Chris McGinnis

The Who’s Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players

No company can celebrate an anniversary like Hadonfield Plays and Players.

A half century ago on this February 14th four lads from Shepherd’s Bush London performed a concert to promote their latest release: a “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb and blind boy with a skill at playing pinball. That Valentine’s Day gig from 1970 has been immortalized by the iconic recording Live at Leeds.

Tommy extended the artistic boundaries of Rock and Roll music upon its release in 1969. Then the record’s “amazing journey” continued. In 1975, The Who decided to “join together” with director Ken Russell to “relay” it to the silver screen. Taking his own advice never to “spend his guitar or pen,” Pete Townshend (and Des McAnuff) adapted Tommy into a musical in 1992.

Adding to the concept’s “success story,” Haddonfield Plays and Players opened their 2020 season with The Who’s Tommy. Your correspondent attended this “welcome” addition to the company’s repertoire on January 31st. HPP didn’t have to “bargain” with him to do so, either.

Bill C. Fikaris proved himself a “sensation” through his direction of this show. Along with Music Director Arlo Ehly, Musical Conductor Alex Ayala and Choreographer Chris McGinnis, the team at HPP injected the spirit of Pete Townshend’s masterpiece into the performance. They presented a high energy show with a lot of movement. Can one imagine anything based on The Who’s music without it?

The Who’s fans can now claim their favorite group capable of producing a high-tech visual spectacle on par with a Pink Floyd show. The design and special effects brought the audience into the world of the story. Chris Miller’s lighting strips positioned at the four corners of the stage added a unique style of illumination to the set. Sound and Projection Designer Pat DeFusco produced stellar visuals. They simulated London flats, an RAF airfield and neon arcade signs. Set designers Ed Ortiz and Glenn Funkhouser painted a Union Jack on the stage floor. The ubiquitous smoke gave the show the aura of a rock concert.

The ambiance was vintage Who. It would have made Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle and Keith Moon proud. Its authenticity made your correspondent wary of getting hit by shrapnel from smashed guitars and exploding drum kits.

In addition to his musical genius, Mr. Townshend showed creativity at crafting memorable characters. Mr. Fikaris selected gifted performers to bring them to the stage.

The show featured three incarnations of Tommy. Wesley Halloway played the four year old version, Nicky Intrieri performed the 10 year old one and Dennis Summerville took on the role of adult Tommy. All three Tommys sang the high-pitched melody from the “See Me, Feel Me” number. Their vocals sounded cleaner and more professional than those on the original 1969 album.

Mr. Fikaris utilized these performers effectively during the mirror scenes. While one Tommy stared into the looking glass, a different one gazed back. It made for one of the show’s most spectacular visuals.

Mr. Summerville played an outstanding Tommy. He enacted all of Tommy’s personality traits with equal skill. The performer stood still with a blank stare while either in front of the mirror or playing pinball. Mr. Summerville became enthusiastic following Tommy’s moment of realization. He accompanied it with a stirring rendition of “Welcome.” His impassioned vocals captured the essence of “I’m Free” after Mrs. Walker (Shaina Egan) smashed the mirror.

Listening to theatrical vocalists sing Rock and Roll songs is always entertaining. Mr. Summerville made it more of a pleasure than usual. He belted out powerful vocals on the heavier songs such as “Pinball Wizard” and “Sensation.” His soft falsetto on “See Me, Feel Me” articulated the character’s sensitive side.

Justin Walsh played Tommy’s father, Captain Walker. Mr. Walsh’s face held the look of a concerned parent all evening. During the “Acid Queen” and “Hawker” numbers, he showed the nuance between an expression of anxiety and one of repulsion. Mr. Walsh modulated the character’s outlook by singing “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found” with an optimistic tone. He also showed professional acting ability during the altercation between the Lover (played by Keian Hagstrom) and he.

Shaina Egan performed a superior Mrs. Walker. Ms. Egan adopted a very natural sounding British accent for the role. Her expressive facial movements showed the character’s inner turmoil regarding her son’s condition. Her vocals captured the upbeat sentiments of “Twenty-One” and “It’s a Boy” with sincerity. Ms. Egan expressed Mrs. Walker’s frustration through her rendition of “Smash the Mirror.” Her Townshendesqe swinging motion of the chair added a nice touch.

