Carla Ezell

Red Wrench at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

Playwright Tesia Nicoli received a unique birthday present from Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. The company chose to present the opening night performance of this gifted playwright’s work on her actual birthday. Ms. Nicoli attended this show in-person. The audience felt like they’d received a present following this powerful performance of Red Wrench on April 5th.

This evening also featured a first for Burlington County Footlighters’s 2nd Stage. It marked the first time the group produced the work of a new playwright. They selected Ms. Nicoli’s Red Wrench for this inaugural endeavor.

Director Carla Ezell continued the tradition of bringing intense drama to the 2nd Stage. The playbill included the following tag line: Following a tragic car accident, a family struggles with their darkest secrets as their father’s life hangs in the balance. Ms. Nicoli’s website provided this summation: Once we know someone’s shocking secrets, can we still love them? The emotional turbulence in Red Wrench rivaled other works performed there.

Red Wrench told the story of a family drama. Harris family patriarch, Bill, (played by Lou DiPilla III) lay dying in the hospital following a car accident. Or was it? Speculation abounded that he intentionally collided with a tree. His son (Jonathan Edmonson), and daughters Casey (Lauren DiPilla) and Sofie (Kori Rife) gathered in the hospital waiting room. As they discussed their lives, past scandals, and family secrets bitterness came to the fore.

The resulting conflict made it seem the Harris family’s members contained more baggage than a Samsonite warehouse. The playwright offset this nicely by including unexpected sources of redemption in the forms of the eccentric stepmother Shannon Harris (Kathy Harmer) and people arriving in the visiting room from outside the Harris family: Daisy (Shay Fuller), Rosie (Stevie Neale) and Mikyla (Angel Ezell).

Ms. Nicoli provided an excellent setting for the actors to exhibit their craft. The hospital waiting room put characters that harbored deep grudges against each other in close proximity. They interrupted and spoke over one another. The behavior showed their latent animosities and lack of respect.

Lou DiPilla III delivered an impassioned performance as Bill Harris. He played an intense scene performing opposite the character’s son, Andy (Jonathan Edmonson). A discussion about Andy taking over the family business segued in Mr. Edmonson’s interjection of a family secret. The conversation became unsettling. Both performers captured the tension inherent in the moment.

Mr. DiPilla also played opposite his real life daughter, Lauren DiPilla. This dynamic carried over into the performance. Their most powerful scene together came as his character lay on his death bed. He revealed his guilt over a past action. The actors displayed the anxiety and the underlying hope in Ms. Nicoli’s dialog.

Jonathan Edmonson and Angel Ezell showed wonderful chemistry during their scenes working with one another. Mr. Edmonson played an unhappy, emotionally adrift adult while Ms. Ezell portrayed a teenage girl who collected unusual facts. This unusual pairing of characters led to one of the show’s pivotal moments. Both performers made for a memorable concretization of Mr. Edmonson’s character’s self-discovery.

Mr. Edmonson, Ms. DiPilla and Kori Rife impressed by playing the feuding siblings. They provided another one of the show’s impressive scenes. The rancor Mr. Edmonson and Ms. Rife exhibited in their performances made their exchange very realistic. Ms. DiPilla’s effort to serve as de facto referee added to the scene’s believability.

Kathy Harmer played the stepmother, Shannon Harris. Her interpretation of the eccentric free-spirit added levity to this intense drama. The playwright used the character to provide a moment of clarity for the Harris siblings later in the show. Ms. Harmer’s performance made the scene impactful.

Performers Shay Fuller, Patrice Cantrell Frazer, Stevie Neale and John Weber rounded out this extraordinary cast.

The incomparable Jim Frazer leant his stellar talents to this production. In addition to the scenic design, Mr. Frazer managed the lighting and sound. His use of the former for The Ether scenes created an unearthly ambiance throughout the theatre.

The opening night performance included a bonus for theatregoers. Following the show the company presented a “talk back” with the playwright, the director and the cast. Those in attendance were treated to insights on the writing of, rehearsal and final production of the show. Footlighters provided wine and cheese, as well. Another “talk back” is scheduled following the closing night performance on Saturday, April 13th.

An emotionally gripping story that at times became uncomfortable to watch, the theme of love ran through Red Wrench. Audiences who like their theatre to contain a lot of conflict moderated by the hope of redemption will love Red Wrench. These theatrical fans should give themselves either an early or belated birthday present by seeing it at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

 

24-Hour Theatre Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Once again Burlington County Footlighters proved that the spirit of American ingenuity continues to thrive among South Jersey Community Theatre performers. On Saturday, February 23, 2019 Footlighters’ 2nd Stage presented their 7th Annual 24-Hour Theatre Festival. One of the most entertaining evenings out that I’ve ever had resulted.

