Haddonfield Plays and Players

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.

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Rock of Ages at Haddonfield Plays and Players

When narrator Lonny described the action in Rock of Ages as taking place during “the Reagan Era” my face scrunched. Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Lonnie? I thought. My entire memory of that period consists of spending the summer watching the Iran-Contra Hearings. I hoped I wouldn’t start wiggin’ out in the theatre. Then I took a chill pill. I realized that I live in a time when people in government “just say no” to engaging in illegal deals with a hostile foreign power. Theatre goers should feel even more stoked that Haddonfield Plays and Players opted to bring back the era’s best attribute fer sure: the gnarly music. They delivered some schweet renditions in Rock of Ages when I attended the mahvelous performance on July 22, 2017.

The show featured a most fresh premise. Author Christopher D’Arienzo re-worked the old small-town girl goes to Hollywood concept. He crafted the musical in a way so that host of hit songs from the 1980s delivered the 411.

The dancers in this show earned my respect fast; and continued to earn it throughout the entire performance. La’Nise Ambrose did monumental work in coordinating the moves. I give immense credit to dudettes Audrey DiEnno, Katharina Munoz, Tiara Nock and Nicolette Palombo. They kept up the same level of intensity the entire evening; and the show required a lot of intensity to maintain.

The high tech production quality impressed me. Rock of Ages featured a live band and a big screen. Combined with the singing and dancing, it made for a complex show. Director Ed Doyle did an extraordinary job coordinating all these facets.

Anyone interested in the popular music of the 1980s MUST see this show. As a fan of the era’s tunes, I got stoked to hear the rock-o-rama presented in this type of forum. The quality of singing enhanced the tracks much more than I’d expected. How much better these songs sounded when performed by the cast surprised me.

Few would dispute Lou Gramm delivered outstanding vocals during Foreigner’s prime. Performers Michael Robert Anderson and Dana Masterman made him sound dag. They sang one of the best duets I’ve ever heard on “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” They combined with Vinnie DiFillipo to deliver a passionate “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Mr. Anderson and Ms. Masterman weren’t the only performers who delivered memorable duets. Ed “Rico” Santiago and Aaron Blake combined their skills for a comical rendition of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feelin’.”I liked the way they managed to sing this tender ballad in their characters’ voices.

Dana Masterman turned in a totally ace performance. While an extremely gifted vocalist, she possesses boss skills for non-verbal communication. This performer’s smiling and upbeat facial expressions reflected those of an idealistic young woman. As the show progressed, Ms. Masterman deftly conveyed disillusion over her character’s romantic problems and career failures. Her shibby inability to quite master pole dancing got laughs, as well.

After hearing Michael Robert Anderson croon these 80s classics, fans would gag on a spoon listening to the originals. Mr. Anderson sang so remarkably well that I had trouble imagining a struggling musician could have such talent. Still, he acted the role of Drew very convincingly. He sustained a high note on “Oh, Sherrie” without vibrato. Singers in 80s cover bands would be well served to study his technique.

The show contained a large cast. No one person could bogart all the accolades. The posse worked very well together and complimented one another’s talents to the max.

Holly Birch Knapp’s performance as the radical Reginia was, well, radical. She displayed exceptional passion leading the “We’re Not Gonna Take It” number.

Vinnie DiFillipo showed fantastic comedy prowess as the randy rock star. Monette Solomon delivered outstanding vocals on “Anyway You Want It” and “Shadows of the Night.” I applaud Bill Zeoli and David Fusco for the ability to sing with authentic German accents. I’d also compliment performers Armando Mendez, Trisha Dennis, Jenn Kopesky-Doyle, Faith McCleery, Jenni Pines, Amanda Frederick, Cara Dickinson, Shannon McClernan and Jeremy Noto for their contributions to the ensemble.

I also enjoyed hearing the live band under Mark Kozachyn’s direction. Eric Madden shred his guitar like a true 80s axe-man.

“So what’s your damage with this production?” You may ask. I found it grody that Antonio Baldasari didn’t have more stage time as Aresenal’s new lead singer. The man possesses a genius for comedy. If Mr. Baldasari stood in front of an audience reading the phone book he’d find a way to make people laugh. In his limited scenes, he still amused the audience.

Rock of Ages reminded me that the 80s contained some choice music. I’m not being bogus when I write that that the cast and crew presented one tubular production. I’ve fallen for this show and I can’t get up. Cowabunga! Grab the Bartles and Jaymes and jet to the theatre. Where’s the beef? It’s totally happening at Haddonfield Plays and Players until August 4th.

Tami Gordon Brody: The Critique Compendium Interview

Tami HeadshotAfter a 20-year hiatus from the stage to raise her two sons, Tami Gordon Brody has certainly been making up for lost time over the last five years. Upon the urging of her son Taylor, who is also an actor, Tami embarked on her first audition in two decades; Haddonfield Plays & Players’ 2011 production of Titanic and was cast as Charlotte Cardoza. Since then, she has been lucky enough to portray some of musical theatre’s great “women of a certain age” roles. Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, with Voorhees Theatre Company, Joanne in Company with Cumberland Players, Carmen Bernstein in Curtains and most recently Mother Superior in Sister Act, both at Haddonfield Plays and Players.   She’s also taken on some “strictly acting” roles, such as Harriet, in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at South Camden Theatre Company and Reba Freitag in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, at HP&P.   Up next, Tami is thrilled to be working with director Craig Hutchings in the Ritz Theatre production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in the role of Mrs. Potts.

In the course of “making up for lost time”, Ms. Brody kindly offered her time to be interviewed on 6/7/17. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

 

 

Critique Compendium: What first interested you in the performing arts?

Tami Gordon Brody: When I was young my father worked in the record business. He was head of promotion for Columbia. I took singing lessons, but my voice wasn’t suited for pop music. When I got a little older I discovered musical theatre while at Cherry Hill High School East.

 

Critique Compendium: You’ve said that you’re “making up for lost time” in terms of your performance schedule. What motivates you to be so active in community theatre productions?

Tami Gordon Brody: What do you do after work? Some people play tennis. I do theatre. I love doing it. When I leave work I get to be the actress.

 

Critique Compendium: From looking over your resume, it seems like you’re equally comfortable performing in either musicals or playing strictly acting roles. Which do you prefer?

Tami Gordon Brody: When I was younger I would’ve said musicals. My background is in musical theatre. I was a singer who acted. There have been some directors who have helped build my confidence as an actress. While I prefer musical theatre, acting challenges me more. I enjoy the challenge of it.

 

Critique Compendium: You’re a very talented vocalist. Who influenced you musically?

Tami Gordon Brody: I’d have to say Barbara Streisand and Ella Fitzgerald. Every Jewish girl loves Barbara. (Laughs.) Ella had such a pure, rich voice.

I have other performers I look to now for inspiration such as Victoria Clark, Christine Ebersole and Bernadette Peters. Bernadette Peters was the ingénue when she could be the ingenue. I’m finding that there are many amazing roles for “women of a certain age.” Musical Theatre is one of the few mediums where you don’t get replaced by younger actors.

There’s a show on Broadway now called War Paint. The two performers leads in it (Ebersole and Patty LuPone) are both women over 50.

Helen Mirren is another example of that type of actress. There are amazing roles for “women of a certain age.” I think you really need to have lived a life to play them.

 

Critique Compendium: Do you feel that you’ve matured as a performer when you play these roles?

Tami Gordon Brody: My priorities are different than they were when I was in my 20s. Now I pick and choose what I want to do.

When I was younger performing was about attention. Now it’s about being part of a bigger thing. It’s about telling a story. I’d rather be part of a strong cast.

