Jillian Starr-Renbjor

Disaster! at Burlington County Footlighters

Take a spoof of 1970s disaster movies, include a soundtrack that sounds like a best of K-Tell Records compilation add a cast of South Jersey community theatre legends and you’ve got Disaster! A 70s Disaster Movie…Musical! (To save readers the time of going back and re-reading that title: I know. I never thought I’d see those words written in that combination, either.) So theatre fans grab your roller skates, your pet rocks and hook up your CB radios. This September 20th my “20” was Burlington Country Footlighters.

Scott Angehr and Tracey Hawthorne directed this rib-tickling tale of terror. Drawing on the suspense of films such as The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and Jaws with the farcical wit of Airplane!, Disaster! told an old story with new twist.

Unscrupulous business man and Lothario wannabe Tony Delvecchio (played by John Romano, Jr.) came up with a clever scheme to avoid New York’s gambling laws. He owned a floating casino. As this was the 1970s, the establishment included a discotheque. Mr. Delvecchio’s ethical lapses also caused him to avoid spending money on the necessary safety measures.

To add to the potential for misfortune, scientist and disaster maven Ted Scheider (played by Evan Hairston) informed Mr. Delvecchio that a fault line lay underneath his casino. Mr. Delvecchio addressed this matter with same diligence that he managed the casino’s other safety concerns.

The late 1970s television series The Love Boat may have provided inspiration for the show’s characters. They were both quirky and the types of figures one would like to see the victims of misfortune.

The passenger list for this ship included a gambling addicted nun (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), a washed-up disco diva (Mikayla Nelson), the sappily married Summers pair (Alan Krier and Lisa Croce) and a wealthy couple (played by Antonio Flores and Kelly Scott) that made Thurston and Lovie Howell look like the Clampetts before Jed found “Texas tea” on his homestead.

The casino’s employees were even more idiosyncratic than its passengers. They included lounge singer Jackie Noelle (Alex Davis), waiter and malapropism prone pick-up artist Scott (Aaron Wachs) and a flamboyant chef (DJ Hedgepath).

Disaster! writers Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick infused their script with the philosophical wit of comedian Bill Hicks. The latter observed: “It’s only funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.” And Disaster! was hilarious.

Dramatis personae this eccentric, a wacky script and a soundtrack that featured radio staples of a decade, required performers with the right skills to execute these unique challenges. Directors Scott Angher and Tracey Hawthorne made strong casting choices: many of whom are Footlighters’ legends.

John Romano, Jr. made the reprehensible Tony Delvecchio a pleasure to watch. He performed the most comical near-death scene I’ve ever watched. While crooning a melodramatic version of “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, Mr. Romano battled rising waters and a school of sharks. He made the scene and the outcome hilarious.

Ally Masson played investigative reporter Miss…Excuse me, that’s Ms. Wilson. Ms. Masson played a stellar straight performer opposite Mr. Romano’s comical concupiscence. She displayed perfect chemistry with the character’s love interest played by Vinnie DiFilippo. The two delivered a fantastic duet with “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” Ms. Masson also performed a memorable version of “I Am Woman/That’s the Way It Always Should Be” accompanied by BCF Mainstage newcomer Makenna Renbjor.

What Jim Frazer is to set-design, Vinnie DiFilippo is on his way to becoming as a theatrical performer. Mr. DiFilippo turned in another strong performance through the role of lovelorn Chad Rubik. The performer reciprocated the chemistry Ms. Masson displayed while working with him. While Mr. DiFilippo enacted all facets of the role perfectly, I especially enjoyed the soul he added to his vocals on “Without You.” He shifted the mood at the song’s conclusion by curling into the fetal position. This touch of comedy made the track even more memorable.

Evan Hairston played the deceptively complex character, Ted Scheider. Mr. Hairston delivered the sine qua non of this character type’s usual modus operandi. He ran around the casino and warned everyone who wouldn’t listen about a pending “disaster.” He executed this maneuver like the character’s namesake (the actor Roy Scheider) did in the movie Jaws.

