Cara Davis

Seussical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When evaluating the most imaginative directors in South Jersey, Mary Baldwin’s name always makes the short list. It seemed fitting that Ms. Baldwin would select a show inspired by “the thinks you can think” for her next project. She and the Collingswood Community Theatre presented a piece drawn from the creative mind of Dr. Seuss: Seussical: The Musical. I attended the opening night performance on Thursday, July 11th.

Seussical presented a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ beloved works. It included story elements from Horton Hears a Who!, Horton Hatches the Egg, Green Eggs and Ham and others. The show incorporated iconic characters such as Horton the Elephant (played by Stephen Jackson), the Grinch (Sean Coyle) and, the sine qua non of the Seuss universe: the Cat in the Hat (Jeff McGrail).

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented this show in the Main Ballroom of the Scottish Rite building. The room well suited the extensive cast and elaborate staging. The size accommodated my personal preference for musical performances: a live band. Brian Kain directed the orchestra located in the balcony.

Ms. Baldwin opted to forego the “theatre in the round” format CCT has used for its summer shows in recent years. She chose instead the traditional “picture frame” format for Seussical. I liked the artistic decision. With so many performers and multiple interactions between characters occurring during the scenes, it kept all the action within the audience’s rage of vision.

The characters still walked through the aisles and interacted with the spectators. I nearly got splashed by the Cat’s (Jeff McGrail) “tears” as he lamented a sad point in the story. While searching for the Whos, Horton (Stephen Jackson) inspected one of the clover patches held by the audience member sitting next to me. One of the Wickersham Brothers jumped out from behind a curtain a few rows from where I sat. His monkeyshines startled me.

As with every summer performance at the Collingswood Community Theatre, this one contained a spectacular visual spectacle. All audience members received complimentary bracelets upon entering the theatre. Perhaps owing to the magic of Seuss, the devices would light up in different colors during certain scenes. Looking out at the audience and witnessing a series of hues lighting the dark theatre created a wonderful ambiance.

Jeff McGrail took on the iconic role of The Cat in the Hat. Mr. McGrail captured the character’s energy, humor and mischievousness. He also performed outstanding vocal numbers. The high powered opening, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think”, set the tone for the show.

I liked how Mr. McGrail added a bit of improvisation to the role. He provided an unexpected segue to the ironically titled “How Lucky You Are.” He tripped over the last step on his way to the stage. After a brief smile he broke into song.

Later when The Cat conducted an auction with the audience, Mr. McGrail informed one bidder: “Not you. You laughed at me when I fell.”

On his Facebook page Stephen Jackson commented on how thrilled he felt to be cast as Horton the Elephant. Mr. Jackson showed how much the role meant to him on opening night.

Mr. Jackson showcased the tender side of his vocal prowess in Seussical. He performed a moving duet with JoJo (played by Rory Bernardo) on “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Jackson sang another deeply affecting piece in the form of “Solla Sollew.”

The following line recurred throughout Horton’s lyrics.

A person’s a person

No matter how small.

Mr. Jackson’s soft intonation expressed how much his character believed it.

Cara Davis has played a variety of secondary characters at the Collingswood Community Theatre. Gertrude provided her with some much deserved time in the spotlight. Ms. Davis delivered wonderfully funny renditions of “The One Feather Tale of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “Amazing Gertrude.” She sang an emotional version of “Notice Me Horton” accompanied by Mr. Jackson.

John Dunn played the role of General Genghis Khan Schmitz. The character led a war against people who eat their toast butter side down. That’s not the type of figure an audience would take seriously. Mr. Dunn found ways to make the general even more comical. His choice of voice, repeated twitching of his mustache and cowardly way he explained Jojo’s disappearance to Mr. and Mrs. Mayor made the role even funnier.

The show’s soundtrack contained more than the sentimental numbers mentioned above. The tunes “Monkey Around” and “Chasing the Whos” put the “fun” in Funk. Kaitlyn Woolford’s vocals injected serious soul into “Biggest Blame Fool.” Jessica Hale added her sultry singing style to “Amazing Mayzie.” Compliments go to Brian Kain and his orchestra for their proficient accompaniment.

Seussical also included Kate Schraff’s elaborate choreography. The Bird Girls (Emily Jackson, Kate Thomas Arter, Jen Laksh, Maria Leonen, and Kara Hasings) and the Wickersham Brothers (Hannah Morris, Jack Hastings. Sean Coyle, Ross Shannon, Cassidy Scherz, Ian McGowan, Dylan McGowan, Charlie Temple and Mallory Beach) performed stellar routines. The combination of dance, singing and lighting worked very well together on the “Havin’ a Hunch” number.

This production involved a lot of people. Between the cast and the near sold out audience, I thought we’d need to elect our own congressman before the show started. The following performers completed the ensemble: Matt Griffin, Emily Oleaga Talley, Joey Liberson, Olivia Bee Spinosa, Henry Kain, Ross Shannon, Ava Leacock, Millie Griffin, Caelan Gaines, Sera Scherz, Lydia Ncely, Charlie Temple, Susie Cook, Grace Janco, Cailyn Talley, Griffin Maylath, Buddy Neal, Millie Griffin, Alicia Smartt, Ava Leacock and Clark Griffin.

