Haddonfield Plays and Players

A Christmas Story at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players gave theatergoers an early Christmas present this year. The company opted to present the theatrical version of the beloved Holiday favorite A Christmas Story. They didn’t have to triple dog dare me to see this one. I attended the opening night performance on Friday, December 7.

Ralphie (played by Elliott Crosby) wanted just one thing for Christmas: (take a deep breath) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock. To do so, he orchestrated a plan. He saturated his mom and dad with flyers in some unconventional places. For a school project he crafted an essay describing how much he hoped to receive one. He even asked the Santa at Higbee’s Department Store for it.

I’ll write what everyone reading this is thinking: a kid could put his eye out with that thing. Keep in mind this is theatre. It made for a good story.

Director Emily McHale, the cast and crew selected a very challenging show to perform. A Christmas Story isn’t just a classic: almost every scene in it is iconic. Who isn’t familiar with Flick and the pole, Dad and Ralphie changing the flat tire and the Old Man’s “major award”? It’s difficult to present something this popular without drawing comparisons to the original. Despite the hurdle Ms. McHale selected the perfect cast to achieve this task. They give this version a unique character.

Dan Safeer delivered exceptional narration. I last saw Mr. Safeer perform in Murder by Poe, also presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. In that show he delivered an impassioned rendition of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” from memory. The Old Ralph role took that premise to a higher level.

In addition to Ralphie’s quest for (take a deep breath) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock, A Christmas Story included several ancillary vignettes. Mr. Safeer’s character established the background for all of them. Some of these set-ups were quite verbose. The performer rendered them flawlessly.

Elliott Crosby brought the role of young Ralphie to the stage. He brought out the humor in the character’s quest for (take another deep breath) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock.

Playing Ralphie required a lot of range. Mr. Crosby displayed it. He became a strong straight man when Wesley Halloway (as Ralphie’s brother Randy) cried, “I have to go wee-wee!” He stuttered and trembled when performing opposite Ralphie’s love interest, Esther (played by Emma Scherz).

Pat DeFusco and Nicole DeRosa Lukatis complimented each other very well as the parents. They displayed witty interaction working together as The Old Man filled out the quiz to win a “major award.” They enacted a very witty “Battle of the Lamp” scene that would delight the film’s fans.

Mr. DeFusco’s gravelly voice well suited The Old Man’s persona. It enhanced his profanity implied jabberwocky. His subtle mannerisms got laughs, too. My favorite occurred through his expressions of dislike for Mother’s meatloaf.

Ms. Lukatis played a great contrast as the more realistic of the two parents. The performer showed Mother’s empathetic side when downplaying Raphie’s fight to The Old Man. She still brought out the humor in the character. Ms. Lukatis best did so during the famous scene where Mother placed a bar of soap in Ralphie’s mouth.

I’d credit Nell Watts (as Raphie’s teacher Miss Shields) for presenting the performance’s funniest moment. While marking papers with an oversized pencil she hollered about the importance of “MARGINS.” Upon reading Ralphie’s paper she abruptly shifted the character’s mood. Ms. Watts expressed immense enthusiasm over (take a deep breath again) his written request for a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock. Ms. Watts danced about the stage and praised the paper with a distinct brand of farcical melodrama.

Performers Wesley Holloway, Zach Johnson, Kevin Stickel, Maddox Morfit-Tighe, Emma Scherz, Grazie Sokoloff, Logan Murphy, Novalee Seward, and Emma Scott completed the comical ensemble.

This Christmas I might not get a (take a deep breath one last time) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock. Watching A Christmas Story at Haddonfield Plays and Players proved a much better gift. A Holiday show this entertaining can be as rare as Indiana snakes, gators and monsoons. It runs through December 22nd. If you don’t see it by then, you might as well be afflicted with soap poisoning.