It’s great having the opportunity to become someone else. Theatre is ageless.

 

 

Critique Compendium: If I could return to the subject of your vocal talents. You’ve done voice overs for the Special Olympics of New Jersey, Karl’s Baby and Children’s Furniture (in Philadelphia) and JCCA Maccabi Games. How did you get into that field?

Tami Gordon Brody: Karl’s is my big claim to fame. (Laughs) My ex-husband is a filmmaker. He asked me if I’d be interested in doing some voice over work. To do it I needed to lose my Jersey accent! It’s a different kind of medium. They want you to say things a certain way. After recording they speed up the track to eliminate the pauses. It’s very unnatural. So in that sense it’s much different than theatre.

 

Critique Compendium: What kinds of things interest you in playing a role?

Tami Gordon Brody:  Sometimes, it’s the story. For instance, Parade was an important story. In that show, I played a Senator’s wife. Although it was a smaller role, I got to be part of it.

Then there was Mother Superior in Sister Act. Roles like that one really gives you a chance to create a character.

I look at the way the character is written. Of course, you have to be practical about how young you can play.

It has to be something I’m going to enjoy doing. I also like roles that are a challenge emotionally, such as Joanne in Company. I wanted to find out why she was so angry and drank. I wanted to convey the character’s emotions. It’s important to make the audience feel.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you handle an audience that doesn’t feel?

Tami Gordon Brody: Every audience is different. You get different reactions from different crowds.

A performer must listen to the audience. It’s important to be mindful of their responses. Timing is important to allow them to react. Sometimes, you may get the same reaction to a line or a moment on stage and you come to expect it.   Then you’ll get an occasional audience that doesn’t react the way you expect.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

Tami Gordon Brody: Oh, Joanne in Company. But I would love to play Golde in Fiddler again. Both are iconic roles. I do enjoy playing flawed characters better than playing ‘normal’ ones. Some are just fun though.

 

Critique Compendium: Why?

Tami Gordon Brody: My Jewish upbringing. My great-grandfather grew up in a village in Russia just like Anatekvah . Golde is the character I’ve played that’s the closest to me. It was very personal.

Although, I’ve loved all the roles I’ve played. I learn things about other people by playing different characters. Some aren’t like me at all. I like learning about people and cultures. Now, in Beauty and the Beast, I’m playing an animated character.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

Tami Gordon Brody: Harriet in Broken Glass. That was my first straight acting role. The caliber of talent in that show was unlike anything I’d worked with before. I had to reach. It’s good to have to reach. It was hard work. I wasn’t going to be able to rely on my singing. Until then, I was more insecure about acting than singing. Although, you don’t want to see me dance. (Laughs)

 

Critique Compendium: First, allow me to wish you a belated Happy Mother’s Day. You had the experience of working with both your sons, Taylor and Evan, in: Parade. You and Taylor will be sharing the stage once again at the upcoming production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Ritz Theatre Company this summer. What was it like sharing the stage with your children?

Tami Evan and Taylor

Tami Gordon Brody: Amazing! It was the greatest experience! I’m so proud of them. They’re so talented. They’re so much more advanced than I am vocally.

Taylor and Evan got the bug. Taylor (to Ms. Brody’s left in photo) was in Fiddler on the Roof with me too. Evan (to Ms. Brody’s right) will be playing Kenickie in Grease this summer in Blackwood.

Unfortunately, (because of our theatrical schedules) sometimes we can’t always see each other’s shows. Theatre is something we share. We can lean on each other and help each other. It’s great to have this shared love with my children.

My boyfriend Glen is also an actor, and it is something that I can share with him as well. We all understand the commitment that goes into doing a show – which is a wonderful thing.

 

Critique Compendium: What performers have influenced you?

Tami Gordon Brody: I’d say Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey and Helen Mirren. They can really transform themselves into different characters; and they don’t need accoutrements to make that happen.

 

Critique Compendium: If you had the opportunity to work with any other actor either living or dead, who would it be?

Tami Gordon Brody: I’d love to work with Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and definitely Nathan Lane. His comic timing is amazing. These are people I could learn from. When I was younger the answers might not have been the same. Back then I would’ve been interested in their “star power.”

 

Critique Compendium: In addition to your busy performance schedule, you’re the Vice President of Haddonfield Plays and Players. What inspired you to take on a leadership role with that organization?

Tami Gordon Brody: I did two shows with them (Titanic and Full Monty). Dave Stavetski (the President of HP&P) got me to go to a meeting. I helped out with creating the posters in front of the theatre.  Now that I am on the board, I handle the playbills, social media, media and advertising. I’m happy to give back to them. We have an amazing leadership team. They’re a really great group of dedicated people.

Dave is very civic minded. He’s very involved in sharing the arts in South Jersey.

Our space allows for the ability to do shows that other people can’t do. For instance look at (director) Matt Weil’s innovative use of space in The Pillowman. You wouldn’t see a show like that in a larger theatre.

We have a successful StageKidz program. Last year, we switched to a five show season. We used to do seven shows. This gives us more production time for each, mainstage show. It also allows us to provide additional special programming – like our annual production of Number the Stars, as well as our successful cabaret series. Whenever I perform I think, “Look at how much I’m getting.” Being involved with HP&P gives me the satisfaction of giving back. You make connections with the other performers. Creating lasting relationships. Community theatre in South Jersey is getting stronger and stronger. So many theatres mean more opportunities for actors. There’s a lot of talent down here.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you balance a career, family and other activities with the demands of performing in community theater productions?

Tami Gordon Brody: When I’m at work I focus on work. It all comes down to time management. Theatre teaches it. It helps with other aspects of my life. It’s a responsibility.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare for a role?

Tami Gordon Brody: I write the lines on index cards. I use them for memorization.  It’s all about time management. I’ve got the instrumental rehearsal tracks of Beauty and the Beast in my car.  I sang it on the way over here.

I know I need to do my homework. I need to get past my frustration and learn what I need to know. Then I don’t have to worry about it. I need to understand the character. I need to be prepared. Sometimes it entails not only knowing my lines, but that of my fellow actors as well.

It’s not always easy to do theatre. It means something different to everyone. I’m very proud of what I do. The roles that satisfy me the most are the ones where I work the hardest.

You have to live up to the role. Golde and Joanne are iconic roles. People expect it to be a certain way. I also want to be as good as my fellow cast members. I do enjoy playing flawed characters better than playing ‘normal’ ones. Some are just fun, though.

 

Critique Compendium: This is the first time you’ve worked with director Craig Hutchings since you played Harriet in the South Camden Theatre Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass. What’s it like working with him again?

Tami Gordon Brody: Craig is an “actor’s director.” He’s always looking at the acting. He gives notes and character suggestions. To him, the lyric is just as important as the dialog. He brings depth to the characters.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s next for you?

Tami Gordon Brody: After Beauty and the Beast I’ll be taking a rest. I would love an opportunity to assistant direct next season.  I’m hoping to be as versatile as some other theatre people. But, I like performing more. If the right role presented itself, I would definitely audition!

I can honestly say if I didn’t have theatre I’d be half a person. I don’t know what I’d be doing without it.

 

The Pillowman at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players’ promotional material for The Pillowman contained a warning that they intended the show for “mature audiences.” When I purchased my ticket on-line I gave my real name. When I picked it up at the box office, I mentioned who I was to the person at the counter. In spite of the management’s repeated assertions that audience members should possess the emotional characteristics of an adult, they still allowed me to attend the show. It delighted me that they chose to be flexible with their policy. I attended the Saturday afternoon performance on May 13th.

