Gabrielle Affleck

Theatre Review – Violet at Burlington County Footlighters

Director Brian Blanks is taking theatergoers on a journey this fall. The station is Burlington County Footlighters and the vehicle is Violet; a deceptively complex musical that explores one person’s voyage of self-discovery. I bought my ticket and embarked on the show’s opening night, September 16th.

Footlighters opted to kick-off their 79th season with this lesser known piece by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. When I arrived a woman in the audience asked me if I’d ever heard of Violet. In fact, even the director told me that among his theatre friends familiarity with it is “about 50/50.” When I heard the tale centered on a young North Carolina woman’s bus trip across America, I figured, “Here we go: yet, another story about a small town girl heading off to Hollywood.” This piece ended up as different from that premise as one could imagine.

Violet (played by Roxanne Paul) suffered a disfiguring accident as a child when her father (played by Chuck Klotz) inadvertently hit her in the face with an axe blade. In 1964, several years following his death, she embarked on a bus trip from her North Carolina home to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She sought a televangelist (Michael Gearty) there she believed could heal her. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” During the sojourn, Violet encountered a host of interesting characters that transformed the trip from an external one into an internal voyage of discovery. During the journey she experienced a series of flashbacks that facilitated the later. All this occurred to the accompaniment of a live band (directed by Cameron Stringham) playing sensational sixties sounding music.

None of the players used microphones. They didn’t need to. Violet featured performers with very strong voices. I encountered Footlighters veteran Dan Brothers in the audience before the musical began. Mr. Brothers can project his voice better than anyone I’ve ever heard. His presence in the building may have inspired the newcomers to this theatre group. When Michael Gearty testified in the role of the evangelist I’m sure people way up in the Heavens could hear him. Soulful Tee (in the role of choir singer Lula Buffington) belted a note that made both my eardrums rattle. As a longtime Motown and Stax fan, I welcomed the volume.

Roxanne Paul delivered a stellar performance as Violet. Her music featured a range of styles, from soulful tracks to upbeat numbers to ballads. Some began a capella. I liked the soft way she vocalized the mellow, “Lay Down Your Head.” While sitting in a bed near the back of the stage, she crooned in a voice soft enough to convey feeling, but loud enough for the audience to hear.

Ms. Paul’s brilliant facial expressions and mannerisms conveyed the character’s vulnerabilities in ways that Brian Crawley’s lyrics couldn’t. Her proficiency added an element that made the serious aspects of the show more impactful.

Darryl S. Thompson Jr. turned in a moving performance as Flick. The lone African-American character in a story he played a crucial role. As the bus travelled through the Deep South before the advent of the Civil Rights Era he encountered prejudice. When a character addressed him with a racial epithet even the audience gasped. I found it interesting that they became just as affronted as the character.

Mr. Thompson also sang some challenging vocal numbers very well. He rightly drew cheers from the house during his rendition of “Let It Sing.” He delivered the number so well it made me wish the songwriter would have let his character sing more often.

Gabrielle Affleck deserves great credit for taking on multifarious, and rather diverse, roles. In this one show Ms. Affleck played an old woman, a choir singer and a prostitute. That’s range. I liked hearing her vocals on the bluesy track “Anyone Would Do.” It’s doubtful anyone would have done it as well as she did.

As mentioned, Violet featured a host of phenomenal voices. I’d compliment Nicholas Zoll, Alex Davis and Glenn Paul for their contributions to the performance, as well.

Throughout the show myriad references were made to Violet’s being “disfigured.” When the subject arose, Ms. Paul did a nice job exhibiting anxiety by wincing and nervously covering her cheek. Her face didn’t have any scars, however. Young Violet (Ms. Orlowski) didn’t either. I could overlook it in the latter case since that character didn’t have as much stage time. Ms. Paul’s Violet appeared on stage in almost every scene. Her “ugliness” served as a crucial part of the show.

Ms. Paul is a good-looking woman. As much as I tried I simply couldn’t visualize her as “deformed.” In retrospect I figured the playwright intended symbolism to show Violet as a beautiful person who needed to discover it for herself. I can accept the premise. It just took me a while to understand it. That’s a reflection on the playwright, not the cast or crew.