Mr. Hairston added the requisite comedy to the role. His actions recalled those of another disaster spoof hero: Ted Striker, the protagonist of the film Airplane!

The performer still inspired empathy for Sheider. With his lamentations on the fate of the character’s deceased wife he showed Sheider’s personality deeper than that of a dispassionate scientist. He best did so through his interactions with his character’s love interest: nightclub singer Jackie Noelle (Alex Davis).

Alex Davis selected the perfect voice for the role. Ms. Davis spoke in a sultry high-pitched tone. It well suited the lounge singer’s vocal style on “Muskrat Love,” “Mockingbird” (accompanied by Mr. Hairston) and the “When Will I Be Loved” duet with Makenna Renbjor. Ms. Davis added her own brand of comedy to Jackie Noelle through the shuffle she used for her character’s walk.

Makenna Renbjor made her BCF Main Stage debut in the dual roles of Jackie Noelle’s children, Ben and Lisa. She selected a challenging show with which to do so. Ms. Renbjor managed the quick wig changes without flaw. The performer also showed strong vocal prowess as mentioned earlier. One has to credit her for the courage to perform along such outstanding performers as Ally Masson and Alex Davis during her first foray onto the Main Stage. Ms. Renbjor’s wonderful performance proved that she earned the right to share the stage with them and her real life mom, Jillian Starr-Renbjor.

Yet another Footlighters legend, Jillian Starr-Renbjor added her talents to this extraordinary cast. Ms. Starr-Renbjor played Sister Mary Downy, erstwhile gambling addict turned moral crusader turned gambling addict again. In a departure from the nun’s usual deadpan delivery, the performer expressed her character’s passion for one-armed bandits through her emotional rendition of “Torn between Two Lovers.”

A production consisting of this much talent and entertainment makes it difficult to select a most memorable moment. For me the casting of the Summers couple provided highlight of Disaster! Two of the best comic performers in South Jersey community theatre took on these roles: the extraordinary Alan Krier and the incomparable Lisa Croce.

Alan Krier provided his usual comedic genius for the production. He performed a perfect imitation of Ms. Davis’ shuffle. In perhaps an even more impressive feat: he did so without wearing heels.

Mr. Krier also returned to his roots in musical theatre for this role. He served as part of the group that performed “Ben.” He also delivered a fun duet with Lisa Croce on “Still the One.”

Lisa Croce’s fans will be ecstatic with her performance in Disaster! This show is an absolute “must see” for them. Ms. Croce treated them with her usual proficiency at comedy. Her portrayal of her character’s unusual medical condition, including Tourette’s like symptoms, delighted the audience. She sang a duet with Mr. Krier that was both comical and, in its own way, poignant.

Ms. Croce impressed most with her dancing ability; a skill that’s a bit out of her comfort zone. When I interviewed her on June 22, 2016, I asked about the most difficult role she played. Ms. Croce replied:

I feel much more confidence in my acting than my singing or dancing these days (age will do this!). Therefore, playing Rosie in Wedding Singer where I had to sing solo and dance was difficult for me. I needed to get out of my own head and just do it! I lean more towards plays or non-singing and dancing roles in musicals when I can.

Fans wouldn’t have suspected that for her performance in Disaster! She proved the old cliché that we’re our own harshest critics.

In this show, Ms. Croce performed a tap dance number. Part of the way through, Ms. Davis and Mr. Hairston accompanied her. Ms. Croce still occupied center stage while leading the ensemble. She executed the routine beautifully.

Set designer extraordinaire Jim Frazer worked his usual magic with the Footlighters’ stage. For Disaster! he turned it upside down: literally. Mr. Frazer transformed it into a dock, a lounge and a host of other settings one would find in a casino.

The show featured a live band under the direction of bassist Peg Petti-Smith. Ms. Smith led the Diablo Sandwich Band & Friends through the pop music of the seventies. The group performed tunes written in a range of styles. The songs included the contemplative “The Lord’s Prayer,” the upbeat “Saturday Night” and the disco masterpiece (now there’s an oxymoron) “I Will Survive.”

