CJ Kish

Avenue Q at Collingswood Community Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disney’s Mary Poppins at the Ritz Theatre Company

Yet again the Ritz Theatre Company is bringing the magic of Disney to the South Jersey Area. This summer they’re mesmerizing audiences with Mary Poppins. This piece, directed and choreographed by Brian Rivell, contains something that would appeal to just about anyone. It features elaborate special effects, unbelievable dance sequences and some stellar performances. I witnessed the spectacle for myself on July 20th.

The Banks family had problems. An emotionally distant man George (played by Paul McElwee) devoted himself to making money. Winifred (Jenna Lubis) harbored doubts about sacrificing her acting career to marry him. Their two children (played by Cassidy Scherz and Colin Rivell) behaved unruly. To show the extent of their issues, they’d been through more nannies than the Trump Administration has been through National Security Advisers….and Communications Directors…and Secretaries of State. Enter Mary Poppins (played by Martha Marie Wasser) to fix this mess.

This show contained extraordinary special effects. Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish floated through the air. An overturned table moved right-side up after Ms. Wasser waved her hand. Broken shelves fixed themselves following the same motion. The Ritz Theatre presented one enchanted production. Well-earned kudos goes out to Technical Director William Bryant.

The lighting made the performance a visual delight. The panels on both sides of the stage illuminated. The London backdrop took on different hues throughout the evening. Stars projected on the backs of the seats prior to the “Anything Goes” number. The display brought the audience into the show. Light Board Operator Casey Clark also gets well deserved praise for the spectacle.

Mary Poppins contained sophisticated and intricate dance routines. Brian Rivell coordinated awesome choreography. The cast did a superb job executing it. How to pick a favorite? I would suggest “Step in Time”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Anything Can Happen” as the strongest contenders for that title. However, if I wrote down all the routines on separate pieces of paper, placed them in a hat and drew one at random it wouldn’t be difficult to make an argument for that one being the best.

CJ Kish (as Bert) always performs with great passion and energy. At times it seems like he’s flying around the stage. In Mary Poppins he did so literally. Mr. Kish performed one sequence in which he executed flips in mid-air and hopped about as though dancing atop chimney brushes.

This show is a “must see” for Mr. Kish’s fans. I found the title of one of his musical number “Twists and Turns” very appropriate. He performed the best dance routines I’ve seen him do. He’s such a talented actor and vocalist (as evidenced by “Chim Chim Cher-eee”) that I hadn’t realized the extent of his dancing ability.

Martha Marie Wasser’s performance wasn’t “practically perfect”: Ms. Wasser turned in a flawless rendition of everyone’s favorite nanny. I always credit performers who can dance in heels. Ms. Wasser had some tricky numbers in which to do so. In “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” the tempo changed several times. She and cast executed the routine seamlessly and while singing.

Ms. Wasser adopted all the mannerisms of the title character. From the way she held her umbrella, to her calm manner of speech and through the posture she adopted while floating through the air Ms. Wasser transformed herself into the real Mary Poppins.

I’d also compliment Ms. Wasser on her singing ability. The show contained a number of Disney classics. Ms. Wasser made them her own. “Practically Perfect” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” stood out as the most beautiful.

The Banks family sure had its problems. They didn’t prevent the performers playing them from displaying their own vocal prowess. The four performed well together as a group on “Cherry Tree Lane” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Paul McElwee (as George) delivered a moving rendition of “Good for Nothing.” Jenna Lubas (as Winifred) sang an incredible version of “Being Mrs. Banks.”

In addition to their scenes with Mr. McElwee and Ms. Lubas, Cassidy Scherz (Jane) Colin Rivell (Michael) got to share the stage with Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish. They displayed great chemistry working together on numbers such as “Step in Time” and “Practically Perfect.”

My favorite scene occurred during the smackdown between the dueling nannies. Mary Poppins and Miss Andrew (played by Kendra Cancellieri Hecker) confronted one another by using their signature method as a weapon. The former utilized “a spoonful of sugar” and the latter opted for “brimstone and treacle.” It made for a stellar clash enacted by Ms. Wasser and Ms. Hecker. The musical number itself made the audience the real winners of this conflict.

Credit also goes to performers Anne Buckwheat, Darrin Murphy, Kendra Cancelleri Hecker, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Olivia West, Jamie Talamo, Ryann Ferrara, Caleb Tracy, Kyle Ronkin, Darrel Wood, Lindsey Krier, Kelsey Hodgkiss and Leah Senseney. They each contributed to an outstanding ensemble.

