Faith McCleery

The Who’s Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players

No company can celebrate an anniversary like Hadonfield Plays and Players.

A half century ago on this February 14th four lads from Shepherd’s Bush London performed a concert to promote their latest release: a “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb and blind boy with a skill at playing pinball. That Valentine’s Day gig from 1970 has been immortalized by the iconic recording Live at Leeds.

Tommy extended the artistic boundaries of Rock and Roll music upon its release in 1969. Then the record’s “amazing journey” continued. In 1975, The Who decided to “join together” with director Ken Russell to “relay” it to the silver screen. Taking his own advice never to “spend his guitar or pen,” Pete Townshend (and Des McAnuff) adapted Tommy into a musical in 1992.

Adding to the concept’s “success story,” Haddonfield Plays and Players opened their 2020 season with The Who’s Tommy. Your correspondent attended this “welcome” addition to the company’s repertoire on January 31st. HPP didn’t have to “bargain” with him to do so, either.

Bill C. Fikaris proved himself a “sensation” through his direction of this show. Along with Music Director Arlo Ehly, Musical Conductor Alex Ayala and Choreographer Chris McGinnis, the team at HPP injected the spirit of Pete Townshend’s masterpiece into the performance. They presented a high energy show with a lot of movement. Can one imagine anything based on The Who’s music without it?

The Who’s fans can now claim their favorite group capable of producing a high-tech visual spectacle on par with a Pink Floyd show. The design and special effects brought the audience into the world of the story. Chris Miller’s lighting strips positioned at the four corners of the stage added a unique style of illumination to the set. Sound and Projection Designer Pat DeFusco produced stellar visuals. They simulated London flats, an RAF airfield and neon arcade signs. Set designers Ed Ortiz and Glenn Funkhouser painted a Union Jack on the stage floor. The ubiquitous smoke gave the show the aura of a rock concert.

The ambiance was vintage Who. It would have made Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle and Keith Moon proud. Its authenticity made your correspondent wary of getting hit by shrapnel from smashed guitars and exploding drum kits.

In addition to his musical genius, Mr. Townshend showed creativity at crafting memorable characters. Mr. Fikaris selected gifted performers to bring them to the stage.

The show featured three incarnations of Tommy. Wesley Halloway played the four year old version, Nicky Intrieri performed the 10 year old one and Dennis Summerville took on the role of adult Tommy. All three Tommys sang the high-pitched melody from the “See Me, Feel Me” number. Their vocals sounded cleaner and more professional than those on the original 1969 album.

Mr. Fikaris utilized these performers effectively during the mirror scenes. While one Tommy stared into the looking glass, a different one gazed back. It made for one of the show’s most spectacular visuals.

Mr. Summerville played an outstanding Tommy. He enacted all of Tommy’s personality traits with equal skill. The performer stood still with a blank stare while either in front of the mirror or playing pinball. Mr. Summerville became enthusiastic following Tommy’s moment of realization. He accompanied it with a stirring rendition of “Welcome.” His impassioned vocals captured the essence of “I’m Free” after Mrs. Walker (Shaina Egan) smashed the mirror.

Listening to theatrical vocalists sing Rock and Roll songs is always entertaining. Mr. Summerville made it more of a pleasure than usual. He belted out powerful vocals on the heavier songs such as “Pinball Wizard” and “Sensation.” His soft falsetto on “See Me, Feel Me” articulated the character’s sensitive side.

Justin Walsh played Tommy’s father, Captain Walker. Mr. Walsh’s face held the look of a concerned parent all evening. During the “Acid Queen” and “Hawker” numbers, he showed the nuance between an expression of anxiety and one of repulsion. Mr. Walsh modulated the character’s outlook by singing “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found” with an optimistic tone. He also showed professional acting ability during the altercation between the Lover (played by Keian Hagstrom) and he.

