Danielle Harley-Scott

The Wiz at the Ritz Theatre Company

While many in South Jersey lamented not seeing some individuals with no heart, no brain and no guts wearing green this weekend, The Ritz Theatre Company provided an outlet. They treated audiences to a rhythm and blues infused extravaganza down the Yellow Brick Road and into the Emerald City compliments of The Wiz. Your correspondent attended the November 9th performance. Kyrus Keenan Westcott directed.

L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz inspired this musical. It’s unlikely that Baum anticipated the story presented as a dance extravaganza accompanied by the funky soul music of the 1970s. William F. Brown’s and Charlie Smalls’ concept worked, however. Perhaps the Hamilton of its day, The Wiz premiered in 1974 with an all African American cast.

 The Wiz described an amazing journey. Following an argument with her Aunt Em (played by Danielle Harley-Scott), Dorothy (played by Olivia West) longed to escape from Kansas. A wind storm then came through town transporting her to a place called Oz. Upon arrival, Dorothy then longed to return to her Kansas home. A group of Munchkins suggested she visit the Emerald City and ask The Wiz (Darryl Thompson, Jr.) for advice.

While traveling along the Yellow Brick Road she encountered a trio of interesting characters. They included a Scarecrow (Kyle Smith), a Tin Man (Malik Muhammad) and a Lion (Craig Bazan). As these individuals also needed The Wiz’s assistance with their problems, they accompanied her. Upon meeting him, he offered to help, but on the condition they first kill Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. (Danielle Harley-Scott) The four companions’ journey had only just begun.

Devon Sinclair performed exceptional choreography for this show. The mesmerizing dance sequences included groups of Tornados, Monkeys, Poppies as well as other members of the cast. Mr. Sinclair arranged stellar moves for these entertaining scenes. The ensemble impressed by executing them so well.

Olivia West’s acting made Dorothy a very easy character with whom to empathize. Ms. West accentuated this trait through her singing. She delivered moving numbers such as “Soon as I Get Home” and the “Finale” beautifully. Her duet with the Lion (Craig Bazan) on “Be a Lion” was also very touching. The performer showed the same vocal proficiency when singing upbeat numbers such as the iconic “Ease on Down the Road.”

Kyle Smith approached the role of the Scarecrow with a lot of intelligence. His raggedy costume (designed by Yu’seph Cornish) made his character appear very authentic. Mr. Smith added further realism to the role with the way he wobbled while walking. He also sang a marvelous rendition of “Born on the Day Before Yesterday.”

Malik Muhammad put his heart into playing the Tin Man. Mr. Muhammad performed fantastic dance moves. He impressed by doing so in such an elaborate costume. The sparkles he wore in his beard complimented it very well. The axe he carried seemed symbolic of the outstanding vocal chops he delivered all evening. His warm voice well suited “Slide Some Oil to Me” and “What Would I Do if I Could Feel.”

Craig Bazan showed a lot of courage taking on the role of the Lion. In addition to strong dancing and vocal skills, Mr. Bazan displayed a strong aptitude for comedy. He played a hysterical scene when enticed by the Poppies. His delivery on the ironically titled “Mean Ole Lion” made the song much more comical.

The title of “The Wiz” would well suit Darryl Thompson, Jr. even better than the character he played. Once again Mr. Thompson, Jr. showcased the wizardry of his voice for theatre fans. Mr. Thompson, Jr. sang an inspirational version of “Believe in Yourself.” He also performed “Meet the Wizard” so powerfully that it would’ve have been just as easy to hear him without a microphone.

 1970s Oz experienced a bigger witch infestation problem than Salem did during the late seventeenth century. All three of Oz’s enchantresses put the audience under a spell. They achieved it through their vocal charms. Siiyara Nelson played Addaperle, April Johnson performed Glinda, and Danielle Harley-Scott took on the role of Evillene.

The ensemble included performers: April Johnson, John Clark, Terrance T Hart, Dhameer Kennedy, Shakeer Hood, Rafi Mills, Kiara Johnson, Zoe Holmes, Melanie Camille, Breyona Coleman and Mikaela Rada.

The production team comprised: Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott, Vocal Director Michelle Foster, Costume Designer Yu’seph Cornish, Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher and Set and Light Designer Chris Miller.

Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott wrote in the playbill:

 …I don’t want you to think of this as “the black version of The Wizard of Oz.” I think this story and these characters and this music deserve so much more than that notion. While it does tell the story through the eyes and musicality of African Americans, it speaks a universal language that everybody can enjoy.

That’s so true. A tale of someone struggling to overcome obstacles on a quest to find “home” is one that all people can understand. The Wiz’s powerful message of believing in one’s self resonates with everyone.

The Wiz works its magic through November 24th. After that, it’s back to Kansas for the Ritz Theatre Company; well, make that Haddon Township’s Arts District.

