Jennifer Campbell

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.