D. J. Hedgepath

City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters

I spent a long evening of being mesmerized this May 5th. The excessive amount of talent on stage nearly overwhelmed me when I attended the opening of Burlington County Footlighters presentation of City of Angels. This Daryl S. Thompson, Jr. directed piece contained superb acting, great dancing and extraordinary singing. It also featured performances by several South Jersey Community Theatre legends. DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor all returned to the Footlighters stage. To add to the show’s appeal, Jim Frazer designed the set and Cameron Stringham served as musical director. Mallory Beach and Erica Paloucci handled the choreography.

Well, what else is there to say?  Oh, DJ Hedgepath and Rachel Comenzo once again showed us mortals why we all need to keep our day jobs. This is the easiest review I’ve ever written. Enjoy the rest of your day.

For the benefit of those people who like details, I’ll continue.

The show applied the “story-within-a-story” approach to a musical. It told the tale of screenwriter Stine’s (DJ Hedgepath) quest to write the script for a movie called City of Angels. In the course of doing so, he battled Hollywood producer and director Buddy Fidler’s (Steve Rogina) incessant meddling, he struggled to keep his marriage to Gabby (Rachel Comenzo) together; a feat complicated by his infidelity with Donna (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), and the voice of his protagonist, Stone (John Romano), tussled with him in his head.

In a manner reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, characters from real life ended up in the imagined story. One has to credit the performers who played dual roles during the same evening.

Kaitlyn Delengowski stood out as portraying the two most diverse characters. I really enjoyed the high-pitched squealy voice she selected for the Carla character; quite a departure from that of the haughty, Alaura Kingsley.

As to where the story went after that: your guess is as good as mine. With the Hollywood characters becoming the movie characters, the plot twists in the detective’s quest and Stine’s re-writes, I found it far too complicated to follow. It didn’t matter, though. The fantastic singing and superb performances made for a very enjoyable evening.

The story didn’t possess the same complexity as some of the melodies, however. David Zippel’s lyrics didn’t quite compliment Cy Coleman’s odd musical phrasing, either. They gave the singers a challenge.

Rachel Comenzo delivered a transcendent performance on the intricate “It Needs Work”. Perhaps inspired by her skill, DJ Hedgepath followed it up several tunes later with his stellar rendition of the equally difficult “Funny”.

The musical began with an unconventional and difficult opening to perform. It started as scat singing that transitioned into a barber shop quartet. Performers Stephen Jackson, Matthew Maerten, Emily Huddell and Kori Rife accepted the challenge of hooking the audience with this unusual material. They executed this task brilliantly.

Not many players would volunteer for the opportunity to sing a duet containing sixteenth notes. Fans familiar with them already know that Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor possess exceptional vocal prowess. They showed it with their rendition of “What You Don’t Know about Women.”

DJ Hedgepath and John Romano shared their own dual moment in the spotlight, as well. They delivered an outstanding performance on the “You’re Nothing without Me” number.

The cast delivered outstanding presentations. Mr. Romano tuned in a solid performance as the hard-boiled detective. I enjoyed his interactions with his edgy secretary (Jillian Star-Renbjor), the wealthy wife (Kaitlyn Delengowski) and the gangsters (Wayne Renbjor and the brilliantly comical Tony Flores). Noel McLeer played the missing girl very well, too. This group made me feel like I watched a musical interpretation of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Steve Rogina’s portrayal of the arrogant Hollywood director added a nice element to the story, as well.

Unlike many directors, Darryl Thompson, Jr. chose not to spend the night in the control booth. Instead, he opted to add his own superior vocal talents to the show. I’ve heard him sing bluesy and soulful material in the past. In this production, he showcased his ability to croon jazzy tracks with “Ya Gotta Look Out for Yourself” and the tender ballad “Stay with Me.”

I’d also like to credit Vitaliy Kin’s performance in the roles of Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz. I still remember several years ago hearing him perform Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish in The Wedding Singer. As comical as it was, he sang the tune very well. In this show, he delivered an awesome “All Ya Have to Do is Wait” number featuring a salsa and conga dance.

It thrilled me to hear Rachel Comenzo showcase her vocal talents once again. I watched her perform several non-singing roles last year. Ms. Comenzo’s rendition of “With Every Breath I Take” as nightclub singer, Bobbi, made up for the long wait. Her voice delivered great vibrato, soft inflection and outstanding modulation. I thought the band a little too loud on this number. Without a microphone, she still found a way to deliver soft notes in a manner so the audience could still hear her clearly. I’m still trying to figure out how that was even possible.

While crooning this moving number she also used extraordinary facial expressions toward Mr. Romano’s character. As difficult as this may be to believe, she conveyed Bobbi’s emotions non-verbally so well, that the scene would’ve been just as effective had she been silent.

