Daniel McDevitt

Arsenic and Old Lace at Burlington County Footlighters

Just when theatre fans thought the horrors of Halloween had passed. Burlington County Footlighters added a touch of terror to the Thanksgiving season this November. After attending this run of Arsenic and Old Lace, no audience members will be able to complain about spending Turkey Day with the family this year. Your correspondent attended the opening night performance on Friday, November 8th.

First time director Matt Dell’Olio (assisted by A. Robert Basile) presented a dark comedy with a disturbing plot. Elaine Harper (played by Alex Davis), a minister’s daughter, became engaged to the most odious creature this planet has produced since humans evolved out of the primordial ooze. She’d planned on marrying the real-life version of H. P. Lovecraft’s the thing that should not be. Her fiancé, Mortimer Brewster (played by Russell Palmieri) worked as a…gasp… theatre critic.

It says something about the Brewster family that a dramatic critic served as its paragon of normalcy. Showing outstating imagination, playwright Joseph Kesselring ensured that one did.

Mortimer’s spinster aunts, Abby Brewster (Susan Dewey) and Martha Brewster (Jeanne Wayman), killed a dozen people. His brother Teddy (Benjamin Couey) believed himself to be Theodore Roosevelt. His other brother Jonathan (Daniel McDevitt) was a serial killer with ambition. He aspired to kill more people than his aunts did.

Mortimer’s realization that no amount of chlorine could cleanse this gene pool caused him to contemplate ending his engagement. At the same time, he attempted to keep his aunts’ macabre hobby from law enforcement. The latter became difficult due to the many visits from police officers (Mark Henley, Tyler Conklin Jeffrey Rife and Nanci Cope). They seemed to spend as much time at the Brewster home as the family did. Mortimer also struggled not to become the latest statistic in Jonathan’s quest.

As one can discern from the plot summary, performer Russell Palmieri had a busy evening playing Mortimer. Mr. Palmieri balanced his facial expressions so they displayed terror, but always with a touch of humor. His best occurred when performer Nanci Cope explained that her character (Officer O’Hara) was a playwright. His reaction to her narrative showed more perturbation than when on the receiving end of Jonathan’s and Dr. Einstein’s (Kori Rife) machinations.

Daniel McDevitt played an outstanding villain in the form of Jonathan. His character may not have liked the comparison to Boris Karloff, but his voice reminded this reviewer of Bobby “Boris” Pickett. His addition of a malevolent tone to his deep baritone made listening to him more enjoyable.

Kori Rife played a terrific sidekick to him as Dr. Einstein. She expressed her lines in a German accent that was easy to understand.

Susan Dewey and Jeanne Wyman made the Brewster sisters’ murderous mayhem witty. Both performers used soft voices when calmly discussing the killings. They maintained the same facial expressions one would use when describing something as benign as the weather. Their deliveries and mannerisms enhanced the comedy in Mr. Kesselring’s script brilliantly.

Footlighters legend Alex Davis added her histrionic talents to the ensemble; as did Footlighters newcomers Ron Brining and Benjamin Couey.

The production team included Stage Manager Will Nelson, Producer Dennis Dougherty, Costumers Amanda Cogdell and Leslie Romanuski.

This production of Arsenic and Old Lace was unique in that two of the best set designers in South Jersey were involved in the project. Jeff Rife opted to forgo working on set design in this one, however, instead focusing on his acting. He played the dual roles of Mr. Gibbs and Lieutenant Rooney. Footlighters’ sublime set specialist, Jim Frazer, handled the set design.

For this show, Mr. Frazer placed a window at stage right that led to an opening outside the Brewster home. It appeared realistic and served its functional purpose by allowing for Mr. McDevitt and Ms. Rife to climb through it.

The set included a real staircase that led to a landing. There it turned a full 90 degrees leading to an upper balcony. In addition to the aesthetic appeal it also served a practical use. Multiple performers climbed it during the show. Benjamin Couey utilized it throughout the evening as his character led imaginary troops into combat.

To borrow one of Teddy’s favorite phrases, theatre fans should “chaaaaarrrrge” to Burlington County Footlighters. After watching this killer comedy, audiences won’t feel quite as disturbed by eccentric relatives at Thanksgiving Dinner: unless they happen to be theatre critics. Everyone will still avoid the elderberry wine, though.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through November 23rd at Burlington County Footlighters. After that, it succumbs to community theatre’s version of “yellow fever” and will rest in one of the metaphorical locks at Teddy’s Panama Canal.

Seussical at The Village Playbox

The Village Playbox proved that imagination isn’t just for kids. Using Seussical’s opening number “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” as inspiration, Director Anita Rowland along with the cast and crew used all their powers of creativity to bring this show to the stage. The script required that they transform the set into the worlds of Whoville, the Jungle of Nool and into the realm of everyone’s favorite troublemaking tabby, The Cat in the Hat. I attended the Saturday, May 4th performance at the First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights.

To borrow a line from The Cat in the Hat, “Folks, this ain’t Mother Goose.” Upon encountering The Cat in the Hat (Sidney Manfred Maycock III) Young Jojo (Presley Terch) took an amazing journey. The Cat transported him to the miniature world of Whoville. In this place, he became the son of the Mayor (Doug Cohen) and Mrs. Mayor (Debbi Heckman). A teacher chastised Jojo for using his imagination too much. In order to discipline the boy, the Mayor and Mrs. Mayor placed him in the army. General Genghis Khan Schmitz (Christopher Schmalbach) vowed to make him conform.

