Haley Melvin

When You Wish Upon a Star: Magical Musical Memories at the Village Playbox

Yet again a South Jersey community theatre company transformed the region into the Wonderful World of Disney. The Village Playbox presented a spectacular musical tribute to a land of mermaids, toys that come to life and just plain old good music. Your correspondent attended the October 26 performance directed by John Michael Demchak.

The program took fans on a musical journey that spanned seventy years. The songs included material from 1949’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow through 2019’s Descendants 3. It contained tracks from popular movies such as 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, songs from Broadway versions of those shows (produced in 2008 and 1994 respectively) and even cuts from some lesser known films in the Disney catalog such as The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon; both released in 1977.

The set-list incorporated a variety of musical styles. Ryan Bogie delivered a jazzy rendition of “One Last Hope.” He incorporated some entertaining dance moves to enhance this song from Hercules. Paul Rather followed him with another track in the style of America’s original art form. He performed a toe tapping take on “The Headless Horseman.”

Jazz isn’t the only musical genre songwriters draw upon for Disney tunes. Jennifer Campbell performed the rhythm and bluesy “He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp. Zach Wiseley’s piano playing served as the perfect accompaniment to Ms. Campbell’s singing.

Musical duo Rusty and Jan contributed their musical skills to the show. Flautist Jan accompanied Rusty as he sang played guitar on Toy Story’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” With the guitar capoed at the third fret and the addition of the flute, their sound brought to mind Bob Dylan meets Jethro Tull: quite an achievement with Disney material.

No tribute to the music of Disney would be complete without some heartwarming and heartbreaking numbers. Nancy Bailey delivered a moving rendition of the somber “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. Rusty and Jan accompanied Katie Beth Burow on an emotional “Someone’s Waiting for You” from The Rescuers. Musical Director John Michael Demchak sang a powerful version of “If I Can’t Love Her” from the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast.

Even Disney songs contain melodies that would impress Robert Fripp. Nikki Zane sang an outstanding version of “My Once Upon a Time.” This track from Decendants 3 contained a melody that seemed more like a medley. “Candle on the Water” from Pete’s Dragon included some intricate musical phrasing, as well. It didn’t inhibit Ariel Golan from performing a beautiful version of it.

The event organizers included a very topical song in the set. William Young performed the macabre “Jack’s Lament” from The Nightmare before Christmas. The tune worked as both a commemoration of Halloween and as a prelude to the upcoming Christmas Season.

As the Village Playbox hosted this event, the show included some theatrical performances. Accompanied by Nikki Zane, Kelsey Brown sang a colorful version of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from the Broadway version of The Little Mermaid. Colin Becker added humor to the evening with his comical performance of “Les Poissons” from the film version of the latter.

With all the talent prevalent at theatrical performances, costuming tends get overshadowed. Emcee Geri Watson ensured that didn’t happen at Magical Musical Memories. Ms. Watson complimented the “bomb dress” performer Bella Kokotajlo wore. Besides appealing to fashionistas, Ms. Kokotajlo delivered an outstanding version of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid.

The show included exceptional singing from other South Jersey community theatre performers. Presley Terch, Samantha Harner, Madeline Johnston, Katelynn Kokotajlo and Haley Melvin added their stellar vocals to this wonderful tribute to Disney.

Director Demchak included three Disney medleys in the program. All the performers stood on stage and performed them together. Pianist Zach Wiseley provided the sole musical accompaniment. With the elaborate orchestral arrangements common in Disney songs, it’s easy for the beauty of the melodies to get lost in the mix. Mr. Demchak ensured that didn’t happen during these numbers. The choral effect on the melodies and harmonies enhanced the beauty of these magical numbers. Credit goes to the musical director for his arrangement and to the performers for their perfect execution of it.

Other members of the production team included: Gary Kochey managed the technical aspects, Chuck Watson handed props and Anita Rowland produced.

The Magical Musical Memories program created some magical musical memories of its own. Audiences should wish upon a star that this isn’t the last time a South Jersey community theatre company transforms the Garden State into the Wonderful World of Disney.

 

Seussical at The Village Playbox

The Village Playbox proved that imagination isn’t just for kids. Using Seussical’s opening number “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” as inspiration, Director Anita Rowland along with the cast and crew used all their powers of creativity to bring this show to the stage. The script required that they transform the set into the worlds of Whoville, the Jungle of Nool and into the realm of everyone’s favorite troublemaking tabby, The Cat in the Hat. I attended the Saturday, May 4th performance at the First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights.

To borrow a line from The Cat in the Hat, “Folks, this ain’t Mother Goose.” Upon encountering The Cat in the Hat (Sidney Manfred Maycock III) Young Jojo (Presley Terch) took an amazing journey. The Cat transported him to the miniature world of Whoville. In this place, he became the son of the Mayor (Doug Cohen) and Mrs. Mayor (Debbi Heckman). A teacher chastised Jojo for using his imagination too much. In order to discipline the boy, the Mayor and Mrs. Mayor placed him in the army. General Genghis Khan Schmitz (Christopher Schmalbach) vowed to make him conform.

