Ethan Rundell

Legally Blonde: The Musical at Bridge Players Theatre

Bridge Players Theatre debunked the myth that blondes have more fun. They showed that it’s the audience that has the most fun during their run of Legally Blonde: The Musical. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, September 28th show in Burlington, NJ. The site of West Jersey’s former capital hosted one capital performance.

The 2001 novel and film Legally Blonde inspired this musical of the same name. With music and lyrics by Lawrence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hatch, it told the story of Elle Woods (played by Alix Vitarelli), a woman perceived as a stereotypical blonde. Her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (played by Mike Gibbins), ended their relationship because he didn’t think her a “serious” person. To win his love, she decided to follow him to Harvard Law School.

While there she discovered that Warner had become engaged to Vivienne Kensington (Caitlin Reed). This development along with the academic demands of the pretentious Professor Callahan (Brian S. Rothman) led her to re-consider her decision to pursue her lost love to law school. Her friendships with beautician Paulette Buonofuonte (Dyani Myles) and recent Harvard Law graduate Emmett Forrest (Antonino Baldassari) caused her to think she may have found her true calling.

The word energy would best describe this production. Jessi Meisel served the dual roles of both Director and Choreographer. The energy Ms. Meisel needed to fill these roles was infectious. It carried over into the cast.

The beginning of Act I would’ve been just as effective as a routine for an exercise program. It opened with the dynamic song and dance number “Omigod You Guys.” It featured over ten cast members performing intricate dance routines together on stage.

The opening to Act II may have been even more demanding. In the role of fitness queen Brooke Wyndham, performer Gina Petti led a group of performers through the musical rendition of an actual exercise workout. I’ve never seen a theatrical scene this difficult to perform. (In fact I’m shaking my head in disbelief as I’m writing this.) The ensemble danced and sang while jumping rope. Let me repeat that. They danced and sang while jumping rope. They even executed a 360 degree turn while doing the latter.

Ms. Petti deserves immense praise for the proficiency she brought to the “Whipped into Shape” sequence. As someone who has choreographed shows in the past, she may have needed all the knowledge and skills she’s acquired from those experiences just to perform this arduous number. Ms. Petti also contributed outstanding lead vocals to the song; a tune that didn’t have the easiest melody to sing. I’m not sure how she managed to so while jumping rope and dancing around the stage for several minutes.

And there was more high impact dancing.

The ensemble performed an astonishing tap number on “What Do You Want.” Alix Vitarelli led a large ensemble through some brilliantly choreographed maneuvers. Credit goes to the entire team for remaining in-synch during the performance.

On the evening I attended, the weather added an additional complication. Even though autumn began a few days before, the atmosphere had the feel of a balmy July night. The temperature hovered in the low 80s. The dew point approached the mid-70s. The theater itself didn’t have air conditioning.

And this was just the weather outside and in the theatre. The performers had hot spotlights beaming down on them all evening.

Not the ideal conditions to perform intensive dance routines.

I’d recommend the performers’ friends and family to skip the tradition of bringing them flowers following the show. Oxygen and electrolytes would be more practical.

Legally Blonde contained some outstanding vocal numbers. I especially enjoyed Dyani Myles’ pining ode to the Emerald Isle: “Ireland.” Caitlin Reed nailed some stratospheric pitches on “Find My Way.”

Alix Vitarelli turned in a phenomenal performance as Elle Woods. Ms. Vitarelli proved herself a triple threat of the highest order all evening.

Ms. Vitarelli channeled the character’s personality through her interpretation of the role. She selected a perfect walk for Elle. She ambled while keeping her back straight and her palms parallel to the floor. The performer silently expressed Elle’s inner thoughts through the facial expressions she displayed. Ms. Vitarelli’s timing captured the bubbly essence, the latent comedy and the disillusion in Elle’s dialog.

Ms. Vitarelli sang an emotional rendition of the show’s title track. She also joined with cast members for some wonderful duets. They included the sorority anthem “Delta Nu Nu” with Ms. Petti and the motivational “Chip on My Shoulder” with Antonino Baldassari; the latter accompanied by the Delta Nus (Amanda Adams, Cynthia Reynolds and Amanda Hoffman).

