Chris Fitting

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Friday the 13th theatregoers got lucky. Haddonfield Plays and Players decided to present a witty take on some dirty rotten scoundrels. There may not be honor among thieves, but they sure displayed some pretty good acting, singing and dancing chops. I attended the opening night performance on July 13th.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels told the story of aging con-man Lawrence Jameson (played by Chris Fitting). Accompanied by his assistant, police Inspector Andre Thibault (Kacper Miklus), he took on the guise of a fictitious prince. He travelled the Riviera swindling women. During one con he encountered Freddie Benson (Sidney (Syd) Manfred Maycock III). The latter aspired to a life of chicanery but struggled to get his start. He asked Jameson to teach him the art of the craft.

Initially reluctant, Jameson discovered that one of his marks, the gun toting Jolene Oakes, (Lauren Elisabeth) already arranged their wedding. Facing an exile to the prairies of Oklahoma Jameson reconsidered the novice’s offer. The two teamed up on a comical skit to dissuade her. Then the partnership deteriorated.

The two made a deal. Whoever could swindle the next wealthy woman they met for $50,000 could remain in the area. The loser would leave town. Enter the “soap girl”, Christine Colgate (Kristina Coia). As they utilized some creative hijinks to win the challenge, both men found themselves falling in love with her.

I’ll avoid giving away spoilers. I will note that the script contained outstanding use of foreshadowing. Author Jeffrey Lane and lyricist David Yazbek used it with great subtlety, but it all made sense at the story’s conclusion: and what a conclusion! The ending contained plot twists that rivaled the Saw movies finales.

This show gets my Sienkiewicz Award. This honor comes from a line in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: “I wish it had been worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (directed by Ryk Lewis) impressed me that much.

Chris Fitting cemented his reputation as the sharpest dressed man in South Jersey community theatre. There’s only performance I’ve seen where Mr. Fitting didn’t wear either a suit or a tuxedo. It’s refreshing that even in the modern era some people still find it appropriate to dress up for a night at the theatre.

The wardrobe aside Mr. Fitting’s style of performing puts him in a unique class. The aristocratic tone with the hint of a British accent suited his character brilliantly. He also displayed exceptional skill in adding an Austrian accent to it when his character played the doctor from Vienna.

Mr. Fitting executed some complex song and dance numbers flawlessly. I enjoyed his somber rendition of the ballad, “Love Sneaks In.” Through this tune he added an unexpected dimension to the con-man’s personality. He performed this adjustment in a believable manner.

Syd Maycock possesses a genius for comedy. His befuddled facial expressions while Ms. Koia sang “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True” were just as superb as her singing. He made it obvious he couldn’t believe the things she said. When she prodded him to continue the song, he stumbled over lyrics like he was hearing them for the first time.

When trying to deceive Ms. Coia’s character into giving him the money Mr. Maycock utilized a tender voice of his own. The way he exaggerated it made the inflection hysterical.

His best number occurred when he performed “Great Big Stuff.” Ryk Lewis’ choreography turned it into an awesome song and dance routine with the ensemble. After a performance like this some great big stuff is in store for Mr. Maycock.

Kristina Coia wins the first ever Sienkiewicz Award for Best Actress. Ms. Coia pulled off the most ingenious character transformation I’ve ever seen, heard or read. I won’t give it away as it would ruin the experience for those unfamiliar with the story. Ms. Coia enacted the change in a way that will still surprise audiences.

Aside from revolutionizing the concept of character transformations, Ms. Coia also displayed exceptional vocal capability. She selected the proper voice to sing her character’s songs. Ms. Coia’s soft, tender vocals worked very well on numbers such as “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True.”

These three thespians complimented each other wonderfully. The “Ruffhousin’ Mit Shuffhausen” made for the show’s highpoint. Mr. Fitting attempted to win the bet by forcing Mr. Maycock to admit he could feel below his waist. Mr. Fitting made this effort while singing, dancing and hitting him on the thighs with a cane. Mr. Maycock’s expressions and strained denials were impeccable. Ms. Coia’s concern and naïveté added the perfect enhancement to the scene.

I’m familiar with Gina Petti’s skill as a dancer. Ms. Petti displayed it often in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I’d never heard the performer’s singing skills. The show provided the opportunity. As Muriel Ms. Petti performed lovely renditions of “What Was a Woman to Do” and the “Like Zis/Like Zat” reprise.

Kacper Miklus delivered and sang his lines in a perfect French accent. He joined Ms. Petti for the duet “Like Zis/Like Zat” and crooned the solo “Chimp in a Suit.” He got laughs trying to play the suave suitor to Ms. Petti while struggling to ignite a cigarette with an empty lighter.