Mary Poppins stays on as long as she’s “needed.” The Ritz Theatre Company anticipates that will be until August 5th. Take advantage of that opportunity. The Ritz is being generous. With the superb quality of entertainment I’ve experienced at that company, community theatre fans should feel grateful she’s “needed” there at all. Mary Poppins is another reason why.

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.

 

Theatre Review – Jesus Christ Superstar at Collingswood Theatre Company

As a Catholic school graduate I’ve heard my share of takes on Jesus’ last days. By far the Collingswood Theatre Company presented the funkiest; thanks to the aid of the Superstar Band. On July 21st I had the pleasure of watching (and listening to) director CJ Kish’s interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s 1971 masterpiece Jesus Christ Superstar.

The show utilized the best atmospherics I’ve experienced at a theatrical performance. This one included a fog machine, strobe lights and an extraordinary setting. The spectacle took place in the main ballroom at the Scottish Rite building in Collingswood. A large staircase leading to the balcony descended onto the stage itself. At times the chorus spread out among the upper sections surrounding the seating area. This created an eerie effect with the nature of some of the show’s music. Due to the elaborate choreography by Kate Scharff the cast meandered down the aisles in some of the scenes. Plus, the Superstar Band under Brian Kain’s direction played phenomenal music. Forget the performance: any of these elements alone more than justified the cost of admission.

But one can’t forget the performances. This show included the some outstanding ones along with exceptional singing; and it showcased a lot of the latter. Jesus Christ Superstar began its life as a rock opera before transitioning to the stage. It contained no speaking. The cast sang all the dialogue. After hearing the stellar vocals in this show, it made me glad they did.

DJ Hedgepath turned in the best performance I’ve watched him deliver. That’s quite a statement. I’ve written about him so often that readers have wondered if I’m stalking him. Mr. Hedgepath is one of the more active members of the South Jersey community theatre circuit these days. He’s played a diverse array of roles over the past few years. Make that over the last month. Several weeks ago he played the role of Hal, a PhD candidate in mathematics, in Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of Proof. In this show he played Judas Iscariot. The man has range.

Webber and Rice made the Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar a conflicted man. Their Judas felt that Jesus strayed away from his spiritual message and moved into a political one. He “betrayed” Him in the hopes that authorities would protect Him. In the end, Judas felt betrayed by a divine plan. That’s a pretty complex character for a musical.

Mr. Hedgepath proved himself worthy of the challenge. He gazed at Jesus (played by Mike Reisman) with unvarnished hostility through most of the first act. His ability to maintain the same angry expression that long impressed me. Then he convincingly transitioned into a sobbing, broken man through the second part. Mr. Hedgepath’s aptitude for becoming the character was only exceeded by his vocal prowess.

Mr. Hedgepath possesses a very strong voice. His emphatic delivery of “Heaven on their Minds” drew me into the story from the beginning. He also impressed through singing songs rife with sixteenth notes in such a way I could understand all the lyrics. A tenor he nailed the high notes perfectly, as well.

I may not be able to sympathize with Judas, but I could sure empathize with Mr. Hedgepath. The character proved a very difficult one to play, but this performer met the challenge.

On the subject of challenging roles, Mike Reisman played Jesus. This character also experienced his share of conflicts. The human trait of frustration over the state of his ministry plagued him; as did anxiety over his own death.

Mr. Reisman did a wonderful job getting into character. His shoulder length long hair along with his beard and mustache allowed me to visualize him as Him. Through his stage presence I could identify him as a calm peaceful figure. Just as easily he adjusted his temperament and angrily chasing the merchants out of the Temple. In the most moving scene of the show, he and Mr. Hedgepath touched foreheads and cried together following the betrayal.

Mr. Reisman’s strongest moment occurred during his solo number, “Gethsemane.” He hit a high note that I estimate he held for about ten seconds. While doing so he leaned backwards. Singing’s rough when one uses perfect posture. I give this performer a lot of credit for fulfilling the myriad challenges of this difficult character.

Everyone in this show sang very well. I’d like to specially compliment Stef Bucholski (as Mary Magdalene) for her beautiful voice. I really enjoyed her rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” I also liked Ryan Adams’s (Caiaphas) awesome baritone. Hearing good, strong bass vocals in a theatrical production made my evening.

The show’s short run makes my only criticism of it. The Collingswood Theatre Company’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar only ran for three nights from a Tuesday through a Thursday. Perhaps this is nit-picking on my part, but I would’ve preferred more opportunities to attend.

At the show’s conclusion the woman seated in front of me cried. I doubt that’s because the ending surprised her. It’s a testament to how extraordinary the performance.