Horton the Elephant (Shawn Simmons) discovered Whoville on a speck of dust. He placed it on a clover for safety. First the Wickersham Brothers (a group of monkeys) and then Vlad Vladicoff the eagle (Steve Allen) took the clover. The latter dropped it into a clover patch.

Horton’s quest to relocate Whoville became interrupted by Mazie LaBird (Rachel Smith). She asked Horton to sit on her nest for “an afternoon.” After Horton agreed, Mazie abandoned her egg.

A group of hunters captured Horton and placed him in the Circus McGurkus.  Gertrude McFuzz (Haley Schmalback), another bird, struggled to locate Horton’s clover for him. Her desire for his affections served as her motivation.

This plot summary doesn’t adequately explain the level of imagination needed to present Seussical. Much to their credit, the team at The Village Playbox made this fantastical premise very believable.

Director Rowland utilized the entire room for this production. During several numbers, the ensemble left the stage and performed in the rows surrounding the audience. I liked the stereo effect it provided. It also allowed those in the show to interact with the audience. During one number The Cat made eye contact with me as he passed. “Now there’s a man who likes to mambo,” he said to me.

I normally don’t like it when performers break the fourth wall. In this case I felt flattered that someone acknowledged my ruffled shirt. I paid good money for that thing.

Donna Allen, Nikki Zane and Amy Bannister did an excellent job with the elaborate costuming. As someone who’s color blind, even I could appreciate their intricate use of color. The Cat’s bright colored red and white striped hat looked authentic. The different shades of the Bird Girl costumes added a nice visual effect against the varying hues of the backdrop. The yellows worn by the Mayor and his wife enhanced the cartoonish ambiance.

Jan Johnston performed extraordinary work designing the set. Even though based on a fantasy world, I found it very realistic. The stage became the domain of Dr. Seuss. The cartoon trees looked as though they’d been transplanted out of the pages of his books. Mazie’s nest perched several feet above the stage. In front of it was a multi colored clover field. Credit goes to Gary Kochey and Christine Dziczek for constructing this wonderful set.

In addition to transforming the theatre into the world of Dr. Seuss, I also thought musical director John Demchak and choreographer Haley Schmalbach turned Haddon Heights into Motown. The numbers included sophisticated melodies, elaborate background vocals and stellar dance moves. Jessica Shockley delivered soulful vocals on “Biggest Blame Fool” and during “The People Versus Horton the Elephant.” Rachel Smith sang a sultry version of “Amazing Mazie” accompanied by Haley Schmalbach, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Colotti and Madeline Johnson.

Upon seeing Sidney Maycock’s in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels I wrote that he possessed a genius for comedy. With his performance in Seussical, he personified Arthur Schopenhauer’s observation that, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Mr. Maycock took a high-energy approach to a demanding role. He spent most of the show on stage; either pantomiming reactions or leading the action. The entire evening he wore a fur covered cat suit. I attended on a humid night. Mr. Maycock never showed any signs of fatigue. He pranced around the room like a performer impassioned with his role.

When Act Two opened, The Cat impersonated an orchestra conductor. During the scene, the character sat down out of exhaustion, took a drink of water and patted his forehead with a towel. Mr. Maycock put a lot of energy into that maneuver, too.

Mr. Maycock utilized a series of voices for the role. Employing a Texas accent he ran an auction. He mimicked a doctor with a Russian dialect. Using The Cat’s voice he performed excellent renditions of “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” and “It’s Possible” with Presley Terch and “How Lucky You Are.”

Seussical included many outstanding musical numbers. Shawn Simmons and Mr. Terch sang the most beautiful song in the score. They sang a beautiful rendition of  “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Simmons and Haley Schmalbach delivered an equally poignant version of the track towards the end of Act Two.

I marvel at the barrage of rhyming couplets playwrights Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty included in the script. The most challenging came during Mr. and Mrs. Mayor’s initial interaction with Jojo. Doug Cohen and Debbi Heckman impressed by delivering these tricky tongue twisters clearly and without stumbling over the words.

I found one concept in the show dated. General Genghis Khan Schmitz launched a war against people who buttered the bottom side of their toast. With the current state of American foreign policy, that concept won’t seem as bizarre to American audiences as it did when Seussical first appeared in 2000.

The show contained an extensive cast. I’d like to compliment everyone for their work on this production: Sidney Maycock, Shawn Simmons, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Collotti, Madeline Johnston, Aaron Wachs, Paul Rather, Gabrielle Allen, Daniel McDevitt, Steve Allen, Lily Allen, Colin Becker, Margo Mullin, Amy Bannister, Jennifer Campbell, Rachel Grodzielanek, Madelyn Grodzalinek, Nicolette Malinowski, Audrey Mitros, Juliette Pacana, Ella Samuel-Siegal and William Young. Steve Allen assistant directed and Ed Frazer designed the lights.

Seussical played to a sold out house during its opening weekend. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll bet you feel “alone in the universe.” I’m “havin’ a hunch” you’d like to watch it. Before saying, “how lucky you are” to those who have, get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.”

So don’t you lament and come to grief.

See Seussical at the Village Playbox no later than May 18th.