For those unfamiliar with the program, at 8:00 PM on Friday, February 22nd, four teams of actors assembled at the Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage theatre. They were presented with six hats. Each contained slips of paper. They contained: a genre, a prop, a character, a task, a line or quote and a delivery style. Once the teams selected one of each, they had 24 hours to write a play that met all the criteria. The curtain would go up on their creation the evening of February 23rd.

For those who are familiar with Footlighters’ 24-Hour Theatre Festival, this year the organizers added a twist. They selected a “mystery” prop that each team had to use in its play. The prop would be drawn by an audience member at random via lot. The performers wouldn’t discover what that prop was until DURING their performance.

BCF established the evening’s improvisational nature even before the festivities commenced. The emcee, Carla Ezell, stated that she discovered she’d be hosting the program just a few hours before the show. Ms. Ezell’s improvisational aptitude set a high bar for the performers to match. Would they?

Internal Affairs featuring CGI Paul Walker performed a black comedy called Lady Luck. Team members Alex Davis and Josh Ireland presented the best one act play that I’ve either read or watched. Mr. Ireland played a troubled loner with a fascination for birds. Ms. Davis took on the role of a disgruntled Dear Abby responding to his inquiries. This duo presented a 25 minute play while even working clever alliteration into their script. The writing was so good that I’d encourage them to publish the play. Although, I’m sure it wouldn’t be as entertaining without Mr. Ireland and Ms. Davis starring in it.

The Drunken Kruk team took the stage next. Performers Emily O’Connell, Susan Paschkes, Caroline Piotrowski and Ellis Skamarakas presented a pirate musical titled The Drunken Kuk and the Kracken. (You read that right: they selected “musical” as a genre. Those BCF organizers have no mercy on these participants.) The team met some other unique challenges. One character only spoke with either slogans or tag lines. They also had to work a game of patty-cake into their show. This group pushed the limits of creativity. While not asked to, they managed to do the latter while forming a conga line.

Next, the Perfect Nobodies team performed A Sleight of Hand. In this show, John Hager, Evan Newlin and Andrew Snellen presented a story about two detectives attempting to solve a murder. The narrative contained a twist in that the prime suspect could only say the opposite of whatever he meant. The group freelanced by turning this premise into an absolutely hysterical farce. They worked their “mystery” prop into the story with both brilliance and wit. I also admired how while working with a script less than 24 hours old, no one used notes. Everyone still delivered their lines flawlessly.

A love of animals bracketed the program’s play portion. (Now Internal Affairs has me doing the alliteration thing.) The Lusty Dolphins received the challenge of performing in mime and incorporating the task of playing Jenga. Performers Alex Levitt, Dave Pallas, Angelo Ratini and Chrissy Wick showed some monumental creativity on this one. They split up the duties. Mr. Levitt and Ms. Wick played a married couple preparing for a Jenga match. Mr. Pallas and Mr. Ratini performed the mime roles. They mimed the same dialog that Mr. Levitt and Ms. Wick spoke to one another. The actors used a series of different situations to do so. The cleverest came when they mimed a husband driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. Her water broke and forced the husband to deliver the baby. Without giving away spoilers, they made it apparent that the child wasn’t his.

Following the, for lack of a better word, “prepared” plays, the actors participated in a series of improv games.

For the first, performers formed teams of two each. They were tasked with delivering a line that described a situation written by a member of the audience. Once that concluded, they were asked to do something creative with props.

Three actors then played dating game contestants. They selected cards that described whom they were. An audience member played the role of either the bachelor or the bachelorette by asking them questions. The bachelor(ette) then had to guess the character’s identity.

All the contestants deserve credit for participating in these challenges. None of them were easy. Because of that I’d credit Alex Levitt and Evan Newlin for displaying two of the quickest minds I’ve encountered. They both came up with some quality material on-the-spot. Could one of them be the next Robin Williams?

Jim Frazer did fantastic work on the lighting and sound. Angel Ezell also assisted with the evening’s festivities.

Footlighters icon Alan Krier once told me: “I’ve always found that the kids that are involved in the performing arts are always the ones that are exceling in school. The two seem to go hand in hand.” The 7th Annual 24-Hour Theatre Festival showed that those same traits carry over into life after school.

On the morning of February 23rd a Facebook post announced that the theatre would open at 10:00 AM that morning. I happened to pass the building around 11:00 AM. I noticed six cars already in the parking lot.

All participants behaved like the professionals they are. No one got frustrated or gave up because their task was “too hard.”

This wasn’t a contest, either. No team was declared the “winner.” No one offered them any prize money. The actors participated because they wanted to participate. In this era that says something.

I’m no Dear Abby, because if I were I’m sure I’d conduct myself in the vein of the character envisioned by Alex Davis. Periodically, though, people still ask me for advice. Whenever someone wants to know if they should quit something, I suggest the following: “Do you like what you do? Do you want to learn how to do it better? If the answer to either of them is ‘no’, then you need to do something else.” To the delight of South Jersey Community Theatre fans, the participants in the 7th Annual 24-Hour Theatre festival showed the audience just how they affirmatively they would answer those questions.