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High Fidelity at Haddonfield Plays and Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Friday the 13th theatregoers got lucky. Haddonfield Plays and Players decided to present a witty take on some dirty rotten scoundrels. There may not be honor among thieves, but they sure displayed some pretty good acting, singing and dancing chops. I attended the opening night performance on July 13th.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels told the story of aging con-man Lawrence Jameson (played by Chris Fitting). Accompanied by his assistant, police Inspector Andre Thibault (Kacper Miklus), he took on the guise of a fictitious prince. He travelled the Riviera swindling women. During one con he encountered Freddie Benson (Sidney (Syd) Manfred Maycock III). The latter aspired to a life of chicanery but struggled to get his start. He asked Jameson to teach him the art of the craft.

Initially reluctant, Jameson discovered that one of his marks, the gun toting Jolene Oakes, (Lauren Elisabeth) already arranged their wedding. Facing an exile to the prairies of Oklahoma Jameson reconsidered the novice’s offer. The two teamed up on a comical skit to dissuade her. Then the partnership deteriorated.

The two made a deal. Whoever could swindle the next wealthy woman they met for $50,000 could remain in the area. The loser would leave town. Enter the “soap girl”, Christine Colgate (Kristina Coia). As they utilized some creative hijinks to win the challenge, both men found themselves falling in love with her.

I’ll avoid giving away spoilers. I will note that the script contained outstanding use of foreshadowing. Author Jeffrey Lane and lyricist David Yazbek used it with great subtlety, but it all made sense at the story’s conclusion: and what a conclusion! The ending contained plot twists that rivaled the Saw movies finales.

This show gets my Sienkiewicz Award. This honor comes from a line in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: “I wish it had been worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (directed by Ryk Lewis) impressed me that much.

Chris Fitting cemented his reputation as the sharpest dressed man in South Jersey community theatre. There’s only performance I’ve seen where Mr. Fitting didn’t wear either a suit or a tuxedo. It’s refreshing that even in the modern era some people still find it appropriate to dress up for a night at the theatre.

The wardrobe aside Mr. Fitting’s style of performing puts him in a unique class. The aristocratic tone with the hint of a British accent suited his character brilliantly. He also displayed exceptional skill in adding an Austrian accent to it when his character played the doctor from Vienna.

Mr. Fitting executed some complex song and dance numbers flawlessly. I enjoyed his somber rendition of the ballad, “Love Sneaks In.” Through this tune he added an unexpected dimension to the con-man’s personality. He performed this adjustment in a believable manner.

Syd Maycock possesses a genius for comedy. His befuddled facial expressions while Ms. Koia sang “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True” were just as superb as her singing. He made it obvious he couldn’t believe the things she said. When she prodded him to continue the song, he stumbled over lyrics like he was hearing them for the first time.

When trying to deceive Ms. Coia’s character into giving him the money Mr. Maycock utilized a tender voice of his own. The way he exaggerated it made the inflection hysterical.

His best number occurred when he performed “Great Big Stuff.” Ryk Lewis’ choreography turned it into an awesome song and dance routine with the ensemble. After a performance like this some great big stuff is in store for Mr. Maycock.

Kristina Coia wins the first ever Sienkiewicz Award for Best Actress. Ms. Coia pulled off the most ingenious character transformation I’ve ever seen, heard or read. I won’t give it away as it would ruin the experience for those unfamiliar with the story. Ms. Coia enacted the change in a way that will still surprise audiences.

Aside from revolutionizing the concept of character transformations, Ms. Coia also displayed exceptional vocal capability. She selected the proper voice to sing her character’s songs. Ms. Coia’s soft, tender vocals worked very well on numbers such as “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True.”

These three thespians complimented each other wonderfully. The “Ruffhousin’ Mit Shuffhausen” made for the show’s highpoint. Mr. Fitting attempted to win the bet by forcing Mr. Maycock to admit he could feel below his waist. Mr. Fitting made this effort while singing, dancing and hitting him on the thighs with a cane. Mr. Maycock’s expressions and strained denials were impeccable. Ms. Coia’s concern and naïveté added the perfect enhancement to the scene.

I’m familiar with Gina Petti’s skill as a dancer. Ms. Petti displayed it often in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I’d never heard the performer’s singing skills. The show provided the opportunity. As Muriel Ms. Petti performed lovely renditions of “What Was a Woman to Do” and the “Like Zis/Like Zat” reprise.

