Brian Rivell

Disney’s Mary Poppins at the Ritz Theatre Company

Yet again the Ritz Theatre Company is bringing the magic of Disney to the South Jersey Area. This summer they’re mesmerizing audiences with Mary Poppins. This piece, directed and choreographed by Brian Rivell, contains something that would appeal to just about anyone. It features elaborate special effects, unbelievable dance sequences and some stellar performances. I witnessed the spectacle for myself on July 20th.

The Banks family had problems. An emotionally distant man George (played by Paul McElwee) devoted himself to making money. Winifred (Jenna Lubis) harbored doubts about sacrificing her acting career to marry him. Their two children (played by Cassidy Scherz and Colin Rivell) behaved unruly. To show the extent of their issues, they’d been through more nannies than the Trump Administration has been through National Security Advisers….and Communications Directors…and Secretaries of State. Enter Mary Poppins (played by Martha Marie Wasser) to fix this mess.

This show contained extraordinary special effects. Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish floated through the air. An overturned table moved right-side up after Ms. Wasser waved her hand. Broken shelves fixed themselves following the same motion. The Ritz Theatre presented one enchanted production. Well-earned kudos goes out to Technical Director William Bryant.

The lighting made the performance a visual delight. The panels on both sides of the stage illuminated. The London backdrop took on different hues throughout the evening. Stars projected on the backs of the seats prior to the “Anything Goes” number. The display brought the audience into the show. Light Board Operator Casey Clark also gets well deserved praise for the spectacle.

Mary Poppins contained sophisticated and intricate dance routines. Brian Rivell coordinated awesome choreography. The cast did a superb job executing it. How to pick a favorite? I would suggest “Step in Time”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Anything Can Happen” as the strongest contenders for that title. However, if I wrote down all the routines on separate pieces of paper, placed them in a hat and drew one at random it wouldn’t be difficult to make an argument for that one being the best.

CJ Kish (as Bert) always performs with great passion and energy. At times it seems like he’s flying around the stage. In Mary Poppins he did so literally. Mr. Kish performed one sequence in which he executed flips in mid-air and hopped about as though dancing atop chimney brushes.

This show is a “must see” for Mr. Kish’s fans. I found the title of one of his musical number “Twists and Turns” very appropriate. He performed the best dance routines I’ve seen him do. He’s such a talented actor and vocalist (as evidenced by “Chim Chim Cher-eee”) that I hadn’t realized the extent of his dancing ability.

Martha Marie Wasser’s performance wasn’t “practically perfect”: Ms. Wasser turned in a flawless rendition of everyone’s favorite nanny. I always credit performers who can dance in heels. Ms. Wasser had some tricky numbers in which to do so. In “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” the tempo changed several times. She and cast executed the routine seamlessly and while singing.

Ms. Wasser adopted all the mannerisms of the title character. From the way she held her umbrella, to her calm manner of speech and through the posture she adopted while floating through the air Ms. Wasser transformed herself into the real Mary Poppins.

I’d also compliment Ms. Wasser on her singing ability. The show contained a number of Disney classics. Ms. Wasser made them her own. “Practically Perfect” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” stood out as the most beautiful.

The Banks family sure had its problems. They didn’t prevent the performers playing them from displaying their own vocal prowess. The four performed well together as a group on “Cherry Tree Lane” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Paul McElwee (as George) delivered a moving rendition of “Good for Nothing.” Jenna Lubas (as Winifred) sang an incredible version of “Being Mrs. Banks.”

In addition to their scenes with Mr. McElwee and Ms. Lubas, Cassidy Scherz (Jane) Colin Rivell (Michael) got to share the stage with Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish. They displayed great chemistry working together on numbers such as “Step in Time” and “Practically Perfect.”

My favorite scene occurred during the smackdown between the dueling nannies. Mary Poppins and Miss Andrew (played by Kendra Cancellieri Hecker) confronted one another by using their signature method as a weapon. The former utilized “a spoonful of sugar” and the latter opted for “brimstone and treacle.” It made for a stellar clash enacted by Ms. Wasser and Ms. Hecker. The musical number itself made the audience the real winners of this conflict.

Credit also goes to performers Anne Buckwheat, Darrin Murphy, Kendra Cancelleri Hecker, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Olivia West, Jamie Talamo, Ryann Ferrara, Caleb Tracy, Kyle Ronkin, Darrel Wood, Lindsey Krier, Kelsey Hodgkiss and Leah Senseney. They each contributed to an outstanding ensemble.

Mary Poppins stays on as long as she’s “needed.” The Ritz Theatre Company anticipates that will be until August 5th. Take advantage of that opportunity. The Ritz is being generous. With the superb quality of entertainment I’ve experienced at that company, community theatre fans should feel grateful she’s “needed” there at all. Mary Poppins is another reason why.

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Rumors at the Ritz Theatre Company

This September 9th, I experienced an evening of hitting, characters assuming tasks they’re not accustomed to and a host of misunderstandings. One couldn’t select a more appropriate prelude to the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2017 season. Unlike the Birds’ woes, however, the Ritz Theatre Company intended to present a comical performance to fans. They staged Neil Simon’s Rumors directed by Al Fuchs.

