Bruce A. Curless

The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor at the Ritz Theatre Company

Ghosts. Mystery. Murder. The Ritz Theatre Company selected the perfect show for ushering in the fall season. This September they’re presenting the world premiere of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor. Bruce A. Curless directed this original work written by local playwright Kumar Dari. I attended the September 21st performance.

Like many aristocratic British families at the end of the nineteenth century, the Sappingtons’ profligacy resulted in financial trouble. In addition, Lord Sappington’s business partner swindled him shortly before his passing. In order to raise money his sons Edwin (played by John Jackowski) and Andrew (played by Craig Hutchings) contemplated selling the family estate, Ravenswood Manor. William’s widow, Lady Sappington (Ginna Higgins), planned on taking in lodgers to raise funds.

While this set-up made for a strong conflict, the playwright added a twist that complicated everyone’s plans: Lady Sappington revealed that a series of unexplained events occurred at Ravenswood Manor. She found paintings askew. The sound of mysterious footsteps echoed through the halls. Butler Rugggles (John Hager) discovered an expensive vase off its shelf and lying in the middle of the room. Lady Sappington surmised that ghosts haunted the manor.

To free the home of these spectral visitors, she contacted spiritualist Dr. Karmazin (Joe Carlucci). After surveying Ravenswood Manor, the latter recommended he perform a conjuring ceremony. An unexpected but inevitable result transpired.

While set in 1890 in Victorian England, Mr. Dari added contemporary themes to the show. I found it clever how the playwright drew parallels to the modern era. Andrew battled opium addiction. Edwin and Major Botwright (played by Andrew B Kushner) engaged in debates about the racial issues of the day. Lady Blackthorne (Jack Shaw) was really a transgender English lord.

One wouldn’t expect a ghost story set in Victorian society to serve as the background for a comedy. Once again, Mr. Dari showed exceptional creativity. Major Botwright (Andrew B. Kushner) had a fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan. He enjoyed transforming expressions into a jingle that would fit one of their shows. One of the catchier was:

Tuck, tuck, tuck

Into the duck, duck, duck.  

While no choreographer was listed in the playbill, the major’s “Ring, Ring, Ring for Ruggles” cadence, inspired the ensemble to perform a nineteenth century version of the Macarena.

Following the performance, the playwright and the cast participated in a talk back with the audience. Your correspondent asked Mr. Kumar what inspired him to write this story.

The playwright explained that he had ideas for a number of characters. During a process that took him three years, he refined them and decided to set the play in Victorian England.

The cast did an exceptional job of bringing Mr. Kumar’s unusual characters to life.

The randy Lady Blackthorne possessed a particular fondness for double entendres. Jack Shaw’s effeminate delivery when expressing them made these ribald references even wittier.

Of all the roles in the show, Lady Sappington was the closest to ‘normal.’ Ginna Higgins played an excellent serious character when working opposite Mr. Shaw’s comic one.

Joe Carlucci brought exceptional energy to the role of Dr. Karmazin. He danced about the stage with divining rods. The performer also spoke in a thick Balkan accent, but still expressed his lines so I could understand them clearly.

Andrew B Kushner played a wonderful Major Botwright. The walrus mustache made his transformation into the character even more believable. I also liked the pompous voice he used to tell the major’s myriad stories of personal grandeur.

John Jackowski and Craig Hutchings played the spoiled Sappington brothers. With their characters’ fondness for alcohol, one hopes they don’t strain their elbows.  It’s difficult to hold a glass for 2-1/2 solid hours.

Amanda Lynch Lizzio performed the role of Zenobia Sappington. Ms. Lizzio captured the bubbly and garrulous nature of her character very well.

John Hager added his unique brand of comic genius to the role of Ruggles, the butler. One has to credit him for keeping his torso at a 35 degree angle to the floor all evening. In addition to his professional interpretation of Mr. Dari’s script, Mr. Hager supplemented his performance with his gift for improvisation.

During the intermission I encountered Mr. Hager in the theatre. While remaining in Ruggles’ poor posture, he asked me, “Are you laughing at my pain?”

I’m sure I felt a lot more pain that Mr. Hager did. My side still ached from laughing at his performance during the first act.

Director Bruce A. Curless pulled a Hitchcock. His cameo came in the form of Lord Sappington. As with every other time Mr. Curless has taken the stage, he made his presence memorable. Without giving readers spoilers, he delivered the most haunting performance I’ve ever seen from him.