With the possible exception of Mr. Hedgepath, I’ve never watched a performer get into character as well as Ms. Comenzo. Somehow, she manages this so flawlessly, that one sometimes loses sight of just how proficient she is at doing so. That’s talent.

It’s always difficult to select a ‘best’ DJ Hedgepath moment. His duets with Mr. Romano and monumental solo rendition of “Funny” would be good contenders. I also liked when he stepped out of the spotlight to put on the trench coat, glasses and hat and become one of the background dancers. In addition to his superior skill as a performer, you have to respect actors who are willing to accept any role to remain on the stage.

The City of Angels title aptly fit the show. The cast took the audience to heaven. The production impressed so much that “you can always count on me” to tout its praises “with every breath I take.” It’s true that “ya gotta look out for yourself.” There’s nothing “funny” about that, but “eve’rybody’s gotta be somewhere.” So why not use “the buddy system” and take a friend to go see it? “All ya have to do is wait” until the next performance.

 

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.

Theatre Review – Proof at Burlington County Footlighters Second Stage

Based on data accumulated over the years, I’ve developed a hypothesis that Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage possesses a formula for excellent shows. This derivative is congruent with the mode of an outstanding theatre company. I figured the probability of them continuing to do so variable in proportion to their locus of material. Their operation has proved my theory many times, but the outcome usually defies logic. The product they delivered in the form of Proof took their reputation to another plane.

I had the opportunity to evaluate this event on its opening night June 17th. I’m pleased to write that my reflection will not be a mean one. That’s a good ‘sine.’ Director Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s translation of the text into a stage production made for a terrific outcome.

I enjoyed the plot’s complexity. There seemed no limit to the quantity of conflict. Catherine (played by Rachel Comenzo) struggled to cope with her father’s death, her abrasive sister’s badgering her to move to New York, and the professional and possibly personal interests of one of her father’s former students. All this drama may seem unequal to the boundaries of a two hour show. But there was more. At the midpoint the play centered on Catherine’s revelation of an oblique proof of unknown origin: one that could revolutionize the field of mathematics.

When I discovered that Rachel Comenzo would be playing the role of a ‘math geek’ it didn’t add up. Much to her credit, the moment the show opened, she became the character. While the large glasses, sweat suit and hair worn back fit Catherine’s appearance, Ms. Comenzo became her. I liked her utilization of quick dialog and snappy swearing. The way she’d pause and with a wry smile sarcastically reply to Claire’s (played by Betty Moseley) strained questioning showed exceptional artistic aptitude. In the scenes prior to Catherine’s father passing away she adjusted her speaking to a more deliberate pace. Emile Zola once observed that: “To be an artist requires the gift. To have the gift requires hard work.” Ms. Comenzo showed me that she took the time to really understand and immerse herself in the character.

Watching Ms. Comenzo in a role this complex was the key feature of this run. In the past I’ve watched her play Bonnie (in Bonnie and Clyde), Morticia (in The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy) and Curley’s wife (in Of Mice and Men).  I found all of those characters to be one-dimensional, but the strength of Ms. Comenzo’s performances made every one of them interesting and memorable. I wondered how she would play a strong, multi-dimensional character. Her performance proved she was equal to the task. It’s a struggle for me to find the proper superlatives to describe how well she brought Catherine to life.

DJ Hedgepath once again showed why the theatre is his prime domain. As expected, this thespian displayed his superior range as a performer. Hal’s character required him to display the traits of a nervous suitor, a studious mathematician and a person with questionable motives; at least in the other characters’ perceptions. Mr. Hedgepath convincingly depicted them all.

As they function so well together, I welcomed the opportunity to watch Ms. Comenzo and Mr. Hedgepath share the same stage again. The contrasts between their characters allowed their reciprocal skills to feed off one another. She playing the intellectual struggling with powerful inner demons, he as her father’s ambitious former student. In Proof these opposites became an ordered pair. Their enactments showed why these two masters are fast becoming icons on the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

Becky Moseley delivered a solid performance as Claire. Her character couldn’t seem to get along with anybody except a few partying mathematicians, but I really enjoyed watching her. I liked her performance best during her first scene with Ms. Comenzo. The way Ms. Moseley established tension through her delayed delivery and short questions made the dialog reminiscent of Harold Pinter. I felt uncomfortable listening to her interrogation. That’s the kind of emotional response great performers bring about in audience members.

Bernard Dicasimirro took on the challenging role of Robert: a brilliant mathematician who deteriorated into a mentally imbalanced man. I always applaud performers who select these types of characters. In a sense one has to play two distinctly unique personalities during the same evening. Just like a well-educated intellectual Mr. Dicasimirro spoke very professionally and calmly in his lucid scenes. Then he ranted like a madman while explaining his groundbreaking proof to Catherine. I’d read the play, but I even jumped when he ordered Catherine to read it.