A true “team effort” made for the most memorable scene of this show.  With apologies to Kenny Rogers, “Luck of the Draw” just may be the best song ever written about poker. This bouncy number featured Chuck Klotz (as Violet’s father), Emily Orlowski (as Young Violet), Ms. Paul, Mr. Thompson and Brandon Zebley (as Monty) working together. They did a nice job transitioning from Young Violet’s learning the game from her father to modern Violet applying those lessons. I liked hearing so many talented vocalists on the same track.

I enjoyed taking Violet’s journey. In the playbill Mr. Blanks commented on its timeless themes. Unfortunately for theatre fans, time’s ticking on the show’s run. Take a journey to Burlington County Footlighters no later than October 1st.  Don’t miss the bus.

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Theatre Review – The Drowsy Chaperone at The Maple Shade Arts Council

I could use many expressions to describe The Maple Shade Arts Council’s presentation of The Drowsy Chaperone: sleep inducing would not be one of them. This Brian Padla directed performance showcased the greatest collection of talent ever assembled in a church basement. When I attended on July 9th, even the audience featured exceptional performance artists. (Rachel Comenzo attended as did other luminaries of the South Jersey community theater community.) An entertaining evening of music and comedy resulted.

Mr. Padla, the cast and crew deserve great credit for putting on a musical this involved. They merit even more accolades for doing so while in the Council’s “temporary home.” The staff managed to convert a small stage in the basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s Nolan Hall into a professional theatrical platform with an orchestra section and dressing rooms. As if that didn’t warrant kudos, the show well exceeded my expectations; and they were stratospheric even before I walked in the door. As many readers are probably already aware: I’m familiar with the work of producers Michael Melvin and Jillian Starr-Renbojr as well as that of performers Connor Twigg, Gabrielle Affleck and Casey Grouser.

The “musical within a comedy” featured a unique premise. It began with the lights out. A lone voice broke the darkness. The Man in the Chair (played by Dennis Dougherty) delivered a humorous monologue ruminating on musical theatre. He described an obscure show from the 1920s called The Drowsy Chaperone as his favorite. Then he pulled out a vinyl recording of the musical and placed it on his record player. The performers took the stage and acted it out. From time-to-time the show would freeze allowing Mr. Dougherty’s character to provide witty commentary. While The Drowsy Chaperone’s script turned out to be musical theatre’s answer to a B movie, the Man in the Chair’s exposition combined with wonderful singing and dancing made it an unforgettable piece for theater fans.

One of the Man in the Chair’s vignettes concerned the fate of the actor who played Aldolpho in the original production. It turns out the performer met an ignominious end. After drinking himself to death his poodles partially devoured him. All theatregoers should hope that destiny doesn’t befall Antonino Baldasari. (He portrayed Aldolpho in this production.)

Mr. Baldasari played the funniest role I’ve had the pleasure of watching on a live stage. As a parody of a lusty Latin lothario he carried a long cane that he just couldn’t seem to control; always dropping it at the most inconvenient moment. His high-pitched stretching of the word what could be the best one-word catch phrase in the history of comedy. He then took the humor to another height by crooning “A Message from a Nightingale.” In that challenging number he portrayed an Oriental man singing with a Spanish accent. He impressed me the most by keeping a straight face through the whole show: something those of us in the audience couldn’t do.

I give Connor Twigg great credit for taking on the role of Robert Martin, let alone playing it so well. He performed a phenomenal tap dance while singing “Cold Feets”. (Joe Lee—as George—expertly accompanied him towards the number’s end.) A few scenes later he wore a blindfold while roller skating. To round out the character he also delivered numerous funny lines perfectly. Mr. Twigg had a full evening.

I’ve attended shows where Gabrielle Affleck either performed or directed. In the title role of this one, I had the chance to hear her sing for the first time. Ms. Affleck is such a talented vocalist that I’m stunned I’ve never heard her perform a musical number before. I enjoyed her melodic rendition of the so-called ode to alcoholism “As We Stumble Along”. Because of the unorthodox mixture of tango with comedy, I’d select her duet with Mr. Baldasari, “I Am Aldolpho” as the stand-out number from this show.

The Drowsy Chaperone seemed to spare no performer from singing a song that challenged one’s ability to keep a straight face. Following a great rendition of the narcissistic “Show Off” in Act I, Nicollete Palombo (as Janet van de Graaff) sang the most unusual ballad ever written, called “Bride’s Lament”, in Act II. The Man in the Chair warned the audience that this track had “terrible lyrics.” What an understatement. The dolorous lament compared a woman’s lover to a monkey. One can only admire the way Ms. Palombo voiced such an emotional recitative without cracking a smile.