Shaina Egan performed a superior Mrs. Walker. Ms. Egan adopted a very natural sounding British accent for the role. Her expressive facial movements showed the character’s inner turmoil regarding her son’s condition. Her vocals captured the upbeat sentiments of “Twenty-One” and “It’s a Boy” with sincerity. Ms. Egan expressed Mrs. Walker’s frustration through her rendition of “Smash the Mirror.” Her Townshendesqe swinging motion of the chair added a nice touch.

Gary Werner played the lovable lush Uncle Ernie. Mr. Werner added humor to the show during his “Fiddle About” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” numbers. The performer added a slight slur to his voice. Mr. Werner did so in a clever way. One could understand his character drank. He still expressed the lyrics so that the audience could understand them.

“Acid Queen” would make the list of Tommy’s best numbers. Legends Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle even sang it with The Who. While an intimidating song to attempt, Joyel Crawford met the challenge. Ms. Crawford gave the song the sultry, soulful treatment it warranted.

Jerrod Ganesh performed the role of the sadistic Cousin Kevin. Mr. Ganesh’s vicious vocals and quick movements demonstrated he character’s malicious nature. He applied the cigarette prop for maximum effect.

Courtney Bundens portrayed Sally Simpson. With a pining look from “behind blue eyes” Ms. Bundens showed her character’s infatuation with Tommy. The performer’s vocals on “Sally Simpson” and “Sally’s Question” made the character even more likable.

Tommy even included a number written by a legendary bluesman. As the huckster Hawker, Keian Hagstrom sang Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Eyesight to the Blind.” In this sequence, performer Faith McCleery portrayed the harmonica player. Ms. McCleery made her character even more interesting than the Marilyn Monroe icon in the movie version of Tommy.

Tommy contained mesmerizing dance sequences. “Pinball Wizard”, “Acid Queen” and “Miracle Cure” featured spectacular routines. Dance Captain Nicole Lukaitis set a stellar example for the ensemble. The Lads and Lasses executed elaborate moves all evening.

In addition to some different lyrics and arrangements, Mr. Townshend added a “new song” to the musical version of Tommy. This refreshing inclusion of something different made the musical more appealing. Justin Walsh and Shaina Egan delivered a beautiful duet on “I Believe My Own Eyes.”

Other members of the Production Team included: Producer Tami Funkhouser, Stage Manager Omi Parrilla-Dunne, Set Builder Glen Funkhouser, Set Construction/Sound Engineer Kalman Dunne, Costume Designer Renee McCleery, Costume Assistant Brennan Diorio, and Properties Nicole DeRosa Lukaitis and Tami Funkhouser.

The following performers completed the cast: Audrey DiEnno, Jaime Weingard, Jonathan Greenstein, Jake Van Horn, Jake Hufner, Gia Lukatis and Gianna Leonen.

Who fans who would go “anyway, anyhow, anywhere” to experience the band’s music would be well served to go to Haddonfield Plays and Players this February. The opportunity is also a “bargain” for fans of community theatre in South Jersey. Hop in your “magic bus” and head over to the playhouse. “The song is over” this February 15th. So is this run of Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

 

Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Theatre fans get ready for one “Weil”d December. This month legendary South Jersey community theatre director Matt Weil is directing not one, but TWO shows for the Holiday Season. Talk about a gift for audiences. This reviewer attended the first, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, at Haddonfield Plays and Players on December 7th.

Several weeks ago Director Weil spoke with your correspondent. When asked if he directs Holiday shows any differently than he approaches others, Mr. Weil replied, “No. The purpose is to tell a story.” And what a story he and the cast at Haddonfield Plays and Players told.

Willy Wonka (played by Tommy Balne) faced a dilemma. He longed to retire from the chocolate business. His lack of either an heir or a successor forced him to continue working.

Young Charlie Bucket (played by Matthew Goodrich) also experienced troubles. His family lacked money. His father’s (Michael Wemer) job at the toothpaste factory provided the household’s only source of income. This extended family consisted of Mrs. Bucket (Marissa Wolf) and both sets of Charlie’s grandparents. Then the toothpaste factory closed.

