend I decided it “time” to determine the accuracy of the rumor about the album synching up with the soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz. * Haddonfield Plays and Players allowed me to “breathe” easier by helping me find the answer. I took the musical journey in the form of A Trip to Oz on March 30th.

Director/Producer Pat DeFusco and the team at HPP displayed monumental creativity with this concept. They also expanded on the company’s history of presenting shows that correspond to holidays. Just last month HPP staged Love Letters to commemorate Valentine’s Day. It surprised me that they didn’t put on a special program for St. Patrick’s Day. Then this show began. Almost every performer in this show wore green. Tami Gordon Brody even accessorized with emerald ear rings and an emerald necklace. I liked the untraditional method of referencing to the season. The use of green still alluded to the Emerald City; a key figure in Oz. Bravo for tying both together.

The cabaret featured renditions of songs performed in The Wiz, Wicked and both the film and theatrical versions of The Wizard of Oz.

The entire company took the stage at both the show’s beginning and conclusion. They opened with “Merry Old Land of Oz” and ended by performing two numbers together. Following “For Good”, they selected the perfect tune to finish the program. In perhaps a veiled public service announcement about driving home safely, they used “Ease on Down the Road” as the finale.

A Trip to Oz included some songs with mind twisting melodies. Some of them would have impressed King Crimson’s founder, Robert Fripp. Special credit goes to Alexa Gershon for her performance of “The Wizard and I” and Tami Gordon Brody for “Home.” They delivered powerful versions of very intricate material.

Evan Brody took the idea of following in his mother’s footsteps literally. He walked on stage right after his mom’s performance. He delivered what he promised in his version of the upbeat “Dancing through Life.” After the intermission he returned and delivered a moving rendition of the classic “If I Only Had a Heart.”   

Amber Kusching added the role of disco diva to her already extensive repertoire. Ms. Kusching delivered a funky toe tapping rendition of “You Can’t Win” that included a well thought out dance routine. She deserves a lot of credit for executing her moves while wearing heels. Ms. Kusching also thrilled the audience with her vocal prowess on “No Good Deed.”

The Stage Kidz added one of their dance routines to the set. Choreographer Brennan Diorio directed performers Abigail Brown, Leah Cedar, Logan Endes, Ava Favieri, Hope Gallagher, Lucas Oelten, Jesse Plumley, Tess Smith and Olivia Bee Sposa through the dance accompaniment to “The Jitterbug.”

Love stories happen even in Oz. The cabaret included two duets between performers Kristine Bonaventura and Chris McGinnis. They moved the audience with “As Long As You’re Mine” and “What is This Feeling.”

Those familiar with the Oz franchise know it includes numerous beautiful songs. The performers in this cabaret delivered some stellar versions of them. Deanna Beaucher sang a wonderful “Over the Rainbow”, Gaby Frasca performed an inspiring “Believe in Yourself” and Kate Sherlock delivered an emotional version of “I’m Not That Girl.”

Dana Masterman Weiss performed the musical apotheosis of narcissism known as “Popular.” Ms. Weiss got into character for this song. The performer added the perfect mannerisms and gestures to express her character’s self-absorption. It’s this type of skill that makes Ms. Weiss so “popular” with HPP’s audiences.

The following performers added their exceptional talents to the program as well: Isabel Bramhall sang “Defying Gravity”, Catherine Davies performed “Already Home” Eric Monzo delivered a song that lived up to its title, “Wonderful.”

In addition to producing and directing, Pat DeFusco managed the sound and projections. The pictures on the screen included images from The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz and Wicked. Mr. DeFusco even added snippets from the films for effect. Stage Manager Omi Parrilla-Dunne ensured that the production proceeded perfectly.

I found the show very entertaining and well performed. I didn’t like the fact that it began eight minutes late. I also didn’t like how 15 minutes after the show’s scheduled start time audience members were still taking their seats. When people come in late it creates a distraction for both the performers and the spectators. It’s also dangerous for people to walk around in a darkened room.

I would remind everyone of some good advice someone gave me: “If you can’t be on time: be early.”

To my ears the music from The Wizard of Oz didn’t synch up with The Dark Side of the Moon. I lost “money” on that bet. My situation reminded me of a story. Ray Bolger, the performer who played the Scarecrow in the 1939 movie, had an interesting observation regarding his own financial situation. When asked if he received a lot of money due to the film’s success, he replied, “No, just immortality. I’ll settle for that.” As the cabaret only ran for two performances, A Trip to Oz may have achieved the same status with theatregoers.

*Alan Parsons, the sound engineer during the recording of The Dark Side of the Moon, has denied this.