Director and set designer Matthew Weil didn’t waste time in establishing the show’s tone. I entered the theatre 20 minutes prior to the start time. The scene that greeted me explained a lot about the “mature audiences” disclaimer. The stage contained a table, a light directly over it and two chairs against a dark background. A blindfolded performer sat in one of them. The dim lights made it difficult to see. Eerie music played in the background. I credit Mr. Weil for this creative use of ambiance. It allowed him to capture the beauty and the horror of Martin McDonagh’s piece before the story even began.

As with his direction of Brighton Beach Memoirs, (also presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players) Mr. Weil utilized an innovative stage set-up. He designed it as a square with one corner pointing to the front of the theatre. By doing so, it allowed performers to get closer to the audience during key scenes. As I sat to stage right of the corner, the angle of vision gave me a similar perspective as the protagonist when the detectives questioned him. That allowed me to empathize with the main character and really get into the story during the interrogations.

The story centered on a writer named Katurian (played by Michael Pliskin). Without understanding the reason, two police officers Tupolski (played by Michael Doheny) and Ariel (Ryan Ruggles) entered the room and began questioning him. The mystery deepened when they asked about his fiction; with particular emphasis on the ones that included child killings. They explained that someone murdered two children in a similar fashion to those described in his stories. To add to the tension, they held his mentally deficient brother Michal (played by Andy Spinosi) in the next room. They threatened to harm him if Katurian didn’t cooperate.

The story contained philosophical undertones that would’ve impressed Aristotle. As Mr. Weil wrote in the playbill:

 Camouflaged in this gripping piece of theatre are a series of meditations on the nature and existence of art. Is art capable of corrupting? Does it feed off suffering? Should writers be brought to task for dealing in violence and child abuse? Is the artist responsible for the consequences of art? What is or should be the relationship between art and politics?

Michael Pliskin delivered an impassioned performance as Katurian; with emphasis on the word impassioned. The role demanded a range of emotions from the performer. During the interrogation scenes he captured the character’s confusion and terror. Tears came to his eyes when expressing his affection for his brother. Mr. Pliskin impressed most with his skill as a story teller. In several scenes he recited stories written by Katurian. Mr. Pliskin’s awe inspiring deliveries made them much more interesting and entertaining than they would appear on the written page. It would’ve been a very satisfying evening if the show consisted of him only doing that.

In some ways similar to Lenny in Of Mice and Men, the ‘Mikal’ role challenges thespians to perform it credibly. Andy Spinosi animated the character exceptionally well. In addition to enacting Michal’s complexities, several times he did an excellent imitation of Katurian from his character’s perspective.

Michael Doheny and Ryan Ruggles delivered a remarkable take on the good cop / bad cop dynamic. A comedic performance is difficult; getting laughs with dark humor is much harder. Through their skillful interpretations, these two gifted performers made it appear facile; quite a feat with the nature of the story.

Jonathan Greenstein and Marissa Wolf each delivered terrifying performances as the Father and Mother. The two presented their roles like more frightening caricatures of Edward Gorey characters. I especially enjoyed Ms. Wolf’s evil laugh. Having to sleep with the lights on for a few nights is a small price for watching these two exceptional renditions.

Sara Scherz returned to the Haddonfield Plays and Players stage as the girl from Katurian’s “The Little Jesus” story. Aside from the usual challenges of getting into character, this role contained some added physical efforts, as well; and not just speaking in-synch with Mr. Pliskin. Ms. Scherz managed all these intricacies flawlessly.

I had one criticism regarding the script. I found it ironic that a story centered on a writer contained some very poor writing. The dialog contained A LOT of repetition. Several times in the opening scene Tuploski and Ariel repeated each other’s lines back-and-forth. That annoyed me. The second act opened with Michal repeating various things Katurian said to him. That annoyed me even more. Michal then spoke about his “itchy ass” numerous times. At that point I actually thought about leaving.

Listening to the same lines of dialog repeated verbatim over and over just strains my patience and wastes time. In fairness to Mr. McDonaugh, he did include some excellent writing; particularly in the form of Katurian’s prose. The playwright added pauses at effective times, too. With these techniques in his creative arsenal, I didn’t understand the need for characters to keep repeating the same lines.

I expressed my concern about Haddonfield Plays and Players “maturity” requirement to my friend, the esteemed actress and director, Lisa Croce. She suggested I act like I possessed the emotional intelligence to attend the show. To which I replied, “If I was that good an actor, I’d be on stage.” Well, I may have gotten in to see the show, but the skills of the cast far exceeded my meagre abilities. They delivered impressive performances of challenging roles in a very difficult play. No doubt, Mr. Weil’s tutelage contributed to that effort. That’s no fluff. The Pillowman meets the same fate as many of Katurian’s characters after May 20th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

The Critique Compendium Interview: Michael Melvin

michael-melvin

A lot of people like to complain about how busy they are. These people would be well advised not to say that to Michael Melvin.

Mr. Melvin wears so many hats that pretty soon he’s going to need more heads. He recently played Joey in Haddonfield Plays and Players production of Sister Act this February. In a few weeks he will be casting for Sister Act which he will direct at the Maple Shade Arts Council this summer.

During the day, Mr. Melvin works as an Eighth Grade Math and Science teacher in Edgewater Park, NJ. He concurrently works towards his Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership at Montclair State University.

In addition to performing and directing in South Jersey Community Theatre productions, he is the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council; a 501[c]3 non-profit organization. Its membership includes educators, parents, and the general public. The group provides entertaining, educational, and inspirational artistic programs and events for the community. Through the Arts Council, Mr. Melvin has had the privilege of directing the summer theatre campers, as well as directing the adults in the summer musical.

In the past Mr. Melvin served as a board member with Burlington County Footlighters in Cinnaminson, NJ. He also played the drums in musicals such as 13 and Avenue Q.

While Mr. Melvin is very passionate about the performing arts and education, his heart truly belongs to his fiancee, Nicole Traino. He anxiously awaits their wedding day in March 2018 and looks forward to spending the rest of his life with his high school sweetheart.

Despite an exceedingly busy schedule, Mr. Melvin genially agreed to be interviewed on February 22, 2017. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Critique Compendium: You’re a math teacher. So I’m sure you won’t mind taking a little test to prove how well you know your subject. What’s two plus six?

Michael Melvin: Eight.

Critique Compendium: (Long, long pause.) I’ll take your word for it.

Critique Compendium: You’ve taken on leadership roles with both Burlington County Footlighters and The Maple Shade Arts Council. You’re also working towards a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. What’s your definition of leadership?

Michael Melvin: To me, there are the people who sit behind the desk and then there are the people in the trenches. When I become a school administrator I’ll want everyone to know I’ll be there for them. I’m there to help them succeed.

I’m in the Arts Council because I want to see people achieve. My role is to help others achieve greatness.

Critique Compendium: What interested you in stepping up and taking on leadership responsibilities?

Michael Melvin: It all started when I was a young kid. I did summer theatre in Maple Shade. I wasn’t into sports. I was the type who liked to eat cheese fries in the stands! My mom said to try summer theatre. I did and got hooked. I continued doing theatre in high school. In college I focused on math.

In 2012 I got involved with Footlighters performing in the Wedding Singer through friends. At the time there was an opening on the board for a secretary. They asked me if I would be interested in doing it. Taking notes seemed like something I could handle so I said, “Okay.” After that was like a snowball effect.

Critique Compendium: You’re the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council. How did you get involved with that organization?