Several South Jersey community theatre companies have presented Seussical over the last few years. “How lucky you are” if you’ve seen it. The high-tech production at the Collingswood Community Theatre makes it well worth watching again. For those who feel “alone in the universe” for not having seen it yet: the show runs through July 13th at the Scottish Rite. Get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.” After Saturday, to quote Dr. Seuss: “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Avenue Q at Collingswood Community Theatre

It’s not often one encounters a musical that so well captures the essence of the generation that inspired it. Avenue Q featured iconic anthems to the new millennium such as “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”, “It Sucks to Be Me” and “The Internet is for Porn.” To those unfamiliar with it, a show like this would seem to possess the life-affirming nature of something out of Ibsen or O’Neill. Instead, Avenue Q’s creators opted to explore this era from a lighter point-of-view. They utilized an unusual technique in that they added puppets as characters; even including an explicit love scene between two of them. The Collingswood Community Theatre’s production even included a cameo by the town’s mayor.

You’d have to see this one to believe it.

I attended the Saturday evening performance on January 12, 2019. It took place at the Scottish Rite Theatre in Collingswood.

Director Mary Baldwin established the ambiance the moment I entered the theatre. The set designer, Chuck Jackson, crafted a set that resembled both the buildings from Sesame Street and the neighborhood from Rent. It provided the perfect background for this story.

As those unfamiliar with the show have guessed, Avenue Q contained a pretty complicated plot. A muppet named Princeton (played by Sean Coyle) needed a place to live. He found apartments from Avenue A through Avenue P too expensive. Arriving at Avenue Q, he met a series of eccentric characters. They included: 32 year old Brian (Ross Shannon), an aspiring stand-up comic ten years out of college; his fiancée, a Japanese woman with two masters degrees, named Christmas Eve (Linda Mozdzen); a closeted homosexual muppet investment banker, Rod (played by John Dunn); his muppet roommate Nicky (CJ Kish), pornography addicted muppet Trekkie Monster (also played by CJ Kish) and the building superintendent, former child star Gary Coleman (Alicia Smartt). Muppet Kate Monster (Lisa Kain Marcelli) developed a romantic interest in Princeton. Through all this he sought his purpose.

There’s an old cliché that a person “can never be too rich or too thin.” Avenue Q’s author (Jeff Witty) along with its lyricists and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx apparently believed that a musical can never be “too original.” To complete the ensemble they included muppet Lucy the Slut (Stef Bucholski) to complicate Princeton’s and Kate’s romance. The Bad Idea Bears (performed by Cara Davis and Kate Scharff) served as Princeton’s and Kate’s demons. Kate’s muppet boss, Mrs. Thistletwat (Kaitlyn Halligan) antagonized Kate.

It amazed me that, even including intermission, all this wrapped up in under 2-1/2 hours.

Since the show contained a cartoonish premise, it required actors with skill for voices. I’d credit them for their abilities to, not only speak in unusual voices, but to sing in them as well. My two favorites were the neurotic whining John Dunn chose for Rod and the gravelly tone CJ Kish provided for Trekkie.

Lisa Kain Marcelli performed an extraordinary rendition of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” to conclude Act One. Last summer I complimented Ms. Marcelli for her rendition of “Tell Me It’s Not True” at the Collingswood Community Theatre production of Blood Brothers. She impressed by being able to cry, sing in an English accent while still remaining in key. In retrospect, it seems that she used that performance to practice for this one.

Ms. Marcelli delivered an impassioned version of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.” She explored a range of sad and angry emotions during the performance. She used excellent facial expressions to compliment the number’s somber lyrics while singing like someone becoming unhinged. Ms. Marcelli managed to do all this while operating a puppet. Bravo.

2018 was a sad time for Rhythm and Blues fans. After losing Aretha Franklin in August, we commemorated the 12th anniversary of James Brown’s passing this Christmas. On Boxing Day we recognized the 19th anniversary of losing Curtis Mayfield. It’s refreshing to hear the spirit of real R&B living on in performers such as Stef Bucholski.

It takes a certain kind of talent to make a muppet seem seductive. Enter Stef Bucholski. This performer delivered a sultry, soulful version of “Special.” It showed just how special her singing is.

The group worked in something that’s becoming a tradition at the Collingswood Community Theatre’s winter shows. After the curtain call, the cast performed an encore. They returned to the stage and sang the Philadelphia Eagles fight song.

Olivia Marcelli and Emily Jackson completed the ensemble. Brian Kain directed the music and Katie Scharff choreographed.

Avenue Q showed the lives of twenty-somethings struggling to cope with life after college. In effect, it centered on the resulting conflict when a person’s reality falls short of his/her dreams. It made for some pretty interesting theatre. The show premiered in 2003. The so-called “Great Recession”, the explosion of the opioid epidemic, and the rise of populism hadn’t occurred at that time. It would be curious to watch the same characters attempt to deal with these kinds of problems. A sequel would make for even more interesting theatre.