Gary Werner played the lovable lush Uncle Ernie. Mr. Werner added humor to the show during his “Fiddle About” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” numbers. The performer added a slight slur to his voice. Mr. Werner did so in a clever way. One could understand his character drank. He still expressed the lyrics so that the audience could understand them.

“Acid Queen” would make the list of Tommy’s best numbers. Legends Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle even sang it with The Who. While an intimidating song to attempt, Joyel Crawford met the challenge. Ms. Crawford gave the song the sultry, soulful treatment it warranted.

Jerrod Ganesh performed the role of the sadistic Cousin Kevin. Mr. Ganesh’s vicious vocals and quick movements demonstrated he character’s malicious nature. He applied the cigarette prop for maximum effect.

Courtney Bundens portrayed Sally Simpson. With a pining look from “behind blue eyes” Ms. Bundens showed her character’s infatuation with Tommy. The performer’s vocals on “Sally Simpson” and “Sally’s Question” made the character even more likable.

Tommy even included a number written by a legendary bluesman. As the huckster Hawker, Keian Hagstrom sang Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Eyesight to the Blind.” In this sequence, performer Faith McCleery portrayed the harmonica player. Ms. McCleery made her character even more interesting than the Marilyn Monroe icon in the movie version of Tommy.

Tommy contained mesmerizing dance sequences. “Pinball Wizard”, “Acid Queen” and “Miracle Cure” featured spectacular routines. Dance Captain Nicole Lukaitis set a stellar example for the ensemble. The Lads and Lasses executed elaborate moves all evening.

In addition to some different lyrics and arrangements, Mr. Townshend added a “new song” to the musical version of Tommy. This refreshing inclusion of something different made the musical more appealing. Justin Walsh and Shaina Egan delivered a beautiful duet on “I Believe My Own Eyes.”

Other members of the Production Team included: Producer Tami Funkhouser, Stage Manager Omi Parrilla-Dunne, Set Builder Glen Funkhouser, Set Construction/Sound Engineer Kalman Dunne, Costume Designer Renee McCleery, Costume Assistant Brennan Diorio, and Properties Nicole DeRosa Lukaitis and Tami Funkhouser.

The following performers completed the cast: Audrey DiEnno, Jaime Weingard, Jonathan Greenstein, Jake Van Horn, Jake Hufner, Gia Lukatis and Gianna Leonen.

Who fans who would go “anyway, anyhow, anywhere” to experience the band’s music would be well served to go to Haddonfield Plays and Players this February. The opportunity is also a “bargain” for fans of community theatre in South Jersey. Hop in your “magic bus” and head over to the playhouse. “The song is over” this February 15th. So is this run of Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

 

Theatre Review – Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I’m not in the habit of reviewing musicals like Sister Act. Nevertheless, I had faith that Haddonfield Plays and Players with the aid of director/choreographer Chris McGinnis, musical director Robert Stoop and the rest of the cast and crew would put on a good show. Hallelujah! Now I have to testify that when it comes to musicals: there’s ‘nun’ like it. I rejoiced after watching the February 4, 2017 performance.

Sister Act told the story of aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier. (Paige Smallwood) On Christmas Eve of 1977 she witnessed her gangster boyfriend murder someone. Fearing for her safety, she sought help from the Philadelphia PD. The officer with whom she spoke, a man with the clammy nickname “Sweaty Eddie”, (Terrance Hart) happened to be someone from her past. In fact, he had a crush on her in high school. In order to hide Deloris before the court date, he opted to place her in the one location the thugs would never suspect: a convent. In addition to worrying about the criminals, Deloris now contended with an austere Mother Superior (Tami Gordon Brody) and living a lifestyle antithetical to her usual one. The nuns had a choir, but that didn’t ameliorate the situation. To be as polite as possible: it didn’t perform at Deloris’ musical level. Think Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz without the musicians playing in the same key.

Paige Smallwood delivered a spectacular performance; and it started the moment she took the stage. The “Take Me to Heaven” number fused funk, soul and disco. She, (accompanied by performers Amanda Barrish and Dana Masterman), delivered a high energy rendition that drew me into the show. After getting my attention, she did an outstanding job keeping it. The stellar moments kept coming; culminating with her emotional singing of “Sister Act.” When not taking soul singing to another level, she got laughs through her perfect comedic timing. One also has to credit the great tap number she performed with the ensemble, as well.

