Greg Northam

Our Town Presented by The Show Must Go Online Productions

It is rare to encounter a work both relevant to the era of its writing yet with a timelessness that applies to the present day. Playwright Thornton Wilder achieved this dual feat through Our Town. His Great Depression era masterpiece included themes and ideas just as important in the twenty first century.

It’s difficult to imagine a play written in 1938 could relate to the coronaera. The production team and cast at the Show Must Go Online Productions showed why. They presented a socially distanced version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town this August 1st. Your correspondent attended the Zoom presentation of this American classic.

Our Town proved itself a great choice to perform. The show appeased community theatre fans longing for live arts. It provided some solace for those whose travel plans have been preempted by the pandemic; especially those interested in visiting the Northeast. The play also allowed its spectators to journey back to a simpler time prior to shut downs, social distancing and economic calamities. The Show Must Go Online allowed the audience to take a voyage to Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire during the early decades of the twentieth century.

The show’s unusual format allowed for a smooth adjustment to the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. To the delight of directors everywhere, Mr. Wilder set Our Town in the theatre that presents it. The playwright called upon the audience to use their imagination in order to envision the places described; and his text illustrated them in detail. That made the role of the narrator, in the character of the Stage Manager, a vital role in the show’s presentation.

The tasks required of his character make quite a challenge for any performer. The Stage Manager served as a moderator during the question-and-answer segments, expressed Wilder’s elaborate imagery detailing the people and places in Grover’s Corners while delivering some of the most emotional oratory ever spoken on stage.

Sam Dressler displayed an exceptional interpretation of this crucial role. Mr. Dressler delivered Mr. Wilder’s eloquent prose with the poise and grace the text required. Her spoke his lines with the professionalism of someone reciting an audiobook.

While the Stage Manager broke the fourth wall, he also interacted with the characters in the play. Mr. Dressler played a wonderful ice cream vendor in his interactions with George Gibbs (Aaron Wachs) and Emily Webb (Amelia Ann Ball).

Teenaged sweethearts George and Emily developed into deceptively complex characters. Both Aaron Wachs and Amelia Ann Ball played these roles to perfection.

Aaron Wachs captured the mannerisms and speech patterns of a teenaged boy. Mr. Wachs showed the character’s steady development from a naïve young man into an adult. This entailed expressing George’s transition from the idealism of playing baseball and going to college into the realism of becoming a husband and working on a farm. Mr. Wachs portrayed all the facets of this character brilliantly.

Amelia Ann Ball brought passion into her portrayal of Emily Webb. She began by playing the character as a coy teenager. Then she showed Emily’s development into a woman. Ms. Ball delivered an extraordinary performance during the third act. Her acting moved the audience to feel Emily’s heart breaking.

This show featured a virtual theatre first for your correspondent. The production team added sound effects. They included those of a crowing rooster, a train, a factory whistle and wedding music.

The performers showed enthusiasm for getting into character. Greg Northam creatively used a pipe and a laid-back speaking style for Charles Webb. Marci Lumer added authentic period costuming to Mrs. Julia Gibbs’ persona. Ms. Lumer also showed an excellent stoic look during the entire third act.

The complete cast list was as follows:

Stage Manager: Sam Dressler

George Gibbs: Aaron Wachs

Emily Webb: Amelia Ann Ball

Dr. Frank Gibbs: Bob Quintana

Mrs. Julia Gibbs: Marci Lumer

Mrs. Myrtle Webb: Sarah Pardys

Mr. Charles Webb: Greg Northam

Simon Stimpson: Kevin Ball

Rebecca Gibbs: Angela Robb

Howie Newsome/Sam Craig: Jeff Parsons

Constable Warren: Richard Hall

Woman in Auditorium/Mrs. Soames: Nance Reeves

Wally Webb/Man in Auditorium/Si Crowell/Baseball Players 1 & 3/Joe Stoddard: Drew Musto

Lady in the Box: Judy Musto

Professor Willard/Dead Woman: Nancy Singer

Baseball Player 2/Dead Man: Roy Belzer

Joe Crowell: Eric Raymond

In addition, Bob Quintana’s dog made an uncredited appearance on screen.

The show began almost ten minutes after its scheduled start time. The number of people in the cast along with the complexities of presenting an online performance create unforeseen challenges. The delayed opening could be excused for these reasons.

Our Town showed audiences how people often overlook the pleasures of daily life; most times, not even realizing they exist. How could a moral like this become more relevant 82 years after its initial performance? When the Show Must Go Online presented this play, the daily lives of Americans had been disrupted for four months and counting. Mr. Wilder’s masterpiece may prove to be more timeless than even the playwright had hoped.