Horton the Elephant (Shawn Simmons) discovered Whoville on a speck of dust. He placed it on a clover for safety. First the Wickersham Brothers (a group of monkeys) and then Vlad Vladicoff the eagle (Steve Allen) took the clover. The latter dropped it into a clover patch.

Horton’s quest to relocate Whoville became interrupted by Mazie LaBird (Rachel Smith). She asked Horton to sit on her nest for “an afternoon.” After Horton agreed, Mazie abandoned her egg.

A group of hunters captured Horton and placed him in the Circus McGurkus.  Gertrude McFuzz (Haley Schmalback), another bird, struggled to locate Horton’s clover for him. Her desire for his affections served as her motivation.

This plot summary doesn’t adequately explain the level of imagination needed to present Seussical. Much to their credit, the team at The Village Playbox made this fantastical premise very believable.

Director Rowland utilized the entire room for this production. During several numbers, the ensemble left the stage and performed in the rows surrounding the audience. I liked the stereo effect it provided. It also allowed those in the show to interact with the audience. During one number The Cat made eye contact with me as he passed. “Now there’s a man who likes to mambo,” he said to me.

I normally don’t like it when performers break the fourth wall. In this case I felt flattered that someone acknowledged my ruffled shirt. I paid good money for that thing.

Donna Allen, Nikki Zane and Amy Bannister did an excellent job with the elaborate costuming. As someone who’s color blind, even I could appreciate their intricate use of color. The Cat’s bright colored red and white striped hat looked authentic. The different shades of the Bird Girl costumes added a nice visual effect against the varying hues of the backdrop. The yellows worn by the Mayor and his wife enhanced the cartoonish ambiance.

Jan Johnston performed extraordinary work designing the set. Even though based on a fantasy world, I found it very realistic. The stage became the domain of Dr. Seuss. The cartoon trees looked as though they’d been transplanted out of the pages of his books. Mazie’s nest perched several feet above the stage. In front of it was a multi colored clover field. Credit goes to Gary Kochey and Christine Dziczek for constructing this wonderful set.

In addition to transforming the theatre into the world of Dr. Seuss, I also thought musical director John Demchak and choreographer Haley Schmalbach turned Haddon Heights into Motown. The numbers included sophisticated melodies, elaborate background vocals and stellar dance moves. Jessica Shockley delivered soulful vocals on “Biggest Blame Fool” and during “The People Versus Horton the Elephant.” Rachel Smith sang a sultry version of “Amazing Mazie” accompanied by Haley Schmalbach, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Colotti and Madeline Johnson.

Upon seeing Sidney Maycock’s in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels I wrote that he possessed a genius for comedy. With his performance in Seussical, he personified Arthur Schopenhauer’s observation that, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Mr. Maycock took a high-energy approach to a demanding role. He spent most of the show on stage; either pantomiming reactions or leading the action. The entire evening he wore a fur covered cat suit. I attended on a humid night. Mr. Maycock never showed any signs of fatigue. He pranced around the room like a performer impassioned with his role.

When Act Two opened, The Cat impersonated an orchestra conductor. During the scene, the character sat down out of exhaustion, took a drink of water and patted his forehead with a towel. Mr. Maycock put a lot of energy into that maneuver, too.

Mr. Maycock utilized a series of voices for the role. Employing a Texas accent he ran an auction. He mimicked a doctor with a Russian dialect. Using The Cat’s voice he performed excellent renditions of “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” and “It’s Possible” with Presley Terch and “How Lucky You Are.”

Seussical included many outstanding musical numbers. Shawn Simmons and Mr. Terch sang the most beautiful song in the score. They sang a beautiful rendition of  “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Simmons and Haley Schmalbach delivered an equally poignant version of the track towards the end of Act Two.

I marvel at the barrage of rhyming couplets playwrights Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty included in the script. The most challenging came during Mr. and Mrs. Mayor’s initial interaction with Jojo. Doug Cohen and Debbi Heckman impressed by delivering these tricky tongue twisters clearly and without stumbling over the words.

I found one concept in the show dated. General Genghis Khan Schmitz launched a war against people who buttered the bottom side of their toast. With the current state of American foreign policy, that concept won’t seem as bizarre to American audiences as it did when Seussical first appeared in 2000.

The show contained an extensive cast. I’d like to compliment everyone for their work on this production: Sidney Maycock, Shawn Simmons, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Collotti, Madeline Johnston, Aaron Wachs, Paul Rather, Gabrielle Allen, Daniel McDevitt, Steve Allen, Lily Allen, Colin Becker, Margo Mullin, Amy Bannister, Jennifer Campbell, Rachel Grodzielanek, Madelyn Grodzalinek, Nicolette Malinowski, Audrey Mitros, Juliette Pacana, Ella Samuel-Siegal and William Young. Steve Allen assistant directed and Ed Frazer designed the lights.

Seussical played to a sold out house during its opening weekend. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll bet you feel “alone in the universe.” I’m “havin’ a hunch” you’d like to watch it. Before saying, “how lucky you are” to those who have, get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.”

So don’t you lament and come to grief.

See Seussical at the Village Playbox no later than May 18th.