The production crew included: Technical Director Dan Rogers, Stage Manager Alexis Snyder, Assistant Stage Managers Alyssa Sendler and Gabriel Slimm, Light Designer Jennifer Donsky, Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher and Sound Board Operators Natasha Swann and Anastasia Swann.

Prior to the curtain rising, Production Manager Matthew Weil informed the audience that this run is the “world premiere” of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor. I enjoyed the opportunity to attend. As Mr. Weil noted, “How often do you have the opportunity to see a ‘world premiere’?” While that gives theatre aficionados a strong reason to experience the production, the entertaining nature of the show serves as an even better motivation to see it.

Don’t become haunted by the specter of missing The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor. It runs through September 29th at the Ritz Theatre.

 

Advertisements

The Apple Tree at the Ritz Theatre Company

The Ritz Theatre welcomed the summer with The Apple Tree; an eclectic hybrid of three diverse tales woven into one coherent musical. Director Bruce A. Curless took theatregoers along this marvelous journey. He gave the audience both a sweet and bitter taste in the characters’ quests for literal and metaphorical fruits. I attended the opening night performance on June 7th.

Oscar Wilde once noted:

The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what it’s monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.

The Apple Tree applied this premise to the stage. This musical received multiple Tony Award nominations in 1967. Barbara Harris won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in the show.

A creative story line wove the three acts together. The playwrights titled Act I “The Diary of Adam and Eve.” Jerome Coopersmith used Mark Twain’s stories “The Diary of Adam and Eve” and “Eve’s Diary” as its source material. Jerome Brock and Sheldon Harnick crafted the next two acts. Philadelphia native Frank R. Stockton’s tale regarding the perils of forbidden love “The Lady or the Tiger?” served as inspiration for the second. Jules Feiffer’s twentieth century twist on the Cinderella story, “Passionella”, comprised the third act.

The Ritz presented this show using their famous “in the round” format. The company arranged the seating in four sections on the Ritz stage. It allowed the actors and audience members to develop a closer rapport with one another.

The ensemble (Giacomo Fizzano, Hannah Hobson, Robert Repici and Alexa Wilder) and the snake (Ellen Sheinkin) drew the audience into the story at the very beginning. With Tiara Knock’s superb choreography and Musical Director Roger Sheinkin’s solo piano in the background, the company recreated the dawn of creation. The ensemble all wore theatrical masks as they danced about the stage. Standing across from one another they elevated a large white cloth then lowered it upon the platform. They removed it to reveal Adam (Joe Grasso).

It’s amazing that a story this complex only required seven cast members to perform it; and perform it they did. The show’s structure required all the actors to play multiple roles.

Daniella DeFassio played the roles of Eve, Barbara, and Passionella. Ms. DeFassio performed each of these diverse characters with equal skill. Her beautiful vocals well suited the catchy melodies on “Friends” and “What Makes Me Love Him.” The performer added humor to the jealous Barbara. The congested voice she used for Passionella added to the character’s appeal.

Joe Grasso took on the roles of Adam, Sanjar and Flip/Prince Charming. Mr. Grasso showed great skill through his expression of Adam’s bad jokes in a way that made the audience laugh. He performed a witty song and dance routine with Ms. DeFassio on “Forbidden Love (in Gaul).” He showcased excellent vocal skills on “Beautiful, Beautiful World” and “Eve.”

Mr. Grasso and Ms. DeFassio performed an outstanding finale together on “George L.” The two showed excellent chemistry as they explored their characters’ inner natures. They captured the plot twist and surprise ending beautifully.

Ellen Sheinkin played both the Snake and the Balladeer. Ms. Sheinkin delivered a powerful performance with Ms. DeFassio during the temptation scene. The performer also exhibited fantastic vocals with her renditions of “The Apple Tree (Forbidden Fruit)” and “I’ll Tell You a Truth.”

After shedding her snake costuming during an on-stage quick change, Ms. Sheinkin transitioned into a spectacular Balladeer. Her story telling prowess enhanced “The Lady or The Tiger?” and “Passionella.”

The ensemble performed wonderful singing and dancing. Under the tutelage of Vocal Director Kristy Jo Swanson and Choreographer Tiara Knock, they delivered engaging routines. My favorite occurred during the “Which Door?” number in Act II. The vocal harmonies combined with the performers’ locations at different parts of the stage created an interesting stereo effect.

Robert Repici performed the role of King Arik. Mr. Repici delivered outstanding bass vocals throughout the second act. Mr. Repici informed me that he has a background in mime so hasn’t focused on singing in theatrical productions until now. He shone in this opportunity.