Michael Melvin: I was in their summer theatre program through the community alliance. A friend told me that the Maple Shade Arts Council was still in existence. In 2013 the Arts Council existed under the township, but no one was running it.

Due to changes in funding and the camp no longer being able to be done in the summer, I wanted to find a way to keep the summer theatre camp as is to better accommodate our campers. I wanted to keep the program I loved and grew up doing as is.  Since then it has blossomed. It’s been a blessing.

Critique Compendium: Could you describe some of the programs the Maple Shade Arts Council sponsors?

Michael Melvin: We have the summer musical for adults, as you know. The first one we did was Urintetown. I’ll say this: it made people aware of us.

We also do cabarets. We did art workshops before and we’re looking to do them again. We’ve done a Holiday heirloom workshop. We present a teen show, too.

The new thing is the junior program for kids in Kindergarten through third grade.

We’re focused on theatrical shows, but I don’t consider the Maple Shade Arts Council a “theatre organization.” We’re hoping to branch out into other performing arts.

Critique Compendium: How does the Maple Shade Arts Council select the shows it’s going to present?

Michael Melvin: We try to pick something the community hasn’t seen before. We want to do something unique that will interest people.

For our first show we figured we needed to attract actors first. We decided on Urinetown with the: “If you build it they will come philosophy.” We wanted to create a spark in the town. We created a conflagration.

The Addams Family had wider appeal. The Drowsy Chaperone featured old style music. We like to put on shows people can relate to. We picked Sister Act because a “summer show should be a fun show.” We present happy-go-lucky, make you feel good musicals for the summer.

As the Arts Council grows we’ll add more variety.

Critique Compendium: Did you perform in the Haddonfield Plays and Players version of Sister Act to get a “practice” Sister Act under your belt?

Michael Melvin: I wasn’t in Sister Act to learn about the show. I read Phyllis Josephson’s Facebook post about the auditions. I wanted to do a show with Phyllis. I sent a video submission. (Director) Chris (McGinnis) got back to me right away. I didn’t tell anyone about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I wanted to get back to acting. I had fun diving into the role.

Now I have to delete that memory of the show. I’m working with a new production team. Darryl (S. Thompson, Jr.) is the Assistant Director. We’ll give the show a new twist.

Critique Compendium: How did the council decide to do The Drowsy Chaperone? That show was outstanding.

Michael Melvin: Thank you. It was the first time I knew I wasn’t going to direct. I asked (director) Brian Padla what he wanted to do. I knew we had a “unique space.” (Since Maple Shade High School was under renovations) we had a smaller forum (in Nolan Hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.) I had no clue about the show myself. When Brian suggested it I said let’s look into it. I liked the cool music. When I watched the Aldopho scene on youtube I loved it!

Critique Compendium: What are some of the challenges in running a small non-profit volunteer organization?

Michael Melvin: The key is the word volunteer. People’s lives are hectic. The hard part is how to strike a passion with people to put in that extra effort. I believe in the organization. Over the last three years I’ve seen a lot of parents putting in their efforts.

We’re doing something great in the community. We’re bringing people to Maple Shade.

It’s very challenging to rally the troops to see the vision and then get them to buy into the vision. When I see that happen is the best part.

Critique Compendium: What makes you interested in playing a role?

Michael Melvin: I’m a character actor. I like comedic parts. I know I’m not going to play the ingénue. When I played Joey (in Sister Act) I grew a crazy moustache. I like weird characters. I love comedies. I enjoy becoming somebody who has no similarities with myself.

Critique Compendium: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

Michael Melvin: I’d say Legally Blonde. I was Professor Callahan. I’d never played a villain before. That character never changed the entire show.

When I told Jill (Starr-Renbjor, the director) I was going to try out for the part she said I was, “too nice.” When I went to the audition I dressed professorial and sang a song from the musical. I got the part.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

Michael Melvin: In my senior year of high school I played Jean Valjean. To show how much I knew about theatre at the time, I’d never heard of Les Mis! I didn’t understand the nuances of theatre then. I did a lot of research for the part. Vocally it was a challenge. The role is a tenor and I’m a bass/baritone. That was hard as was being on stage the entire show and singing the entire show.

Critique Compendium: You’ve both performed as well as directed. Which do you prefer?

Michael Melvin: After being in Sister Act I prefer directing. I feel like I get more nervous when I’m on stage. Will I forget my lines? Will I forget the music? As an actor you’re concerned about yourself.

As a director you put yourself in every actor’s shoes. It gives you the opportunity to work with people. I love directing.

Critique Compendium: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.

Michael Melvin: I would probably say, my senior year in Les Mis. The coolest moment was knowing it was my last show in high school. I was the last one out for curtain call. I remember the emotions that went along with that. I’d worked with these people so long. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do theatre again.

Critique Compendium: How long was it until you performed again?

Michael Melvin: I spent four or five years off stage.

I didn’t perform in college. In college theatre was for the majors. They had phenomenal talent, anyway. I was focused on math and education at the time.

Critique Compendium: You’re also a gifted singer. Who influenced you musically?

Michael Melvin: My parents brought me up listening to 60s, 70s, and 80s music; the older music. I’m not into modern music. I wasn’t influenced by one person vocally. I listen to a weird mix such as country, Hamilton (the soundtrack), and Frank Sinatra.

Critique Compendium: What actors have influenced you?

Michael Melvin: I like to look at actors I’m similar to. I’d say Kevin Chamberlain who played Horton in Seussical and Fester in the Addams Family. I like Broadway performer Brian D’Arcy James. I can relate to Patton Oswalt’s personality.

I tell kids to know your type, know who you are. Having a niche is helpful.

Critique Compendium: If you had the opportunity to work with any other actor either living or dead, who would it be?

Michael Melvin: Robin Williams because of his comedy background. You can’t figure out his mind. He keeps you on your toes. He could look at a prop and turn it into a bazillion things. He forced you to up your game or say, “I can’t keep up with this!”

Critique Compendium: What do you do when you’re not on stage?

Michael Melvin: I love watching Philly sports: the Phils, Eagles, and Sixers. I collect Funko Pop. I don’t have as much free time as I used to. It’s important for me to spend time with my fiancée.

Critique Compendium: I’ve heard that you chose a very unique way to propose to her. Could you tell us about that?

Michael Melvin: I told her they were going to do a read through at Footlighters for a script a friend of mine wrote. I let her know about it months in advance. Actually, I wrote the play. Each scene was something that happened during our relationship.

On the night of the “read through” we had heart candles all around the stage. As we went through the script she realized that all the scenes were familiar. Then I proposed to her on stage. The lights came up and there were 50 to 60 people in the audience.

We both have a passion for theatre. I feel like Footlighters helped me reconnect with friends and my high school band director, which led to me accepting a coaching job at our old high school marching band. We ended up coaching together and that ultimately led to us reconnecting and getting back together. I’m grateful BCF gave me the opportunity to propose on their stage.

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare for a role?

Michael Melvin: The biggest thing is: when going into auditions don’t soley focus on one role. An actor should be diverse and understand all the parts. I read through script several times. I read it from the other characters’ perspectives. I’ll write down the line before and the line after my character’s on notecards. That helps me get a better understanding.

Critique Compendium: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

Michael Melvin: I bring dedication. When you work with me I’m all in. At Haddonfield Plays and Players (production of Sister Act) I was very quiet. I wanted to prove that I wanted to work hard. I didn’t mention anything about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I’ll push myself in ways I don’t normally. I’ll push through things, such as singing tenor with a bass voice, even if it doesn’t come naturally to me.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

Michael Melvin: When I do comedy: not breaking character and laughing.