In the wake of this, Willy Wonka announced a contest. The winners would receive tours of his factory as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate. The contestants needed to find one of five golden tickets placed in packets of Wonka Bars. In spite of his poverty, Charlie found the means to purchase one bar. It contained a winning ticket.

The show opened with Tommy Balne delivering a beautiful version of “Pure Imagination.” That theme continued throughout the evening. Director Matt Weil deserves immense credit for the ingenuity he applied to this project. He took a piece with the spectacular visuals audiences remember from the 1971 film and made it just as memorable on the stage. Mr. Weil also executed this task with minimal scenery. The set itself (also designed by Mr. Weil) consisted of a checkerboard floor and a series of bay openings with flashing lights.

Without the accoutrements of a fantastic confection producing paradise, the suspension of the audience’s disbelief became an immediate challenge for the cast. The performers showed superlative acting ability to create the illusion. The actors’ expressions and reactions reflected the grandeur and wonder of the chocolate factory. The performers also showed fear and rocked to simulate the motion of the boat as Willy led them down the river into the unknown.

Willy Wonka did not lack for special effects, however. Violet Beauregarde (played by Sophie Holliday) turned into a blueberry. The crew executed this task by inflating her costume and through a creative use of lighting. When Charlie and Grandpa Joe (Tony Killian) floated towards the ceiling, Mr. Weil and his team used an innovative means of presenting this scene on the stage. The bubbles added a nice touch.

In the playbill, Mr. Weil described his initial reluctance over directing Willy Wonka:

Frivolous, saccharine, and lacking in in any major substance, Willy Wonka represented everything I was taught to avoid as an artist – or so I thought.                 

The show did contain similarities to Mr. Weil’s other work. For one, the story contained characters just as gluttonous and socially maladjusted as those in The Heiress and The Pillowman.

The kids who found the golden tickets were not ideal children. Veruca Salt (Cassidy Scherz) was even more spoiled than a Siamese kit kat. Her father (Cory Laslocky) enabled her by believing every day was payday and he could buy anything his little girl wanted.  Augustus Gloop (Dominick T. McNew, Jr.) ate to the extent that he made those suffering from hyperphagia seem like vegan dieters. It took three cooks to prepare his feasts. His ebullient mother (Faith McCleery) encouraged him in his gastronomical pursuits. Mike Teavee’s (Jake Gilman) appetite for television eclipsed Gloop’s hunger for food. His mother (Victoria Tatulli) kept him out of school so he could focus on his interest in television. This group made Violet Beauregarde the most normal member of the bunch. She had an addiction to chewing gum. Her Southern belle mom (Lori Alexio Howard) allowed her to do so as often as she liked.

Phineous Trout (Alex Leavitt) played the reporter tasked with interviewing these lucky “winners.” Mr. Leavitt’s caricaturish grin, initial enthusiasm and later astonishment with these characters drew snickers from the audience.

The Oompa-Loompas provided commentary on the children’s behavior. Performers Abigail Brown, Lorelei Ohnishi, Nathan Laslocky, Logan Murphy, Sera Scherz and Gabriel Werner played the roles of Willy Wonka’s factory workers. They performed fantastic renditions of the “Oompa-Loompa” songs while executing Katharina Muniz’s choreography. Costumer Renee McCleery and Assistant to the Costumer Jenn Doyle designed authentic looking garb for these iconic characters.

Tommy Balne turned in one of the best performances your reviewer has seen on this side of the Milky Way. Mr. Balne possesses a phenomenal ability to talk with his eyes. His communicative facial expressions were so proficient that your correspondent would’ve been just as entertained watching him all evening.

The role required some physical adeptness. Mr. Balne also executed these challenges without flaw. One of the demands included the ability to twirl a cane. Mr. Balne didn’t have butterfingers. He utilized the prop brilliantly all evening.

