Jeff McGrail

Seussical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When evaluating the most imaginative directors in South Jersey, Mary Baldwin’s name always makes the short list. It seemed fitting that Ms. Baldwin would select a show inspired by “the thinks you can think” for her next project. She and the Collingswood Community Theatre presented a piece drawn from the creative mind of Dr. Seuss: Seussical: The Musical. I attended the opening night performance on Thursday, July 11th.

Seussical presented a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ beloved works. It included story elements from Horton Hears a Who!, Horton Hatches the Egg, Green Eggs and Ham and others. The show incorporated iconic characters such as Horton the Elephant (played by Stephen Jackson), the Grinch (Sean Coyle) and, the sine qua non of the Seuss universe: the Cat in the Hat (Jeff McGrail).

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented this show in the Main Ballroom of the Scottish Rite building. The room well suited the extensive cast and elaborate staging. The size accommodated my personal preference for musical performances: a live band. Brian Kain directed the orchestra located in the balcony.

Ms. Baldwin opted to forego the “theatre in the round” format CCT has used for its summer shows in recent years. She chose instead the traditional “picture frame” format for Seussical. I liked the artistic decision. With so many performers and multiple interactions between characters occurring during the scenes, it kept all the action within the audience’s rage of vision.

The characters still walked through the aisles and interacted with the spectators. I nearly got splashed by the Cat’s (Jeff McGrail) “tears” as he lamented a sad point in the story. While searching for the Whos, Horton (Stephen Jackson) inspected one of the clover patches held by the audience member sitting next to me. One of the Wickersham Brothers jumped out from behind a curtain a few rows from where I sat. His monkeyshines startled me.

As with every summer performance at the Collingswood Community Theatre, this one contained a spectacular visual spectacle. All audience members received complimentary bracelets upon entering the theatre. Perhaps owing to the magic of Seuss, the devices would light up in different colors during certain scenes. Looking out at the audience and witnessing a series of hues lighting the dark theatre created a wonderful ambiance.

Jeff McGrail took on the iconic role of The Cat in the Hat. Mr. McGrail captured the character’s energy, humor and mischievousness. He also performed outstanding vocal numbers. The high powered opening, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think”, set the tone for the show.

I liked how Mr. McGrail added a bit of improvisation to the role. He provided an unexpected segue to the ironically titled “How Lucky You Are.” He tripped over the last step on his way to the stage. After a brief smile he broke into song.

Later when The Cat conducted an auction with the audience, Mr. McGrail informed one bidder: “Not you. You laughed at me when I fell.”

On his Facebook page Stephen Jackson commented on how thrilled he felt to be cast as Horton the Elephant. Mr. Jackson showed how much the role meant to him on opening night.

Mr. Jackson showcased the tender side of his vocal prowess in Seussical. He performed a moving duet with JoJo (played by Rory Bernardo) on “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Jackson sang another deeply affecting piece in the form of “Solla Sollew.”

The following line recurred throughout Horton’s lyrics.

A person’s a person

No matter how small.

Mr. Jackson’s soft intonation expressed how much his character believed it.

Cara Davis has played a variety of secondary characters at the Collingswood Community Theatre. Gertrude provided her with some much deserved time in the spotlight. Ms. Davis delivered wonderfully funny renditions of “The One Feather Tale of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “Amazing Gertrude.” She sang an emotional version of “Notice Me Horton” accompanied by Mr. Jackson.

John Dunn played the role of General Genghis Khan Schmitz. The character led a war against people who eat their toast butter side down. That’s not the type of figure an audience would take seriously. Mr. Dunn found ways to make the general even more comical. His choice of voice, repeated twitching of his mustache and cowardly way he explained Jojo’s disappearance to Mr. and Mrs. Mayor made the role even funnier.

The show’s soundtrack contained more than the sentimental numbers mentioned above. The tunes “Monkey Around” and “Chasing the Whos” put the “fun” in Funk. Kaitlyn Woolford’s vocals injected serious soul into “Biggest Blame Fool.” Jessica Hale added her sultry singing style to “Amazing Mayzie.” Compliments go to Brian Kain and his orchestra for their proficient accompaniment.