A Streetcar Named Desire at Burlington County Footlighters

Several years ago it seemed like every South Jersey community theatre produced a version of Sister Act. Now it seems like they’ve graduated to more sophisticated material. Tennessee Williams has become the new ubiquitous feature on community theatre marquees.

Burlington County Footlighters presented the latest rendition of Mr. Williams’ work in the form of A Streetcar Named Desire. I attended the opening night performance on January 25th.

Streetcar told the story of down-on-her luck dilettante Blanche DuBois (played by Morgan Petronis). She’d lost her husband, her job and the family estate in quick succession. While a common theme in country music, Williams applied this trio to the stage. He did so magnificently. The show received the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the process.

Blanche’s sister Stella (played by Alex Davis) agreed to let her stay in the New Orleans home she shared with her husband Stanley Kowalski (John Helmke). Blanche found the accommodations lacking in the sophistication to which she’d accustomed herself. She also discovered Stanley to be a boorish “madman.” Stanley responded to Blanche’s contempt and haughty attitude by working to destroy her reputation.

So do audiences really need another installment of Tennessee Williams? With conflict this strong how could a real theatre fan ever get enough of it?

Tennessee Williams’ work presents a host of challenges for actors. Director Lou DiPilla selected a superb cast with which to meet them.

Morgan Petronis played an exceptional Blanche DuBois. The performer first deserves credit for taking on one of the most iconic roles in American theatre. In addition, the character presents several difficulties for those with the courage to play it. Let’s start with the writing.

Watching this show reminded me of a conversation I once had with the late Glenn Walker. In a discussion regarding HP Lovecraft, he criticized the author’s use of narration. When thumbing through one of Lovecraft’s stores, one can see blocks and blocks of text without dialog.

A reader could criticize the text of Streetcar for a similar reason. After perusing its pages just now, I witnessed blocks and blocks of dialog. This creates a problem for actors. People in the modern era are used to 5 second sound bites and Tweets of less than 140 characters. How can one engage contemporary audiences with such verbose material?

Ms. Petronis got it done. She delivered her lines in keeping with the sing-song lyricism of Williams’ dialog; adopting a very authentic Southern accent. One has to credit her for keeping the cadence without misspeaking any of her lines.

Now that was just the speaking facet of the role. Not only did Williams’ protagonist change throughout the story, the character became more of a fabulist than even Willy Loman.

Ms. Petronis played this liar very believably. Even as someone familiar with the play, I struggled to tell when Blanche told the truth or fibbed. I liked the casual ways Ms. Petronis said that she’d only have one drink…or two. She strolled around the stage in finery claiming an old suitor tried to contact her. While the audience could tell the character had begun losing touch with reality, Ms. Petronis portrayed Blanche as though SHE believed the things she said. That’s a very difficult balance and the performer executed it brilliantly.

Tennessee Williams didn’t limit himself to only making Blanche a complex character. His antagonist possessed some complexities of his own. The Stanley role reminded me a bit of the title character from Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. Only this one contained much more attitude, anger and vindictiveness. John Helmke met the role’s demands.

Mr. Helmke played well opposite Ms. Petronis. As highbrow as she made Blanche seem he enacted Stanley as the opposite. His rough accent and the way he shifted his weight while walking suited the character. With equal dexterity Mr. Helmke played a hard-drinking “one-of-the-guys”, a destructive alcoholic and a contrite husband. The latter a challenging task for a character harboring a low opinion of women. The realistic way he begged for Stella’s forgiveness made me cringe.

Alex Davis played Stella, the bridge between these two poles. The character harkened back to Shakespeare’s Brutus. Like him, Stella meant well, but always made the wrong decisions. The nonchalant way in which Ms. Davis would either make excuses for or express enjoyment over Stanley’s behavior was chilling. Ms. Davis’ rendition showed Stella didn’t see any flaws with his actions.

Fran Pedersen played a phenomenal love interest for Blanche, Harold “Mitch” Mitchell. Mr. Pedersen stumbled over his words and laughed awkwardly while attempting to woo her. When Stanley told him what he’d discovered about Blanche, Mr. Pederson adapted. With disheveled hair he raged at her, sounding almost as angry as Stanley. At the show’s end he gave her sad looks that expressed his regret better than words.

Blanche complained about her “nerves” throughout the show. After watching performances this powerful, I’m sure the audience felt a little unsettled.

The following performers rounded out the cast: Kori Rife, Matt Dell’Olio, Shay Fuller, Jeff Rife, Tim Schumann, Lauren DiPilla and Brian Wayman.

In December of 2016 I attended Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of A Christmas Carol. Set designer Jim Frazer crafted a Christmas village that converted the stage into a real-life Norman Rockwell painting. I didn’t think it possible to create a stage set better than that one. Then came The Explorers’ Club. After this show, I’ll start adding the words to date whenever I describe Mr. Frazer’s “best.”