Any fan of Antonino Baldassari’s must see Legally Blonde. I’ve watched Mr. Baldassari play hysterical characters in musicals (Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone) as well as serious ones (Edward Bloom in Big Fish). The role of Emmett Forrest allowed him the opportunity to showcase his skill at playing both these character types.

Mr. Baldassari displayed his usual aptitude for comedy during Emmet’s makeover. For a funny guy, Mr. Baldassari possesses some serious skill for singing. He best captured the character’s serious side through his duets with Ms. Vitarelli. Their performances on “Chip on My Shoulder” and “Legally Blonde” were both outstanding.

Legally Blonde also gave theatre fans to watch South Jersey community theatre’s preeminent power couples perform on stage together. For those who are unaware, Antonino Baldassari and Gina Petti are married in real life.

I’d also credit performer Cynthia Reynolds. I’ve watched her perform a terrific lead in Carrie: The Musical and as an ensemble member in Spring Awakening. Both shows contained very dark subject matter. Ms. Reynolds showed that she’s just as adept at playing a giddy, upbeat character (Serena) in a lighthearted show.

A physics student, Ms. Reynolds applied her mastery of the science during the dance routines. Circumventing the limitations of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, she calculated the speed and location of her high kicks so they didn’t contact any performers.

I had two criticisms of the show.

The performance began ten minutes late. Even after the curtain went up I still saw audience members walking down the aisles to take their seats. Folks, if you can’t be on time be early.

During one crucial scene in the show, performer Alix Vitarelli came out on stage dressed as the Easter Bunny. In keeping with that theme, it would have been nice if the theatre gave out candy to everyone. I’m just sayin’.

The cast also included the following human performers: Caroline Piotrowski, Kori Rife, Ashley Carragher, William H. Young, Allyssa Winkelspecht, Ryan Mulligan, Gregory Drey, Jimmy Hoffman, Erin Gupta, and Yvette Burroughs-Myles.

The following canine performers added their histrionic skills to the production: Allie Rothman and Pudge Hoffman.

The production team included: Assistant Director Ethan Rundell, Musical Director Diana Dohrmann, Producer Marissa DiPilla, Stage Manager Tim Kirk, ASM Lyz Lydon, Technical Director/Audio Engineer/ Set Construction Manager Jeff Rife and Lighting Design/ Lighting Technician Bob Beaucheane.

The verdict on Legally Blonde: Bridge Players Theatre treated audiences to one high-energy, funny and entertaining performance. The statute of limitations to see it ends on October 5th. Regrettably, it won’t receive a stay of execution. Don’t let the people who’ve already watched the show have all the fun. Endorphins aren’t the only thing that can make a theatre fan happy. Find your way to Bridge Players Theatre before October 5th.

 

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The Explorer’s Club at Burlington County Footlighters

Explorer's Club SetThat’s got to be the most underrepresented topic in the history of theatre, I thought when Gaby Affleck described her latest project to me. As an award winning director of shows ranging from Dracula to Of Mice and Men, Ms. Affleck could’ve opted to bring any subject to the stage. Just what did she choose this time? She decided to direct her first farce: a play about explorers. While a topic traditionally overlooked by community theatre companies, the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters more than compensated for this history of neglect. I embarked on a voyage of laugher (and TO SCIENCE) during the opening night performance of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorer’s Club this November 3rd.

The story contained a hyper-extreme conflict by the standards of 1879 Victorian society. Explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume (played by Rachel Comenzo) aspired to be the first woman to join The Explorer’s Club. Ms. Spote-Hume encountered resistance from the membership. Not much of a surprise, there. Initially, I thought the whole ‘farce’ premise had to do with men from that less enlightened era even allowing a woman to enter their building. At any rate, the conflict continued to build as the botanist, Lucius Retaway (played by Michael Muller) and the dashing Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) competed for her affections. In addition, a native she named ‘Luigi’ (played by Matt Dell’Olio) caused an international incident by greeting Queen Victoria in his tribe’s traditional manner: he slapped her across the face. With the overall tone of the story, I wondered if the playwright used this detail to add a bit of subtext.