The production featured many exceptional performances. I also applaud James Gallagher, Matthew Maerten, Sarah Harris, Casey Grouser, Debbi Heckmanm and Lori A. Howard for their enactments. Alex Davis, Haley Melvin, Mary Melvin, Kevin Roberts, Frankie Simpson and Amber Stolarski rounded out the ensemble nicely.

The orchestra, led by Cameron Stringham, sounded fantastic. The sound quality impressed me; especially when taking the venue into account. At times I thought I was listening to the soundtrack on CD. The songs in this show were rather complex, as well. The “Overture” had the band come in mid-way through a pre-recorded performance. Some songs included rests in unusual places. One track simulated a record skipping. They and the cast delivered all these numbers flawlessly.

The show did experience some technical glitches. A loud humming noise came through the PA system a few times during Act II. Then the sound briefly cut out. These things happen. The issue is how performers handle them when they occur. One of these episodes transpired with most of the ensemble on the stage. No one reacted to the snafu. Everyone remained in-character and continued their performances while the sound crew corrected the problem. That’s professionalism.

The talent level at South Jersey community theatre productions always impresses me. I write that a lot, but this show was special. I’d never heard of The Drowsy Chaperone, but I left thinking it the most entertaining musical I’ve witnessed. Before the show I met Michael Melvin, the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council. He thanked me for the reviews I’ve written of his and the Council’s work. If anything, as audience members, we should be thanking Mr. Melvin and his organization for producing such fantastic shows. Their current staging of The Drowsy Chaperone is a great reason why. It runs through July 16th.

 

Theater Review – Of Mice and Men at Bridge Players Theater Company

Finally an American has produced a drama on par with Shakespeare. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men animated the concepts of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations in a way that made them distinctly American and, yet, universal. He interwove the freedom to “live off the fatta’ the land” with the quest for love and companionship. At the same time he explored the individual’s place in a society he’s no longer of value to. The cast and crew at the Bridge Players Theater in Burlington, NJ turned in performances commensurate with such high-minded concepts.

I admire director Gabrielle Affleck’s choice of projects. Several months ago I enjoyed watching her lead a production of Kimberly Akimbo; a challenging play written by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire. For her follow-up endeavor, Ms. Affleck decided to “up her game”, if you will, and selected another story with difficult and controversial material. This time a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote the script. This show also featured a dog (Ladybird “Lady” Ezell) in the live show. One can only respect this artist’s courage.

I found the interplay between Breen Rourke (as George) and Paul Sollimo (as Lenny) outstanding. A year-and-a-half ago I watched Mr. Rourke play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in Glengarrry, Glen Ross. I still recall the masterful way he voiced the role in a shrill, whinny voice. It made me wonder how he’d play a drifter from 1930s California. His authentic delivery of George’s diction and locution surprised me. As the show continued I realized I shouldn’t have been. He possesses superb acting abilities. He showed his character’s descent from rugged idealism to disillusionment very steadily and believably.

I also have to give Mr. Rourke credit for his performance in the opening scene. The playwright assigned most of the dialog to his character. At times I thought the scene a soliloquy. He impressed me for remembering all the words, let alone for the genuine manner he delivered them.

I found the casting of Paul Sollimo in the role of Lenny as somewhat ironic. The dialog described the character as “dumb”. Mr. Sollimo is a genius in the field of acting. I’ve watched him play several “sophisticated “characters extremely well over the years. I wondered what he would bring to the role of Lenny. It allowed him to exhibit his craft at its pinnacle. Mr. Sollimo brilliantly transformed himself into the character. He crawled around on the floor, giggled childishly and spoke like someone slow of mind. He pronounced words in the identical way I imagined the character would have when I read the novel. This outstanding performance led me to sympathize with Lenny more than I’d expected to.

I’ve always believed that no amount of histrionic prowess can rescue bad script writing. Rachel Comenzo’s performance of “Curley’s wife” proved me wrong. I’ve always believed, to put this as politely as I can, Mr. Steinbeck’s development of “Curley’s wife” in the novel was the worst character portrayal in the history of the English language. Seriously: Steinbeck couldn’t have even given her a name? (See my earlier review of the novel version of Of Mice and Men.) I thought the character description in the play version a bit better. Curley’s wife seemed misunderstood and longed to seek a better life. The author still failed to fully develop it.