Kacper Miklus delivered and sang his lines in a perfect French accent. He joined Ms. Petti for the duet “Like Zis/Like Zat” and crooned the solo “Chimp in a Suit.” He got laughs trying to play the suave suitor to Ms. Petti while struggling to ignite a cigarette with an empty lighter.

Jennifer Gordon choreographed the “Oklahoma?” routine. This one combined elaborate dancing with comedy. Lauren Elizabeth led the ensemble through one rockin’ hoedown.

I would also credit performers Mary Simrin, Julieann Calabrese, Tony Yates, Sarah Blake, Jen Stefan, Rebecca Dilks, Sheila M. Haswell, Andrea Veneziano, Briant Lopez, Ryan Fanelli, and Robert Haggerty for their contributions to the performance.

I had some minor issues with the script. The show broke fourth wall a few times. Most notably when Jolene informed Lawrence that she arranged their wedding, he asked, “Did I miss a scene?”

I also couldn’t tell when the story occurred. The script contained references to Bob Guccione, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump; the latter because of his wealth. As the movie of the same name released in 1988, I figured it took place during the 1980s. Then Lawrence made a joke alluding to George W. Bush. I found this inconsistent.

In the “Give Them What They Want” number, Lawrence added, “then you leave them wanting more.” The cast and crew of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels did just that. The same song borrowed a line from John Keats’ Endymion:  “Truth is beauty.” It may be, but it’s not as beautiful as this performance. If you don’t believe me you have until August 3rd to determine for yourself.

 

Night of 1000 Plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Last night I discovered one of the lesser known verities about South Jersey. The Garden State serves as home to a host of creative dramatists. Fortunately for theatrical fans, Haddonfield Plays and Players provided these budding Ibsens, Ephrons and Simons with a forum to exhibit their art. With their Night of 1000 Plays, the company turned over their stage to these newcomers. I attended the second annual installment of this program on June 8th.

The stylistic range impressed me. The evening included a host of comedies, some solid dramas as well as a topical tragedy. A cautionary tale regarding the perils of not knowing The Rules to Save a Princess framed the program.

Relationships served as the most popular muse for South Jersey’s playwrights. The excerpt from Lili Myers’ The Gentle Indifference of the World (directed by Jennie Pines) explored the dynamics between four friends played by Ms. Myers, Ricky Conway, Moses Ali and Isabella Capelli. The piece contained an impressive amount of conflict and drama. Amber Kushing’s He Loves Me Not (directed by Eilis Skamarakis) allowed performers Jessi Meisel, Jeff Skomsky, and Kahil A. Wyatt to explore one woman’s struggle through an abusive relationship. Mr. Wyatt also played a witty “bad boy” as the title character in Patti Perry’s Nephew Nemesis (directed by Jeannine James). Rebecca Dilks, San Safeer and Gina Lerario rounded out the cast in this oblivious and dysfunctional family. John Cassidy’s The Teenage Boys Society (directed by Tony Yates) focused on social as well as romantic relationships. It surveyed the trials of adolescence through performers Kahlil A. Wyatt, Ricky Conway, Tony Yates, Jennie Pines and Jeff Skomsky.

Other playwrights delivered some unconventional takes on family relationships. John Cassidy’s The Golden Rule  (directed by Jennie Pines) presented to most unusual metaphor for salted butter this reviewer has ever encountered. Performers Nicole Lukaitis, Dan Safeer, Lili Myers, Isabella Capelli and Brenna Dougherty took on the various family roles in this piece.

Playwright Rich Renner crafted two vignettes influenced by observational humor. In Lisa’s Carpet (directed by Eilis Skamarakas), performers Dan Safeer, Kahlil A. Wyatt and Sheila McDonald showed the risks of trying to cover up household accidents. The same playwright also made a spectacle of the absurdity of using too many spectacles. Night Glasses (directed by Amber Kusching) showed performers Robert Bush and Debby Tighe coping with this situation as it kept them up at night.

The three acts of Casey Tingle’s (directed by the playwright and Nicole Lukaitis) The Rules to Saving a Princess occurred at the beginning, the middle and the end of the evening. Performers Jennie Pines, Krista Reinhardt, Tony Yates, Nicole Lukaitis and Ricky Conway brought this tale to the stage.