Love Letters at Haddonfield Plays and Players

The team at Haddonfield Plays and Players knows how to celebrate the holidays. This past October they presented Murder by Poe for Halloween. In December they staged A Christmas Story. They continued this tradition by bringing a love story to their stage for Valentine’s Day. This February 23rd and 24th they presented A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters. Tami Gordon Brody directed. I attended the Sunday, February 24th performance.

Love Letters told the story of star-crossed lovers Melissa Garner (played by Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams) and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Rick Williams). The two began a correspondence as children that continued throughout their adulthood. A tragic tale of two diverging lives resulted. Andy grew into a prominent lawyer and successful politician. Melissa entered into several failed marriages while fighting battles with both mental illness and substance abuse. Letter writing provided their connection to one another.

Love Letters premiered in 1989. The playwright crafted the drama in epistolary form. It contained only two characters. Each read letters that either he or she wrote to the other. The performers did so while sitting on chairs located at center stage.

This format can become problematical for directors staging it thirty years later. In an era of tweets, texts and big budget action films how can this premise still keep an audience’s attention for an hour-and-a-half?

To meet this challenge, Ms. Brody selected the real life husband and wife team of Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams and Rick Williams. Both performers have appeared in various community theatre productions. Audiences unfamiliar with his theatrical work will recognize Mr. Williams from his “day job” as the anchor of Action News at Noon and Action News at 5:00 PM.

The performers’ presentation methods captured the vicissitudes of life inherent in Mr. Gurney’s prose. Mr. Williams delivered his lines with the suave baritone familiar to his fans. Ms. Mitchell-Williams spoke in the sophisticated tone of a seasoned theatre professional. They managed to hold my interest for the show’s full 90 minutes.

I sat to the far end of stage left. From my vantage point I had a better view of Mr. Williams. I liked his clever use of facial expressions. His smiling, shock and surprised reactions to Ms. Mitchell-Williams’ comments added more depth to the production.

The story’s end contained an emotional catharsis. Ms. Mitchell-Williams played the only scene where one of Gurney’s characters directly spoke to the other. I found her interaction with Mr. Williams absolutely heartbreaking.

Gurney’s text caused an unexpected case of art imitating life. When professing Melissa’s love for Andrew, Ms. Mitchell-Williams delivered the line: “You’ll always be my anchorman.” It added some much needed levity to the story’s context.

The characters corresponded with one another over a fifty year time frame. It lasted from 1937 until 1987. In order to establish when events occurred, a series of images appeared on the backdrop. They included photos of Santa Clause, the picture of Harry Truman holding the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline and a photo of the Challenger crew.

Pat DeFusco performed his usual excellent work designing the sound and visuals. Stage Manager Brennan Diorio and Technical Support Glen Funkhouser rounded out the production staff.

In the course of their letter writing, Ms. Mitchell-Williams’ character suggested that the two use alternate forms of communication; such as the telephone. Mr. Williams’ character disagreed. He championed the power of the written word.

But they gave us an out in the Land of Oz. They made us write. They didn’t make us write particularly well. And they didn’t always give us important things to write about. But they did make us sit down, and organize out thoughts, and convey those thoughts on paper as clearly as we would to another person. Thank God for that. That saved us. Or at least it saved me. So I have to keep writing letters. If I can’t write them to you, I have to write them to someone else. I don’t think I could ever stop writing them completely.

Perhaps, Love Letters has more importance today than when Mr. Gurney wrote it.

The Fantasticks at the Ritz Theatre Company

When I read the title of the Ritz Theatre Company’s latest production, The Fantasticks, I figured it referred to the cast.  The show featured South Jersey community theatre legends Alan Krier, Bruce A. Curless and Michael Pliskin among other notables. While the show didn’t focus on their personal stories, it sure lived up to the title. I attended the opening night performance on June 1st.

To add to the billing, Matthew Weil (with the assistance of Siarra Ingram) directed this musical. Mr. Weil has a history of organizing the stage very creatively. For The Fantasticks, he utilized a similar set-up to the one he used for Brighton Beach Memoirs. In this show, however, the audience didn’t sit around the stage: they sat on the stage. This allowed the actors to mingle a bit with the spectators while taking their places for the opening scene.

The set-up also gave the thespians the opportunity to make eye contact with the audience while performing. I didn’t just feel like the players spoke to me: they did speak to me. It made the theatrical experience much more personal.

The Fantasticks told the story of teenage beaus Luisa (played by Kristy Joe Slough) and Matt (AJ Klein). The two lived next door to one another, but their feuding fathers Hucklebee (Alan Krier) and Bellamy (Charles J. Gill) kept them apart. The dads did so both figuratively and literally. They erected a wall (played by Brian Gensel) between their properties to keep the two separated…or so they wanted their kids to believe.

In the witty duet “Never Say No” the fathers explained that kids always do the opposite of what they’re told. The audience learned these men wanted their children to marry.