I’d also like to credit Alexa Wilder for her portrayal of a Fairy Godmother. The Bronx accent she adopted for the role made it memorable.

The show included an extensive production crew. In addition to directing, Mr. Curless managed costumes and props. Matthew Gallagher designed the sound, Matthew Weil designed the lighting and worked as production manager, Melissa Harnois stage managed with the assistance of Brian Gensel and Brennan Diorio.

The Apple Tree took theatregoers on a musical exploration of love and temptation. It also proved the old cliché about life imitating art. Anyone tempted to see it will love it. The Apple Tree will bear fruit at the Ritz Theatre Company through June 23rd.

10-Minute Comedy Play Festival at the Ritz Theatre Company

87 submissions. 14 contenders. Seven finalists. The Ritz Theatre Company’s 10-Minute Comedy Play festival once again showed that comedy is serious business. The company offered local playwrights the opportunity to write a show that they would present on the Ritz stage. Is the overwhelming response any wonder? I attended the concluding performance on June 1st.

A team of theatrical professionals evaluated the submissions. After all 14 shows were performed, they selected the top seven. The Ritz presented these plays on the evening of June 1st. Each playwright, director and actor who performed in these shows will receive two complimentary tickets to the Ritz production of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor by Kumar Dari. At the conclusion of Saturday’s performances, a team of judges (Kumar Dari, Randy Peterson and Alex Wilkie) selected the top three. The playwright of the winner received $100, they awarded the runner-up $75 and gave the third place finisher $50.

Not to repeat myself, but comedy is serious business. All these perks seemed to inspire the playwrights to produce creative material.

The Ritz Theatre presented this event “in the round.” The seats were arranged in four sections on the actual stage. This format allowed the performers to make eye contact with the spectators. It also enabled the audience to feel like part of the show.

The plays selected for this final performance included a range of subjects. Tom Moran selected a contemporary topic for “I, Phone.” Bruce A. Curless directed performers Hannah Hobson and Giacomo Fizzano through this comical take on how technology is taking over people’s lives.

Scott Gibson’s “What You Wish For” presented a unique perspective on the “genie in a bottle” story. Ryan Strack directed this tale about a woman who discovered that a genie lived in a lamp she purchased. While attempting to return it at the department store, she told her story to another woman she encountered the line. When asked why she wanted to get rid of the wish granting genie, she gave an unexpected reason. Mr. Gibson showed a lot of creativity with plot twist on this story.

It seemed fitting that one of South Jersey’s most versatile theatre gurus, Amber Kusching, directed two shows that made the final seven. Heidi Mae’s “Meeting Heaven” was the most complex. It included five characters. Four of which were: a playwright (Kenwyn Samuel), a bartender (Melissa Mitchem), the playwright’s brother (Adam Corbett), and both the brother’s and the playwright’s love interest, “Heaven” (Sarah Baumgarten). The cast also included a narrator played by Julianne Rose Layden. The narrator was actually the playwright character delivering narration. Ms. Layden’s delivery brought to mind the voice overs common in old detective movies.

Ms. Kusching had Ms. Layden walk around the stage while delivering her lines. She spoke in a sultry voice to convey the piece’s mood. Ms. Layden also made eye contact with audience members. It created the impression that the narrator spoke to theatregoers instead of at them.

Ms. Kusching also directed Jim Moss’ “The Last Shirt off His Back.” Kenwyn Samuel and John Nicodemo performed this witty take on death. It involved a haunted apartment and a pillow made of old tee shirts. I mentioned before that these plays were creative, right?

Death is a popular topic with playwrights. In addition to Mr. Moss’ piece, two of the top three plays found humor in the subject.

Kevin O’Brien’s “Little Deaths” received the third place prize. Sara Rabatin directed performers Julianne McIntosh and Beatrice Alonna through this comical exploration of death and political correctness. One also has to credit the performers for dressing in winter attire on a humid late spring evening.

Melissa Harnois directed the runner-up: Eric Rupp’s “Snickerdoodle.” It featured a young lady (played by Alex Phillips) informing her parents (Jay Burton and Beatrice Alonna) that she planned on entering a clown college. (If that didn’t work out, her back-up career was miming.) The mother’s and father’s responses to the daughter’s craving for the craft of clowning made the show hysterical.