Haddonfield Plays and Players’ stage is close to the audience. It’s difficult with that smaller space not to laugh when you see your friends laughing.

Holding that character is tough. Becoming that other character is hard, too. Not letting Mike break through is the hardest part.

Critique Compendium: How would you like audiences to remember you?

Michael Melvin: As an Arts Council leader: I hope at the end of the day people see that I love what I do. I hope they see the passion and why I do what I do. My intentions are pure and my desire to help people is evident. I want to see the kids go off and succeed. I want to see them grow.

I want other people to find that passion that I found. That’s the ultimate gift you can give someone.

Critique Compendium: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

Michael Melvin: He’s a great guy. He can be slightly undiagnosed OCD. He’s slightly perfectionist, but in the nice way. He’s very open when he works with people.

Mike’s a “worker.” Mike does too much work. He needs to relax. I would have more of my hair this way. I need to relax.

The good news is that I’m self-aware of all this.

Critique Compendium: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

Michael Melvin: Wide ranging or diverse. I’ve had a lot of unique experiences: Directing kids, adults, shows, stage crew, and building sets. It’s always been something different.

Critique Compendium: What’s next for you?

Michael Melvin: Sister Act auditions for the Maple Shade Arts Council are on April 2nd and 4th. We’ve received a lot of great feedback, so far.

Music Man, Jr. takes place over the summer. We have 60 kids in the program.

I’m finishing my master’s program. I’m also getting a wedding together for next March.

Critique Compendium: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?

Michael Melvin: Without a doubt take a chance. Take the most out of every opportunity. If you’re in the lead or ensemble every opportunity can build you up. Everything is meaningful and impactful. Stick with it.

You will never meet as many great people as in the arts. It’s a lifelong blessing for anybody who sticks with it.

More information about Mr. Melvin is available at his website: www.michaelanthonymelvin.com.

The Critique Compendium Interview: Lori A. Howard

lori-howardTen years ago Lori A. Howard left the prosaic New York area to re-settle in the cultural cornucopia we know as South Jersey. At the time, she worked as the Assistant Development Director at the Walnut Street Theatre. Since then she’s transitioned from schmoozing donors to wowing community theatre audiences. They’re glad she did. Fans will no doubt remember Lori’s moving performance of Kate Jerome at the Haddonfield Plays and Players recent production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Audiences will also recall her comical work in The Drowsy Chaperone and The Addams Family Musical, both presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council; an organization where she volunteers and gives back to a community for which she has unparalleled passion.

Ms. Howard graciously agreed to be interviewed on February 6, 2017. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

 

Question: I figure you’ll be a big success one day since you’re such a talented performer. Normally, I’d ask for an autograph. Since I’d just end up selling it for big money some day: could you give me ten thousand dollars now?

 

Answer: (Laughs) If I had it, I’d give it to you.

 

Q: Tell me a little about yourself.

 

A: I live in Marlton with my husband, Edwin, and my son and daughter.

 

Q: How old are your children?

 

A: My son is ten. My daughter’s six.

 

 

Q: What first interested you in the performing arts?

 

A: Oh, I’ve been doing it since I can remember. I always loved singing, dancing and performing.

 

Q: When did you start performing?

 

A: At five or six. I took dance classes. I grew up in North Jersey so I saw a lot of Broadway shows.

 

Q: Why did you come to South Jersey?

 

A: I got a job at the Walnut Street Theatre in the Development Department. I had a wonderful boss. I taught at the theatre school and worked there for 10 years. I taught kids acting class for five, six and seven year olds. We did fairy tale plays and told jokes. We worked on art projects, too.

 

I do a similar class with the Maple Shade Arts Council. This is their pilot year. My husband builds sets for us. Anne-Marie Underwood and I did class with 29 kids last Saturday. (2/4/17)

 

Q: How did you get involved with the Maple Shade Arts Council?

 

A: I worked at Maple Shade High School.

I was cast in the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production of The Addams Family. It was the first time I’d been on stage in 15 years.

 

Q: Why the long hiatus?

 

 

A: Family life came first for me; then my career. I also understudied at the Walnut Street Theatre, but people were always healthy!

 

 

Q: What types of things make you want to play a role?

 

A: Well, a great script. There are a lot of rich characters in theatre. I also like to work with a great production team. Working with Matthew Weil and Sarah Viniar on Brighton Beach Memoirs and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind.

 

Q: Why did you want to be in The Addams Family?

 

A: I liked the show and soundtrack. I wanted to give theatre a shot again. I had a lot of fun with my character.

 

Q: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

 

A: In a play: Kate in Brighton Beach. We had a small cast. We really became like a little family. Kate Jerome was a juicy part. She did what she had to do to keep her family’s heads above water. She was feisty. I loved her!

Into the Woods was my favorite musical. I played the Witch. The theme is what happens after you get your happily ever after; when your dreams and wishes change.

 

 

Q: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

 

A: I played Katerina in The Taming of the Shrew. Learning the language was a challenge. So was the physicality.

 

Q: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.

 

A: It would be at the end of Brighton Beach. Kate called for Eugene to come down and join the family. The family members in Europe escaped Poland. It had a happy resolution.

My family is Bronx Italian. Bronx Italian and Brooklyn Jewish seem to have very similar family dynamics. With the way the characters and script are written, I heard echoes of my grandmother’s kitchen table.

 

Q: What actors have influenced you?

 

A: From Broadway I’d have to say Bernadette Peters. She has a distinctive voice. I love how she performs Sondheim. She speaks to my heart.

 

I also appreciate Kate Winslett’s depth. She captures characters so brilliantly.

 

Q: If you had the opportunity to work with any actor either living or dead, who would it be?

 

A: Dustin Hoffman. He’s a good everyman with a little quirkiness. He’s very identifiable. He’s in so many of my favorite movies. I’ve always been a big fan. It would be fun to banter with him.

 

Q: You have a tremendous enthusiasm for community theatre. Why?

 

A: It’s something that you can do at any age and on the local level. It gives artists that can’t pursue it professionally the opportunity to come together. The passion and talent are there. I’ve met amazing people through it. My whole family and I do it together. The brilliant people I’ve met have brought joy and richness to my life.

 

Q: I didn’t recognize you playing one of the gangsters in The Drowsy Chaperone. What was it like performing in that show?

 

A: A lot of fun. I didn’t expect to play a male. Debra Heckman (the other gangster) and I ran with it and had a lot of fun.

 

Q: Brighton Beach Memoirs featured an unusual set-up as the audience was seated both in front of and behind the stage. How did you like working with that format?

 

A: It was a wonderful challenge. (Director) Matthew (Weil) wanted the audience to feel as though they were in the house. It would’ve been hard to create that effect with a regular stage set-up. Also, the actors don’t have to worry about putting their bad sides to the audience. Matthew did an amazing job. I cannot credit him enough for it.

 

Q: During that show, the actors remained on the stage even when they weren’t part of the action. What was it like being on stage while not participating in the action?

 

A: I didn’t have issue with sitting on the stage. It gave me the chance to watch the whole show.

 

Q: What do you do when you’re not on stage?

 

A: I’m a stay-at-home mom. I keep busy with my kids. I take them to karate, ballet, and I volunteer at their school. I run the science fair there every June.

 

Q: How do you prepare for a role?

 

A: It depends. If the script is of particular time period, I might look at books, fashion styles and see what was going on at the time. I immerse myself in the script. I might voice lines to my husband or in the mirror, too.

 

Q: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

 

A: I’m very passionate. I’m very committed to getting something right. I will work with director until everything is “as it should be.”