Jennifer Gordon choreographed the “Oklahoma?” routine. This one combined elaborate dancing with comedy. Lauren Elizabeth led the ensemble through one rockin’ hoedown.

I would also credit performers Mary Simrin, Julieann Calabrese, Tony Yates, Sarah Blake, Jen Stefan, Rebecca Dilks, Sheila M. Haswell, Andrea Veneziano, Briant Lopez, Ryan Fanelli, and Robert Haggerty for their contributions to the performance.

I had some minor issues with the script. The show broke fourth wall a few times. Most notably when Jolene informed Lawrence that she arranged their wedding, he asked, “Did I miss a scene?”

I also couldn’t tell when the story occurred. The script contained references to Bob Guccione, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump; the latter because of his wealth. As the movie of the same name released in 1988, I figured it took place during the 1980s. Then Lawrence made a joke alluding to George W. Bush. I found this inconsistent.

In the “Give Them What They Want” number, Lawrence added, “then you leave them wanting more.” The cast and crew of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels did just that. The same song borrowed a line from John Keats’ Endymion:  “Truth is beauty.” It may be, but it’s not as beautiful as this performance. If you don’t believe me you have until August 3rd to determine for yourself.

 

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Blood Brothers at Collingswood Community Theatre

There’s an old superstition that people who miss the Collingswood Community Theatre’s summer show will experience a dull theatrical season. Perhaps playing to that myth the company staged a show that gave it credence.

Those who’ve ever put their shoes on the table will reconsider after seeing Blood Brothers. Those contemplating handing over a newborn twin to a bitter psychopathic woman and then reneging on a promise not to tell the children they are brothers will rethink that decision; to the extent that’s something anyone is actually considering doing. After making sure I avoided black cats in my path, being careful not to walk under any ladders and brushing my teeth to avoid so-called ‘cavities,’ I entered the theatre for the closing performance. It occurred in the Grand Ballroom at the Scottish Rite Theatre on June 29th. Kerry Mahoney directed.

Blood Brothers presented an unusual story line for depicting class divisions in modern Britain. Mrs. Johnstone (played by Lisa Kain Marcelli) and Mrs. Lyons (Faith Charlton) each experienced child bearing issues. The latter couldn’t conceive and her husband (Matt Griffin) refused to adopt. The former was on pace to produce enough progeny to rival the descendants of Abraham.

Mrs. Johnstone struggled with finances and found herself working as housekeeper for the affluent Mrs. Lyons. A doctor informed Mrs. Johnstone that she carried twins. While financially prepared for another child, she couldn’t handle two. The women came up with a solution for both their troubles.

They made a pact that Mrs. Lyons would raise one of the children as her own. As part of this agreement, they would never inform the children they were twins. Mrs. Lyons told of a superstition that separated twins would die if they discovered the truth. To persuade Mrs. Johnstone to agree with the arrangement, Mrs. Lyons explained that since she employed the mom-to-be, she’d get to see her child every day. What a great idea! Everyone wins, right?

No so. It turned out that Mrs. Lyons possessed a malicious and unstable personality. She believed Mrs. Johnstone too fawning over “her” son and decided to fire her. Problem solved. Not for long.

Years later Mrs. Johnstone’s seven year old son Mickey (Brian Kain) made a new friend at the park. Upon discovering that he and Eddie (Ryan Adams) shared the same birthday, they connected. They cemented the friendship by becoming “blood brothers.” Both mothers ended the relationship when they discovered that Eddie and Mickey were the Johnstone twins.

This time Mrs. Lyons opted for a more permanent solution. She talked her husband into moving the family to “the country.” This worked as well as her previous remedy. Seven years later the Lyons family moved into the same area as part of a British government housing program. Mikey and Eddie reconnected. With the passage of time, Mikey’s working class financial struggles and Eddie’s affluent background strained their friendship. Then both fell in love with the same woman, Linda. (Stef Bucholski)

Tears flowed both on and off the stage at the show’s conclusion.

It’s difficult to find the right superlatives to describe Lisa Kain Marcelli’s performance. She played the role to perfection. The performer sang an incredible rendition of the catchy “Marilyn Monroe” trilogy. I wished someone recorded it. Ms. Marcelli and the orchestra, led by Zach Wisely, played the song much better than the London cast’s version. With all the reverb on that one, it sounded like they performed it in the Grand Canyon.

