Darryl S. Thompson

The Winter Warmer at Burlington County Footlighters

In the movie The Return of Spinal Tap, Paul Schaffer’s character observed: “It’s funny how the business does a thing.” I still recall DJ Hedgepath’s breathtaking rendition of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Collingswood Community Theatre. I also remember Cynthia Reynolds’ superb performance as the lead in Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters this past May. This December 14th I attended a show in which they both sang Christmas songs. To quote the late Sammy Davis, Jr.: “Only in this business.”

All kidding aside, South Jersey features immense talent that performs at local community theatre shows. With so many gifted performers sharing the stage, the skill of individual players can get overlooked. I’ve wondered what it would be like to listen to some of them just standing in front of a microphone and singing. I found out at the Burlington County Footlighters Winter Warmer.

The program featured local community theatre actors singing Christmas songs. The organizers bracketed the performance with some stellar Jazz performances. The evening opened with music by The Mike Parisi Trio featuring Ryan Smith on piano, Mike Parisi on bass and Evan Smith on saxophone. They warmed up the audience by playing jazz versions of Christmas carols. A supreme performance by Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show concluded the evening’s festivities. John Romano emceed.

The show featured some deeply moving versions of Christmas classics. Jerrod Ganesh delivered emotional renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Mary, Did You Know?” Shaina Egan performed a stirring version of “O, Holy Night” accompanied by Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on harmony vocals. Mother and daughter team Carla and Angel Ezell teamed up for the soulful “Miss You Most at Christmas Time.”

The latter tune affected me personally. For Rhythm and Blues fans, Christmas time always brings a tinge of sadness. We lost two legends of the genre during the Holiday Season. James Brown passed away on Christmas Day on 2006 and Curtis Mayfield left us on Boxing Day 1999. While their talent can never be replaced, the performances turned in by singers such as DJ. Hedgepath, Mr. Thompson and Ms. Ezell showed that the spirit of their music has continued into the next generation.

The show featured a range of styles in the song selection. It included several upbeat numbers. Stephen Jackson applied his charming vocal stylings to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “The Christmas Waltz.” In a radical departure from the dirge-like minor key melodies of Carrie, Cynthia Reynolds delivered the popular Holiday staple “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” just as brilliantly.

What Christmas show would be complete without a little romance to spice up the Holiday Season? Ms. Reynolds performed the affectionate “Merry Christmas, Darling.” Emily Huddell geared up the audience for the next Holiday with the inviting “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

The event included an original take on a seasonal classic. Alex Davis sang a cheery version of “White Christmas.” At the end of the song, Ms. Davis interpolated the somber mood of the original. It rounded out this unique rendition nicely.

You know it’s a good show when even the intermission includes outstanding music. During the break, The Mike Parisi Trio took the stage. They performed an instrumental version of “The Christmas Song” that would’ve impressed both Nat King Cole and Bill Evans.

America’s original art form made its way into the regular program, as well. Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. delivered a high energy rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

During his performance of “This Christmas”, DJ Hedgepath informed the audience: “This is a very special Christmas for me.” It was just as special for his fans. Mr. Hedgepath treated them to the Holiday favorite “Jingle Bells.” He brought the audience into the show with “This Christmas.” When the music started he told them that he expected to hear “foot tapping” and “hand clapping.” A lot of the former occurred while he performed and even more of the latter took place when he concluded.

Following the individual performances, saxophonist Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show took the stage. They opened their set by backing-up Darryl S. Thompson, Jr as he performed a moving rendition of “Christmastime is Here.” They then treated the audience Mr. Mitnaul’s unique blend of jazz, gospel, funk and soul/R&B.

The band’s sound reminded me of Miles Davis’ when he experimented with Jazz Fusion. That seemed appropriate. Mr. Mitnaul’s style contains the soul of Miles Davis with the chops of John Coltrane.

Like Miles Davis, Mr. Mitnaul has an ear for talent. He surrounded himself with a group of stellar musicians. The Smooth Show included Hasan Govan on bass, Jared Alston on keyboards and Clayton Carothers on drums.

Mr. Mitnaul informed the audience that the band didn’t realize they were playing a Christmas show. They didn’t know many Christmas songs, but could try and include a few in the set.

This seemed a little cliché to me. Did I just hear a jazz musician suggest he might be able to improvise? Isn’t ‘the ability to improvise’ the number one task listed on a jazz musician’s job description?

Mr. Mitnaul and the Smooth Show proceeded to prove themselves worthy of the title: jazz musicians. They worked some Holiday tunes into their set; concluding with an awesome rendition of “This Christmas.”

All the musicians demonstrated remarkable soloing ability. Special credit must go to Clayton Carothers. Mr. Carothers played one of the most outstanding drum solos I’ve ever heard: and I’m an Art Blakey fan who’s attended several Rush concerts. Even more remarkable, his kit consisted of just the basics: a snare drum, a floor tom, a tom, a high-hat and some cymbals. All you drummers who need to be air-lifted into your sets please take note.

The band showed that this wasn’t just a job to them. They genuinely enjoyed playing this gig. Its members often smiled at each other throughout the evening. So did their audience.

Christmas only comes once a year. Unfortunately, so does Burlington County Footlighters’ Winter Warmer. During the show Darryl Thompson, Jr. announced that the company planned to make this a regular annual event. Now I know what to ask Santa to bring me next Christmas: a ticket to the 2019 Winter Warmer.

