Chuck Jackson

Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters

“Is it better to hope or to know?” Jimmy Ray (played by DJ Hedgepath) asked.

When Burlington County Footlighters announced their 2018 – 2019 season, Darryl Thompson, Jr. issued a statement via Facebook. Mr. Thompson lamented that he had to wait a year to bring Bright Star to the stage. With over 12 months to plan, organize and prepare this show, was he better off “hoping” audiences would remember it as a spectacular piece or is he now better for “knowing” the answer? I discovered for myself when I attended the opening night performance on May 3rd.

Legendary performer Steve Martin wrote the book and Edie Brickell composed Bright Star’s music. Critics heralded this show. It received myriad award nominations including one for a Grammy. It won the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score and the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Musical. To bring a show of this caliber to the Footlighters stage, Mr. Thompson utilized that year of preparation very effectively.

Bright Star contained a very rare combination of theatrical elements. It featured excellent choreography, catchy Bluegrass musical numbers and an extraordinary story. As Alice (played by Caitlin Alvarez) sang in the opening number:

If you knew my story

You’d have a good story to tell.

The show contained two alternating plot lines. One followed the star crossed love affair between Alice (Caitlyn Alvarez) and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (DJ Hedgepath). The second showed aspiring writer Billy Cane (Robert Stoop) in his pursuit of Margo (Rachel Comenzo) while trying to get published in the Ashville Southern Journal. The latter became the harder challenge. The journal’s editor read new writers with fastidious discernment. This portion of the story occurred twenty years after the first. An older Alice worked as the journal’s editor.

It shows Steve Martin’s brilliance in that he managed to make the life of a writer sound interesting.

Mr. Thompson selected many Footlighters legends as cast members. However, he selected a newcomer to the company’s stage for the lead role. Caitlyn Alvarez earned her place among performers such as DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Star-Renbjor.

Ms. Alvarez’s character appeared in two different incarnations. In one story line, Alice was both the “black sheep” of her family and a love struck teenager. In the other her character became an unemotional, jaded professional more comfortable with texts than with people. Ms. Alvarez animated both aspects of Alice’s personality with equal dexterity.

Ms. Alvarez also possesses a beautiful voice. She opened the show with a wonderful performance of “If You Knew My Story.” Her duets with Mr. Hedgepath on “Whoa, Mama”, “What Could Be Better” and “I Can’t Wait” expressed the hopeful optimism of youth beautifully.

Even allowing for the high standards audiences have for Mr. Hedgepath’s work, he still managed to exceed them. One has to credit him and Ms. Alvarez for their chemistry. That’s quite an achievement for two people working together for the first time.

Several years ago DJ Hedgepath’s mother commented on one of my reviews. She expressed her pride in her son. The way I praised his abilities in my article made her cry. I replied that Mr. Hedgepath is an immensely talented actor. I suggested she start stockpiling boxes of tissues.

I’m not sure whether or not Mrs. Hedgepath accepted my advice. If she did, I’d ask that she donate some of those boxes to Burlington County Footlighters for this run of Bright Star.

Mr. Hedgepath delivered his strongest vocal performance to date in the form of “Heartbreaker.” Through his emotive signing he made an affecting scene even more intense. He and Ms. Alvarez performed a duet on “I Had a Vision” that was even more moving. Mr. Hedgepath’s performance made the audience experience the same emotions as his character. That’s genius.

In the role of Billy, Robert Stoop delivered a stellar version of the show’s title track. In addition, Mr. Stoop had a witty interaction with Ms. Alvarez. He handed her a letter claiming that author Thomas Wolfe wrote a letter praising his writing. Using a monotone voice, Ms. Alvarez informed him that Mr. Wolfe passed away several years prior.

Mr. Stoop also performed an excellent number with Nicholas French (as Daddy Cane). The two sang a banjo accompanied funeral dirge for Billy’s mother with the somber “She’s Gone.”

In the playbill, Rachel Comenzo thanked Mr. Thompson for “the opportunity to sing again.” Audiences should express their appreciation to the director, as well. Ms. Comenzo proved herself quite the country crooner with her rendition of “Asheville.” She accompanied Mr. Stoop on a wonderful duet of “Always Will.”

Ms. Comenzo has that rare gift where she truly becomes the characters she plays. In her performance as Margo she always found the proper facial expressions to accentuate the scene. Her subtle wincing whenever Max (Christian DeCola) expressed his interest made their interaction more engaging.

Fans know Burlington County Footlighters for the comedy team of Al Krier and Dan Brothers. Performers Stephen Jackson and Alex Davis showed they may be the next great comedy team to originate from that company. The two provided a much needed catharsis to the intense drama that occurred in the show. In addition to their humorous interactions, they performed a catchy song and dance number with Mr. Stoop on “Another Round.”

Audrey DiEnno-Lacroce coordinated spectacular choreography. Several numbers involved the ensemble. The cast executed the intricate maneuvers well. Their skill made an entertaining performance into an awesome one.

Thomas Stone played the villain, Mayor Dobbs. He personified Larouchefoucault’s admonition that: “the evil wouldn’t be so dangerous if it weren’t for the good in them.” Mr. Stone’s character wanted his son, Jimmy Ray, to live a rewarding life. He erred by pursuing that end with unrestrained cruelty. Mr. Stone expressed that sentiment through his excellent rendition of the “A Man’s Gotta Do” reprise. His baritone repetition of the line “a man must protect his family” made it ominous. This brings me to my one criticism of the show.

When Mr. Stone took his curtain call I heard hissing from the audience. Folks: MR. STONE IS A GIFTED ACTOR. HE PLAYED THE ROLE AS WRITTEN BY THE PLAYWRIGHT. HE DID A SUPERB JOB OF IT.

Please do not confuse performers with the characters they play. In that sense, Mr. Stone should take pride in the fact audience members found his performance as Mayor Stone so authentic.

The following performers rounded out the cast: John Romano, Jillian Star-Renbjor, Matt Maerten, Tony Flores, Becky Crunk, Ally Masson, Rachel Ricci, Audrey DiEnno, Lena Dougherty, Shaina Eagan, Gabrielle Hansson, Mark Henley, Riley Rancani, Mackenzie Smith, and Luke Szyskiewicz. Michelle Foster served as Musical Director and Chuck Jackson designed the set.

Ms. Davis’ character described the task of a writer as: “to drink alcohol and feel sorry for yourself.” After watching Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters, theatre critics will struggle to follow that follow that advice; at least the second part of it. Mr. Thompson and his team receive this critic’s praise for giving this phenomenal show the presentation it deserved. We can all drink to that.

Bright Star will shine at Burlington County Footlighters until May 18th.

 

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.