Some unnerving statistics bothered me about this show. The set had a smaller surface area than the mainstage at Footlighters, but it still seemed unequal to the lack of people in the audience. Aside from myself, I noticed only two other people who aren’t community theater performers in South Jersey. I read Proof before I saw it on the stage. While the prospect of going out on Friday or Saturday night to watch a play about math may not sound like a great option, it does explore a great human drama.

A dedicated cast and crew with the addition of a great director factor into all of BCF Second Stage’s presentations. Upon reflection I’ve found that in all probability a normal show for them will contain great emotional power; the origin of which will be the degree of talent from the combination of the performers. Their presentation of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize Winning play wasn’t an outlier. The frequency Footlighters’ Second Stage puts on such dramas is the difference. The volume of their quality of work gives them a unique angle. The $10 price tag made this showing an absolute value. For those needing an entertaining evening out in the Cinnaminson area this June, I’d rate seeing Proof the best solution to that problem.

 

The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council

It’s not often one witnesses the triumvirate of comedy, horror and fencing in the same show. The Maple Shade Arts Council production of The Addams Family:  A New Musical Comedy (directed by Michael Melvin) seamlessly incorporated all three. Just for good measure they included some outstanding musical and dance numbers from a stellar cast to round out the performance.

The musical told a tale of trauma in the Addams household. Wednesday (played by Casey Grouser) found her true love. She and her boyfriend Lucas (Robert Achorn) recently engaged. Her fiancé hailed from the “normal” world. In order to introduce the two families, she arranged a dinner at the Addams home. As if that didn’t make for a tense evening, she told her father Gomez (D. J. Hedgepath) about her pending nuptials. To add to the conflict she asked that he not tell her mother Morticia (Rachel Comenzo) about the arrangement until after dinner. Gomez NEVER kept a secret from Morticia; a fact she brought to his attention repeatedly during the show. The story contained more conflict and tension I would have expected from a light -hearted musical.

One has to respect D. J. Hedgepath for taking on the role of Gomez. Any theatrical performance is a challenge; especially when taking on a role iconized by another actor. After watching Mr. Hedgepath’s interpretation of Gomez, I’ll now view John Astin’s performance of the character on the same level as his role as The Riddler. (Mr. Astin is very talented, but he’s no Frank Gorshin.) At first I found it unusual to see Gomez Addams without a chalk stripe suit and smoking a cigar in every scene. As the show went on, Mr. Hedgepath reinvented the role as his own. He brought much more passion and energy to Gomez than other actors I’ve seen. For purists: he did include many “cara mias” while kissing Morticia’s arms from her wrist down to her shoulder. He also added fencing to his repertoire.

Rachel Comenzo clearly studied the role of Morticia. With crossed arms, fingers spread across her upper arms, and her pale face with a blank look the role became the actress. As usual, she showed off her exceptional vocal prowess. She showcased her abilities best in “Just around the Corner”. The song contained a homonym. The lyric went: death is just around the corner. Ms. Comenzo explained to the audience that, “death is just around the coroner. Get it?” It’s usually a bad sign when a performer needs to explain a joke to an audience. Ms. Comenzo did so very naturally and with such charm that she still got laughs.

I also have to give Ms. Comenzo credit for her skill as a dancer. Most of the choreography required her to dance in a long dress while wearing heels. She managed this difficult task flawlessly.

The real highlight of The Addams Family came during the “Tango de Amor” number with Gomez, Morticia and the Addams family ancestors. The ensemble performed a complex tango with Gomez and Morticia in the spotlight. I applaud choreographer Sarah Dugan for putting this together. Watching Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo tango together brought to mind the legendary drum battle between Ginger Baker and Art Blakey. The level of talent displayed on stage is difficult to put into words. These two triple threats executed an intricate dance sequence brilliantly. It was a pleasure to see this much aptitude in one musical. Not that the two actors competed with one another, but if they had, like in the famous drum battle, the audience would’ve been the true winner.

Many memorable musical performances took place in The Addams Family. Casey Grouser (Wednesday), Lori Alexio Howard (Alice Beineke), Brian Padla (Uncle Fester) and Jacob Long (Pugsley Addams) all turned in very strong vocal performances. Mr. Hedgepath delivered a moving rendition of the somber ballad “Happy/Sad”.

I did feel a bit let down at one point with the song selection. When the second act began I thought ZZ Top were about to play. It turned out it was just Nicholas Olszewski in the guise of Cousin It.

I’d also like to give special acknowledgement to Phyllis Josephson as Grandma. She didn’t get a lot of stage time in this show, but she proved the old adage, “There are no small roles: only small actors.” Every time she had the spotlight, the audience became hysterical. I enjoyed her tone of voice. It sounded similar to the “Cat Lady” on the television show The Simpsons. Unlike that character, I could still understand her clearly, though.