Seussical also included Kate Schraff’s elaborate choreography. The Bird Girls (Emily Jackson, Kate Thomas Arter, Jen Laksh, Maria Leonen, and Kara Hasings) and the Wickersham Brothers (Hannah Morris, Jack Hastings. Sean Coyle, Ross Shannon, Cassidy Scherz, Ian McGowan, Dylan McGowan, Charlie Temple and Mallory Beach) performed stellar routines. The combination of dance, singing and lighting worked very well together on the “Havin’ a Hunch” number.

This production involved a lot of people. Between the cast and the near sold out audience, I thought we’d need to elect our own congressman before the show started. The following performers completed the ensemble: Matt Griffin, Emily Oleaga Talley, Joey Liberson, Olivia Bee Spinosa, Henry Kain, Ross Shannon, Ava Leacock, Millie Griffin, Caelan Gaines, Sera Scherz, Lydia Ncely, Charlie Temple, Susie Cook, Grace Janco, Cailyn Talley, Griffin Maylath, Buddy Neal, Millie Griffin, Alicia Smartt, Ava Leacock and Clark Griffin.

Several South Jersey community theatre companies have presented Seussical over the last few years. “How lucky you are” if you’ve seen it. The high-tech production at the Collingswood Community Theatre makes it well worth watching again. For those who feel “alone in the universe” for not having seen it yet: the show runs through July 13th at the Scottish Rite. Get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.” After Saturday, to quote Dr. Seuss: “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

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Shrek the Musical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When I found out the NFL scheduled the first Eagles playoff game during the late afternoon of January 13th I knew I had a decision to make. Did I want to witness a serious tragedy or light-hearted musical comedy on that evening? I opted for the latter. I’m sure glad that I did. The Collingswood Community Theatre treated me to a fantastic performance of Shrek the Musical.

When I read the program I discovered David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the book and lyrics. After attending a performance of Rabbit Hole, his play regarding a family struggling to cope with the death of their four year old son, I thought I may be attending yet another serious tragedy. Fortunately, the playwright changed tack while Director Mary Baldwin and Musical Director Brian Kain kept it lighthearted.

Over the years I’ve watched Ryan Adams play a variety of supporting roles at Collingswood Community Theatre. I’ve been a long-time fan of this King of the F Clef’s baritone vocals. Mr. Adams showed he’s just as adept with tenor based material through his performance in the title role. It thrilled me to hear him sing some fantastic duets with his co-stars. He complimented Jeff McGrail on “Travel Song” and April Lindley on “I Think I Got You Beat.”

Mr. Adams delivered a moving rendition of the ballad “When Words Fail.” His delivery captured both the awkwardness and emotional challenge of expressing one’s feelings to a love interest. He brought profound pathos into this performance.

I credit his voice selection for the Shrek character. He used an accent that sounded Scottish with a tinge of Swedish. I didn’t hear an instance of him wavering from it the entire evening. That’s quite impressive with the amount of dialog and quantity of musical numbers he performed. That shows how hard he prepared for the role.

Jeff McGrail complimented Mr. Adams as his wise-cracking sidekick, the Donkey. There aren’t many ‘sassy donkey’ roles in musical theatre, or in any medium, for that matter. Mr. McGrail displayed immense imagination in bringing this role to the stage. I found his character very entertaining and enjoyable to watch. He also displayed fabulous vocals on tracks such as his solo number “Don’t Let Me Go.”

April Lindley did masterful work in her role as Princess Fiona. She delivered operatic vocals, danced and played each of the character’s (many) mood changes with equal skill while still getting laughs from the audience. Somehow, she fused all three of these traits together to open Act Two in her performance of “Morning Person.”

Ms. Lindley excelled at non-verbal communication. Her facial expressions always reflected the dialog and lyrics. I should add that I sat in the ‘nose bleed’ section of the Scottish Rite Theatre. I’m also nearsighted, but I did wear my glasses. (I was so far away from everyone else in the building that my vanity didn’t inhibit me from doing so.) Even under those conditions, I could still read Ms. Lindley’s expressions perfectly.