Susan Goodell’s No History (directed by Amber Kusching) showed how an unusual classified ad can lead to an uncomfortable Holiday dinner. Performers Krista Reinhardt, Sheila McDonald and Robert Bush allowed the audience to sit in on this comical Christmas chronicle.

The comedy continued with pieces such as Patti Perry’s April Fools (directed by Jeannine James).  Performers Rebecca Dilks, Jeff Skomsky, Sheila McDonald, and Kahlil A. Wyatt enacted a macabre series of jokes that led to an unexpected consequence. John Cassidy’s Artistic Architecture (directed by Eilis Skamarakas) allowed Jessi Meisel to instruct Moses Ali, Brenna Dougherty and Ricky Conway on a rather unconventional approach to the subject.

Taylor Blum crafted a dramatic take on the theme of relationships in Shattered Glass (directed by Amber Kushing). Ricky Conaway delivered a powerful monologue to enhance the writing.

The program included two high minded dramas. Both exceeded this reviewer’s expectations.

Sera Scherz crafted an impressive piece in the form of Through My Eyes (directed by Jeannine James and assistant directed by Sera Scherz). It featured performers Brenna Dougherty and Lili Myers alternating lines as they addressed the audience. The play explored the themes of vengeance, bigotry and forgiveness. Debby Tighe, Jeff Skomsky and Ricky Conway rounded out the cast.

Amber Kusching’s haunting When I Fell in Love (directed by Tony Yates) surveyed the themes of devotion and tragic loss. The playwright placed all three characters in different locations while they spoke indirectly to one another. The play also included sophisticated symbolism. Gary Werner, Nicole Lukatis and Isabella Capelli all delivered impassioned performances bringing the script to life.

While advertised as a Night of 1000 Plays, the Haddonfield Plays and Players could have also called the evening the Night of 1000 Roles. The individuals who participated in this endeavor stayed busy. Most of the performers worked in various capacities in multiple plays. Ricky Conway performed in six of them, Kahlil A. Wyatt in five and Jeff Skomsky in four. Nicole Lukaitis performed in three and directed one. Jennie Pines performed in two and directed two. Jeannine James, Isabella Capelli, Eilis Skamarakis and Amber Kusching each directed three. Ms. Kushing also wrote two of the shows presented.

In addition to her multifarious other roles, Nicole Lukaitis served as the overall program producer. I’d compliment her and stage manager Omaira Parrilla-Dune for providing such a professional environment for these playwrights to showcase their creativity. I’d also express gratitude in allowing audiences to enjoy them.

Pat DeFusco did an exceptional job as the stage announcer. His witty asides added to the evening’s entertainment value.

In the 1930s Paris became famous for its American expatriate community. Notables such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein emigrated there to practice their craft. Just shy of a century later, South Jersey is developing into a similar community for aspiring writers and playwrights.

For those who missed the opportunity to experience Night of 1000 Plays during its limited run, don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll have the chance to attend plays written by these playwrights again. Just perhaps, the next time they’ll be featured in a city located slightly north of the South Jersey area.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I never would’ve thought it possible to combine themes like desire, dishonesty and the use of alcohol in the same story. I guess that shows I need to get out more often. So it was ironic, really, that I discovered a play with these themes during a night out. I attended the opening night performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Bill C. Fikaris at Haddonfield Plays and Players  on May 11th.

Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece explored the dynamics between members of a Southern family. I found it interesting that Mr. Fikaris applied the ‘family’ premise to casting. The show included a pair of sisters (Shae Harris and Shani Harris), a brother and sister (Harper Carney and Quinn Carney), a father and daughter (Gary Werner and Gabrielle Werner) and a mother and son (Amanda Frederick and Wesley Frederick). I thought it nice to see a mom and her son sharing the stage over Mother’s Day weekend.

Bill Gates once said, “If you are born poor it’s not your mistake, but if you die poor it’s your mistake.” Maggie (played by Ashley Griffiths) came to this realization herself. Then she applied it in a way Mr. Gates wouldn’t have approved. She married Brick (played by Ken Hellings): a former football player and the potential heir to Big Daddy’s fortune. With the patriarch’s health in decline, only three potential obstacles could prevent her from achieving her dream. They included Big Daddy’s other son Gooper (played by Benjamin Morris) and his wife Mae (Amanda Frederick), Maggie’s and Brick’s childlessness and Brick’s alcoholism.