When I entered the building I felt like I strolled right into the French Quarter.  The set for Streetcar transformed the stage into vintage New Orleans. The broken shutters, the wood balcony and the cerulean backdrop gave the setting authenticity. The flickering streetlamps at both sides of the audience created an eerie ambiance when the house lights (also designed by Mr. Frazer) dimmed.

One wouldn’t expect a non-musical drama to contain good singing. Footlighters’ presentation of Streetcar did. Carla Ezell added her soulful vocal prowess to the production. Since the action occurred in the Big Easy, instrumental jazz music played throughout the performance.

That brings me to my one criticism of the show. With all the jazz music I’d hoped the Mike Parisi Trio would return to the Footlighters stage. They played at the Winter Warmer the company hosted in December. Their jazz stylings would have fit well with this ambiance. Maybe the next theatre company will take note when it presents Tennessee Williams.

The brutality and brilliance of A Streetcar Named Desire will never lack relevance. The cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters demonstrated why it will always be a timeless masterpiece.

While Williams’ work may be timeless, time is running out at Burlington County Footlighters. Theatre fans shouldn’t depend on the kindness of strangers to buy tickets for them. They have until February 9th to see the show. After that they can still stand outside the building yelling, “Stella! Stella!” They’ll receive a much different response than Stanley Kowalski, however.

The Winter Warmer at Burlington County Footlighters

In the movie The Return of Spinal Tap, Paul Schaffer’s character observed: “It’s funny how the business does a thing.” I still recall DJ Hedgepath’s breathtaking rendition of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Collingswood Community Theatre. I also remember Cynthia Reynolds’ superb performance as the lead in Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters this past May. This December 14th I attended a show in which they both sang Christmas songs. To quote the late Sammy Davis, Jr.: “Only in this business.”

All kidding aside, South Jersey features immense talent that performs at local community theatre shows. With so many gifted performers sharing the stage, the skill of individual players can get overlooked. I’ve wondered what it would be like to listen to some of them just standing in front of a microphone and singing. I found out at the Burlington County Footlighters Winter Warmer.

The program featured local community theatre actors singing Christmas songs. The organizers bracketed the performance with some stellar Jazz performances. The evening opened with music by The Mike Parisi Trio featuring Ryan Smith on piano, Mike Parisi on bass and Evan Smith on saxophone. They warmed up the audience by playing jazz versions of Christmas carols. A supreme performance by Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show concluded the evening’s festivities. John Romano emceed.

The show featured some deeply moving versions of Christmas classics. Jerrod Ganesh delivered emotional renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Mary, Did You Know?” Shaina Egan performed a stirring version of “O, Holy Night” accompanied by Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on harmony vocals. Mother and daughter team Carla and Angel Ezell teamed up for the soulful “Miss You Most at Christmas Time.”

The latter tune affected me personally. For Rhythm and Blues fans, Christmas time always brings a tinge of sadness. We lost two legends of the genre during the Holiday Season. James Brown passed away on Christmas Day on 2006 and Curtis Mayfield left us on Boxing Day 1999. While their talent can never be replaced, the performances turned in by singers such as DJ. Hedgepath, Mr. Thompson and Ms. Ezell showed that the spirit of their music has continued into the next generation.

The show featured a range of styles in the song selection. It included several upbeat numbers. Stephen Jackson applied his charming vocal stylings to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “The Christmas Waltz.” In a radical departure from the dirge-like minor key melodies of Carrie, Cynthia Reynolds delivered the popular Holiday staple “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” just as brilliantly.

What Christmas show would be complete without a little romance to spice up the Holiday Season? Ms. Reynolds performed the affectionate “Merry Christmas, Darling.” Emily Huddell geared up the audience for the next Holiday with the inviting “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

The event included an original take on a seasonal classic. Alex Davis sang a cheery version of “White Christmas.” At the end of the song, Ms. Davis interpolated the somber mood of the original. It rounded out this unique rendition nicely.

You know it’s a good show when even the intermission includes outstanding music. During the break, The Mike Parisi Trio took the stage. They performed an instrumental version of “The Christmas Song” that would’ve impressed both Nat King Cole and Bill Evans.

America’s original art form made its way into the regular program, as well. Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. delivered a high energy rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

During his performance of “This Christmas”, DJ Hedgepath informed the audience: “This is a very special Christmas for me.” It was just as special for his fans. Mr. Hedgepath treated them to the Holiday favorite “Jingle Bells.” He brought the audience into the show with “This Christmas.” When the music started he told them that he expected to hear “foot tapping” and “hand clapping.” A lot of the former occurred while he performed and even more of the latter took place when he concluded.

Following the individual performances, saxophonist Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show took the stage. They opened their set by backing-up Darryl S. Thompson, Jr as he performed a moving rendition of “Christmastime is Here.” They then treated the audience Mr. Mitnaul’s unique blend of jazz, gospel, funk and soul/R&B.