The judges awarded Ken Teutsch’s “What Friends Are For” the first place prize. This Mike Grubb directed piece also explored death from a humorous perspective. It featured an unlikely situation for a comedy show. A character (played by Mr. Grubb) informed his roommate (played by Kyle Jacobus) that he wanted to commit suicide. A discussion that would’ve pleased both Albert Camus and Neil Simon resulted.

The Ritz didn’t include the names of the actors in the program. It was understandable as the event was designed to focus on the work and not the performers. At the end of each play the actors introduced themselves. Due to the format I had trouble hearing everyone’s name, particularly following “What You Wish For.” All the actors performed outstanding work. They all deserve credit for their contributions to a very entertaining evening of theatre. * I would also credit the technical crew of Sadie McKenna, Brian Gensel, Sam Tait and Anastacia Swan for their work on the lighting and sound.

It’s not unusual to see typos in theatrical programs on occasion. I did think it odd to find the word playwright misspelled in the one for this event.

At the evening’s conclusion, the Ritz Theatre’s Artistic Director, Bruce A. Curless, addressed the audience. He explained that it seemed “contradictory having a contest involving art. They’re all winners.” His observation reminded me of something the late Glenn Walker said to me. I once told Glenn that every year I read the books that won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Man-Booker Prize. He replied, “Don’t worry about awards: worry about your audience.” Based on the spectators’ reaction during this festival, none of these playwrights have anything about which to worry.

 

*For all those whose names I either missed or misspelled, if you’d like to be included in this post please message me on either Twitter or Facebook. I’ll make sure to add it.

Scrooge: The Musical at The Ritz Theatre Company

What better way to commemorate the Holiday Season than with a high-tech Christmas spectacle? I’ve commented before about how The Ritz Theatre Company has transformed the South Jersey area into the Wonderful World of Disney. This time the company converted it into a Winter Wonderland. I attended their presentation of Scrooge: The Musical on December 21st.

Upon approaching the theatre I noticed the Ritz lettering colored in red and green. Inside the building lit Christmas trees surrounded by gifts adorned the left and right of the stage. A lighted wreath hung over its center flanked by two others on both sides.

It’s not beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, I thought. This is Christmas.

Director Steve Stonis selected an excellent team to coordinate this elaborate production. Kate Orlando choreographed, Marley Boone designed the costumes and Nicholas French served as Musical Director. The show even included a local ballet troupe: the Cooper River Ballet. Ann Moser Trenka choreographed that group’s routines.

Mr. Stonis brought the audience into the show. Two small platforms were placed in the middle of the theatre on both the left and right of the audience. Actors performed several scenes from them. Performers utilized the aisles for both the action and the dance routines, as well.

During the scene where a man requested a charitable donation from Ebenezer Scrooge, performers Michael Arigot and Bruce A. Curless delivered part of the exchange right in front of me. I got an up-close view of two stellar performers perfecting the craft of acting.

While a delightful Holiday experience, the show included a tint of sadness. This run will serve as Bruce A. Curless’ swan song as Scrooge. This production marks the last time he’ll take on the role of everyone’s favorite Christmas curmudgeon. Mr. Curless made it a memorable one.

When directors chose to utilize the entire room, it gives performers opportunities to interact with the audience. Mr. Curless used the opportunity brilliantly. I enjoyed his disgruntled murmurs while looking at audience members.

Scrooge is a pretty complex character. In the Dickens tale, he transformed from a misanthrope into a philanthropist within a few hours. He even transitioned from Isabel’s adoring suitor into an avaricious miser in the same scene. Scrooge: The Musical added another element to the role: humor. Mr. Curless’ performance captured all these facets of Scrooge’s personality while keeping the role entertaining.  

Mr. Curless performed a comical take on “I Hate People.” Scrooge may not have cared for others, but the audience sure loved Mr. Curless’ musical description of it.

Michael Arigot performed various male roles throughout the evening; some rather diverse. Mr. Arigot chose exceptional voices for them. The horrifying one he used for Jacob Marley enhanced his minatory presence; as did the addition of reverb to it. The comical cockney tone of Mr. Fezziwig made that figure quite amusing. The performer’s ebullient Ghost of Christmas Present brought out the character’s essence. His upbeat rendition of “I Like Life” with Mr. Curless enhanced it.

