Brian Bacon

Big Fish at the Ritz Theatre Company

“Be the hero of your story,” Edward Bloom (played by Chris Monaco) told his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri). Edward had quite a tale to tell. It included a witch (Rachel Klien), a mermaid (Lauren Bristow) and a giant (Jared Paxson) along with some memorable human characters; one of whom suffered from lycanthropy (Anthony Joseph Magnotta). Big Fish followed this fabulous fabulist of a father as his son Will (Frankie Rowles) endeavored to discover the man behind the myths. Director Matt Reher along with the cast and crew at the Ritz Theatre took the audience along this magical journey. I attended the May 8th performance.

At the beginning, playwright John August and songwriter Andrew Lippa gave the audience a sense of the evening they could expect. The “Be the Hero” track included a section where Edward Bloom described his unconventional approach to fishing. Calling it the “Alabama Stomp,” Mr. Monaco led the ensemble through a percussive dance routine. Fish leapt out of the water in response to it.

It’s quite a challenge to dance and sing at the same time. Big Fish added a tricky third element by requiring performers to catch large fish thrown from off stage. The cast executed this task without flaw.

The Ritz provided extraordinary atmospherics for this show. In the prelude to the “I Know What You Want” number, Technical Director Connor Profitt transformed the theatre into an eerie swamp. As Edward and his friends searched for the witch, the cricket sounds, dim lighting and smoke made it easy for me to suspend my disbelief.

Lauren Bristow’s solo dancing contained excellent choreography by Devon Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair also coordinated more elaborate routines that included the cast and ensemble; the best comprised the witch’s “I Know What You Want”, “Little Lamb from Alabama” and “Closer to Her.”

Aside from the fantastical elements, Big Fish contained a very “human” story. Edward (Chris Monaco) liked to relate the events of his life through fictitious tales. He described his and his wife Sandra’s (Megan Ruggles) courtship in hyper-romantic terms; as shown through the “Closer to Her” and “Daffodils” numbers. He entertained his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri) with stories containing a message. An encounter with a witch (Rachel Klein) taught him not to fear death. A mermaid (Lauren Bristow) showed him that love changes a person.

Young Will’s frustration with his father’s tale telling became hostile when he reached adulthood. His wife Josephine (Jamie Talamo) encouraged him to seek the lessons hidden in Edward’s stories. Upon receiving news of his father’s illness, Will (Frankie Rowles) sought to traverse the metaphorical river between them. When Will discovered that his father co-signed a mortgage for his high school sweetheart’s (Jenny Hill played by Colleen Murphy) home, he confronted his father.

Chris Monaco made his Ritz Mainstage debut in the lead role. He captured the upbeat nature of Edward’s personality along with his frustration with Will’s focus on “truth.” Mr. Monaco showed the depth of the character’s affection for Sandra in his scenes with Mrs. Ruggles. And most important: the man could tell a story.

Frankie Rowles played an excellent antagonist to Mr. Monaco. He concretized Will’s own annoyance with his father and his “tall tales.” Mr. Rowles conveyed that sentiment in song through a powerful rendition of “Stranger.” Without giving away spoilers, I will write that the performer enacted his character’s change in a believable fashion.

Big Fish contained beautiful music. Mr. Monaco performed a pining rendition of “Time Stops.” Megan Ruggles and members of the ensemble performed the quick dance moves from “Little Lamb from Alabama” in slow motion. Ms. Ruggles bashful vocals complimented the longing in Mr. Monaco’s.

Act One ended with “Daffodils.” The title referred to Sandra’s favorite flower. Mr. Monaco’s character proceeded to remove one-at-a-time from a bag while serenading Ms. Ruggles. The two performers captured the essence of the following exchange in song.

Sandra: You don’t even know me.

Will: I have the rest of my life to find out.  

Ms. Ruggles delivered a heart rending version of “I Don’t Need a Roof.” To add to the song’s mood, she cradled Mr. Monaco in her lap as she sang. Her performance made this scene the most touching moment of the show. With so many touching moments in Big Fish, this is a noteworthy achievement.

Moira Miller added superb costuming to this production. It enhanced the visual spectacle. From the country folk of Ashton, Alabama to the mystical figures the attire reflected each character’s personality.

Will’s clothing showed the iconoclastic nature of the man underneath it. He wore a jacket and tie to his son’s wedding reception along with a pair of khakis. His son dressed in a traditional suit. The attire displayed the variance in the two characters’ personalities.

The costumes the witch, the mermaid and the giant wore showed remarkable creativity. The witch’s included a pattern that resembled the surface of a cobra’s skin. The gold texture on the ringmaster (Amos Calloway played by Anthony Joseph Magnotta) costume glittered under the lights.

Ritz Big Fish 05

Chris Monaco and Ensemble

In homage to Edward’s fondness for hyperbole, I write that Big Fish contained enough props to fit in a small warehouse. While a bit of an exaggeration, it’s absolute fact that Melissa Harnois did an excellent work managing all these items. As the set (designed by William Bryant) included Edward’s attic, it contained a lot of miscellany.

Malik Muhammad, AJ Love, Chantel Cumberbatch and Meredith Meghan completed the ensemble.

Hillary Kurtz executed Chris Miller’s lighting design without flaw. Matthew Gallagher managed the sound design. Brian Bacon served as Musical Director.

With a great message, fantastical characters and superb musical numbers, Big Fish made for one entertaining evening of theatre going. Director Matt Reher wrote: Truth is not the same as fact. Regarding my assessment of Big Fish, they are.