There’s an old saw that, “there are no small roles, just small actors.” Patrick Waldron gave a whole new interpretation of that expression in his performance as the diminutive Lord Farquaad. The role presented an interesting physical challenge. Mr. Waldron spent the evening on his knees. His appearance on stage first reminded me a bit of characters Tim Conway used to play. Mr. Conway didn’t possess Mr. Waldron’s dexterity, however. Mr. Waldron danced during one of the numbers while kneeling.

One of the most challenging roles for an actor is what I call that of the ‘comic relief in a comedy.’ In Shrek, the villain, Lord Farquaad, served as that character. Mr. Waldron performed spectacularly. Even though he played an unlikable and hyper-sarcastic personality, he managed his delivery to make his dialog sound funny. Through his skill as a performer, he found ways to make what could’ve been an annoying role into a most amusing one.

Many refer to Aretha Franklin as the undisputed “The Queen of Soul.” I’m a fan of Ms. Franklin’s, as well. But I have to admit that Stefanie Bucholski’s rendition of “Forever” made Ms. Franklin into a distant cousin of the royal family. Ms. Bucholski turned in some astounding soulful vocals in her role as the Dragon. She didn’t have to ask me to “respect” her talent: she earned it with that singing.

Choreographer Kate Scharff and Assistant Choreographer Kate Thomas Arter coordinated some extraordinary dance sequences. I found the ones featuring the Duloc Performers, the Three Blind Mice and the Pied Piper’s mice the most memorable. The superb costuming by Ellen Geigel enhanced the visual spectacle.

I’ve attended summer performances of Jesus Christ Superstar and Sweeney Todd presented by the Collingswood Community Theatre. They enacted those shows in the Main Ballroom at the Scottish Rite building. The sets combined with the lighting made for a mesmerizing theatrical experience. I didn’t think it possible that they’d be able to do anything comparable in the actual Scottish Rite Theatre.

Shrek proved me wrong. The show featured a very professional set. The performance’s high-tech nature included images projected on a movie screen. I especially liked the starlit backdrop they used for the night scenes.

I’d also like to compliment the other performers who made Shrek the Musical such a fun show: Caelan Gaines, Millie Griffin, Suzi Cook, Kate Schell, Caitlin Halligan, Emily Jackson, Ryann Burke, Karen McShane, Tom Geigel, Henry Kain, Jenni Maienza, Matt Griffin, Maria Leonen, Marcy Smith, Julia Maia, Anne Marie Dunn, John Dunn, Patty Nigro, Grace Janco, Cara Davis, Mike Smith, Pauli Bucholsky, Tracy Levy, Patty Walsh, Jen Laksh, Dave Routzahn, Kaitlyn Woolford, Dylan McGowan, Chris Geigel, Ernest Neal, Matt Griffin, Dylan McGowan, Kara Hastings, Emily Jackson, Erica Paolucci, Shannon Ewing, Alicia Smartt, Erin Daly, and Mallory Beach.

As things turned out on January 13th, the Eagles game didn’t become the tragedy I expected. They won and will advance to the NFC Championship game. I thought it clever how the Collingswood Community Theatre cleverly interpolated the Birds’ fight song into the finale. I have to say I found the performance of Shrek more entertaining than any of their games this season. Anyone familiar with the team knows: that’s saying something. The show runs through January 21st.

Theatre Review – The Producers at Collingswood Community Theatre

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented an evening of politically incorrect statements, myriad references to unscrupulous business practices along with a host of crass comments objectifying women. This took place on January 14th of this year, so, no, they did not host a 2016 Presidential Debate. Instead, they staged a spectacle intentionally meant to be comical. Under Mary Baldwin’s direction, they staged Mel Brooks’ irreverent take on the theatre business The Producers.

The musical told the story of Max Bialystock (played by CJ Kish). Once a producer of legendary Broadway shows, his recent work “flopped.” More complications ensued when accountant Leo Bloom (played by Chris Fitting) audited his books. Upon discovering Max stole two thousand dollars from the production, he observed that, “under the right conditions, a producer can make more money with a flop than with a hit.” Max’s extraordinary cajoling convinced this self-described “nobody” to become his partner and aid in producing a theatrical disaster; thus providing Leo with the vehicle to pursue his ambition to become a Broadway producer. Then the real hijinks commenced.