The band’s sound reminded me of Miles Davis’ when he experimented with Jazz Fusion. That seemed appropriate. Mr. Mitnaul’s style contains the soul of Miles Davis with the chops of John Coltrane.

Like Miles Davis, Mr. Mitnaul has an ear for talent. He surrounded himself with a group of stellar musicians. The Smooth Show included Hasan Govan on bass, Jared Alston on keyboards and Clayton Carothers on drums.

Mr. Mitnaul informed the audience that the band didn’t realize they were playing a Christmas show. They didn’t know many Christmas songs, but could try and include a few in the set.

This seemed a little cliché to me. Did I just hear a jazz musician suggest he might be able to improvise? Isn’t ‘the ability to improvise’ the number one task listed on a jazz musician’s job description?

Mr. Mitnaul and the Smooth Show proceeded to prove themselves worthy of the title: jazz musicians. They worked some Holiday tunes into their set; concluding with an awesome rendition of “This Christmas.”

All the musicians demonstrated remarkable soloing ability. Special credit must go to Clayton Carothers. Mr. Carothers played one of the most outstanding drum solos I’ve ever heard: and I’m an Art Blakey fan who’s attended several Rush concerts. Even more remarkable, his kit consisted of just the basics: a snare drum, a floor tom, a tom, a high-hat and some cymbals. All you drummers who need to be air-lifted into your sets please take note.

The band showed that this wasn’t just a job to them. They genuinely enjoyed playing this gig. Its members often smiled at each other throughout the evening. So did their audience.

Christmas only comes once a year. Unfortunately, so does Burlington County Footlighters’ Winter Warmer. During the show Darryl Thompson, Jr. announced that the company planned to make this a regular annual event. Now I know what to ask Santa to bring me next Christmas: a ticket to the 2019 Winter Warmer.

 

 

 

24 Hour Play Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

How’s this for a challenge? You and a group of your fellow performers arrive at the theatre. Someone hands you a hat. From it you select first a genre, then a prop, during the third round a character, after that a task, and finally a style of delivery. Then you’re given a line that must appear in the play. You and your team then have 24 hours to write an original dramatic work based on the criteria you selected. Once the time runs out, you and your team will perform the play to a live audience. Now who would have the courage to attempt this?

Well, on February 23rd, a select group of 14 brave performers accepted this dare. They chose to participate in Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage’s Sixth Annual 24 Hour Theatre Festival on February 24th. The three teams they assembled treated an audience to superb performances. They followed these shows with some outstanding improv.

The teams presented remarkable writing. All the plays included compelling characters, conflict and plot twists; that quite an achievement for works written less than a day before show time.

The one unifying factor in all the plays included the use of the line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” All the teams worked around the difficulty of applying a statement written in the present tense to their stories.

The team called the Space Cadets opened the evening’s festivities. The troupe consisted of performers Kelly Deeny, Pat Frazer, Tim Kirk, Kathy Smith and Chrissy Wick. They presented an interstellar speed dating play called “What Planet Are You From?” The group interpolated characters from some popular space themed films, a lovelorn woman…and a cat. Even with only 24 hours’ notice to put the show together, they still engaged in some creative casting. It seemed appropriate that the gentleman named Kirk took the lead in a sci-fi story.

The Space Cadets were tasked with writing a science fiction play that included the use of an overhead projector, a character who rapped whenever speaking, and the use of “positions.” The players received instructions to deliver their lines “seductively.”

The Sutter Home Girls comprised the next team to take the stage. Its members included Angel Ezell, Carla Ezell, Tasha Holmes, Nina Law and Eylis Skamarakas. Their “Not Going Home for Christmas” show featured a melodramatic take on a group session at a mental health institution. Their assignment included use of a Christmas tree, one character who only spoke in Disney lyrics, a character who used a hula hoop the entire play and a “sweet” delivery.

I liked how they began and ended their show the same way by lighting the Christmas tree. It also impressed me how, in spite of the play’s brevity, Tasha Holmes even managed to work in a couple of costume changes.

The Chun-Kay team rounded out the evening. Members DJ Hedgepath, Stephen Jackson, Matt Maerten and Darryl Thompson presented “The Transfigured Night” in the mystery/detective genre. To craft this whodunit they received direction to use a foot measurer, include a clown as a character, and to deliver five tongue twisters excitedly.

The latter instruction served as a starting point for this group. Almost every line Mr. Thompson spoke included at least one. Even with the limited rehearsal time, he expressed the dialog clearly and without tripping over his words.

Footlighters 2nd Stage put on a much better triple bill than I expected. All the teams wrote strong scripts. Every performer sounded much more prepared than the rehearsal time allowed.

Then the real ‘improv’ portion of the program commenced. At the beginning of the show, the master of ceremonies, Gaby Affleck, asked audience members to give ideas for ‘quirky’ characters. The players then drew these suggestions from a hat.