Ashley Griffiths played a stellar Maggie. The show opened with inscrutability regarding the nature of hers and Brick’s relationship. Ms. Griffiths’ performance kept the audience guessing. In the opening scene at hers and Brick’s bedroom, I thought her a lovelorn vixen hungry for her husband’s attention. In the course of their conversation she expressed an interest in having a child; quite an interesting statement after ridiculing her nieces and nephews for having “no necks.” This revelation combined with her seductive charms intensified the sense of mystery.

Ms. Griffiths delivered her lines in a heavy Southern drawl. Her accent sounded more realistic than native Mississippians talked the last time I visited there. She managed to capture the dialect inherent in Williams dialog while still speaking in a way that I could understand.

The performer showed great skill in crying during the show’s climax. I won’t give away spoilers, but when one knows the reason, the action made Ms. Griffiths’ artistic choice much more impactful.

Ken Hellings brought the role of Brick to the stage. The character harbored bitter feelings regarding the death of a friend combined with resentment towards his wife. While ostensibly blaming “mendacity” as the source of his alcoholism, he drank to drown the pain. He delivered the best line in the show about imbibing until he got the “click” in his head.

Mr. Hellings delivered a superb performance pairing Brick’s anger with his alcoholism. Bringing the latter to the stage could prove quite a challenge for any thespian. From the way Williams crafted the character, Brick drank so much that he was more in danger of drowning than suffering the effects of cirrhosis. This character very well may have consumed more alcohol than Dr. Sloper in The Heiress.

This performer balanced Brick’s drinking with his rage well. I flinched when he broke one of his crutches after swinging it at his wife. Even though his character always drank, he still delivered his lines in a way I could understand. I liked how the slur in his voice gradually increased as the show progressed. I thought his acerbic, “Yes, sir” whenever Big Daddy asked him a question a nice touch.

In sports, managers always talk about having depth on the bench. The same goes for theatre. Due to unexpected circumstances, the actor slated to play Big Daddy couldn’t perform. Producer Pat DeFusco did an extraordinary job stepping in to play this crucial role. His deep, gravelly voice suited the character. Had it not been for the rare occasions when he glanced at the script, I wouldn’t have suspected him a (literal) last moment replacement.

The matriarch of the Brody Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre, Tami Brody, played a splendid Big Mama. The role entailed a range of emotions. Ms. Brody expressed happiness and relief to dealing with loss and her vulture-like relatives. While delivering lines like an authentic Southerner, the performer animated the character’s travails perfectly.

Benjamin Morris (as Gooper) and Amanda Frederick (as Mae) played Big Daddy’s son and daughter-in-law. They played a couple, to say it politely, very interested in their family’s financial future. Ms. Frederick and Ms. Griffiths seemed to compete as to which could play a greedy character better. As with any occurrence of friendly competition between performers, the audience ended up on the winning side.

The confrontation scene at the end of Act II made for the highlight of this show. It featured all the main characters arguing over the disposition of Big Daddy’s fortune. Big Daddy’s entrance towards the end of the scene made this dispute even more awkward. The performers took advantage of the opportunity to bring out their respective characters’ flaws; with the exceptions of Ms. Brody and Mr. DeFusco. They both demonstrated the humanity in their roles. It made for a terrific contrast.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featured marvelous atmospherics. I liked the color scheme on the set designed by Bill Fikaris and constructed by Glen Funkhouser. The background and the bedsheets appeared the color of the sky during a sunset. The blue lights behind the curtains made them the same hue as a cerulean sky.

When presenting a live performance, most directors focus on appealing to senses of sight and sound. Mr. Fikaris chose to add an applicable smell. During the show, Ms. Griffiths lit a cigarette, Mr. DeFusco puffed a cigar and Mr. Werner smoked a pipe. While I abhor the scent of tobacco (well, at least since I quit smoking) it helped bring me into the story. It made me feel like I sat, to borrow a line from Hamilton, “in the room where it happens.” That’s one of the benefits of attending live theatre that a person doesn’t experience at the movies.