 

The Odd Couple Presented by The Show Must Go Online Productions

Your correspondent had reservations regarding another installment of The Odd Couple. His views of its recent performances have ranged from laughable to tragic to outright pathetic. Then he realized that this version didn’t encompass a briefing featuring President Trump and Dr. Fauci. Upon that discovery, he welcomed The Show Must Go Online production directed by Eric Raymond. The performance occurred on Saturday, July 18th.

Presenting a show that has become part of Americana creates challenges for a cast and crew. Such a popular original will draw an audience’s comparisons. The iconic characters in The Odd Couple make this association even more inevitable. In addition, one of the nation’s most beloved playwrights, Pulitzer Prize winner Neil Simon, wrote the script.

These are intimidating factors to confront before the curtain goes up. Once it began, the production itself entailed a unique trial.

Director Raymond ensured the performance accommodated social distancing requirements. All the actors performed from their own homes via Zoom. The opening scene included witty banter among characters. This required strong chemistry between the performers along with a good flow.  The cast managed this unusual challenge wonderfully.

Felix Unger (played by Sam Dressler) never arrived late for poker nights at Oscar Madison’s apartment. Attendees Oscar (Greg Northam), Speed (Tim Blaikie), Murray (Michael Murphy), Roy (Bob Quintana) and Vinnie (Jeff Parsons) discussed his possible whereabouts. After a phone conversation with Felix’s wife, Oscar revealed that the two were getting divorced. The group expressed concern for Felix’s well-being.

When Felix did arrive, his despondency convinced Oscar to invite Felix to move in with him. Oscar had plenty of room in his apartment. Besides, as a recent divorce`, himself, he had something in common with his friend Oscar.

The similarities between the two ended there.

Oscar was a fun-loving irresponsible slob. Felix was a fastidious neat-freak. Their cohabitation strained their friendship. A date with sisters Gwendolyn (Susan Fowler) and Cecily Pigeon (Angela Robb) had the potential to fracture it.

Greg Northam played an entertaining Oscar Madison. He selected the perfect costume to enhance the character’s persona. The backwards baseball cap, the Ohio Tennis tee shirt and use of a cigar captured Oscar’s essence. His clever use of a New York accent made his character even more believable.

Mr. Northam delivered Mr. Simon’s comedic lines brilliantly. He told Oscar, “You have a low tolerance for composure.” During the same scene, he commented on Felix’s “tense hair.” Later, he made a witty reference to Felix’s initials. Hos remarks made for some of the show’s funniest moments.

Sam Dressler took on the role of the uptight Felix Unger. Mr. Dressler captured Felix’s despondency while doing so in a comical way. That’s quite a range of emotions to apply to one character.

Mr. Dressler’s soft voice and somber facial expressions translated well to the online format. He animated Felix’s sensitivity during his scene with the Pigeon sisters. Mr. Dressler described Felix’s devotion to his children as well as the trauma of enduring a divorce. He executed this scene with feeling.

Susan Fowler and Angela Robb played the British birds known as the Pigeon sisters. Both performers spoke in authentic English accents. They conveyed their characters’ carefree attitudes. Ms. Fowler and Ms. Robb also showed the siblings as more complex than their surface personalities suggested. Both displayed sincere empathy for Felix.

Not being in the same room together didn’t affect the repartee between the poker players. Tim Blaikie, Michael Murphy, Bob Quintana and Jeff Parsons kept the comedic interplay coming all evening.

The Show Must Go Online took the adage, “If you can’t be on time, be early,” literally. Felix may have been late for his poker game, but the show began a few minutes prior to the scheduled start time. Your correspondent logged in five minutes early to discover the show about to begin.

Neil Simon’s original version of the play premiered in 1965. The playwright revised the original script several times. In 1985, he crafted The Female Odd Couple and in 2002, Oscar and Felix: A New Look at the Odd Couple. After watching Mr. Raymond’s transition of the original from the stage to the internet, the show may be ready for another upgrade. Perhaps, one of the myriad playwrights influenced by Mr. Simon will place a new Oscar and Felix in the modern era. After this performance, the time may be right for the adventures of President Madison and Dr. Unger.

 

 

 

 

 

All My Sons Directed by Taylor Kellar

Director Taylor Kellar has reimagined Arthur Miller’s All My Sons for the twenty first century. Not only did this director choose to present this masterpiece on a virtual platform, Ms. Kellar took creative liberties with the playwright’s description of the show’s time period. Arthur Miller set his 1945 work in “August of our era.” Ms. Kellar transformed America during the Second World War into:

The great America Donald Trump promised us. We are set back to an era where women were property to man, human beings were restricted of rights, and you had a problem with a neighbor who wasn’t the same skin color as you.