Hannah Keeley played various female characters. They included Mrs. Cratchit, Mrs. Fezziwig, Isabelle and the Ghost of Christmas Past. I enjoyed her shocked reaction in the first role when Mr. Cratchit (played by Steve Stonis) proposed a toast to Ebenezer Scrooge. These characters provided Ms. Keely with various opportunities to showcase her lovely voice. The most enjoyable occurred when she performed the fitting “Somewhere in My Memory” as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The show included a remarkable duet between Mr. Arigot and Ms. Keeley. While playing the roles of Young Scrooge and Isabele, they performed a somber rendition of “Happiness.” The tune’s minor key melody showed it to be ironically titled. These two performers—accompanied by Mr. Curless—captured the song’s dreary spirit in a way that made it haunting.

Scrooge’s songwriter Leslie Bricusse provided other performers with opportunities to perform vocal numbers. As Tiny Tim, Addie Crow sang a wonderful rendition of “Beautiful Day.” Urchins Megan Lex and Lily Bunting exhibited their vocal prowess on the tunes “Where is Love?” and “Believe” respectively.

Perhaps in homage to The Nutcracker, Scrooged included some stellar ballet routines. They enhanced the show’s entertainment value. The Cooper River Ballet opened the show by accompanying the cast during the “Overture.” During this performance dancers occupied the stage and both platforms in the middle of the theatre. The set-up created a terrific effect. The group also performed during the “Shades”, “Celebration” and “Isabelle” numbers.

Scrooge included an extensive cast. I’d also like to credit performers Holly Guzik, Emily Ferry, Jameson DeMuro, Olivia Bee Sposa, Max Ruggles, Joey Liberson, Dillinger Crow, Olivia Bathurst, Barbara Fraga, Caroline Grexa, Irelyn Wilkinson, and Audrey Mirtos.

The following members of the Cooper River Ballet added their talents as well: Abby Barrett, Taylor Carey, Emily Collins, Madeline Connor, Caroline Filosa, Lucas Filosa, Kim Fiordimondo, Caroline Hanifen, Gemma Miller and Evan Pirouz.

On multiple levels, I found Scrooge The Musical an outstanding show. I did have one criticism. The show began nine minutes late.

This run of Scrooge will probably be best remembered as Mr. Curless’ final performance in the title role. While his fans may wish that’s “humbug,” in the words of Dr. Seuss: Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened. The show I attended certainly gave the audience a lot of reasons to do so.

Scrooge: The Musical runs through December 23rd at the Ritz Theatre Company.

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.

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.

 

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Ritz Theatre Company

The magic of Disney transformed South Jersey into a mystical wonderland; well, more so than usual. Twenty-first century exurbia altered into the form of a rustic medieval village. A mysterious enchanted castle settled on the outskirts. The Ritz Theatre served as the source of this enchantment. The building became even more bewitching this July 28th. I experienced a supernatural evening in the form of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast directed by Craig Hutchinson.

In the prologue voiceover, Rick Williams delivered a stellar reading of the backstory for this “tale as old as time.” In it, a handsome prince discovered the perils of vanity in the most unpleasant way possible. He turned a homely beggar woman away from his door because of her appearance. Spoiler alert for those who’ve never had contact with the outside world: a witch bore the guise of the old woman. She cursed the good-looking young man, making him into a hideous beast. In the process, his servants experienced their own metamorphoses. They started changing into various items in the household.

Only one thing could end the curse. Spoiler alert for those surprised by the first spoiler alert: it’s the love of a good woman. The beast must find a young lady who can look past his horrifying appearance. But this quest contained an added challenge. The Beast must complete it before all the petals fell off the rose the witch gave him. At the story’s beginning, the rose was almost bare.

The action then turned to the bookish Belle (Annabelle Garcia). Somewhat of an outcast due to her love of literature, she still drew the interest of the most desirable man in town, Gaston (Nicholas French). While spurning his affections, her father, Maurice, (played by Bruce A. Curless), became lost in the woods. In order to avoid a coven of wolves, he took shelter in the Beast’s castle. The latter didn’t take kindly to uninvited guests, so he imprisoned the father. In order to free him, Belle promised the Beast she would stay with him forever. Then as the rose withered, their relationship bloomed.

Annabelle Garcia interpreted her character’s role as “beauty” very broadly. I witnessed no paucity of pulchritude from this performer. Ms. Garcia showcased a beautiful voice, beautiful dance moves and beautiful acting ability. Belle proved quite a demanding role, and this thespian rose to the level it required.

Ms. Garcia turned Belle into the epitome of a Disney heroine. Her selection of voice brought to mind Judy Garland’s from The Wizard of Oz; only more mellifluous. Even when delivering lines, her voice contained a melodic quality to it. This performer treated the audience with impressive singing. Her delivery of “A Change in Me” drew on the character’s feelings and expressed them proficeintly.