Ms. Marcelli always displayed the proper facial expressions to convey her character’s emotions; and Mrs. Johnstone experienced a range of them. The performer showed despair when she gave up one of her children. She played the scene where she gave Eddie a locket with great tenderness. I also enjoyed her transition from nostalgia to sadness during the “Marilyn Monroe” numbers.

Ms. Marcelli impressed the most at the end of the show. She managed to croon “Tell Me It’s Not True” while crying, singing in an English accent and staying in key. That performance will stay with me.

Chris Fitting played the Narrator. Readers of this blog are familiar with my objection to making “The Narrator” a character in a live performance. After all I’m watching it. I don’t feel the need for someone to tell me what I already know I’m seeing. This time I will credit playwright Willy Russell for his creativity with the role. He made his Narrator a tuxedo clad Rod Serling figure who spoke in the syntax of Dr. Seuss. What a combination!

Mr. Fitting expressed the rhyming couplets perfectly. He spoke clearly using the right rhythm and without stumbling over the words. I also enjoyed the minatory delivery method he employed. Through sheer skill Mr. Fitting shaped “The Narrator” into the most unique character I’ve watched performed on stage.

Blood Brothers marked the first time I’ve heard a real Heavy Metal song in a musical’s soundtrack. Mr. Fitting belted out “The Devil’s Got Your Number” like a man possessed. He nailed the feel of the song while capturing the character’s essence at the same time. Bravo.

Faith Charlton possesses a gift for accents. I enjoyed the one she chose for Mrs. Lyons. It sounded like that of an upper class British woman with a hint of madness to it. It suited the role brilliantly.

Ms. Charlton also has a wonderful singing voice. She delivered a beautiful version of “My Child” along with Ms. Marcelli.

As extraordinary as her vocal skills are Ms. Charlton can communicate even more effectively with a look. During one scene she walked to the front row and sat with the audience. She glared at Ms. Marcelli with a blank look that expressed seething rage. She horrified me. Ms. Charlton made it clear that something bad was about to happen to the person on the other end of that stare.

Brian Kain, Ryan Adams and Stef Bucholski played very challenging roles. During the course of the show, their characters took the stage as seven, 14 and 18 year olds. Their renditions of the seven year olds impressed me the most. All three performers jumped about the stage and spoke in higher pitched voices just like children.

The three characters changed as they grew up. Mr. Kain became angry, drug addicted and desperate. Ms. Bucholski transitioned from a care-free young lady into a pregnant woman struggling through a failing marriage. Mr. Adams turned into a well-adjusted, successful professional.

These performers showed excellent chemistry working together. They brought out how the characters’ childhood friendships developed into a devastating love triangle. They made that progression credible.

Mr. Kain and Mr. Adams teamed up for some terrific duets with the numbers “Long Sunday Afternoon/My Friend” and “That Guy.” As the project’s vocal director Mr. Kain led by example with some excellent singing of his own. While I’ve called him “the King of the F Clef” for his superb bass vocals Mr. Adams continues to impress with his skill in the higher registers, too.

I have to admit it disappointed me that Ms. Bucholski didn’t get to sing any solo numbers in this show. With the way the story developed I figured a song about her character’s travails would’ve been perfect for her soulful singing style. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to hear her sing in a near future production.

The performance featured a remarkable ensemble. I’d also like to compliment Matt Griffin, Ryan Piccone, Olivia Marcelli, Adam Nicely, Ian McGowan, Caitlin Halligan, Ryann Burke, Kara Hastings, Emily Jackson, Neil Wettstein, Lindsay Wettstein and Tom Geigel for their work in the show.

I did have one issue with the sound. The drums sounded too loud on occasion. While many purists prefer real drums to the electronic variety, it’s much easier to control the volume of the latter. At times I thought the performers struggled to broadcast over them.

I’d praise Mary Baldwin for the light design, Sarah Baldwin for her work on the light board, and Leah Marcelli and Katie Cotter for their use of the spotlights. They enhanced the story by adding a chilling effect.

The Collingswood Community Theatre troupe presented an ode to superstition that would’ve made both Stevie Wonder and Jeff Beck proud. I have to admit that I was among those who shed tears at the show’s conclusion. It wasn’t because of the story, though. I realized it’s going to be another year until we get to experience a stellar production from them in the Grand Ballroom at the Scottish Rite. Based on the group’s history I know theatregoers won’t have to rub their lucky rabbits’ feet for that to happen.

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.

 

Theatre Review – The Producers at Collingswood Community Theatre

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented an evening of politically incorrect statements, myriad references to unscrupulous business practices along with a host of crass comments objectifying women. This took place on January 14th of this year, so, no, they did not host a 2016 Presidential Debate. Instead, they staged a spectacle intentionally meant to be comical. Under Mary Baldwin’s direction, they staged Mel Brooks’ irreverent take on the theatre business The Producers.