In addition to his expressive mannerisms, Mr. Balne proved himself a stellar triple threat. Besides the lead role, he also played the character of The Candy Man. As with his rendition of “Put on A Happy Face” in Bye Bye Birdie, Mr. Balne took a theatrical standard and infused it with his own personality. Besides his awesome vocal stylings, he completed an outstanding dance routine with Tess Smith, Michael Thompson, Leah Cedar and Quinn Wood while delivering the popular tune: “The Candy Man.”

The scene reminded this reviewer of a drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Another famous “Candy Man” crooner hosted it on The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show. Mr. Rich joked to Mr. Davis, Jr. that the winner should receive one of Mr. Davis, Jr.’s shoes. After his performance in Willy Wonka, one of Mr. Balne’s shoes would’ve been a better prize than the tour of factory or a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Matthew Goodrich also performed outstanding song and dance routines. His execution of the “Think Positive” sequence made for one of the show’s most memorable moments. Mr. Goodrich completed some intricate twirls that added superb showmanship to the scene.

Performers Marge Triplo and Lori Clark also added their talents to this extensive cast.

Other members of the Production Team included: Assistant Director Melissa Harnois, Producer Megan Knowlton Balne, Vocal Director Kendra C. Heckler, Stage Manager Sara Viniar, Assistant Stage Manager Brennan Diorio, Set Construction Dan Boris, Lighting Designer Jen Donsky and Props Designer Debbie Mitchell.

South Jersey community theatre aficionados will feel glad Mr. Weil decided to add Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka to his repertoire. He wrote:

Today, my assumption is that you may be sitting there feeling very much the same way I felt one year ago. My hope is that our show will tickle and delight you, that you may take a similar journey as my own, and that you will find Willy Wonka simple, sweet and satisfying – like a bite of chocolate.

The “Weil”d December continues at the Ritz Theatre Company. The director’s next Holiday project is Scrooge: The Musical. That show runs from December 12th through December 22nd.

Audiences don’t need to win a golden ticket at one in ten million odds to see Willy Wonka. It runs through December 21st. After that, the chocolate factory closes forever at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

High Fidelity at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players took me back in time this weekend. Not only did the company feature a show set during the 1990s, but Ed Doyle cast a number of familiar faces from his 2017 homage to the 1980s, Rock of Ages. In spite of my enthusiasm for watching Ed “Rico” Santiago, Dana Masterman and Vinnie DiFilippo share the stage again, I had some doubts about the overall program.

If I were to partake in the main character’s favorite past time, the 1990s wouldn’t make my “top five” decades. My “top three” reasons are: our country suffered through a philanderer in the White House, a senior figure in the Federal Government perjuring himself and a sexual misconduct scandal involving a Supreme Court nominee. Bad behavior must’ve been endemic to the 90s as High Fidelity’s protagonist, Rob, engaged in some of his own. The story explored his relationship woes through great music (directed by Jared Moskowitz) and dance routines (choreographed by Katharina Muniz). I attended the October 6th performance.

High Fidelity depicted one man’s quest to cope with heartbreak. Rob (played by Ed “Rico” Santiago) struggled through a difficult breakup with Laura (Dana Masterman). His past relationships with Alison (Jenn Kopesky), Penny (Sara Viniar), Charlie (Krista Reinhardt), Sarah (Trishia Dennis) and Jackie (Amanda Frederick) haunted him. Rob found solace among music and the regulars who frequented his Brooklyn record store.

Someone coping with the loss of his girlfriend while living a dull life may seem like a hackneyed story line. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsey-Abaire gave this premise a fresh take. High Fidelity contained unexpected plot twists and several quirky characters. Add the music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Amanda Green and this musical comedy became an enjoyable evening of theatre.

Ed “Rico” Santiago (as Rob) possesses a rare gift for connecting with spectators. Unlike many performers he regularly makes eye contact with theatregoers. Combine that with his pleasant delivery, witty presence and adeptness for singing upbeat numbers Mr. Santiago’s ability to engage an audience is without peer.