One incident in the show made me a little nervous. Ms. Griffiths took up a bow and arrow. She then performed a quick demonstration on how to use it. This took place just a few feet in front of me. Whenever an actor takes up a weapon in my presence I worry. Are Haddonfield Plays and Players trying to send me a message?

Performers Philip Kehoe and Emma Scherz rounded out the cast.

“Mendacity” may have been one of the show’s themes, but I’m telling the truth when I write that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was phenomenal. Maggie asked a rhetorical question about how long a feline could remain on the top of a dwelling. While that inquiry remained unanswered, the show will stay on Haddonfield Plays and Players’ stage until May 26th.

Love, Loss and What I Wore at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Many first time directors choose challenging shows for their debut efforts. Add to that list Tami Gordon-Brody. For her first show she selected Nora and Delia Ephon’s Love, Loss and What I Wore. Ms. Brody informed me that, “It’s a girl show, but I think you’ll like it.” I can write that this style of theatre suited me just fine. I attended the opening performance on February 23rd.

This play featured a rather unique format. A group of women sat on the stage and faced the audience the entire evening. Each performer had a lectern in front of her. They presented monologs, spoke in unison or delivered dialog while music played in the background.

A screen at the back of the stage displayed various images. When the only named character, Gingy, spoke, drawings of the various outfits she described appeared. On other occasions the backdrop showed the view of a sunrise over a lake. The latter created the ambiance of sitting by a patio while listening as someone told a story. It transformed the theatre into a more intimate setting.

The title well described the play. Seven women sat on stage while sharing various vignettes from their lives. The structure made for a very interesting evening of theatre.

The playwrights crafted a creative story. All of the monologs related what the character speaking wore during the significant life event she discussed. Without the benefit of costume changes or stage actions, this limited the performers to advancing the narrative through story telling ability alone. Ms. Brody selected the proper cast for this endeavor.

Susan Dewey played “Gingy.” I really enjoyed her performance at the show’s conclusion. Ms. Dewey movingly described the “personal” nature of the play. With great feeling the performer added that audiences found it just as “personal.”

Sara Viniar delivered Love, Loss and What I Wore’s most powerful monolog. Ms. Viniar expressed her character’s fondness for boots and mini-skirts. From this introduction she segued into a deeply moving story about the character’s sexual assault while attending college. Her emotional portrayal made me uncomfortable. I credit her for bringing out such feelings in an audience member.

Nicole Lukaitis delivered the most passionate description of a purse ever presented anywhere. It’s difficult to display that level of enthusiasm for an inanimate object. Ms. Lukaitis established a benchmark for doing so.

The other performers brought out their characters’ distinct features very well. I enjoyed Brittany Marie’s tale about how both she and her prom date wore matching outfits. Lori Clark’s inspirational story about her character’s battle with breast cancer at the age of 27 illustrated the theme of hope. Annie Raczko presented an entertaining rendition of how her character lost her favorite shirt while she and her boyfriend broke up. Jenn Kopsesky-Doyle’s character delivered a relatable monolog about marriage woes.

While Love, Loss and What I Wore featured an all-female cast, I can’t agree with Ms. Brody that it’s a “girl show.” While men and women may wear different style clothes, underneath them we’re all people. We all experience love and loss in our lives. They’re two of the facets of the human experience that unite every one of us.

If you’d love to see this show, there’s one more opportunity. It runs through February 24th. After that, it’s your loss.

 

Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.

A Christmas Carol at Haddonfield Plays and Players

HPP A Christmas CarolThe originality of A Christmas Carol always impressed me. I never would’ve imagined someone spending Christmas alone while haunted by the ghosts of the past, present and future without the use of alcohol. I also found the dramatic presentation of this tale performed by Haddonfield Plays and Players to be equally distinctive. The cast delivered a stellar rendition of this sine qua non of the Holiday season. I attended the December 1, 2017 performance directed by Mark Karcher.