Terrance Hart sang one of the most challenging numbers in the show. The melody on “I Could Be that Guy” stretched from bass to alto. (And I thought Motown songs challenged vocal ranges.) But this “Sweaty Eddie” didn’t sweat it. Mr. Hart hit Larry Grahm territory with the lower registers and would’ve impressed Smokey Robinson the way he nailed the higher notes.

Then Mr. Hart took the Motown adage: “the rhythm needs to move your feet and the lyrics need to stir your soul” literally. He and the ensemble accompanied this soulful ballad with a superb dance number. I credit him for not getting distracted by the numerous costume changes while performing.

I’ve watched Tami Gordon Brody display her acting talents in several shows at Haddonfield Plays and Players. In Sister Act I finally had the opportunity to hear her vocal prowess. The Mother Superior character possessed an unemotional disposition. The “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” number served as a catharsis for her inner turmoil. Ms. Gordon Brody channeled the character’s feelings exceptionally well through her delivery.

Both Ms. Gordon Brody and Ms. Smallwood played off each other extraordinarily well. The former served as the passionless character; always speaking and moving in a measured fashion. The latter behaved as a free spirit lacking inhibitions. Their scenes together made for some amusing personality clashes.

I also enjoyed Kelsey Hogan’s performance as Sister Mary Robert. Among this exceptionally talented group of performers, she displayed the best acting ability. In the show’s early phases, she spoke in a soft voice reflecting the character’s timid nature. I could still understand her words, so I credit her for still talking loud enough to hear. During “The Life I Never Led” she belted out a high note that nearly made the building rattle. Ms. Hogan projected the tune with confidence and authority. The delivery concretized the character’s development through the course of the evening.

Billed as a musical comedy, the show contained some humorous numbers, as well. Phyllis Josephson drew laughs by adorning a pair of sunglasses and becoming a rapping nun. I also found the “It’s Good to Be a Nun” track (performed by Karen Henry, Mary Corradino, Lori Clark and the ensemble) quite witty. The bass line made it sound like a country song. It really stood out in a musical comprised of soulful tunes.

The funniest moments of the show occurred when the hoodlums played by Eric Acierto, Michael Melvin, and Carlos Diaz (also the Dance Captain) took the stage. In essence, they applied the Keystone Cops premise to bad guys. These players accompanied Curtis on the “When I Find My Baby” number. Mr. Melvin took the lead on the sultry “Lady in the Long Black Dress” track. Listening to these performers sing and watching them dance more than justified the cost of admission.

I have to give Mr. Melvin credit. About a year-and-a-half ago I heard him sing gospel and soulful style music in Bonnie and Clyde. I already knew he had a talent for Rhythm and Blues. I never would’ve suspected he had such funky dance chops in his repertoire, too.

As the character of Monsignor O’Hara, Charles L. Bandler played the one role in the show that lacked any rhythm whatsoever. He used this to fantastic humorous effect. His high pitched giggling made the character even more comical.

I also credit Taylor Brody, Kristine Bonaventura, Breyona Coleman and Brooke McCarthy for their work in the ensemble. They rounded out the cast very well.

I had two issues with Sister Act. The first entailed a reference to the Smurfs. The action took place between 1977 and 1978. While the Smurfs debuted in Europe during the late 1950s, the popular animated series didn’t premiere in the US until 1981. I thought the reference historically inaccurate.

Also, who was the performer who played Curtis? I found him very funny. His use of a lollypop added great comedic effect for a street tough. His vocals on “When I Find My Baby” brought out a lot of laughs, too.

I didn’t see his head shot on the board. The character of “Curtis” wasn’t listed in either the playbill or on the company’s web site. I wondered if, like the protagonist in the show, he wasn’t hiding out from someone.

Seriously though, the gentleman played a great role. He deserves to be acknowledged.

I had a revelation this weekend. It’s gospel truth that the audience experienced a heavenly evening watching Sister Act. Fortunately for theatregoers, I didn’t attend the ‘soul’ performance. For those who would like the opportunity to see it at Haddonfield Plays and Players, their prayers will be answered. Barring some kind of divine intervention, the show will run through February 18th. Can I get an “Amen” to that?