In their quest to find the “worst script” the pair optioned Springtime for Hitler: an encomium written by Franz (Tyler Cunnion), an erstwhile Nazi turned pigeon keeper. Then they sought out the “worst director” in New York. Initially reluctant, Roger De Bris (played by Ryan Adams), after some encouragement from his “common law assistant” Carmer Ghia (Jeff Mc Grail), agreed to direct the show; so long as he could “Keep it Gay.” Max proceeded to pursue his main means of raising money: seducing old lady “investors.”

To add to the scheme’s complications, a lovely young Swedish woman with the long first name of Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden (played by April Lindley) entered Max’s and Leo’s lives. Longing to audition for the show she stayed on as the duo’s housekeeper until presented the opportunity. Her presence and romantic interest in Leo led to complications in the producers’ partnership.

CJ Kish turned in a transcendent performance as Max; a very challenging role. It required singing, dancing and delivering comedic chops. Mr. Kish delivered a stellar performance in all three areas. His rendition made an unscrupulous and despicable character funny and likable. Through his moving recitation of “Till Him” he even inspired empathy for Max.

Mr. Kish brought unparalleled enthusiasm to his performance. I attended the second show CCT presented on Saturday. The energy he displayed on stage reflected that of someone just back from vacation. During the “Betrayed” number, he summarized the entire musical to that point, even acting out highlights from various scenes. That took a lot of skill, especially at the end of the night. He seemed as fired-up then as he did at the evening’s beginning.

As Leo, Chris Fitting played the role of a “nobody” evolving into a “somebody” very well. He convincingly brought to life a dull accountant with an unorthodox nervous tick. When anxious this bean counter would remove a blue baby blanket and rub his face with it. (And some people think actors have strange habits.) His performance worked as a great contrast with both Mr. Kish and Leo’s love interest, the alluring Ulla. (April Lindley) He also performed an outstanding song and dance number with the ensemble on “I Wanna Be a Producer.”

Ms. Lindley and Mr. Adams deserve great credit for both singing and dancing in heels. On a personal note, I struggle to walk right for a few days after buying new loafers. I can’t imagine the challenge of navigating a stage during a routine while wearing elevated shoes.

In terms of Mr. Brooks’ show itself, I didn’t like that it broke the “fourth wall” several times. When Max and Leo asked Ulla when she’d cleaned the office she replied, “Intermission.” Shortly after, she asked Leo why he walked so far “stage right.” During the “Betrayal” number, Max mentioned that “it’s a long show.”

I can, however, appreciate that Mr. Brooks likes poking fun at many subjects. I do have to commend including his own work among them.

I also discovered a few typos in the playbill. Both Mr. Kish’s and Mr. McGrail’s bios got cut off in my version. Performers memorize pages of text and spend countless hours rehearsing musical dance numbers. They exhibit their craft in a medium that allows them one chance to “get it right.” And many do this several times a year in multiple productions. These people aren’t like the rest of us. I’m always interested in learning about the kind of people with the courage and inspiration to do this. I would’ve liked to read their full comments.

In addition to the great performances Collingswood Community Theatre treated the audience to a fantastic multi-media spectacle. Brian Cain did an outstanding job as musical director. Kate Scharff crafted complex choreography with a large ensemble. Chuck Jackson’s set construction provided theatregoers with a true sense of being in the actual locations where the action occurred.

The Producers opened with a fictitious audience leaving the theatre grumbling about the poor quality of Max Bialystock’s show. No one did that for this Collingswood Community Theatre production. This cast and crew sure took Ulla’s musical advice “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” in terms of their skills during this performance.

For the finale the entire ensemble gathered on stage and sang a number called “Goodbye.” In it they instructed the audience to leave. It’s good they did. With their superb rendition of this Mel Brooks musical I’m sure people would’ve hung around waiting for an encore…even if Max produced it.