Michael Hicks delivered a haunting performance of a haunted man. Mr. Hicks is a superb and gifted actor. Several years ago I had the pleasure of watching his exceptional interpretation of Dr. Sloper in the Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress. (Talk about a character that reveled in bitterness and alcohol.) I relished the opportunity to watch his rendition of what began as the most miserable character in literature. This time the role required a transition into a joyous humanitarian. Would Mr. Hicks meet the challenge?

This performer went beyond what many would do in order to get into character. To adopt Scrooge’s appearance he grew mutton chops. He delivered the iconic line “bah, humbug” with suave assurance. Mr. Hicks then craftily brought the audience into the character’s metamorphosis from a self-absorbed miser into a kindly philanthropist. As morose as he portrayed Scrooge at the show’s beginning at the end he became a different character. He demonstrated the laughter and joy of a man impassioned with humanity. Dickens’ character changed dramatically, and Mr. Hicks brought that transformation to life on the Haddonfield Players’ stage.

A Christmas Carol featured an exceptional visual spectacle. I actually heard gasps from the audience when the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Jennie Pines) made her appearance. Ms. Pines wore a white gown similar to a wedding dress. A strand of bright lights wrapped around her. The theatre became dark. As she descended down the aisle, her entrance created the illusion of an apparition floating from the heavens down to the stage. Then the rotating specks of light against the backdrop simulated snowfall. Ms. Pines costume along with the set combined for a beautiful image of a winter wonderland.

I received an early Christmas Present with Alex Levitt playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. I enjoyed watching this veteran of the Haddonfield Players return to the stage. He applied more range to the role than I would’ve expected. The character began as a jolly and merry soul. Before his exit, he delivered a minatory warning to Scrooge. Mr. Levitt selected a raspy voice in which to do so. The long beard combined with the red robe made him look like Santa Clause. The contrast between his appearance and his delivery made for an interesting scene.

George Clark’s sound design enhanced the atmospherics. The echo effect on Ms. Pines’ voice made her character even more ethereal. When used on Tony Killian’s (as the ghost of Jacob Marley) it made him much more horrifying.

While not the musical version of A Christmas Carol, the dramatic performance still showcased some fantastic singing. Nicky Intrieri (as Tiny Tim) delivered an outstanding unaccompanied solo number. The falsetto choir’s rendition of Holiday staples such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night” emanated a superb Yuletide spirit.

I’ve written before that I don’t care for narration in live drama. John Mortimer adapted this rendition of A Christmas Carol for the stage. Instead of one story teller he decided that just about every performer should narrate some section of the tale. While I find this type of exposition annoying, in this show I also found much of it unnecessary. The most egregious offenders included:

“Scrooge sees Marley’s face on the door knocker.” A character delivered this line as I watched Scrooge both look at and comment upon Marley’s face on the door knocker.

“Scrooge hears bells.” A narrator said this line while my ears rang (no pun intended) with the sound of myriad bells going off in the theatre.

“Marley walked down the stairs dragging his chains.” This one requires no further explanation.

To all the budding dramatists out there: show or tell. Make a choice. Don’t do both.

I’d like to credit Edwin Howard for putting his power tools to proficient work on the set design. The London backdrop featuring Big Ben, London Bridge and the full moon made great scenery.

It’s also proper to recognize the other performers who rounded out a stellar cast. Their combined efforts delivered a very entertaining evening: Dan Safeer, Jonathan Greenstein, Jay Burton, Tony Killian, Jennifer Flynn, Maddox Mofit-Tighe, Gracie Sokiloff, Brynne Gaffney, Gianna Cosby, Tess Smith, Ryan McDermott, Jake Hufner, John Williams, Isabella Mulliner, John Bravo, Ricky Conway, Anne Buckwheat, Olivia Williams, Jenn Adams, E’Nubian Beckett, Jessi Gollin, Solaida Santiago, and Nadia Faulk.

It’s hard to imagine the Holiday Season without experiencing A Christmas Carol in some form. For those interested in witnessing it performed live, the Haddonfield Players are presenting a great version. That’s no “humbug.” The show runs through December 16th. After that, the Ghost of Christmas Past may just haunt you for not taking advantage of the opportunity.

 

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.

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.