Sister Act at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Many South Jersey community theatre fans have attended at least one Sister Act production staged this year. When the Maple Shade Arts Council announced that they’d be producing it this July, I’m sure some asked, “Do we really need another Sister Act show..again?” Well, theatre legend Michael Melvin directed this one. So don’t think of it as “just another Sister Act” show. Think of it as the New Testament. I attended the showing at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium on July 15, 2017.

Since Sister Act has been such a popular show this season, I’ll spare readers the usual plot summary. However, to paraphrase director Michael Melvin, I will report that the cast and crew “put together one hell of a heavenly show.”

Watching Phyllis Josephson take the stage again was a true pleasure. I’ve seen her perform in numerous shows; in fact most recently in Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players. She delivered a rap number in that one, but this is the first time I experienced her ethereal vocal style. I found her emotional rendition of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” very moving.

Ms. Josephson turned in a supreme performance as Mother Superior. She balanced the character’s austere nature while still getting laughs at the proper times. After her passionate rendition of the number mentioned above, she followed it up with a stellar on-liner. She also shared great chemistry with her nemesis, Dolores, played by Danielle Harley-Scott.

Ms. Harley-Scott played a wild free spirit and aspiring disco diva forced to masquerade as a nun. This required some range and she executed the challenge very well. She crooned the upbeat numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby!” with spirit. Later in the show she adjusted and delivered a passionate rendition of “Sister Act.” Maintaining her focus while the lights reflected off her sequined blouse was an achievement in itself. Her comedic attempt to lead the nuns in grace made one of the funniest moments of the show.

In a bit of ironic casting, Darryl Thompson, Jr. played “Sweaty” Eddie. I wrote ironic, because I didn’t notice him sweat all evening. The challenging number “I Could Be That Guy” would’ve given most performers a reason to perspire. Mr. Thompson already earned a reputation as a phenomenal vocalist through his previous work. With that acknowledgement, he sang a version of the song that would’ve impressed Berry Gordy.

Casey Grouser (as Sister Mary Robert) displayed extraordinary talent in this production. This performer possesses the strongest voice I’ve ever heard. The brilliant way she modulated it all evening impressed me. Unlike many singers, Ms. Grouser managed to hit high notes without her voice sounding piping. Ms. Grouser shone in her passionate rendition of “The Life I Never Led.”

In other scenes, Ms. Grouser captured her character’s initial timidity by hugging a book, looking down or quickly shuffling off stage. She believably enacted the character’s transformation into a self-confident person. Her overall performance deftly brought out Sister Mary Robert’s inner feelings.

I called Antonio Flores “brilliantly comical” when he played a gangster in City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters. I delighted in watching him step up into the role of crime lord, Curtis. The witty flair he added to “When I Find My Baby” enhanced the tune’s unusual lyrics.

Lori A. Howard and Vitaliy Kin demonstrated great comedic collaboration. Mr. Kin possesses a unique ability to stand out no matter what role he’s playing. Ask anyone who heard him sing Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish during The Wedding Singer. Listening to him shout in Spanish while Ms. Howard translated became my favorite moment in the show.

Erica Pallucci choreographed some extraordinary high-energy dancing. Casey Grouser, Gina Petti and MacKenzie Smith put on a clinic. There’s no question the choreographer deserves some credit for the routines. I’m just thinking these dancers found a lot of inspiration from the funky moves Mr. Melvin showcased when he played TJ this January.

The way Sister Act combined comedy, singing and dancing in the same scenes made it distinct. Matt Maerten, Evan Hairston and Vitaliy Kin combined their talents for the “Lady in the Long Black Dress” number. It made for an unforgettable scene.

I’d also credit performers Jillian Starr-Renbjor, Brian Blanks, Debra Heckmann, Andrea Veneziano William Smith and the ensemble for their comedic and vocal contributions to this stellar production.

The live band made the show even more special. Cameron Stringham did an excellent job coordinating the music. It sounded spectacular without overshadowing the vocals.

One of the advantages we community theatre critics enjoy is the opportunity to interact with influential people. I’ve had the privilege to sit next to famous performers, directors and producers at various shows I’ve attended. The Maple Shade Arts Council took this perk to a whole new level. Michael Melvin occupied the next seat over from me when he played Pius VI. (I give him credit for staying in character while doing so.) So this time, I got to sit next to the director, the organization’s president and a Pope. Now I’ve made it as a writer!

So do we really need another version of Sister Act in South Jersey? After watching the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production, an emphatic YES answers that question. This performance contained phenomenal singing, dancing and acting. Just perhaps, a series of Sister Act Two shows may be a welcome addition to the 2017 – 2018 theatrical season. For now, fans can see the original at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium through July 22.