First, the performers put on a version of a dating game. The bachelorette, Chrissy Wick, asked questions of three actors who took on the ‘quirky’ roles. Ms. Wick received the task of guessing the character’s description.  Eylis Skamarakas took on the role of a Wookie with laryngitis, Angel Ezell played a pilot who hated to fly, and Kelly Deeny performed as doctor with a case of the giggles.

Some performers as well as some daring audience members participated in the hat game. Individuals put on comical hats and then gave a brief talk as though making a dating video.

The ‘improv’ section concluded with a party scene. DJ Hedgepath played the host tasked with identifying the quirky character each guest played. Stephen Jackson performed as an angry bartender, Tim Kirk acted the role of a child learning to count, and Darryl Thompson acted the role of a disgruntled priest.

I’d also give kudos to Gaby Affleck and Jim Frazer for the professional way they ran the evening’s events.

The performers played eclectic roles extremely well and with very little preparation. That demonstrated the level of talent they all possess. While both funny and entertaining, I’d classify the evening as inspiring above all else. They proved that American ingenuity thrives in the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

 

Clybourne Park at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

My most memorable moment as a theatre critic occurred several months ago at Burlington County Footlighters. During a production of The Fox on the Fairway, they used my name during the show. I’m sure glad my name didn’t come up during their 2nd Stage presentation of Clybourne Park. I much rather prefer having my golfing ability questioned in a public forum than getting associated with the themes in this story. In addition to a sense of relief, Footlighters treated me to a thought provoking and entertaining performance on June 16th.

Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning drama also received the 2012 Tony Award for best play. The story addressed the topic of racism in America. The first act occurred in 1959 and the second fifty years later in 2009. With housing as the background, it explored the state of race relations in American society during two different time periods.

The playwright used an interesting technique. The same actors played different characters in acts one and two. All had a personal connection to either the neighborhood or the home that served as the play’s lone setting. It led to some unsettling discussions involving race. In the first act, white people fought the perceived encroachment by African Americans into the community. Over time the neighborhood demographic shifted becoming predominantly African American. Mr. Norris then added an interesting twist. In the second act, the African Americans fought to preserve the neighborhood’s historical heritage from white people’s interference.

Sensitive theatregoers should be forewarned: Mr. Norris’ show featured raw dialog. It made me feel uncomfortable during the second act when the characters discussed racial matters. During the first act I found the conversation just painful. The characters seemed very timid as though they struggled to understand one another, but just couldn’t find the right way to communicate their thoughts.  The discussion in the 2009 act deteriorated into anger and resentment. The racist jokes from both sides compounded the animosity.

Shows that require actors to play multiple characters challenge thespians. Most times that’s because their roles possess antithetical traits to one another. Clybourne Park took an original approach to this technique. Even though the cast played different characters, the roles they performed possessed the same values and beliefs. The difference showed in how they chose to express them.

Performers Sheldon Jackson and Nina Law played the African American couple in both scenes. In the first act, Ms. Law took on the role of an ostensibly obedient domestic servant. She always seemed hesitant or uncomfortable when speaking to her employer Bev (Kathy Harmer). Her open expressions of frustration and defiance towards her husband showed her true character. I credit Ms. Law for executing this challenging balancing act so well.

Mr. Jackson removed his hat and recited a series of “yes, ma’am”s when addressing his wife’s employer. While overtly polite, his mannerisms and speech reflected an underlying tension.

In the second act, they transitioned into more assertive people. Mr. Jackson physically confronted Steve (Fred Ezell) in response to his insulting his wife. Ms. Law crossed her arms and legs, pursed her lips while attending the meeting, thus expressing contempt through her mannerisms. Then she confronted Steve when he intimated his views on race.

Both Mr. Jackson and Ms. Law animated these challenging emotions brilliantly. Their counterparts as the white couple, Fred Ezell and Stevie Neale, did the same.

In the first act, Mr. Ezell looked and sounded the role of someone fighting to preserve his “progressive community.” He struggled when explaining how “different” people were, well, “different.” He held his hat in front of him as if metaphorically trying to conceal the character’s true inner feelings.

Stevie Neale turned in an extraordinary performance as a deaf woman; someone incapable of hearing the goings on around her. Ms. Neale’s manner of speaking demonstrated that she took the time to research and comprehend the role.

In the second act, the hat was gone and Mr. Ezell’s character let loose. While managing to repress and feign his feelings he eventually expressed his views with abandon; even telling a bigoted joke.

During this portion of the show Ms. Neale’s character couldn’t avoid hearing her husband’s views. While reserved at first, she also became enraged at the course of the conversation. As with the African American wife in the first act, she directed it at her husband.

In the first act, Kathy Harmer played an outstanding 1950s wife. She expressively pranced about the room discussing trite matters with her husband. Even with the stresses of an uncertain future following a horrible family tragedy, she exhibited a sense of optimism. In the second she became a dull lawyer.

