Ellen Geigel

Shrek the Musical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When I found out the NFL scheduled the first Eagles playoff game during the late afternoon of January 13th I knew I had a decision to make. Did I want to witness a serious tragedy or light-hearted musical comedy on that evening? I opted for the latter. I’m sure glad that I did. The Collingswood Community Theatre treated me to a fantastic performance of Shrek the Musical.

When I read the program I discovered David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the book and lyrics. After attending a performance of Rabbit Hole, his play regarding a family struggling to cope with the death of their four year old son, I thought I may be attending yet another serious tragedy. Fortunately, the playwright changed tack while Director Mary Baldwin and Musical Director Brian Kain kept it lighthearted.

Over the years I’ve watched Ryan Adams play a variety of supporting roles at Collingswood Community Theatre. I’ve been a long-time fan of this King of the F Clef’s baritone vocals. Mr. Adams showed he’s just as adept with tenor based material through his performance in the title role. It thrilled me to hear him sing some fantastic duets with his co-stars. He complimented Jeff McGrail on “Travel Song” and April Lindley on “I Think I Got You Beat.”

Mr. Adams delivered a moving rendition of the ballad “When Words Fail.” His delivery captured both the awkwardness and emotional challenge of expressing one’s feelings to a love interest. He brought profound pathos into this performance.

I credit his voice selection for the Shrek character. He used an accent that sounded Scottish with a tinge of Swedish. I didn’t hear an instance of him wavering from it the entire evening. That’s quite impressive with the amount of dialog and quantity of musical numbers he performed. That shows how hard he prepared for the role.

Jeff McGrail complimented Mr. Adams as his wise-cracking sidekick, the Donkey. There aren’t many ‘sassy donkey’ roles in musical theatre, or in any medium, for that matter. Mr. McGrail displayed immense imagination in bringing this role to the stage. I found his character very entertaining and enjoyable to watch. He also displayed fabulous vocals on tracks such as his solo number “Don’t Let Me Go.”

April Lindley did masterful work in her role as Princess Fiona. She delivered operatic vocals, danced and played each of the character’s (many) mood changes with equal skill while still getting laughs from the audience. Somehow, she fused all three of these traits together to open Act Two in her performance of “Morning Person.”

Ms. Lindley excelled at non-verbal communication. Her facial expressions always reflected the dialog and lyrics. I should add that I sat in the ‘nose bleed’ section of the Scottish Rite Theatre. I’m also nearsighted, but I did wear my glasses. (I was so far away from everyone else in the building that my vanity didn’t inhibit me from doing so.) Even under those conditions, I could still read Ms. Lindley’s expressions perfectly.

There’s an old saw that, “there are no small roles, just small actors.” Patrick Waldron gave a whole new interpretation of that expression in his performance as the diminutive Lord Farquaad. The role presented an interesting physical challenge. Mr. Waldron spent the evening on his knees. His appearance on stage first reminded me a bit of characters Tim Conway used to play. Mr. Conway didn’t possess Mr. Waldron’s dexterity, however. Mr. Waldron danced during one of the numbers while kneeling.

One of the most challenging roles for an actor is what I call that of the ‘comic relief in a comedy.’ In Shrek, the villain, Lord Farquaad, served as that character. Mr. Waldron performed spectacularly. Even though he played an unlikable and hyper-sarcastic personality, he managed his delivery to make his dialog sound funny. Through his skill as a performer, he found ways to make what could’ve been an annoying role into a most amusing one.

Many refer to Aretha Franklin as the undisputed “The Queen of Soul.” I’m a fan of Ms. Franklin’s, as well. But I have to admit that Stefanie Bucholski’s rendition of “Forever” made Ms. Franklin into a distant cousin of the royal family. Ms. Bucholski turned in some astounding soulful vocals in her role as the Dragon. She didn’t have to ask me to “respect” her talent: she earned it with that singing.

Choreographer Kate Scharff and Assistant Choreographer Kate Thomas Arter coordinated some extraordinary dance sequences. I found the ones featuring the Duloc Performers, the Three Blind Mice and the Pied Piper’s mice the most memorable. The superb costuming by Ellen Geigel enhanced the visual spectacle.

I’ve attended summer performances of Jesus Christ Superstar and Sweeney Todd presented by the Collingswood Community Theatre. They enacted those shows in the Main Ballroom at the Scottish Rite building. The sets combined with the lighting made for a mesmerizing theatrical experience. I didn’t think it possible that they’d be able to do anything comparable in the actual Scottish Rite Theatre.

Shrek proved me wrong. The show featured a very professional set. The performance’s high-tech nature included images projected on a movie screen. I especially liked the starlit backdrop they used for the night scenes.

I’d also like to compliment the other performers who made Shrek the Musical such a fun show: Caelan Gaines, Millie Griffin, Suzi Cook, Kate Schell, Caitlin Halligan, Emily Jackson, Ryann Burke, Karen McShane, Tom Geigel, Henry Kain, Jenni Maienza, Matt Griffin, Maria Leonen, Marcy Smith, Julia Maia, Anne Marie Dunn, John Dunn, Patty Nigro, Grace Janco, Cara Davis, Mike Smith, Pauli Bucholsky, Tracy Levy, Patty Walsh, Jen Laksh, Dave Routzahn, Kaitlyn Woolford, Dylan McGowan, Chris Geigel, Ernest Neal, Matt Griffin, Dylan McGowan, Kara Hastings, Emily Jackson, Erica Paolucci, Shannon Ewing, Alicia Smartt, Erin Daly, and Mallory Beach.

As things turned out on January 13th, the Eagles game didn’t become the tragedy I expected. They won and will advance to the NFC Championship game. I thought it clever how the Collingswood Community Theatre cleverly interpolated the Birds’ fight song into the finale. I have to say I found the performance of Shrek more entertaining than any of their games this season. Anyone familiar with the team knows: that’s saying something. The show runs through January 21st.

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.