Ms. Comenzo deserves immense credit for animating such a poorly written character so well. In her final scene with Lenny, she delivered an emotional exposition of Curley’s wife’s background leading into her desire to escape her unhappy surroundings. Ms. Comenzo’s pining facial expression and soft voice modulation actually made me empathize with the character. That’s difficult for a performer to do with a strong character. I never would’ve thought it possible with a weak one. It shows the immense level of her acting skills that she achieved that with so little assistance from the playwright.

Mr. Rourke, Mr. Sollimo and Ms. Comenzo put on an acting clinic. The rest of the cast delivered great performances, as well. I’d especially note that Greg Northam played a very moving Candy. His gingerly gait and slumped over posture added to my empathy for him. Richard Priest (as Crooks) and Fred Ezell (as Carlson) utilized memorable voices for the roles they played.

I would warn theater goers that some of the dialog contained racial epithets. The playwright had an ulterior motive for including it, however. Later in the show Mr. Steinbeck expressed his animosity towards this sort of racial bigotry. In a moving scene between Crooks (played by Richard Priest) and Lenny, the lone African American character discussed his disdain with the other characters for excluding him simply because of his race. As the original play premiered in 1937, I admired the then progressive view on race relations.

I’d also liked to give a shout out to Jeff Rife. The man did a phenomenal job with the set design. I also give him credit for engineering the set in such a way that made the intricate changes between scenes more manageable for the cast and crew.

The story in Of Mice and Men has become iconic in our culture. Mr. Steinbeck’s tale is a masterpiece of the highest order. It’s still well worthwhile to revisit; especially, when performed by such an outstanding cast and crew. The Bridge Players Theater Company’s presentation brought to mind a line from Henryk Sienkwiewicz’s epic novel Quo Vadis: “I only wish it was worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” The show runs through May 14.

Theatre Review – Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

While set in the 1930’s, 2009’s Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical could have depicted modern American society. The violence, anxiety about financial security and a background rife with religious fervor made me feel like I was channel surfing between CNBC and Fox News. The performance of Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s proficiently directed show brought me back to Burlington County Footlighters’ theatre.

The drama centered on the lives of the two eponymous characters. Still, it was like watching the musical equivalent of an American take on Plutarch’s Lives. I enjoyed the dichotomy between the outlaw Clyde Barrow (played by Connor Twigg) and his ‘reformed’ brother Buck (played by Brad Kenney). Rachel Comenzo did a phenomenal job in the role of Bonnie. Her unconditional love and blind devotion to Clyde served as an outstanding contrast to Becky Moseley’s performance as Buck’s wife, Blanche. Ms. Moseley really nailed the role of a conflicted wife. While a devoted Christian often citing religious reasoning, her own commitment to her husband won out. Even without the stellar musical numbers, these conflicts alone would’ve made for a memorable show.

Mr. Twigg delivered an energetic performance as the hooligan. He animated all the character’s complexities with equal dexterity. His depiction of Clyde’s reaction to a brutal prison assault convinced me he actually became unhinged. The role of a suave conniver also entered his repertoire. When Bonnie’s mother (played by Gabrielle Affleck) walked in on the two during a romantic tryst, he calmly went along with Bonnie’s dubious explanations. Mr. Twigg also brought great tenderness into his romantic scenes with Ms. Comenzo. He delivered a ukulele accompanied serenade to her while he sat in a bathtub. I have to admit: I never thought I’d watch a ruthless character do that.

Rachel Comenzo played an exceptional Bonnie. Due to the strength of her performance, it’s difficult to select one ‘best’ scene. With that noted she truly shined in her rendition of the ballad “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad”.  Ms. Comenzo has a very strong voice. She modulated it very well on this moving song. The tune opened with the following lyrics.

Dyin’ ain’t so bad.

Not if you both go together.

Only when one’s left behind does it get sad.

But a short and lovin’ life, that ain’t so bad.

I only hope to God that I go first.

I couldn’t live on memories.

Her vocal inflections and facial expressions made me feel it.