Big Fish runs through May 19th at the Ritz Theatre Company.

 

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Seussical at Burlington County Footlighters

What better way to spend an evening having fun

Than seeing a musical inspired by the power of imagination?

I found this one more amusing than Mother Goose.

Oh, the thinks you can think when it comes to Seuss.

 

Okay, no one will ever confuse my writing with Mr. Geisel’s. Lest his fans become too distraught by my weak imitation, the Footlighters cast and crew proved much more adept at carrying on his legacy. I attended the premiere of Seussical on September 15, 2017.

 

When I opened the program I was delighted to see

It was directed by theatrical guru Dennis Doherty.

I watched the show before going to bed,

Now these rhyming couplets are stuck in my head!

 

Ugh! Well, I don’t often attend performances that inspire me to imitate the characters’ speech patterns. That shows the quality of this production.

Patrick O’Malley turned in an animated performance as that troublemaking tabby, The Cat in the Hat. The fast paced strutting about the stage with either his hands on his hips or clasping the inside of his jacket deftly mimicked character’s mannerisms.

Of course, the role required a flair for comedy. Mr. O’Malley captured the character’s arch nature. While approaching the sleeping JoJo he placed his finger to his lips to shush the audience. He mimed a sleeping position to show the child slumbered. Then he bellowed, “WAKE UP!”

This demanding part included several complex song and dance numbers. He dazzled with the ironically titled “How Lucky You Are.” The deft way he utilized the cane enhanced the routine. He also did a superb job teaming up with the Hunches on “Havin’ a Hunch.”

Seussical featured the best dance routines I’ve observed. Choreographer Liz Baldwin did phenomenal work coordinating them. Since many of them included several performers, it made the numbers much more intricate. The company impressed me by staying in synch and executing these complex dances so well.

Tre DeLuca shone in an impressive performance as JoJo. He transformed his character from a naïve boy into a mature young man throughout the evening. He served as a great foil to the autocratic General Gengus Khan Schmitz (Suzie Ramsdell) and displayed great chemistry with Mr. O’Malley. I liked his enactment of perplexity when Mr. and Mrs. Mayor (Michael Sheldon and Jenny Scudder) chastised him for “thinking” too much.

Mr. DeLuca delivered memorable singing. He performed a somber rendition on the reprise of “Alone in the Universe.” Duets made up all his other numbers. His high vocals complimented the other ranges. He rounded out the harmonies very well.

Brian Padla turned in a moving performance as the sensitive elephant, Horton. During the first part of the show, he “heard a Who” on a speck of dust. He placed it on top of a clover. While the residents of Whoville performed at the other side of the stage, he listened. His facial expressions captured the feelings of someone enraptured by what he heard.

His non-verbal skills accentuated Mr. Padla’s vocal capabilities. He best combined those strengths on “Here on Who” accompanied by the residents of Whoville.

Under the musical direction of Peg Smith, Seussical featured many stellar vocal performances. Jill Bradshaw sang movingly in her renditions of “The One Feather Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “Notice Me, Horton.” Alex Davis belted out “Amayzing Mayzie” and “Mayzie in Palm Beach” like a seasoned cabaret singer. Kendra Hecker delivered awesome vocals on the soulful sections of “Biggest Blame Fool” and “The People Versus Horton the Elephant.”

I’ve written before about how Burlington County Footlighters likes to bring the audience into their shows. When Brian Bacon and Mark Urmson joined together for the catchy “Monkey Around” they danced down the aisles with Horton in pursuit.

Playwrights Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens didn’t spare any performer dialog laden with rhyming couplets. In their roles as the Mayor and Mrs. Mayor, Michael Sheldon and Jenny Scudder had the most difficult. In the scene where they confronted JoJo about his “thinking”, they alternated rhyming couplets. I credit them for not allowing the word patterns to distract them. They also crooned a moving rendition of “Solla Sollew” along with Mr. Padla and Mr. DeLuca.

I enjoyed JP Helk’s baritone rendition of the Grinch’s voice. I enjoyed it even more when he used it to deliver his jaded rendition of the Grinch’s Christmas story to the Whos.

As always, Jim Frazer did an exceptional job with the set design. Mr. Frazer’s talents make the “willing suspension of disbelief” very easy for audience members. This time he transformed the Footlighters stage into the surreal world of Seuss; ranging from the Jungle of Noor to Whoville to the Circus McGurkus.

Amanda Codgell’s costuming enriched the show. The attire conveyed the characters’ personalities while staying true to Dr. Seuss. At the same time, it didn’t overshadow the performers wearing it. Ms. Codgell did some very inspired work with red bows, such as The Cat in the Hat’s tie and the dual bows on Mazie’s stockings. Mazie’s and Gertrude’s feathers enhanced those characters’ appearance. The Cat’s iconic hat was spot on.

I’d also credit performers Liz Baldwin, Julia Fraupel, Alyssa LaPierre, Suzie Ramsdell, Gabriella Kelsey, Michaelina Petti, Tristan Codgell, Max Hann, Morgan Hann and Harrison Scudder for their contributions to the production.

It didn’t surprise that a show based on imagination would bring together so many creative people. Seussical transported the power of “the thinks you can think” to the stage. The Footlighters cast and crew made it a reality. They put on one “amayzing” show.

Just because you’re a Seuss fan doesn’t make you nerdy,

Go see Seussical at Footlighters before it ends September 30.