My only criticism of the show concerned the technical issues. Several times a loud humming noise broadcast over the loudspeakers. Hearing the actors became challenging. Much to their credit, they remained focused and didn’t let it interrupt their performance. At the beginning of the show the acoustics were poor, as well. Both the orchestra and the dialog sounded muddled. Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo both project their voices very well. I know my difficulty hearing had nothing to do with the actors.

At a key moment in the performance, the cast played a game called “Full Disclosure”. They passed a chalice around the dinner table. The person drinking from it would have to reveal a secret. One wouldn’t have to give it to members of the audience for them to disclose how well the cast and crew presented The Addams Family. That’s no secret. The show runs through July 18th  at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium.

Theatre Review – Ten Times Two at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage Productions treated me like royalty last night. They sat me so close to the production that I felt like I was on the stage with the actors. It gave me the same sensations of importance I imagine an aristocrat at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre experienced. In addition, I got to sit next to the performance’s director. Initially, I didn’t recognize her. When Ms. Deal arrived I got up to offer her my seat. It had a better view of the stage. She told me to stay where I was since she’d “seen it (the play) before.” This group took VIP treatment to a whole new level!

David Belke’s Ten Times Two: The Eternal Courtship told the story of Ephraim’s (played by D. J. Hedgepath) 676 year pursuit of Constance (Corrine Hower-Greene) with the Host (Paul Sollimo) acting as a sort of matchmaker. As one can guess from the time frame, which began in 1399, this love affair possessed an unusual twist to it. Ephraim spent his life in pursuit of evil which led to his being cursed with immortality. The Host made a bet with him: if Ephraim could win Constance’s love, he’d lift the curse. This quest would lead Ephraim back to the same inn every 75 years to woo her various reincarnations.

Elizabeth Deal made her directorial debut with this three-character comedy. What a job she did. Each thespian delivered such outstanding performances that I thought I was watching community theater’s equivalent of an all-star game.

D. J. Hedgepath delivered a stellar performance. Mr. Hedgepath is on his way to being known as “The James Brown of South Jersey Community Theatre.” He played a key role in Burlington County Footlighters recent production of Bonnie and Clyde. Once Ten Times Two wraps, he’ll be starring in The Addams Family at the Maple Shade Arts Council. This thespian could claim the title of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” right now.

Mr. Hedgepath’s passion and commitment to his craft really came through last night. He delivered his lines in a flawless British accent. I found his character’s transition from selfish thug to sensitive romantic very believable through his interpretation. The way he broke down while telling Constance’s 2000 incarnation he was “giving up” nearly brought me to tears. He managed to deliver exceptional comedic chops while still bringing delicacy and tenderness to the role. That’s quite an accomplishment. After all, at the audience’s first introduction to his character, Ephraim was malicious and unlikable.

Corrine Hower-Greene delivered a strong performance as Constance. She showed exceptional range as an actress. Every reincarnation entailed playing a completely different character; each with a totally different accent. She transitioned into each role flawlessly. I especially enjoyed the humor she brought to the country farm girl. While speaking in a cockney accent with her mouthful I could still understand her. That impressed me. With all the European characters she played, I was very surprised at how convincingly she performed the role of the drunken American flapper.

Paul Sollimo presented the Host role extremely well. He made a great artistic choice with the soft-high pitched British accent he used. It served as a neat contrast to the malevolent nature of his character. The Host addressed an imaginary audience in a few scenes. It took a lot of courage to be the only performer on stage and speaking to pretend characters. He did so very believably. In a number of scenes with Ephraim and Constance, the Host character kind of drifted off into the background. Mr. Sollimo remained relevant to the action through his deft facial expressions.

Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage Productions take place in a much smaller room than the main stage. The seating capacity is probably around thirty. Because of the size of the room and the time I got there I sat far to stage right. Because of the angle there were times when the performers had their backs to me. With that acknowledgement, my location meant there were times when the action took place directly in front of me. Since the director sat directly to my left, I don’t think it appropriate for me to raise too much of an issue about my own seating.

The air conditioner droned few feet behind me to the right. While all the performers broadcast their voices very well, there were times I had trouble hearing. As with any show, there were times when the actors’ vocal inflections needed to become quieter. When that happened I did struggle to understand the dialog.

I’d classify Ten Times Two as a theatrical version of a “chick flick”. While I’m not a big fan of light-hearted romantic comedies I did enjoy this show. The fact I can write that is a true testament to the cast and crew’s skill. The show runs through June 27th. See it while you can. I don’t know if Footlighters plans to host it again every 75 years starting in 2090.