Noises Off at the Village Playbox

Director Valerie Brothers explained to me that farces are “a lot of hard work” following a run of The Fox on the Fairway. The Village Playbox proved just how incisive Ms. Brothers was. I attended the February 8th performance of Noises Off. John Blackwell directed this rendition of Michael Frayn’s comical take on the theatre business.

Noises Off reminded me a bit of the film This is Spinal Tap. Like the fictitious rock band, Mr. Frayn’s made-up theatre company just couldn’t seem to execute any task properly.

The show told the story of a travelling theatre troupe in their quest to perform a comical play called Nothing On. As the tour wore on, this lighthearted comedy became a serious drama: backstage. Increasingly that drama started making its way into the main production. While the patrons attending Nothing On may not have been impressed, the audience for Noises Off was delighted.

As witty as I found the show, the set made for the most memorable aspect of Noises Off. Watching the crew make the adjustments to the set entertained me as much as the show itself. The performance contained three acts. Acts I and III featured the set of the play-within-a-play: the living room of the Brent’s country home. For Act II, the crew converted the set into the backstage of the theatre. Somehow the crew changed the stage into the second set in less than 15 minutes during the first intermission. During the second intermission, they transformed the stage back to the original setting from Act I.

After the show, Mr. Blackwell told me, “I didn’t think we could do it.” He and the crew deserve great accolades for this accomplishment. Producer Rob Kristie, Assistant Director Steve Allen, Stage Manager/Line Director Ariel Golan, Erin Gallagher on stage crew, and set constructor Gary Kochey along with the cast members who helped move everything around all did a phenomenal job completing this difficult task.

There’s an old adage that “in comedy, timing is everything.” In conjunction with the set changes, the cast members performed an extraordinary job with their timing. Each act of Noises Off entailed the performers acting out the same material from Act I of Nothing On. When the actors did so in Act II they delivered their lines from off stage most of the time. The audience could only see the events occurring backstage. Mr. Blackwell coordinated and the cast fulfilled these challenging maneuvers flawlessly. In Act III when the tempers flared, the Nothing On cast forgot their lines and production fell apart, the performers still remained in-synch.

Esteemed actress and director Lisa Croce once told me that she “keeps her drama on the stage.” The characters in Noises Off would have been well advised to take Ms. Croce’s advice.

I often compliment directors for selecting the right performers to fit the show’s roles. I would make the same observation about Mr. Blackwell for this one. The same could not be said regarding the fictitious director, Lloyd (played by Chal Gallagher). Lloyd’s casting choices did reflect the quality of his judgement, however. During the run, he dated both Stage Manager Poppy (played by Ashley Bianchimano) and female lead Brooke (Haley Melvin).

The conflicts didn’t end there. Garry, the male lead, (Scott Partenheimer) and Dotty (Phyllis Josephson) engaged in a troubled love affair of their own. Frederick (D. Michael Farley) had a propensity for nose bleeds and lightheadedness. Selsdon (Tom Lorenz) was a chronic alcoholic. Belinda (Cara Dickinson) had a sarcastic way of ending sentences with either the words “my love” or “my sweet.” Stage Manager and male understudy, Tim (Evan Hairston), took the brunt of the director’s frustration with the cast.

Not an ideal situation for a group presenting a theatrical production. Witnessing their antics did make for a very entertaining evening for theatregoers, however.

Due to the complexity of the musical routines in Rent, I wondered if Jonathan Larsen hated actors. Because of the physical demands of Noises Off, I wonder if Mr. Frayn had his own issues with them.

Noises Off included a lot of slapstick. Scott Partenheimer delivered a masterful comedic display. He performed physical comedy reminiscent of the great Tim Conway. Mr. Partenheimer fell down a flight of stairs, slipped on a sardine falling on his back and even hopped around the stage with both his shoelaces tied together.

Michael Farley also displayed some stellar dexterity. He maintained his balance while hopping around the stage with his pants around his ankles.

Phyllis Josephson showed her skill at physical comedy as well. Ms. Josephson walked the entire length of the stage with a telephone wire caught around her ankle.

I doubt the playwright intended this, but I’d pay tribute to the cast members who met the unique environmental challenge this performance presented. Chal Gallagher, Tom Lorenz, D. Michael Farley and Haley Melvin all performed scenes in their underwear. While this type of costuming is a boon for producers, it can challenge actors; especially on a winter evening in South Jersey with the temperature in the 30s. One has to respect these performers’ dedication to their craft.

Noises Off also included some memorable performances. It seemed as though Mr. Partenheimer and Ms. Melvin competed to determine whose character could overact more.

It was also a pleasure to watch Phyllis Josephson play a role I didn’t think she would be capable of playing: that of a bad actress. She did so wonderfully. That’s a true testament to her skill as a performer.

Comedy can be serious business. Noises Off showed it. The multifarious antics involving so many performers made them difficult to absorb in one viewing. As with Spinal Tap, I feel like if I watched Noises Off a dozen times, I’d still catch things I hadn’t noticed before.

It’s doubtful this cast and crew will take Noises Off on the road to Trenton, Harrisburg and Akron. The Village Playbox will present it through February 16th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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