Ms. Garcia also wowed theatregoers with her dancing ability. Her most memorable scene occurred when she took part in the fast, high-energy “Be Our Guest” routine along with the ensemble.

A true triple threat, Ms. Garcia also exhibited superb aptitude for non-verbal communication. Even when other action occurred on stage, she remained in character through her perfect use of facial expressions. The way she laughed in her scenes with Maurice (Bruce A. Curliss) showed the character’s genuine affection for her father. It came across as believable and sincere. Bravo.

Bryan M. Pitt put on one beast of a performance as the Beast. I liked the way he brought out the character’s inner turmoil through his vocals. He delivered “If I Can’t Love Her” in a dolorous tone that stirred me. One has to credit him for doing this so well without allowing a burdensome costume to distract him.

Mr. Pitt varied the monster’s emotions very well. Through his character interpretation he showed the Beast possessed much more depth and complexity than what appeared on the surface. When required, he played an angry, frightening creature speaking in a harsh tone that invoked terror. The reverb added to his voice in the first act enhanced this effect.

Like a true stage veteran, he portrayed the character’s change in a measured way that made it credible. Mr. Pitt brought out the Beast’s vulnerability when admitting to Belle he didn’t know how to read. He also got laughs when squealing as Belle bandaged his wounds.

I always enjoy the opportunity to hear Tami Gordon Brody sing. Her rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” didn’t disappoint. It provided the perfect background to Belle’s and the Beast’s solo dance.

This show featured elaborate costuming. To illustrate just how extravagant, it’s difficult to argue the Beast’s as the best. David M. Mooney (as Cogsworth) played a realistic appearing clock. Tami Gordon Brody (Mrs. Potts) took the stage as a tea-kettle. Achilles Inverso (as Luminaire) donned the attire of candelabra. Nicky Intrieri performed as a teacup. Brittany Marie (Babette) played a feather duster. Jane Ericksen wore a dresser most of the evening. The ensemble acted as various pieces of silverware. These players deserve immense respect for not allowing costumes that inhibited movement to affect their performances. That’s true professionalism.

In addition, the “normal” characters wore authentic appearing gowns from the 18th century. They made for quite a visual spectacle.

David M. Mooney and Achilles Inverso displayed outstanding comedic chemistry working together. Their respective costuming added to the humorous effect, but they didn’t allow themselves to become reliant on them for humor. As with Ms. Garcia, they selected the perfect voices to correspond with their characters. I enjoyed Mr. Mooney’s English accent and Mr. Inverso’s French intonation. The inflections enhanced the witty banter between the two.

Nicholas French (Gaston) and Matt Flocco (Lefou) performed well as a comedy team. In addition, I  enjoyed their singing together on the apotheosis of self-admiration the appropriately titled “Gaston.”

Nicholas French may have played a reprehensible character in the form of Gaston, but I still relished they way he performed. It’s quite a trial to play a lothario in an appropriate way to a Disney audience, but Mr. French did so. He teamed up with Ms. Garcia on the outstanding duet: “Me.”

I had one minor issue with the show. I know this is Disney, but dancing wolves? In the story’s context, they were supposed to be threatening creatures. Seeing them dance, made them less so; and Beauty and the Beast isn’t Cats. That’s not to diminish the work of the dancers. More thought out writing would’ve gotten the playwright’s point across better.

Choreographer Jessica Quindlen put together memorable routines. I’d credit dancers Casey Clark, Olivia West, Lindsey Krier, Nicky O’Neal, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Margot Adams, Matthew Janis, Madeline Kendall, Annie Raczko, Kahlil Wyatt, Mike Wemer, Brian Gensel and John Sayles for the technical ability to execute them.

I also enjoyed Taylor Brody in the role of the malevolent Monseiur D’Arque. Bruce A. Curless played the eccentric Maurice exceptionally well.

During intermission, the Ritz allowed theatregoers the opportunity to purchase illuminating roses. When the proper scene arose a series of roseate glows dotted the auditorium. Watching a dark theatre light up with red flowers added to the optical display.

Some “tales as old as time” never get old; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among them. A curse may have ignited the main story spark, but it blessed the audience with a truly enchanting evening. Unfortunately for theatre fans, the petals are falling off the rose while you’re reading this. The magical opportunity to see Beauty and the Beast ends this August 6th.