I have a good sense of humor. I try to say hello to everyone. My daughter and I bake and bring cookies to rehearsals.

 

Q: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

 

A: Never quite knowing how they’re going to react. You never know if the laughs will come from the same spots. Different audiences may respond to different lines. You can’t assume that the audience will react in a certain way. It’s their experience. The audience will interpret. You have to respond accordingly.

 

Q: How would you like audiences to remember you?

 

A: I hope they think I did my job. It’s important as actor to understand the role in the greater scheme of the play. I don’t want to stick out in a bad way. I want to fit into the puzzle as the author intended.

 

Q: Have you ever worked with a script that contained bad writing?

 

A: Every actor comes across something that doesn’t come across the way they want. You need to find way to identify with an aspect of it and make it your own.

 

Q: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

 

A: I ask too many questions about the script, character, and time period. The more of a background I have the more real I can try to make it.

I’m also committed to playing off them well. I hope they would say they had as much fun as I did.

 

Q: Joseph Conrad said that he always kept one fact about his characters out of his novels. This way it was known only to him. Do you take a similar approach with the roles you play?

 

A: Backstory is always helpful. If you can create one or can get information from the rest of the script or if you can answer questions that the audience doesn’t have to know: it adds to the script and the circumstances. It gives you more to work with. A great director can help with that, too.

 

Q: Have you ever thought about directing?

 

A: I was a co-director at Maple Shade High School. I directed in college. I went to Flagler College in Saint Augustine Florida. It’s a small liberal arts college with a good theatre department.

 

Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?

 

A: Go for it. Absolutely. It can bring you so much. It can boost your confidence. Plays have historical value. You meet amazing people. No matter what field you’re planning on going into, there’s an aspect of the performance arts you will benefit from. You will walk away with invaluable experiences for the rest of your life.

 

You don’t have to do it professionally. If it’s in your heart, you’ll be a richer person for it.

 

Q: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

 

A: Varied.

 

Q: I’d like to ask a bit of a personal question. It involves two characters featured in shows you performed. If you were single and available, with whom would you prefer to take a romantic cruise: Lerch from The Addams Family or Aldolpho from The Drowsy Chaperone?

 

A: (Laughs) The same actor (Antonio Baldassari) played both of them! He’s a friend of mine. Funny guy.

I would say Lerch. He’s a man of fewer words and I would enjoy the vacation more. Aldolpho would talk about himself the whole time.

 

Q: What’s next for you?

 

A: To Kill a Mockingbird opens at the Ritz on March 2nd. It runs through the 19th. Matthew Weil is directing. I’m thrilled to be back on his team. It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

I’m on the board of the Maple Shade Arts Council. I’m the Director of Fundraising. My son did their camp. My daughter is performing in Annie.

They present a summer musical, a teen show in fall, and a show for the youngest group in the winter. This is in addition to the summer camp. I’m proud to be part of their organization.

I’m grateful to be part of the community. South Jersey has so many local theatre companies. There are so many people giving their time and talents to such a rich community.

Theatre Review – Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I’m not in the habit of reviewing musicals like Sister Act. Nevertheless, I had faith that Haddonfield Plays and Players with the aid of director/choreographer Chris McGinnis, musical director Robert Stoop and the rest of the cast and crew would put on a good show. Hallelujah! Now I have to testify that when it comes to musicals: there’s ‘nun’ like it. I rejoiced after watching the February 4, 2017 performance.

Sister Act told the story of aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier. (Paige Smallwood) On Christmas Eve of 1977 she witnessed her gangster boyfriend murder someone. Fearing for her safety, she sought help from the Philadelphia PD. The officer with whom she spoke, a man with the clammy nickname “Sweaty Eddie”, (Terrance Hart) happened to be someone from her past. In fact, he had a crush on her in high school. In order to hide Deloris before the court date, he opted to place her in the one location the thugs would never suspect: a convent. In addition to worrying about the criminals, Deloris now contended with an austere Mother Superior (Tami Gordon Brody) and living a lifestyle antithetical to her usual one. The nuns had a choir, but that didn’t ameliorate the situation. To be as polite as possible: it didn’t perform at Deloris’ musical level. Think Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz without the musicians playing in the same key.

Paige Smallwood delivered a spectacular performance; and it started the moment she took the stage. The “Take Me to Heaven” number fused funk, soul and disco. She, (accompanied by performers Amanda Barrish and Dana Masterman), delivered a high energy rendition that drew me into the show. After getting my attention, she did an outstanding job keeping it. The stellar moments kept coming; culminating with her emotional singing of “Sister Act.” When not taking soul singing to another level, she got laughs through her perfect comedic timing. One also has to credit the great tap number she performed with the ensemble, as well.

Terrance Hart sang one of the most challenging numbers in the show. The melody on “I Could Be that Guy” stretched from bass to alto. (And I thought Motown songs challenged vocal ranges.) But this “Sweaty Eddie” didn’t sweat it. Mr. Hart hit Larry Grahm territory with the lower registers and would’ve impressed Smokey Robinson the way he nailed the higher notes.

Then Mr. Hart took the Motown adage: “the rhythm needs to move your feet and the lyrics need to stir your soul” literally. He and the ensemble accompanied this soulful ballad with a superb dance number. I credit him for not getting distracted by the numerous costume changes while performing.

I’ve watched Tami Gordon Brody display her acting talents in several shows at Haddonfield Plays and Players. In Sister Act I finally had the opportunity to hear her vocal prowess. The Mother Superior character possessed an unemotional disposition. The “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” number served as a catharsis for her inner turmoil. Ms. Gordon Brody channeled the character’s feelings exceptionally well through her delivery.

Both Ms. Gordon Brody and Ms. Smallwood played off each other extraordinarily well. The former served as the passionless character; always speaking and moving in a measured fashion. The latter behaved as a free spirit lacking inhibitions. Their scenes together made for some amusing personality clashes.

I also enjoyed Kelsey Hogan’s performance as Sister Mary Robert. Among this exceptionally talented group of performers, she displayed the best acting ability. In the show’s early phases, she spoke in a soft voice reflecting the character’s timid nature. I could still understand her words, so I credit her for still talking loud enough to hear. During “The Life I Never Led” she belted out a high note that nearly made the building rattle. Ms. Hogan projected the tune with confidence and authority. The delivery concretized the character’s development through the course of the evening.

Billed as a musical comedy, the show contained some humorous numbers, as well. Phyllis Josephson drew laughs by adorning a pair of sunglasses and becoming a rapping nun. I also found the “It’s Good to Be a Nun” track (performed by Karen Henry, Mary Corradino, Lori Clark and the ensemble) quite witty. The bass line made it sound like a country song. It really stood out in a musical comprised of soulful tunes.

The funniest moments of the show occurred when the hoodlums played by Eric Acierto, Michael Melvin, and Carlos Diaz (also the Dance Captain) took the stage. In essence, they applied the Keystone Cops premise to bad guys. These players accompanied Curtis on the “When I Find My Baby” number. Mr. Melvin took the lead on the sultry “Lady in the Long Black Dress” track. Listening to these performers sing and watching them dance more than justified the cost of admission.

I have to give Mr. Melvin credit. About a year-and-a-half ago I heard him sing gospel and soulful style music in Bonnie and Clyde. I already knew he had a talent for Rhythm and Blues. I never would’ve suspected he had such funky dance chops in his repertoire, too.

As the character of Monsignor O’Hara, Charles L. Bandler played the one role in the show that lacked any rhythm whatsoever. He used this to fantastic humorous effect. His high pitched giggling made the character even more comical.