Attempts to evade and/or cover-up a perceived political scandal served as the characters’ motivations. While a ubiquitous topic for non-fiction writers, Mr. Simon utilized his unique comic craft as only he could. He entertained the audience with a fictitious take on an unusual one involving the strangest cover-up ever attempted. The playwright’s skill along with the superb performances transformed this common topic into an original masterpiece.

Ken Gorman (played by Brian Rivell) and his wife Chris (played by Suzanne Yocus) arrived at the Deputy Mayor of New York’s home. They’d planned on attending a party celebrating His Honor’s tenth anniversary. Instead Ken discovered him bleeding and unconscious with a gun next at his side. Mr. Gorman happened to be both the host’s attorney and friend. He didn’t want word of the incident leaked until understanding what happened. He and Chris decided not to tell the authorities.

Brian Rivell delivered a spirited performance as Ken Gorman. One has to credit him for maintaining his focus while tasked with running up and down stairs all evening. He didn’t allow the role’s physical demands to impede his comic timing. He excelled in the latter when his character became temporarily deaf.

Suzanne Yocus served as the perfect counterpart to Mr. Rivell in the role of Chris Gorman. The anxious way she scurried about the stage battling her craving for a cigarette almost made me long to break my twenty year fast. Ms. Yocus also managed to stagger about the set as though intoxicated. I credit her for still delivering her lines clearly while playing a character in that state.

Following the Gormans’ decision to keep the Deputy Mayor’s condition quiet, the Gatzs arrived. Kumar Goonewardene nailed the language and accent of a foul mouthed New Yorker. That’s quite a stretch for someone living in the culturally sophisticated South Jersey area.

Later in the show his character took on a separate role within the play. Mr. Ganz played the Deputy Mayor when the police inquired about gunshots. Mr. Goonewardene delivered a monumental soliloquy explaining what happened. What Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” was to drama, this one was to comedy. The performer convincingly spoke his lines like someone coming up with them extemporaneously. That served as the true highlight of this show.

Jean Collelouri as (Claire Ganz) took on arguably the most challenging role in the show. Her character had the tasks of trying to get the truth out of the Gormans, laying out all the gossip that gave the show its title and playing a jealous wife. Ms. Collelouri met all of these difficult tasks brilliantly.

Then the most interesting invitees arrived. In the couple of Ernie Cusak (Michael Murphy) and Cookie Cusack (Carol Furphy-Labinski), Mr. Simon may have created the most unusual husband and wife team in the history of theatre. Mr. Murphy played a psycho-analyst and Ms. Furphy-Labinsky the host of a cooking show. Had the entire show focused on them, it would’ve still justified the ticket cost.

Mr. Murphy did an exceptional job getting into his character. His beard, moustache and glasses gave him a striking resemblance to Sigmund Freud. The soft voice and calm manner of talking complimented his character’s persona. The low-keyed way he played this role made the scene when he lost his temper much more humorous.

Ms. Furphy-Labinsky had both the privilege and the challenge of delivering the show’s funniest line. When her character discussed her back trouble, she explained, “It only hurts when I stand up or sit down.” She expressed the line perfectly.

Ms. Furphy-Labinsky also wore the most comical attire. One of the characters called it an odd item to wear to a dinner party. While the script referred to it as Russian, it brought to mind a Bavarian maid’s attire. Did this performer utilize it to subliminally signal future directors her openness to performing in The Sound of Music?

This group of characters made for a very amusing show. But Mr. Simon kept the comedy coming. Glenn Cooper (played by Robert B. Colleluori) and Cassie Cooper (Jennie Knackstedt) rounded out the ensemble. Tolstoy famously wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This couple pushed the envelope on the latter.

Mr. Colleluori played a character running for state senate. Facing his wife’s rumors regarding infidelity challenged him more than the upcoming election. The performer delivered a series of denials with increasing intensity. He captured the complexities of a politician’s behavior. At first he hesitated to give his name to the policeman questioning him. When the officer later said he looked familiar, his character couldn’t resist effusively announcing his bid for state senate.

Ms. Knackstedt’s interpretation of the haughty, Cassie, brought to mind Dan Aykroyd’s Winthorp in Trading Places. Ms. Knackstedt’s choice of voice captured the character’s affluent background. She expressed herself in such a way that made her tone sound both exaggerated, but still believable that someone would speak in that manner. That’s not an easy balance to execute.

I would’ve preferred more applicable music playing before the show and during intermission. I presume the director opted for 1980s pop music since Rumors premiered in 1988. Since the play centered on a high society dinner party, I thought either ‘cocktail jazz’ or classical string music would’ve established the mood better.

With all these hijinks occurring, Officer Welch (Stephen Coar) and Officer Pudney (Abbe Elliot) rounded out the dramatis personae. After Mr. Ganz in the guise of the Deputy Mayor tried describing the evening’s events, Mr. Coar’s character delivered another of the show’s memorable lines. It would serve as a good summation of the entire script: “I didn’t believe a word of it, but I liked it.”

The Ritz Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director, Bruce A. Curless, introduced Rumors with a bit of bravado. He started telling the audience: “If you enjoy the show, spread the word.” He then modified his remarks by re-stating them as: “After you enjoy the show, spread the word.” There’s an appropriate epigram attributed in various forms to people from Dizzy Dean to Jaco Pastorious. It reads: “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.” The cast and crew did just that. Based on this performance’s quality, rumor has it they’ll continue doing so through the entire run. It ends September 24th.