The variety of musical numbers enhanced the show. It featured some well composed ballads. Ms. Moseley delivered a somber rendition of “That’s What You Call a Dream”.  I’m preferential to more soulful material. I really enjoyed “Raise a Little Hell” by Mr. Twigg and “Made in America” by the Preacher (played by Michael Melvin) and the ensemble. The Gospel influence in those tracks gave them a unique sound.

While a great show overall, one of the subplots was too cliché. Prior to meeting Clyde, a police officer named Ted Hinton (played by D. J. Hedgepath) took a romantic interest in Bonnie. The interest recurred several times in the show. This is the stereotypical nice guy falls for girl who loves the bad boy. The play had enough romantic conflict, already. I thought this element of the story totally unnecessary.

Mr. Hedgepath played his role very well through a great range of emotions. In scenes with Ms. Comenzo he softened his voice like a bashful suitor. When serving in the posse to gun down the fugitives, he showed remorse. I enjoyed his dolorous rendition of “You Can Do Better than Him” with Mr. Twigg. An actor that talented deserved a better story line with which to work.

Set Designer Jim Frazier and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick deserve a lot of credit for their work. A lot of scene changes occurred in Bonnie and Clyde. The production even included a car that emerged from the back of the stage several times. The crew executed these intricate shifts flawlessly.

The real life Clyde Barrow and his brother Buck are buried together. While Bonnie wrote poetry, Clyde came up with the epitaph on their headstone. It reads: “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Burlington County Footlighters’ run of Bonnie and Clyde ends this weekend. I can’t think of a more fitting encomium.

Theater Review – Kimberly Akimbo at 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Treading the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy challenges any thespian. The cast and crew of 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters did so brilliantly this April. They selected the perfect script in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo (directed by Gabrielle Affleck) to showcase their skills.

Phyllis Josephson delivered an inspiring performance as Kimberly: a teenager suffering from an incurable disease. The nature of the disorder compounded the tragedy of her situation. This malady caused her to age four-and-a-half times as quickly as a normal adolescent. Ms. Josephson flawlessly expressed the mannerisms and speech inflections of a 16 year old. In an exhibition of her range, she also acted the part of a heart attack victim. After the show I didn’t know if it more appropriate to send her flowers or take her out for ice cream.

Ms. Josephson unveiled her true forte in the emotional scenes with Kimberly’s alcoholic father, Buddy. (Very convincingly played by Zach Palmer.) She cowered like a scared little girl, but also lashed out venomously when he asked embarrassing questions to her love interest, Jeff. (Exceptionally played by Tim Schumann) Palmer’s comedic tirade against the evils of Dungeons and Dragons evened out the scene nicely.

After witnessing Kori Rife’s portrayal of Buddy’s hypochondriac wife, Pattie, I could understand his issues with the bottle. Ms. Rife played the role of a narcissistic, self-obsessed, pregnant woman while still delivering solid comedic chops. In her first appearance on stage she revealed the depth of her talent. Pattie struggled to dictate a message to her unborn child into a tape recorder. The bandages which covered her fingers, due to perceived carpal tunnel syndrome, prevented her from hitting the record button. She slapped it with her hands, and then tried her tongue, and eventually her chin.

Lisa Croce played an exceptional Aunt Debra. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I know Ms. Croce personally.) I haven’t witnessed a devious character played with such humor. She mixed the comedy and criminality very well. I liked how she dragged a mailbox involved in Debra’s scheme across the length of the stage.

2nd Stage featured an unusual set-up. Upon entering, the audience walked through the performance area to their chairs. Seating was limited, and the room got cramped, but I didn’t mind. I liked being up-close. At times I felt part of the show.

In terms of the play itself, I thought it extremely well-written. It began with a family on the verge of disintegration. In spite of the alcoholic father, the self-absorbed mother, terminally ill child, and homeless aunt with a criminal record the comic yuks didn’t stop. That’s an astounding accomplishment from a gifted playwright.

I’ve got bad news and good news. I’ll give you the bad news first. Unfortunately for theater goers, Kimberly Akimbo completed its run at 2nd Stage this past Saturday. Now the good news: the performers actively participate in other community theater projects. Based on the range they showed in this play, you can’t go wrong seeing them in either a comedy or tragedy. I hope we’re lucky and get to see them in a show that fuses the two like Kimberly Akimbo.