Brian Blanks

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.

Advertisements

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.

Theatre Review – Violet at Burlington County Footlighters

Director Brian Blanks is taking theatergoers on a journey this fall. The station is Burlington County Footlighters and the vehicle is Violet; a deceptively complex musical that explores one person’s voyage of self-discovery. I bought my ticket and embarked on the show’s opening night, September 16th.

Footlighters opted to kick-off their 79th season with this lesser known piece by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. When I arrived a woman in the audience asked me if I’d ever heard of Violet. In fact, even the director told me that among his theatre friends familiarity with it is “about 50/50.” When I heard the tale centered on a young North Carolina woman’s bus trip across America, I figured, “Here we go: yet, another story about a small town girl heading off to Hollywood.” This piece ended up as different from that premise as one could imagine.

Violet (played by Roxanne Paul) suffered a disfiguring accident as a child when her father (played by Chuck Klotz) inadvertently hit her in the face with an axe blade. In 1964, several years following his death, she embarked on a bus trip from her North Carolina home to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She sought a televangelist (Michael Gearty) there she believed could heal her. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” During the sojourn, Violet encountered a host of interesting characters that transformed the trip from an external one into an internal voyage of discovery. During the journey she experienced a series of flashbacks that facilitated the later. All this occurred to the accompaniment of a live band (directed by Cameron Stringham) playing sensational sixties sounding music.

None of the players used microphones. They didn’t need to. Violet featured performers with very strong voices. I encountered Footlighters veteran Dan Brothers in the audience before the musical began. Mr. Brothers can project his voice better than anyone I’ve ever heard. His presence in the building may have inspired the newcomers to this theatre group. When Michael Gearty testified in the role of the evangelist I’m sure people way up in the Heavens could hear him. Soulful Tee (in the role of choir singer Lula Buffington) belted a note that made both my eardrums rattle. As a longtime Motown and Stax fan, I welcomed the volume.

Roxanne Paul delivered a stellar performance as Violet. Her music featured a range of styles, from soulful tracks to upbeat numbers to ballads. Some began a capella. I liked the soft way she vocalized the mellow, “Lay Down Your Head.” While sitting in a bed near the back of the stage, she crooned in a voice soft enough to convey feeling, but loud enough for the audience to hear.

Ms. Paul’s brilliant facial expressions and mannerisms conveyed the character’s vulnerabilities in ways that Brian Crawley’s lyrics couldn’t. Her proficiency added an element that made the serious aspects of the show more impactful.

Darryl S. Thompson Jr. turned in a moving performance as Flick. The lone African-American character in a story he played a crucial role. As the bus travelled through the Deep South before the advent of the Civil Rights Era he encountered prejudice. When a character addressed him with a racial epithet even the audience gasped. I found it interesting that they became just as affronted as the character.

Mr. Thompson also sang some challenging vocal numbers very well. He rightly drew cheers from the house during his rendition of “Let It Sing.” He delivered the number so well it made me wish the songwriter would have let his character sing more often.

Gabrielle Affleck deserves great credit for taking on multifarious, and rather diverse, roles. In this one show Ms. Affleck played an old woman, a choir singer and a prostitute. That’s range. I liked hearing her vocals on the bluesy track “Anyone Would Do.” It’s doubtful anyone would have done it as well as she did.

As mentioned, Violet featured a host of phenomenal voices. I’d compliment Nicholas Zoll, Alex Davis and Glenn Paul for their contributions to the performance, as well.

Throughout the show myriad references were made to Violet’s being “disfigured.” When the subject arose, Ms. Paul did a nice job exhibiting anxiety by wincing and nervously covering her cheek. Her face didn’t have any scars, however. Young Violet (Ms. Orlowski) didn’t either. I could overlook it in the latter case since that character didn’t have as much stage time. Ms. Paul’s Violet appeared on stage in almost every scene. Her “ugliness” served as a crucial part of the show.

Ms. Paul is a good-looking woman. As much as I tried I simply couldn’t visualize her as “deformed.” In retrospect I figured the playwright intended symbolism to show Violet as a beautiful person who needed to discover it for herself. I can accept the premise. It just took me a while to understand it. That’s a reflection on the playwright, not the cast or crew.

A true “team effort” made for the most memorable scene of this show.  With apologies to Kenny Rogers, “Luck of the Draw” just may be the best song ever written about poker. This bouncy number featured Chuck Klotz (as Violet’s father), Emily Orlowski (as Young Violet), Ms. Paul, Mr. Thompson and Brandon Zebley (as Monty) working together. They did a nice job transitioning from Young Violet’s learning the game from her father to modern Violet applying those lessons. I liked hearing so many talented vocalists on the same track.

I enjoyed taking Violet’s journey. In the playbill Mr. Blanks commented on its timeless themes. Unfortunately for theatre fans, time’s ticking on the show’s run. Take a journey to Burlington County Footlighters no later than October 1st.  Don’t miss the bus.