The director modernized Miller’s characters. As she explained in the playbill:

What if the Kellars were a heavily Republican family? MAGA ran in their veins – hence Larry’s choice to serve in the military? What if Joe finally saw the errors of his evangelist ways, hence his decision to sell faulty parts, even if that meant putting lives at risk? What if the Deever family were black? What if Kate Kellar had implicit bias, not only having problems with her (Annie) dating her elder son Larry, but then again choosing to pursue Chris—so she blames it on the infidelity and not because of an interracial couple? Why would Joe Keller, a white man, be exonerated over Steve Deever, a black man? What if Chris was a member of the resistance, yet constantly lives in white guilt?

Quite an original interpretation of Mr. Miller’s work. Your correspondent witnessed the virtual performance on Saturday, June 13th.

In addition to the play’s larger themes, Mr. Miller included a serious family drama. Kate Kellar (played by Bridget Reilly Beauchamp) refused to accept that her son Larry had been killed during his military service. Joe Kellar (Greg Northam) and his son Chris (Joe Godley) struggled to deal with Mrs. Kellar’s non-acceptance. They described her as being “ill.” The situation became more complicated when Chris became engaged to Larry’s former fiancée Ann Deever (Danielle Lee James).

Ann also happened to be the daughter of Steve, an associate at Joe’s manufacturing company. Steve received a prison sentence for shipping faulty cylinder heads to the US military. The latter having caused the deaths of 21 pilots.

The story became even more tense when Steve’s son George (Elijah Jones) arrived. He had just visited with his father in prison. George informed Ann of some information his father shared with him. This news had the potential to destroy the Kellar family.

Drama this intense required some solid actors to bring it to the stage; or cyberspace in this case. Ms. Kellar selected an excellent team to animate her unique take on Mr. Miller’s story.

Greg Northam delivered a sobering performance as Joe. He captured the multiple facets of this complex character. Mr. Northam portrayed a man submerged in a world of denial and moral relativism. He displayed the same assurance while defending Steve from charges of being a murderer as he did when explaining his own reprehensible actions. His conniving assault on Steve’s character when talking to George gave an insight into Joe’s true personality.

Joe Godley brought passion to the role of Chris Keller. He expressed his character’s feelings for Ann with tenderness. During his heated exchange with Mr. Jones he, captured the Chris’ transition from incredulity to doubt. Mr. Godley’s cynical declaration that he had become “practical” concretized his character’s change.

Bridget Reilly Beauchamp performed an outstanding Kate Kellar. Her passionate expressions that Larry would still come home showed that her character believed it. Her declaration that if Larry didn’t come home, “we killed him” showed Kate’s complexity. Ms. Beauchamp delivered a moving monolog about a dream about her son and the destruction of “his” tree.

Danielle Lee James portrayed an excellent Ann. Her warm voice well suited the character. She performed gripping interactions throughout the evening. Ms. James brought out the tension in the conversations with Ms. Beauchamp regarding Larry’s death. The performer showed coyness in response to Mr. Godley’s advances. Ms. James shared a tense conversation with Ms. Croce regarding Chris’ idealism.

Elijah Jones delivered an inspired performance as George Deever. Mr. Jones displayed his character’s anger over the injustice committed against Steve. The performer’s sly eye squint showed it. He also brought out George’s heartbreak over Lydia’s (Chelsea Best) marriage to Frank (Antonino Baldasari). The way he declined Lydia’s invitation to meet their three children showed George’s misery.

Lisa Croce added her trademark comedic quips to the show. In the role of Sue Bayliss, she commented, “I should have been a woman. Men are always introducing me to beautiful women.” Ms. Croce expressed an emphatic “please” when asking Dr. Jim Bayliss (Josh Keiter) to take a phone call.

Not even virtual performances are immune from the unexpected. Ms. Beauchamp’s dog made a cameo during one of her scenes. At least that was how it seemed in real time. The canine may have served as a clever bit of foreshadowing for Joe’s speech on a “great big dog.”

The production team presented All My Sons as a “fundraiser for groups fighting for social justice.” A list is available on the Facebook page: Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS Virtual Reading.

Ms. Kellar observed that: …the themes of guilt and blame, justice and judgement, lies and deceit, morality and ethics, and courage are still relevant in Trump’s America, maybe more so. Her interpretation of All My Son showed just how trenchant that interpretation is.

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.