Jonathan Edmonson ran the emotional gamut in Clybourne Park. This performer transitioned from a priest in the first act to an attorney in the second. (It’s hard to imagine any two roles more oppositional than these.) His calm reserve in response to Russ’ (Al Krier) insults gave way to impatience and aggravation in act two.  Later in the show he returned in the role of a somber, distraught man.

Al Krier always makes himself unique in his performances. Usually he does so through his costuming. While the bandana he wore in act two did present a rather unique look for him, he distinguished himself in the first act. In yet another example of why I’m glad my name didn’t come up the show, he instructed a priest (Jonathan Edmonson) to go “f–k himself.”

Mr. Krier turned in an extraordinary performance even by the standard of excellence I expect from him. In the first act, he played a father with anger issues over a family tragedy. He convincingly played someone trying to repress his emotions; especially, by the calm way he delivered the line in the preceding paragraph. Later in the scene he vented his rage at the community itself. In the second act, he refocused and became the show’s comic relief.

The play contained a range of dialog; some of it very tense and other portions rather comical. I didn’t care for the opening of both acts with banal discussions. The conversations droned on far too long for the effect the playwright wanted to achieve. I’d encourage audience members to be patient and endure them. Beyond that one shortcoming, I found the rest of the story well written.

As with a previous visit to Footlighters 2nd Stage, I had the opportunity to sit next to the director. (Blogging about community theatre has its perks.) Carla Ezell laughed heartily during the comedic lines. That impressed me. She’s worked on this show with the cast and crew for months. Familiar dialog still drawing that kind of reaction from her demonstrated her enthusiasm. That passion carried over into the performances.

Clybourne Park brought an uncomfortable part of the American experience to the stage. With that noted, a diverse audience attended the same performance I did. Not one attendee walked out. No one reacted in anger. It led me to believe that just maybe, should Mr. Norris add a third act covering the year 2059, the characters would behave with more civility towards one another. For now, theatre fans can attend the conflict laden version at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd stage through June 24th.

 

Theatre Review – A Christmas Carol at Burlington County Footlighters

Burlington County Footlighters bewildered me. I heard they’d planned to present the musical version of a Charles Dickens story for the Holiday Season. I couldn’t imagine a tale of putrid coke painting London’s skyline, children suffering under horrific child labor practices and business barons brutalizing the working classes coinciding with the festive mood in the air. Fortunately, they opted to stage a musical version of the author’s heart-warming Holiday classic A Christmas Carol; not his harsh critique of nineteenth century industrialization Hard Times. God blessed us everyone. The cast and crew’s wonderful presentation of the former proved Footlighters made the appropriate artistic call.

I attended the opening night showing directed by Scott Angehr and Tracey Hawthorne on December 2nd. While billed as a musical, I thought A Christmas Carol an entertaining spectacle on multiple levels. Of course, it featured a variety of extraordinary voices. The authentic costuming provided the audience with a means of visualizing the social strata of Victorian England. The set design achieved the latter while transforming the theatre into an idealistic image of a Christmas town. While this show possessed many attributes of a big budget New York play, I enjoyed the opportunity to experience it in my home town of Cinnaminson, New Jersey.

I always credit performers courageous enough to perform roles iconized by other actors. It’s much harder to do this while playing a character that’s become a recognizable part of mainstream pop culture. Steve Phillips’ portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge would’ve made Dickens proud while making Reginald Owen and George C. Scott jealous. With his top hat, gray mutton chops and warm bass toned “Bah, Humbug” he made Scrooge his own.

While a talented singer, I enjoyed listening to Mr. Phillips’ speaking voice the most. Just a thought: could an audiobook of A Christmas Carol be in his future?

If I may borrow a song title from the show, I had a “jolly good time” listening to the singing. The return of Footlighters veterans Ryan PJ Mulholland, Colin Becker, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Carla Ezell and Rick Williams made for an early Christmas present. Buddy Deal’s (in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present) upbeat crooning with his ensemble on the “Abundance and Charity” number made “Holly Jolly Christmas” sound like a depressing grunge song by comparison. The dancers accompanied this track with a well-choreographed (by Laci DeLuca) soft shoe tap dance. I thought the women’s matching red and green dresses took the Christmassy feel into overdrive.

The most unforgettable routine occurred during the “Link by Link” number. This song began solo by Vinnie DiFilippo (as Jacob Marley) and evolved into a Riverdance-esque dance number with a male ensemble. It served as a cautionary tale to Scrooge about how he’d spend eternity wearing the chain he built in life. I admired the group’s ability to sing and dance flawlessly while attired with cumbersome props.