 

 

 

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Nunsense A-Men at Burlington County Footlighters

I would’ve lost a bet that nuns would make for the most popular topic in South Jersey community theatre this year. When I read that Burlington County Footlighters planned to present Nunsense A-Men this December, I had to question the wisdom of this decision. Three area companies staged productions of Sister Act over the last several months. How could another theatre company hold my attention regarding the topic of holy sisters? I wondered. I can’t say Footlighters surprised me by figuring a means to do so. They selected a show so unusual it would’ve impressed Samuel Beckett. I attended their opening night performance of Nunsense A-Men on December 8th.

Playwright Dan Goggin crafted a veritable trifecta of distinctiveness. Nunsense contained the most imaginative premise, story and setting I’ve encountered. Here goes my best attempt to explain the tale. The cast consisted of five main characters: all nuns played by male actors. The convent’s cook—the comically named Sister Julia, Child of God—served an improperly prepared helping of vichysoisse to the community’s sisters. As a result 52 perished from food poisoning. The surviving nuns raised enough money for the burials. Thinking they had more cash than needed for the task, the Mother Superior wasted some of the funds on pricey home entertainment amenities. This spending spree left the order with only enough means to bury 48 of the nuns. They placed those remaining in the freezer until they could acquire the funds to finish the task. To raise that capital, they decided to host a variety show at the Mount Saint Helen’s school auditorium. They didn’t change the stage set from the school’s eighth grade production of Grease in the background. Add to this mix a series of eccentric characters. Sister Act this wasn’t.

Director Jillian Starr Renbjor selected an A-level cast for Nunsense A-Men. Her choices gave Musical Director Peg Smith and Choreographer Kaitlyn Delengowski some superb talent with which to work.

Matt Maerten took on the role of erstwhile dancer, Sister Mary Leo. This marked the first occasion I’ve watched a ballet routine performed in a community theatre show. Mr. Maerten executed some impressive turns and jumps throughout the evening. One really has to credit a performer for doing so while wearing a dress. He also delivered some excellent singing on “Benedicte.” He crooned a sensational duet with Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on “The Biggest Ain’t the Best.”

John Romano, Jr. played one bad mother of a Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina. He got the comedy started the moment he took the stage. He delivered his first line by speaking with a high voice. After clearing his throat he reverted to his deeper range. I enjoyed his singing on “Turn Up the Spotlight” as well as his pining for his character’s possible past as a tightrope walker. This performer’s highlight came when he presented a witty take on why nuns should avoid anything stronger than coffee. For the record: I was glad you’re character was okay, Mr. Romano. The remainder of the show wouldn’t have been as entertaining without you.

Connor Twigg played Sister Robert Anne: the wannabe Mother Superior. From the passion he injected into that role, he showed just how badly the character wanted it. His strong singing on “I Just Want to Be a Star” made the title ironic. An actor that talented already is one. He delivered great comedy chops with his Carmen Miranda hat and impressions of the Wicked Witch of the West and Idina Menzel. (Again I emphasize just how original this show’s content.) Reprising his superb tap dancing skills I last saw in The Drowsy Chaperone, Mr. Twigg put on his taps while leading the rest of the cast through a soft shoe dance.

DJ Hedgepath…well, the best compliment I can give him is that he delivered a “DJ Hedgepath kind of performance.” After speaking in a slightly high pitched Southern accent all evening, he crooned his character’s yearning ode to Country stardom: “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.” For this show he added the task of “quiz show host” to his repertoire. Mr. Hedgepath conducted a question period with the audience. It takes a great deal of courage for a performer to interact with live spectators. Mr. Hedgepath handled their unscripted responses perfectly; improvising while remaining in character. To prove once more that there’s no activity he can’t handle on stage: he performed opposite a puppet that he operated. His character, Sister Mary Amnesia, may have struggled with her memory. No one who watched his performance in Nunsense will ever forget it.

Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. rounded out the cast as Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices. At first I felt disappointed by the musical material the show presented him. Mr. Thompson delivered his usual outstanding singing. His duets with Mr. Romano and Mr. Marteen served as good examples. The songs, however, didn’t challenge his extraordinary vocal prowess. It turned out he was making the audience wait for his big number. I’ve described Mr. Thompson as one of the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. He belted out an extraordinary performance of the gospel based “Holier than Thou” number. He proved that in terms of vocal ability, he sure is.

Jim Frazer designed a set that well suited the show. The entire time I watched the performance, I felt like I was in a middle school auditorium staging a performance of Grease. I thought the “Greased Lighting” insignia on the car a nice touch. The chalkboard menu across from the 1950s style counter made the setting more authentic, as well. He also designed the lighting. Nunsense featured more illumination adjustments than most shows. At times the house lights went up, in some scenes the stage lights dimmed while in others a character performed in the spotlight. It impressed me that no glitches occurred.

The show’s opening didn’t grab my attention as I would have preferred. At first performers walked about the theatre interacting with the audience. Following that, the characters walked around the stage prattling. It seemed disorganized, but understanding the characters and the premise after watching the whole show, it made sense. The scene did bring me into the world of the story. I still thought the beginning could’ve started with more immediacy.

I wouldn’t have thought that five men dressed as nuns playing in yet another show about holy sisters could keep my focus for an entire evening. I’d normally attribute this to an early Christmas Miracle, but I have to credit phenomenal performances from gifted cast members. To illustrate how well they suspended my disbelief, when MacKenzie Smith took the stage as Sister Mary Meredith Taco, I thought it strange to watch a female performer portray a nun. Now that’s skill.

For those who missed opening weekend, Hallelujah! Nunsense A-Men runs through December 17th at Burlington County Footlighters.

 

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.