The Collingswood Community Theatre will perform Avenue Q through January 20th at the Scottish Rite Theatre.

Sweeney Todd at Collingswood Community Theatre

Without question, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the show that best combines the trilogy of vengeance, cannibalism and hairstyling. This mix gave it an originality seldom witnessed in the annals of theatre. I experienced the pleasure of the Collingswood Community Theatre’s presentation of this Stephen Sondheim musical on July 13, 2017.

The atmosphere director Mary Baldwin created far exceeded what one would expect from community theatre. The cast and crew transformed the Grand Ballroom at the Scottish Rite into an eerie incarnation of Victorian London. The smoke, dim lighting and ominous music fashioned a chilling atmosphere. The lantern carrying cast members pacing onto the stage from all directions added to the sense of dread. It created the perfect mood for the story.

Sweeney Todd presented the tale of its pseudonymous character originally known as Benjamin Barker (played by CJ Kish). Judge Turpin (Ryan Adams) imprisoned him on false charges. A nefarious desire motivated this deed: the magistrate longed for Mrs. Barker. The man formerly known as Benjamin Barker escaped a penal colony in Australia. He returned to London calling himself Sweeney Todd. He revealed his lugubrious story to a man he encountered on the street, Anthony (played by Chris Fitting). Then he entered his former residence. Now it housed the pie shop of a widow, Mrs. Lovett (Lisa Kain Marcelli).

The woman revealed that Mrs. Barker poisoned herself following Judge Turpin’s attack. In case some audience members still didn’t quite understand just how evil the judge’s nature: he also took in Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Stacie Krawiecki) as his ward. Now he wanted to marry her. Mr. Todd didn’t take this news well. Through his reaction, Mrs. Lovett determined his true identity.

In a somewhat unexpected lifestyle choice from a good Christian gentleman brought up on the values of Victorian England, Todd consecrated his life to vengeance. At the same time, Mrs. Lovett lamented the high cost of ingredients for her pies. The two then came up with a resourceful solution to both their dilemmas.

CJ Kish delivered an extraordinary performance as Todd. He nailed every one of the role’s complex facets. He sang impeccably. While bringing the character’s dark nature to life, he got laughs, as well. I relished watching him enact myriad emotions when Judge Turpin (Ryan Adams) sat in his barber’s chair. Mr. Kish varied his demeanor from resentment to obsequiousness with each sentence he delivered.

I’ve commented before on the energy Mr. Kish displays on stage. I appreciated the passion he brought to this character, as well. He maintained the same level of intensity from the beginning until the end of the show; not an easy feat with this role’s demands.

I also have to credit Mr. Kish for his appearance. With his bushy hair and mutton chops, I could visualize him as the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” His malign facial expressions rounded out the persona. The careful use of red lights accentuated his horrifying vibe. If someone would allow a figure that ominous to place a razor at his throat, he probably deserved what he got.

Lisa Kain Marcelli did an extraordinary job transforming into her character, Mrs. Lovett. Her British accent sounded very authentic. Vocally, it made me think of Edith Bunker, only from England. One has to credit her for singing so well with that inflection. I especially enjoyed her crooning on “By the Sea.”

As with The Producers, I enjoyed watching Mr. Kish and Chris Fitting work together. Mr. Fitting delivered stellar vocals on the pining ballad “Johanna.” I also appreciated his impassioned acting performance in the scene where he rescued his love from the madhouse.

Faith Charlton had a busy night. This performer portrayed the Beggar Woman and the barber, Pirelli. Ms. Carlton possesses an amazing voice. She showed off her vocal prowess in “The Contest.” In her various roles, she spoke in the accents of a British woman and an Italian man. Later in the show she also delivered dialog in an Irish brogue. That’s quite a range.

If someone asked me, “What provides a better bass tone: a Fender Bass Guitar or Ryan Adams’ voice?” While a difficult choice, I’d be inclined to answer the latter. Mr. Adams selected a great baritone inflection for the judge. His scat singing to Mr. Kish’s whistling on “Pretty Women” served as my favorite moment from the show.

Rounding out the cast, Cara Davis played the role of a young boy. Her measured interpretation of the child’s descent into madness chilled me. Patrick Waldron performed the role of the judge’s henchman, Beadle. I liked how he fused the traits of a viscous thug with those of a music lover into the same character. Stacie Krawiecki contributed her remarkable vocals to the performance, as well. I enjoyed her rendition of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

This Collingswood Community Theatre production featured authentic looking costumes. Ellen Geigel’s designs made the sojourn back to Victorian times even more convincing.

Brian Kain did a superb job conducting a fabulous orchestra.

Sweeney Todd may not be everyone’s favorite musical about cannibalism, revenge and hairstyling. I’m pretty sure it would at least make most people’s top twenty containing that combination. If all had the privilege to watch the Collingswood Community Theatre present it in the Grand Ballroom, it would undoubtedly move up to number one on the list. I’ll never forget it. And I’ll never forgive Collingswood Community Theatre for ending their summer season so soon…well, only until next summer.