Ryan Mulholland and Scott Angehr deserve immense praise for their work on the costuming. It impressed me the most about this show. An award wouldn’t be enough to recognize their efforts. They earned a medal. Mr. Mulholland played Bob Cratchit. The authenticity of his clothes showed superb attention to detail. He wore scuffed shoes. Holes showed on both his pants and jacket. Their condition displayed the level of Mr. Cratchit’s impoverishment. The chains and lock boxes Mr. DiFilipo adorned as Jacob Marley appeared very realistic. The long white gown Ms. Delengowski wore accentuated by the glitter dotting her face and hair animated the sprightly Ghost of Christmas Past. The long green robe and holly hat did the same for Buddy Deal as the mirthful Ghost of Christmas Present.

Jim Frazer’s one of the best set designers on the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit. His skills reached another level in A Christmas Carol. I suspect if Norman Rockwell had painted a romanticized image of a Victorian Christmas village, it would have looked like this set. The small winter lights in the windows added an authentic touch. Mr. Frazer crafted the rotating stage extraordinarily well. The multiple levels and the faux fireplace presented an authentic image of Scrooge’s home. When turned around this set became the front of the residence. While an intricate stage-upon-the-stage, crew members managed to turn it around and move it back-and-forth without difficulty. The set construction crew deserves kudos for building this elaborate spectacle so well.

This Holiday Season you will be visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past will transport you to the first time you read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Your youthful self will say, “What a great story. I wish I could see it performed as a musical.” Then the Ghost of Christmas Present will explain what a phenomenal production of this beloved tale Burlington County Footlighters is presenting this December. Afterwards you’ll receive a harrowing visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Future. This apparition will transport you to January of 2017. You’ll be pining for the past Yuletide season. Then you’ll see a playbill that reads the final performance of this show occurred on 12/11/16. Then the Ghost of Christmas Present will return. He’ll warn you that this is one possible future. You still have the power to change it. And for that, “God bless us everyone.”

Theater Review – Doubt by John Patrick Shanley at Burlington County Footlighters

Due to the troubling subject matter of this play, I had doubts I’d enjoy it. The presentation by the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters this fall, put my doubts to rest. They performed a somber reading of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama Doubt.

Have I overdone the whole “doubt” thing, yet? FULL DISCLOSURE: if you think so, you shouldn’t keep reading this review.

When I entered the theater I started to genuflect. The altar, stained glass and podium gave the true ambiance of a church. The addition of the red light above the latter showed fantastic attention to detail on the part of the set designer (Jim Frazier). When Father Flynn (Kevin Walters) approached the podium and delivered his sermon on “doubt” I suspected I was not in the presence of holiness…or was I?

The playbill read that Mr. Walters “regards Doubt as one of the finest plays ever written.” Father Flynn is certainly the most challenging dramatic role I’ve encountered. Theatergoers need to view him as someone unjustly accused of a heinous action. They also need to think him an unrepentant pedophile. Not an easy character for an actor to play. It requires him to walk a fine line in order to be convincing on both counts. Through his subtle vocal inflections Mr. Walters did so splendidly. At the end of the performance I wanted to have a beer with him. At the same time I would’ve been a little leery of letting him watch my kids. Bravo on such a phenomenal acting performance.

I enjoyed watching Donne Petito bring Sister Aloysius Beauvier’s character to life. This performer conveyed the essence of an ultra-conservative, inflexible and doctrinaire ideologue. (I should point out that the playwright set this drama in 1964 at a Bronx Catholic grammar school. The action didn’t take place in Washington, D. C. or the hustings somewhere south of New England.) The dark tone of Ms. Petito’s voice led me to doubt the credibility of Sister Aloysius’ accusations. Unfortunately, it also reminded me of a nun I met while attending a Catholic high school. That made her rendition much more believable to me.

Linda Hansen played an exceptional contrast in her role as Sister James. While timid at first, the character gradually transitioned into a hybrid of compassion and rationality. Ms. Hansen made her character’s metamorphosis very convincing. I thought her facial expressions really conveyed the true essence of “doubt”. I’m sure my face displayed a similar appearance throughout and after the performance.

In her role as Mrs. Muller, Carla Ezell did a fantastic job bringing to light that uncomfortable streak of gray that lies between black and white. Of all the characters in the play, Mrs. Muller came across as the most complex. When Sr. Aloysius shared her belief Fr. Flynn molested her son, Mrs. Muller decided to keep him in the school. This would allow her son the opportunity to get into a good college. She also implied he was homosexual, intimating he would’ve enjoyed it anyway. In addition, “it’s only until June” when he’d graduate and go on to high school. Yeah, that’s about as complex a character any playwright could create.

I should add that the Shanley made the Muellers African-American. That added another dimension of intricacy to the play. Should Mrs. Muller have sacrificed her son’s opportunity to get a good education over a nun’s uncorroborated suspicion that a priest abused her child? Not as obvious a choice to make as it seemed on the surface.

I applaud Burlington County Footlighters for presenting a play with such intricacy and controversial subject matter. While a disturbing subject, the performers delivered a rendition that did true credit to the essence of this drama. On that, there can be no doubt.