Realizing that a physical boundary and a fake quarrel wouldn’t suffice to bring their scheme to fruition, the dads enlisted the aid of a professional. A man who called himself El Gallo (Michael Pliskin) offered to enact an abduction. After recruiting one time Shakespearean actor Henry (Bruce A. Curless) and his sidekick Mortimer (John Nicodemo) the gang feigned an attempt to kidnap Luisa. Following a brief sword fight, Matt ‘saved’ her and emerged the hero.

At this point in the play, I became confused. The act’s final number “Happy Ending” befuddled me even more. Matthew Weil has directed such innovative dramas as The Pillowman and The Heiress. Those plays featured some mind bending plot twists experienced by complex characters. This story concluded much more neatly than I expected.

Then Mr. Pliskin announced the show included a second act. After intermission, then it turned into what I expected from a Matthew Weil directed show. The story arcs in The Fantastics rivaled the other two shows’ I cited. I’ll spare theatregoers spoilers. They deserve the opportunity to experience Mr. Weil’s theatrical journey for themselves. As a teaser, I will note that Act II began with Ms. Slough, Mr. Klein, Mr. Krier and Mr. Gill arguing in song about a plumb being “too ripe.”

The lighting (operated by Stage Manager Sara Viniar) fashioned a spectacular ambiance. The blue shade created a perfect simulation of moonlight. The yellows illuminated the stage just like sunshine. The colors accentuated the tinsel Mr. Gensel dropped on Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough to simulate rain and the paper he fluttered to mimic snow. The lighting also made me feel like the scenes occurred during the time of year indicated by the narrator.

Here we go with ‘the narrator’ thing again. I’ve often ranted about how much I loathe when a playwright makes ‘the narrator’ a character. That was until I experienced Michael Pliskin’s performance in this show. Mr. Pliskin possesses a gift for storytelling. While the show featured excellent dance routines (choreographed by Angela Longo), stellar singing (vocally directed by Robert Stoop) and outstanding acting, Mr. Pliskin’s narration impressed me the most. No one can tell a story like Michael Pliskin. If he’d like to expand his artistic horizons, I’d suggest he consider narrating audio books.

In addition to that role, Mr. Pliskin also played the villain, the deceptively intricate El Gallo. (Phonetically that’s gah-yo, as the character would tell you.) He delivered his lines with a Spanish accent embellished just enough for comic effect. The performer also delivered the most humorous death scene ever portrayed on stage. To balance out his evening, he also sang a moving “Try to Remember” that those who heard will never forget.

Kristy Joe Slough showcased extraordinary operatic vocals throughout the evening. She performed a wonderful solo number “Much More.” Ms. Slough sang duets beautifully with both Mr. Pliskin and Mr. Klein. While doing so, she chose the perfect facial expressions to enhance the lyrics. This performer displayed great dexterity with the ballet moves she performed, as well.

AJ Klein animated Matt’s love for Luisa through both his singing and his mannerisms. He displayed great energy in utilizing the entire stage for one of his dance numbers. Mr. Klein portrayed his character’s growth very credibly. One also has to respect a performer willing to wear both a sweater and a leather jacket on a muggy evening.

The highpoint of the evening occurred when Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough sang “They Were You” together. Both performers sat in front of me while doing so. With the passion in their voices and the yearning in their eyes, they made me feel the love between the two characters.

Alan Krier and Charles J. Gill teamed up for some solid duets of their own. While doing so, they made an exceptional comedy team. Mr. Pliskin even joined them to provide a musical answer on the cost of staging a fake kidnapping. In the “It Depends on What You Pay” number, the trio brought out some pretty hearty laughter from the audience.

Bruce A. Curless and John Nicodemo played two of the funniest henchmen in the history of theatre. Brian Gensel made the most memorable surprise entrance I’ve ever witnessed. (I won’t spoil it for future theatregoers.) I’d compliment Steve Weber for providing wonderful accompaniment in the form of his piano playing. I’d also commend Brennan Diorio for the costuming and Melissa Harnois for her work as assistant stage manager.

I encountered a gentleman in the audience who’d seen The Fantasticks numerous times. As Mr. Pliskin sang the final note of the “Try to Remember” reprise, he moved this fan. One could hear this gentleman’s simple observation: “beautiful” resounding through the theatre as the lights faded. After the show I asked this theatregoer what he thought of this performance compared to the others he’d attended. Without hesitation he told me, “This is New York.” Is there any better theatrical compliment?

Perhaps, there is. With the superlative nature of this performance, it’s possible that someday Broadway audiences will say, “This is The Fantasticks at the Ritz.” That would truly be a “Happy Ending” for this run.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans can watch The Fantasticks live up to its name through June 16th.