The musical told the story of Max Bialystock (played by CJ Kish). Once a producer of legendary Broadway shows, his recent work “flopped.” More complications ensued when accountant Leo Bloom (played by Chris Fitting) audited his books. Upon discovering Max stole two thousand dollars from the production, he observed that, “under the right conditions, a producer can make more money with a flop than with a hit.” Max’s extraordinary cajoling convinced this self-described “nobody” to become his partner and aid in producing a theatrical disaster; thus providing Leo with the vehicle to pursue his ambition to become a Broadway producer. Then the real hijinks commenced.

In their quest to find the “worst script” the pair optioned Springtime for Hitler: an encomium written by Franz (Tyler Cunnion), an erstwhile Nazi turned pigeon keeper. Then they sought out the “worst director” in New York. Initially reluctant, Roger De Bris (played by Ryan Adams), after some encouragement from his “common law assistant” Carmer Ghia (Jeff Mc Grail), agreed to direct the show; so long as he could “Keep it Gay.” Max proceeded to pursue his main means of raising money: seducing old lady “investors.”

To add to the scheme’s complications, a lovely young Swedish woman with the long first name of Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden (played by April Lindley) entered Max’s and Leo’s lives. Longing to audition for the show she stayed on as the duo’s housekeeper until presented the opportunity. Her presence and romantic interest in Leo led to complications in the producers’ partnership.

CJ Kish turned in a transcendent performance as Max; a very challenging role. It required singing, dancing and delivering comedic chops. Mr. Kish delivered a stellar performance in all three areas. His rendition made an unscrupulous and despicable character funny and likable. Through his moving recitation of “Till Him” he even inspired empathy for Max.

Mr. Kish brought unparalleled enthusiasm to his performance. I attended the second show CCT presented on Saturday. The energy he displayed on stage reflected that of someone just back from vacation. During the “Betrayed” number, he summarized the entire musical to that point, even acting out highlights from various scenes. That took a lot of skill, especially at the end of the night. He seemed as fired-up then as he did at the evening’s beginning.

As Leo, Chris Fitting played the role of a “nobody” evolving into a “somebody” very well. He convincingly brought to life a dull accountant with an unorthodox nervous tick. When anxious this bean counter would remove a blue baby blanket and rub his face with it. (And some people think actors have strange habits.) His performance worked as a great contrast with both Mr. Kish and Leo’s love interest, the alluring Ulla. (April Lindley) He also performed an outstanding song and dance number with the ensemble on “I Wanna Be a Producer.”

Ms. Lindley and Mr. Adams deserve great credit for both singing and dancing in heels. On a personal note, I struggle to walk right for a few days after buying new loafers. I can’t imagine the challenge of navigating a stage during a routine while wearing elevated shoes.

In terms of Mr. Brooks’ show itself, I didn’t like that it broke the “fourth wall” several times. When Max and Leo asked Ulla when she’d cleaned the office she replied, “Intermission.” Shortly after, she asked Leo why he walked so far “stage right.” During the “Betrayal” number, Max mentioned that “it’s a long show.”

I can, however, appreciate that Mr. Brooks likes poking fun at many subjects. I do have to commend including his own work among them.

I also discovered a few typos in the playbill. Both Mr. Kish’s and Mr. McGrail’s bios got cut off in my version. Performers memorize pages of text and spend countless hours rehearsing musical dance numbers. They exhibit their craft in a medium that allows them one chance to “get it right.” And many do this several times a year in multiple productions. These people aren’t like the rest of us. I’m always interested in learning about the kind of people with the courage and inspiration to do this. I would’ve liked to read their full comments.

In addition to the great performances Collingswood Community Theatre treated the audience to a fantastic multi-media spectacle. Brian Cain did an outstanding job as musical director. Kate Scharff crafted complex choreography with a large ensemble. Chuck Jackson’s set construction provided theatregoers with a true sense of being in the actual locations where the action occurred.

The Producers opened with a fictitious audience leaving the theatre grumbling about the poor quality of Max Bialystock’s show. No one did that for this Collingswood Community Theatre production. This cast and crew sure took Ulla’s musical advice “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” in terms of their skills during this performance.

For the finale the entire ensemble gathered on stage and sang a number called “Goodbye.” In it they instructed the audience to leave. It’s good they did. With their superb rendition of this Mel Brooks musical I’m sure people would’ve hung around waiting for an encore…even if Max produced it.