Mr. Santiago displayed great range in High Fidelity. In spite of the character’s despicable behavior, he still induced the audience to support Rob. His stirring rendition of “Laura, Laura” served as a major reason why.

Dana Masterman (as Laura) displayed great talent through her use of non-verbal communication. Even when her character wasn’t singing, speaking or dancing, Ms. Masterman made Laura a key figure on the stage. She ensured the audience always understood precisely what Laura thought and felt about the action. The best example in this show occurred during her first scene with Ian (played by Tommy Balne). The performer captured the situation’s awkwardness perfectly.

Ms. Masterman’s singing capability equals her aptitude for facial expressions. She delivered outstanding vocals on “Number Five with a Bullet”: a track that fused aspects of country, rock and soul music. As if that didn’t provide a challenge, Ms. Masterman performed part of this number while climbing over a couch.

The “She Goes” routine grabbed the number one spot on my “top five” High Fidelity highlights list. While Lauren Hope Gates (as Allison) and Mr. Santiago delivered strong vocals, the back-up dancers made the number a classic. Vinnie DiFillipo, Matthew Weil and Jonathan Greenstein performed a comically choreographed routine that made the evening’s highpoint.

For those romantic minded theatregoers out there, the show included some additional love stories. The one between Dick (Joseph Grosso) and Anna (Faith McLeery) allowed these two performers to sing the delightful reprise to “It’s No Problem” together. I’d add that moment to the “top five” list, also.

The ensemble contained eccentric characters. They made the show even more amusing. Barry (played by Anthony Vitalo) strived to put together a band although he didn’t play anything. When he did assemble the members of Sonic Death Monkey, he showed himself to be quite the balladeer. He performed a terrific rendition of “Saturday Night Girl” accompanied by Matthew Weil and Johnathan Greenstein. The latter used the same hair stylist as Mr. T. for this show, apparently.

Singer Marie (Allison Korn) was “complex.” She engaged in brief affair with Lyle Lovett, but couldn’t say it was with Lyle Lovett although it was with Lyle Lovett. Ms. Korn delivered the sober lament of those coping with difficult breakups, “Ready to Settle”, with somber conviction.

In keeping with the “list” theme, Tommy Balne catapulted his character into the pantheon of “top three” Yogi’s. Joining the distinguished company of the Bear and the Berra, add Ian.

Among a cast of funny and talented performers, Mr. Balne made his role the most humorous. Famed for organizing Kurt Cobain’s intervention, Ian attempted to win over Laura with his mystic appeal. Mr. Balne’s wig, costume and clever insertions of the yoga tree pose would make him any comedy fan’s Ghandi.

I did find one aspect of the show a bit disappointing. Alluding to his earlier work, Mr. Doyle placed one of Stacey Jaxx’s records in the store. Last year Vinnie DiFilippo portrayed that fictional singer in Rock of Ages. The prop kindled my hope that he’d reprise the role in this show. While that character didn’t appear, Mr. DiFilippo compensated by performing a spectacular Bruce Springsteen impression.

I would also like to complement performers Jenn Kopesky, Sara Viniar, Krista Reinhardt, Trisha Dennis, Amanda Frederick and Jeremy Noto for their work in this production.

High Fidelity would make my “top five” list of musical comedies set in the 1990s. We all know the scandals that shamed our nation in the 90s will never recur. However, let’s hope playwrights and musicians craft more period pieces like High Fidelity. Let’s also hope that this cast and crew members from Haddonfield Plays and Players are available to bring it to the stage. No one will ever accuse me of perjury after writing that.

High Fidelity goes the way of grunge music, the Macarena and the US budget surplus after October 20th.

Kiss Me Kate at Haddonfield Plays and Players

On the surface, the opening number “Another Opn’in, Another Show” would work as an appropriate introduction to a musical. At the opening night performance of Haddonfield Plays and Players’ Kiss Me Kate, it didn’t fit. As the show progressed, I couldn’t describe it as just “another” opening night at “another” show. I found this October 6th performance absolutely spectacular.