I also credit Taylor Brody, Kristine Bonaventura, Breyona Coleman and Brooke McCarthy for their work in the ensemble. They rounded out the cast very well.

I had two issues with Sister Act. The first entailed a reference to the Smurfs. The action took place between 1977 and 1978. While the Smurfs debuted in Europe during the late 1950s, the popular animated series didn’t premiere in the US until 1981. I thought the reference historically inaccurate.

Also, who was the performer who played Curtis? I found him very funny. His use of a lollypop added great comedic effect for a street tough. His vocals on “When I Find My Baby” brought out a lot of laughs, too.

I didn’t see his head shot on the board. The character of “Curtis” wasn’t listed in either the playbill or on the company’s web site. I wondered if, like the protagonist in the show, he wasn’t hiding out from someone.

Seriously though, the gentleman played a great role. He deserves to be acknowledged.

I had a revelation this weekend. It’s gospel truth that the audience experienced a heavenly evening watching Sister Act. Fortunately for theatregoers, I didn’t attend the ‘soul’ performance. For those who would like the opportunity to see it at Haddonfield Plays and Players, their prayers will be answered. Barring some kind of divine intervention, the show will run through February 18th. Can I get an “Amen” to that?

Theatre Review – Leap of Faith at Haddonfield Plays and Players

DJ Hedgepath achieved the impossible. This skillful thespian followed-up his recent portrayal of Judas Iscariot by playing an even more despicable figure associated with Christianity. In the role of “Reverend” Jonas Nightingale, Mr. Hedgepath played a greedy, selfish, prurient huckster who prayed on others’ desperation for his own financial gain. As in his performance of Judas, he still managed to bring about empathy for his character. Through his skillful interpretation of the “Reverend” he transitioned Jonas into a respectable and even a likable figure by Leap of Faith’s conclusion. This alone made his return to the stage extraordinary.

It figured that Mr. Hedgepath would mark his reappearance with something this remarkable. As one of the most active members of the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit, I worried something had happened to him. It seemed odd when I attended two consecutive shows without seeing his name in the playbill. Fortunately, I received an early Christmas present watching him star—and hearing him sing–in this production after a four month hiatus. * (Please see note at bottom of article.)

The cast and crew of Haddonfield Plays and Players made it difficult for Mr. Hedgepath to stand out the way he did. Director Craig Hutchings, Musical Director Robert Stoop and Choreographer Jen Zellers coordinated an entertaining show with a phenomenal cast. I experienced the pleasure of Leap of Faith on December 3rd.

The show featured outstanding vocal numbers. The tracks in this musical sounded to my ears a hybrid of both soul and gospel. The director cast the perfect singers for such songs. Toni Richards (as Ida Mae) drew me into the story with her section of “Rise Up.” Kahil Wyatt (Isiah) crooned a fantastic “Walking like Daddy”; the most melodically challenging tune of the production.

Various songs required multiple cast members to perform together. These alone justified the cost of admission. My favorite ensemble piece “Are You on the Bus?” allowed Beatrice Alonna (Ornella), Jennifer Fisher (Sam), Toni Richards, Kahil Wyatt, and Mr. Hedgepath to showcase their skills together. The Angels of Mercy (Maggie Hartboard, Lorraine Iaquinta, Chris Jewell, Lindsey Krier and Faith McCleery) worked as an outstanding choir on “Step into the Light”, “Lost” and “If Your Faith is Strong Enough” among others. Their dance routines added to the fun.

A series of moving duets enhanced the evening. John Sayles (Jake) played a wheelchair bound child who begged Jonas to heal him. Mr. Hedgepath and Mr. Sayles displayed great chemistry together. The “Like Magic” track provided them with the perfect musical vehicle to express it. These performers took full advantage of the opportunity.

Amanda Frederick played Marla; a complex role for musical theatre. Ms. Frederick’s character required her to fill the multifarious parts of Jake’s mother, the local sheriff and Jonas’ love interest. While displaying the disparate traits of toughness and tenderness, she brought all this character’s qualities to life brilliantly.

Ms. Frederick and Mr. Hedgepath complimented each other well. The two expressed the characters’ evolving relationship through different musical styles. The upbeat “Fox in the Henhouse” described the prurient aspects of the reverend’s personality. “I Can Read You” provided a tender and intimate exploration of each character’s history. These performers managed to adjust their emotions to convey the feelings behind these songs. Due to their characters’ changing views of each another, this required skill and flexibility.

In Ms. Frederick’s playbill bio, she quoted Oscar Wilde. “The self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression,…Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” This performer took that opportunity during her moving renditions of “Long Past Dreamin’” and “People Like Us.” She delivered a somber reading of the latter with such emotive force that I could feel Marla’s pain.

The ensemble also deserves credit for their contributions. Andrew Chaput, Bridget Hartshorne, Brittany Halzman, Mike Werner, and Tami Gordon Brody played the Sweetwater, Kansas crowd that became the reverend’s de facto personal cheering section. It’s a testament to their collective skills that they managed to show even more enthusiasm than the real audience.

The show contained one scene I found objectionable. It occurred when Sam (Jennifer Fisher) confronted Jonas regarding his tryst with the sheriff. She delivered a line intimating Marla could use her handcuffs for an erotic purpose. This bothered me. I understand that the original Leap of Faith musical premiered in 2010. That line is much more inappropriate today. I fear it could inspire those contemplating a musical version of Fifty Shades of Grey. What Christian wanted to do to Anastasia, a musical based on the book would do to theatre.

Leap of Faith began by Mr. Hedgepath pointing at me and shouting, “Sinner!” The fact I still liked the show after the self-described “King of Sin” character berated me as such shows how phenomenal this performance. For those who’d like to take the “leap of faith” and check it out: your “last chance salvation” is December 17th. “Are you on the bus?”

(* For all those so-called “artists” out there, please keep in mind: not actively practicing one’s craft for four months is an extremely long period of time for some people. It should be noted that during Mr. Hedgepath’s “down time” he directed another show.)

Theatre Review – Parade at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I have some “real big news” for both fans of “pretty music” as well as those who prefer “a rumblin’ and a rollin’” in their seats. Haddonfield Plays and Players are putting on an outstanding production of the musical Parade. I experienced the pleasure of witnessing the show firsthand at the premiere on October 20, 2016. Director Pat De Fusco understood one person couldn’t “do it alone.” The cast and crew earned their share of “the glory” for this remarkable performance. Many times “it’s hard to speak my heart.” So I hope readers will forgive me for “all the wasted time” I spent on this “prelude.” I would point out that the substantive parts of this review are “not over yet”; and there’s a lot of substance to this one.  So “what am I waiting for?”

Parade (book by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by James Robert Brown) told a disturbing tale for a musical. The action commenced on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1913. With the backdrop of a parade commemorating this Georgia holiday, authorities discovered the body of a 13 year-old factory worker named Mary Phagan (Played by Alexa Reeves) in the basement of the building she worked. In order to advance his political career, Georgia Governor Slaton (played by Michael Doheny) pressured District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (played by Michael Lovell) to quickly convict someone of the crime. He opted to frame a Jewish migrant from Brooklyn, Leo Frank (played by Andrew Jarema).

Mr. Jarema’s role reminded me of a character from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. With his big spectacles, clean-cut looks and straight hair he looked the part of an average man drawn into a bizarre happening through forces beyond his control. He showed great range in his performance, as well. When police asked his character to identify Mary’s body he became squeamish and anxious. During an enactment of (false) court room testimony, Mr. Jarema did a superb job transforming from a timid man wrongly accused into a predatory lothario. I enjoyed his spirited performance in the later incarnation during the jazzy “Come Up to My Office” number. He also demonstrated tenderness singing the “This is Not Over Yet” ballad accompanied by Lucille Frank (played by Arielle Egan). I have to applaud this performer for transitioning his character into a courageous and even heroic figure by the end of the show.

