James Gallagher

The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 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.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.

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Big Fish at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Big Fish possessed one complicated title. As this is July, I anticipated a musical ode to that age old summer past time. Not so. The protagonist’s son went “fishing” into his dad’s past to discover the truth about him. Well, the title either alluded to that or Edward’s being a figurative “big fish” in a small pond. At any rate, theatergoers should leave their rods and reels at home. Settle in for an odyssey of singing, dancing and stellar entertainment with the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Edward Bloom loved to share stories with his son. Who wouldn’t want a tale-telling fabulous fabulist of a father? Well, not Will. When he discovered himself about to become a dad, he longed to know the real Edward behind the stories. But time became an issue. Edward received news he had terminal cancer. Would Will learn the truth? I found out when I attended the July 14th performance of Big Fish presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Director Michael Melvin engaged in some unexpected casting for this project. Antonio Baldasari is one of the funniest actors on the South Jersey community theatre circuit. His performance as Aldolpho in the Maple Shade Arts Council’s The Drowsy Chaperone was the most comical character I’ve seen brought to the stage. April Lindley has also played memorable comic characters in recent years. I attended a performance of Shrek: The Musical at the Collingswood Community Theatre in which she played the emotionally volatile Princess Fiona. That character changed moods about as often as most people inhale. With those two at the top of the bill I entered the Maple Shade High School Auditorium expecting some side-splitting entertainment.

Well, the creative Mr. Melvin had other plans. He cast these performers in dramatic, sentimental and heart-rending roles. He made a good decision. These players proved just as adept at performing “serious” characters. To the audience’s delight both Mr. Baldasari and Ms. Lindley delivered performances just as memorable as their comedic work.

Big Fish included sophisticated dance routines choreographed by Erica Paolucci and assistant Mallory Beach, a live orchestra led by Jim Sheffer and vocal direction by Lauren Delfing. All facets combined for an exceptional show. Oh, yes, and DJ Hedgepath played the son. You know it had to be one grand production for me to mention Mr. Hedgepath last.

Mr. Melvin turned Big Fish into a mesmerizing visual spectacle. He coordinated the lighting, as well. The director ensured the different shades of color on the set reflected the mood of the events occurring on-stage. The bright yellow hue combined with the flowers spread around the stage heightened the beauty of the “Daffodils” number. The red, white and blue costumes accentuated the stellar dancing in the “Red, White and True” routine. The dark costumes of the witch ensemble boosted the ominous aura of the “I Know What You Want” scene. The glowing crystal ball the witch (Nicole Perri) held illuminated in various hues.

Antonio Baldasari has done strong supporting work. I relished the opportunity to watch him take the lead as Edward Bloom. He didn’t disappoint. The performer grabbed my attention at the beginning with his solo rendition of “Be the Hero.”

Mr. Baldasari became Edward. He adopted the character’s slow Southern drawl. I liked his calm mannerisms when confronted by the witch and the assassins; but not when confronted by his son. He complimented Ms. Lindley very well in numbers such as “Daffodils” and “Time Stops.” He worked just as proficiently with cast members Tre Deluca on “Fight the Dragons” and DJ Hedgepath on “Showdown.”

Besides the musical numbers, the show contained serious drama. Mr. Baldasari and Mr. Hedgepath played superb opposites. Mr. Baldasari’s laid back and imaginative persona worked well against Mr. Hedgepath’s angry and analytical nature. April Lindley and Jayne Collotti (as Will’s wife Josephine) served as mediators. Even without the songs, this conflict alone would have made for a great story.

DJ Hedgepath’s fans will be delighted, as usual. I enjoyed his renditions of “Stranger”, “What’s Next” and the “Be the Hero” reprise. In addition to the hostility to Mr. Baldasari’s character, he showed great emotion when visiting him in the hospital. He brought out Will’s development very believably.

April Lindley turned in an absolutely awesome performance as Sandra. Ms. Lindley delivered her lines in a perfect Southern accent. She inspired empathy for Sandra through her flawless facial expressions.

Ms. Lindley established a new standard for dramatic vocals. With the dying Edward resting in her lap she sang “I Don’t Need a Roof” while crying. She performed as though every word agonized her character even more. All the time she remained in key. Ms. Lindley brilliantly extended a rest before hitting the final note. It made a deeply emotional moment even more powerful.

The highlight of this show occurred during the “Little Lamb from Alabama/Time Stops” sequence. April Lindley, Shaina Egan and Emma Kelly joined together to perform this song and dance number. They sounded just like the Andrews Sisters playing on an MP3. The “Little Lamb from Alabama” number featured a quick upbeat tempo. It segued into “Time Stops” sung by Ms. Lindley and Mr. Baldasari. For that one the three dancers slowed down and performed the same moves in slow motion. They executed this transition with precision.

I also compliment the other cast members who contributed to the production. Tre Deluca (played Young Will the night I attended), Jane Collotti, stilt walker Stephen Jackson, Nicholas French, Nicole Perri, Allison Abiva, James Gallagher, Ryan Bogie, Matthew Maerten, Mallory Beach, Erin Daly, Laura Foley, Jerrod Ganesh, Evan Hairston, Lori Alexio Howard, Nicole Manning, Jordan Moore, Lisa Palena and William Young.

During the intermission Mr. Melvin told me to “get the tissues ready for Act II.” I’m sure audience members shed tears at its conclusion, but not because of the story. I doubt I’m the only person who felt sad that it ended. Missing out on the experience would’ve made me even more miserable. For theatre fans still in the doldrums you have until July 21st to catch Big Fish.

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.