This Chris McGinnis directed and choreographed musical featured a “play within a play” format. That seemed a fitting approach for a piece that referenced Shakespeare. This Cole Porter classic told the story of a theatre company’s travails in staging the Bard’s The Taming of The Shrew. The events on the stage bore an uncanny resemblance to the lives of the 1940s actors in the play. Comedic hijinks coupled with superb singing and dancing resulted.

Arielle Egan took on the dual roles of Katherine and the actress who played her, Lilli Vanessi. I enjoyed the clever approach this thespian utilized to transform the latter into the former. One also has to acknowledge her skill in bringing out the humorous aspects of a bad temper. She animated the concept that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” with great wit. While she treated the audience to extraordinary acting, Ms. Egan impressed even more with her vocal capabilities.

This performer manages her voice as though it’s a distinct musical instrument. Ms. Egan executed outstanding trills and vibrato while singing the comedic “I Hate Men.” Her character very well may have, but this reviewer sure loved her singing. It proved a challenging song to perform. The track contained rests and accents in unusual places. She impressed by performing the song flawlessly while emphasizing the funnier aspects of the words.

Anthony Vitalo’s stellar vocal prowess also captivated the audience. In addition to a voice that broadcasts well, his style reminds one of Greg Lake’s; only with an American accent. I felt like a “lucky man” given the opportunity to hear his renditions of “Where Thine Thy Special Face” and the witty ode to ribaldry “Where is the Life that Late I Led.” It’s an achievement to speak those titles without tripping over the alliteration. Mr. Vitalo sang with confidence and achieved terrific interpretations.

Mr. Vitalo also exhibited proficiency for facial expressions. Whether his character connived, wooed or angered, he displayed the best mannerisms to express the emotions. From my seat at stage right, I had a clear view of him during Ms. Egan’s superb solo performance on “So in Love.” His somber pining for his lost love gave the song much more impact. That’s a remarkable achievement for a performer sitting silently on stage during the number.

The cast gave Musical Director Justin Adams a lot of talent with which to work. One of the evening’s highlights took place when Mr. Vitalo and Ms. Egan joined together for the “Wunderbar” tune. The song’s title proved an adept description of its delivery from both performers.

Colleen Murphy (as Lois Lane/Bianca) added her remarkable vocals to the show. Many of the lyrics she sang contained dual meanings and she varied her tone to express these changes. Ms. Murphy delivered a striking rendition of the archly titled “Always True to You in My Own Way.” I also enjoyed her duet with Dennis Summerville (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio) on “Why Can’t You Behave?”

Perhaps, serving as an inspiration to Sister Act, Kiss Me Kate utilized gangsters as a source of comedy. Curt Shoyer and Steve Ciapanna provided that comedy through their accents, dialog and costumes. They added singing and dancing to their repertoire with the hilarious “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” number.

Act II opened with the show’s most memorable moment. Kahil A. Wyatt (as Paul) led the company through an intricate song and dance number entitled “It’s Too Darn Hot.” One has to credit Chris McGinnis for coordinating the elaborate choreography. The cast deserve recognition for the flawless performance of such a multifarious routine.

Kiss Me Kate featured a rotating set to accommodate the musical’s 16 different scenes. It transported the audience from Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore to Elizabethan England. Rennee McCleery’s costuming enhanced this effect.

Jordan Gulick, Faith McCleery, Tony Yates, Charles L. Bandler, Alex Chupik, Brian Gensel, Felicia Capece, Nicole Lukaitis, Jennie Pines, Gia Lukatis and Krista Reinhardt added their talents to an outstanding cast.

To borrow from Shakespeare, “all’s well that ends well.” Sadly, the show will end on October 21. Following that, audiences can kiss Kiss Me Kate goodbye at Haddonfield Plays and Players.