Arielle Egan played an outstanding supportive wife in the role of Mrs. Frank. Mr. Jarema’s character didn’t make it easy for her. In spite of his taking his anger and frustration out on her, sometimes in rather shrill tones, she conveyed both her anxiety and devotion to him. I found her renditions of “You Don’t Know This Man” and “All the Wasted Time” very moving.

I also liked the way she adjusted her character’s personality throughout the show. While visiting her husband in prison she expressed a desire to leave town during his trial. Like her counterpart’s, her character became more audacious throughout the performance. Later in the show her character approached the governor at a private party and asked him to re-open her husband’s case. Her animation of Mrs. Frank made this change credible.

The best moment in the show occurred with Darryl Thomson, Jr.’s soulful performance on “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall.” With the chain gang serving as a chorus and the image of the scorching sun over the Georgia landscape in the background, he sang the blues in a way that would’ve made Robert Johnson jealous. I enjoyed the song so much it gave me the blues because it ended too soon.

I also appreciated Taylor Brody’s portrayal of cynical reporter Britt Craig. His dark suit along with the tie hanging loosely under his unbuttoned top button looked the part of a beat reporter in search of a scoop. So did his taking notes while attending Ms. Phagan’s funeral. The rendition of “Real Big News” really captured his character’s essence. Visuals of newspaper headlines projected against the background enhanced the atmosphere on this tune, as well.

I applaud Michael Arigot for his very emotional portrayal of Frankie Epps. He began by playing a carefree teenager courting Mary Phagan. Following her death he delivered heartbreaking singing during “The Funeral Sequence.” I found that portion of the show very poignant. Following that, he compellingly played a man consumed with rage and obsessed with the need for vengeance.

Parade featured a veritable high tech extravaganza. A projector flashed images on the rear wall during several crucial scenes. A pre-recorded soundtrack played in the background for the musical numbers. Several times the harmony played so loud it drowned out the singers’ voices. Towards the end of the show the music cut out several times. With a show this complex these things happen. None of the performers let the distractions affect their performances. They remained focused until the sound crew addressed the issues. That’s a credit to everyone’s professionalism.

I also want to credit Michael Lovell (as DA Hugh Dorsey) and William H. Young (as Riley) for the interrogation. If I may borrow a line from Hamilton, these gentlemen made me feel like I was “in the room where it happens.” The questioning occurred the same way I would’ve imagined a politically ambitious DA grilling an African-American witness in the Deep South during the early twentieth century. Mr. Lovell delivered threats with veiled hostility. Mr. Young prayed and trembled while listening. The proficiency of these two performers made this scene uncomfortably realistic.

My “verdict” on Haddonfield Plays and Players production is that this show was phenomenal. If someone tells you I made different comments regarding Parade, tell that person, “‘That’s what he said.’ ’You don’t know this man.’”

“Somethin’ ain’t right,” though. “It don’t make sense” that the show’s “finale” will take place just a few short weeks away on November 5th. The performance deserves a longer run. Where’s the “hammer of justice” here? Visit Haddonfield Plays and Players before Parade passes by. That’s my “closing statement.”

Theatre Review – Brighton Beach Memoirs at Haddonfield Plays and Players

The Haddonfield Plays and Players theatre group has a history of presenting challenging “dramedies.” It seemed fitting that they’d add Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs to their repertoire. This semi-autobiographical sketch of an extended Jewish family living in 1937 New York featured a host of comedic yuks coupled with intense drama. The cast and crew met the demands of this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.

I attended the premiere performance on September 15th. The evening also entailed HPP’s rolling out of an original stage set-up. They relocated it closer to the center of the theatre. While tasked with animating Neil Simon’s dialog, this cast had the additional duty of playing to both sides of the room. Due to the new seating configuration, I expected to spend most of the evening staring at the backs of performers’ heads. The talented assembly of thespians accommodated this new format like seasoned stage veterans. I’d also give credit to director Matthew Weil for coordinating everyone around this original arrangement.

Dylan Corbett (as Eugene Jerome) faced the toughest challenge. While his character played an active role in the story’s events, he also served as a narrator. On numerous occasions he addressed the audience directly. With it seated both in front of and in back of the stage, this presented quite a challenge. I sat in the row against the far wall. Mr. Corbett’s deft movements to both sides of the stage made me feel like he spoke to me personally the entire night. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for anyone under these circumstances; especially for someone performing in his second community theatre show.

The play’s action took place over the span of two weeks. Mr. Corbett convincingly transformed from an immature, libidinous kid into a young man and then back again. That’s not an easy feat with a script covering that short a time span.

Nick Ware played an outstanding Stanley Jerome. He’s a very expressive performer. I really enjoyed the animated way he gesticulated while explaining how he stood up to his boss, thus risking his job at a time his family depended on his salary. He added a nice touch of humor when asking his cousin Nora (played by Meaghan Janis) to mention Abraham Lincoln’s “principles” at dinner. This would allow him to segue into a discussion about it with his father. His method of interjecting the topic at supper proved much more comical.

Lori A. Howard portrayed the epitome of a Jewish mother living in 1930s New York. She chose the perfect voice to compliment the role of Kate Jerome. Ms. Howard got into the character so well that I consciously avoided her after the show. (I worried she’d be forcing me to eat liver.) While she delivered funny lines well, her character possessed much more depth than simple “comic relief.” Mrs. Jerome battled anxieties over her husband’s health, her son Stanley’s wild ways and her sister’s descent into self-pity after becoming a widow. Combined with these challenges, Ms. Howard also served as the core holding this troubled family together. I liked the way she manifest all this tension in her argument with the character’s sister Blanche (performed by Marissa Wolf).

In addition to this altercation with Ms. Howard, Ms. Wolf launched an intense dispute with Blanche’s daughter, Nora (played by Meaghan Janis). These two performers did a phenomenal job during this heated exchange. While difficult to watch, the rewards of witnessing two talented performers play characters who want to love, but struggle in doing so made it worthwhile. They executed this difficult scene so realistically that I felt uncomfortable. That’s superb acting.

Doug Suplee (as Jack Jerome) played the clan’s patriarch. The role reminded me a bit of Mike Brady with a New York accent. Mr. Suplee brought to life the character of a wise father committed to the well-being of his family. I liked the way he showed tenderness as a surrogate father to his niece, Nora. He became a stern, but loving parent to his son, Stanley in their scenes together. When Kate worried about her sister’s condition, Mr. Suplee counseled her wisely. Understand the Brady reference now?

I also give credit to 11 year old, Sera Scherz in the role of Laurie Morton. She played an unemotional, detached young lady very well. The talent she displays at this point in her career shows she has a great future ahead of her in theatre.

During long portions of the show, performers who weren’t involved in the scenes didn’t leave the stage. They either sat at the ends of stage left or stage right. I found that unusual. I suspected that the new configuration had something to do with that. The designer located both egresses at the middle of the stage. None of these entertainers did anything to attract attention in these instances. However, at times my gaze drifted towards them because I wondered if they had a role in the action.

Several weeks ago, Lori A. Howard informed me that HPP’s presentation of Brighton Beach Memoirs “features an extraordinary cast that is my honor to work with.” After attending the show I could understand her enthusiasm. The show runs through October 1st. After that, Brighton Beach Memoirs becomes a memory at Haddonfield Plays and Players.