As one would expect from a farce, the show featured a host of eccentric characters. Also, as anticipated, Ms. Affleck selected the perfect performers to play them. Ethan Rundell met the challenge of portraying the effeminate snake lover, Professor Cope. Lou DiPilla’s expressive performance of religion scholar, Dr. Sloane, blessed the audience. Dennis Dougherty depicted Guniea pig aficionado Professor Walling. Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) seemed to lose all the men who followed him on his expeditions; his latest voyage to discover the East Pole proved no exception. It’s some club when the botanist (played by Michael Muller) who named a coma and death inducing plant after the woman he loved came across as the ‘normal’ one.

Mr. Muller and Mr. Petrillo played opposite one another particularly well. Their performances concretized the conflict between the nerdy botanist and the rugged explorer. Ms. Comenzo deftly displayed interest towards their characters at different times. Her warm smiles towards Lucius and extension of her lips toward Percy in various scenes accentuated the conflict.

Theatrical shows always contain some attribute that makes them unique. Speeches served as this one’s main feature. Ricardo Estevez delivered an impassioned oration regarding his insatiable need for vengeance and retribution…while playing a monk. His inclusion of karate chops and kicks while moving about the entire stage enhanced the performance. He selected impeccable gestures to compliment his delivery.

Rachel Comenzo spoke with flawless diction when delivering her character’s opening lecture. One also has to credit her for keeping a straight face. The new society her character discovered looked like a nation of people from the Blue Man Group. This performer impressed by pronouncing place names most people can’t attempt to spell.

I also applaud Ms. Comenzo for her choice of accent. In the playbill she mentioned devoting a great deal of time towards perfecting it. Her efforts paid off handsomely. She played the dual roles of twin sisters in the show. She adjusted her voice to fit each character and make both distinct.

Matt Dell’Olio possesses a genius for delivering soliloquys. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, he presented a monologue about Lobster Bisque soup in a method that made it rival the “to be or not to be” monolog from Hamlet. In this show, he presented a solo speech just as gripping. He did so while speaking in gibberish. With a character talking incomprehensibly, gestures and facial expressions become more crucial. He nailed them. Mr. Dell’Olio also displayed phenomenal dexterity prancing around the stage.

Last year Mr. Dell’Olio earned BCF’s Best Actor Award for his performance in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. His robust portrayal in this one may have netted him another one.

I didn’t believe it possible for Jim Frazer to design a better set than the Christmas Village he created for 2016’s A Christmas Carol. This one came close. It captured the essence of a manly “Old Boys’ Club” while including a touch of comedy. The stage featured enormous tusks arranged like an archway, the ubiquitous deer heads, bearskin rugs hung on the wall and a globe displayed off to stage left. I give Mr. Frazer credit for creativity by including the mounted walrus head made by the show’s makeup artist Jasmine Chalfont.

The bar scenes proved a challenge for the cast. Mr. Dell’Olio’s character would say, “Here’s your drink, sir.” Then he would quickly slide a glass towards the front of the counter. It amazed me that every time he did this, the character he tossed the drink towards caught it the moment it slid off the bar…at least until the very end of the show.

Bernard DiCasimirro (as Sir Bernard Humphreys) dropped a glass before taking his curtain call. This performer made the best recovery I’ve witnessed at a live performance. Burlington County Footlighters legend Dan Brothers sat in the first row. While watching the play I thought Mr. Brothers would’ve been a solid addition to this show. He inadvertently got his chance. In response to Mr. Brothers’ jeer, Mr. DiCasimirro tossed the glass’ contents at him. I credit the performer for this improvised move. It made the miscue much more entertaining than it would have been if he’d executed the scene as written.

Harry Percy discussed following up his discovery of the East Pole with a trip to the West Pole. If he embarks on that voyage of exploration, let’s hope this cast and crew is available to tell the story.

I enjoyed Ms. Affleck’s latest journey as a director. “Farce is nothing to laugh at!” She wrote in the playbill. “It’s hard work.” That work paid off in the form of The Explorer’s Club. Audiences may survey it at Burlington County Footlighters through November 18th.