Neil Simon’s Rumors Presented by Burlington County Footlighters

I heard a rumor that Burlington County Footlighters were putting on a show that featured a series of misunderstandings, slapstick humor and numerous comedic antics. Much to my relief they didn’t present a stage rendition of a Three’s Company episode. On Friday night I experienced the pleasure of attending the opening night showing of Neil Simon’s Rumors directed by Scott Angehr.

The title served as a good summation of this show’s content.  Upon arriving for a dinner party hosted by the Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife, guests Ken Gorman (Played by Gary Werner) and Chris Gorman (played by Corinne Hower-Greene) discovered him bleeding while his wife and servants were missing. They suspected he attempted suicide. They then called a doctor. When Chris got him on the phone, Ken then told her to say everything was fine. It turned out the Deputy Mayor only shot off part of his earlobe. Ken thought it best to discover what happened before contacting anyone else. He didn’t want his friend to get involved in a scandal.

Following that, more guests started arriving. Lenny Ganz (played by Paul Sollimo) and Claire Ganz (Megan Shafranski) entered the house. Ken and Chris used a series of stories to explain why the Deputy Mayor, his wife and the servants weren’t at the party. After they discovered the truth, more guests showed up. The four of them decided not to tell the new arrivals, Ernie Cusack (Greg Northram) and Cookie Cusack (Valerie Brothers), what had happened. This turned in to quite a challenge as Mr. Cusack worked as a psychoanalyst.

Gossip swirled around the characters’ romantic peccadillos. That led to even more misunderstandings. Are you following the plot at all? Well, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that all these antics made for an enjoyable evening of comedic mishaps from a series of quirky characters played by talented thespians.

The true highlight of the evening took place in the interplay between Glenn Cooper (played by Dan Brothers) and his wife Cassie (played by the omni-talented Rachel Comenzo). In the past I’ve watched Mr. Brothers perform serious dramatic roles. Most recently I saw him play the grief-stricken father in Footlighters’ production of Rabbit Hole. I’ve also attended several performances featuring Ms. Comenzo. She’s a gifted actress, but I’ve always thought her a stronger singer and dancer. When I read the cast list, it interested me to see how the two of them would play a married couple in a comedy. They both delivered performances well in excess of my expectations.

There’s an old adage about Hell having no fury like a woman scorned. Ms. Comenzo showed that Humorous Heaven has a special place for one, too. She did a phenomenal job of balancing anger and comedy in her opening argument with Mr. Brothers. I liked the way she could raise her voice in the context of an emotional conversation while still speaking clearly. Following this outburst, she admired herself in the mirror. These mannerisms provided great insight into the character.

Mr. Brothers did a fantastic job playing the “innocent” husband in the face of his wife’s accusations. In addition, he handled the physical comedy very well. In the hands of most performers slapstick becomes caricature. Mr. Brothers demonstrated that he isn’t “most performers.” He convincingly handled falling down after getting hit by a door. The most memorable moment of his performance occurred after his wife assaulted him with a phone. Mr. Brothers has a natural bass voice. With cotton stuffed up his nose he spoke in a high-pitched nasal squeal. Like his counterpart, he talked very clearly.

Proficiency at physical comedy must run in the family. Mr. Brother’s real-life wife, Valerie Brothers, got in on the act in her role as Cookie Cusack. Her character suffered from back problems that prevented her from both “walking” and “sitting”.  The audience roared as she made her way across the stage on her hands and feet with her body at a 90 degree angle. In order to do that she first had to lift herself out of a chair using only her upper body.

As readers if this blog are aware, in the past I’ve been attacked for making “troubling” and “disturbing” comments about female costuming. During this show I did have an observation about one of the actress’ attire. In the interest of artistic integrity I’m going to state it.

Corrine Hower-Greene played Chris Gorman, very well. From the trembling voice, the facial expressions and stumbling around the stage with a wine bottle she displayed the appropriate mannerisms of a neurotic woman. I thought some of her attire too distracting, though. While the plain black evening gown she wore contrasted well with the solid white background, my eyes kept getting drawn to her shoes. I agree that glittery silver shoes would be appropriate attire for a dinner party. I could imagine her character wearing them to such an occasion. For me, they stood out and kept diverting my attention. With the exception of Valerie Brothers, whose character wore a white dress, all the other actors wore dark colored shoes. As I wrote, Ms. Hower-Green is an exceptional performer with great stage presence. Audiences should be watching her performance, not staring at her shoes.

The antics and misunderstandings continued until the final curtain. The surprise ending left open the possibility of a sequel. If someone writes one, let’s hope the cast of Burlington County Footlighters’ production is available. They had such fantastic chemistry working together that I’d welcome the opportunity to see them reprise these roles. And that’s a fact, not a rumor.