Tom Shaw, Jr. choreographed, Leslie Romanuski stage managed, Amanda Cogdell managed the costuming and Scott Angehr produced. The following performers completed the cast: Mark Henley, Christian Decolla, Shannon Ewing, Shannon Forbes, Mackenzie Smith and Abby Zahn.

Disaster! runs through September 28th at Burlington County Footlighters. As of this writing your correspondent hasn’t confirmed the rumors that FEMA: A New Musical will follow it. Sources do tell me that production is lacking the needed financing.

I found the performance of Disaster! at Burlington County Footlighters as anything but. Theatre fans can only hope we see the members of this talented cast perform again. If we don’t, it wouldn’t be a disaster: it would be a catastrophe for the arts in South Jersey.

 

Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

Not for the first time, Burlington County Footlighters bewildered me. When I heard they’d present a musical about “Carrie”, I cringed. Who would want to see Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie put to music? The answer is apparently no one.* Lucky for theatre fans the show they presented took its inspiration from the Stephen King novel of the same name. I guess I should read the marquee the next time I hear buzz about upcoming Footlighters’ productions.

Now the real question came to mind: would the theatrical production of King’s Carrie terrify me more than a melodic rendition of Dreiser’s prose? I found out when I attended the opening night performance on May 4th.

As the concept originated from the mind of the ‘master of horror’, it wasn’t a typical story of teen angst. Carrie White (played by Cynthia Reynolds) experienced torment from her peers at school. Her home life offered no succor. Her hyper-religious mother (played by Jillian Starr-Renbjor) sheltered her from the outside world. Mrs. White preferred to indoctrinate her daughter with religious thought. In fact she couldn’t utter a sentence unless it contained at least one passage from the Bible.

A repressed socially inept loner subject to incessant bullying: this would not end well, I thought.

And there’s more. Throughout the show Carrie discovered that she possessed telekinetic powers…and a pretty bad temper. I rubbed my hands together and anxiously anticipated a train wreck for the ages.

Connor Twigg both directed and choreographed this tale of teen tragedy. Carrie presented challenges on both accounts. It featured a host of sophisticated dance routines involving multiple performers. It also contained a touching story of an outcast struggling to find her place in the world. Mr. Twigg made an excellent choice in Cynthia Reynolds to take on the lead role.

Ms. Reynolds played the timid, frightened pariah exceptionally. She kept her face pointed down and spoke like someone afraid of letting the words out. Her voice still contained enough volume so the audience could hear her clearly. The mannerisms she chose helped to bring me into the story. She made me very interested to see how her character would behave as the abuse intensified. Ms. Reynolds’s non-verbal cues made me even antsier about the show’s conclusion. I knew it led to a good one.

Michael Gore crafted some unusual melodies for this show. Dean Pitchford’s lyrics didn’t make them any easier to sing. Ms. Reynolds’ character had the most challenging. She handled them like a true theatrical professional. She displayed extraordinary ability sustain notes and navigate the leaps.

One also has to credit Ms. Reynolds for what she’s willing to do for her art. Iggy Pop bled for his. Ms. Reynolds showed a lot of dedication to the craft. She took a bucket of fake blood on the top of her head for her own. From my vantage point, the substance appeared viscous like syrup.

Jillian Starr-Renbjor took on the role of Carrie’s mother, Margaret. Mrs. White possessed two personality traits: an overprotective attitude towards her daughter and religious zealotry. Ms. Starr-Renbjor delivered her lines with a calm, cryptic assuredness. Her performance made Margaret the most terrifying character in the show.

I smiled whenever her character took the stage. This show kept building to a climax my 20 times great-grandchildren would talk about.

I enjoyed how Ms. Starr-Renbjor brought an aspect of her own behavior to the role. She delivered some awesome vocal numbers. Her duets with Ms. Reynolds on “Stay Here Instead” and the minatory “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance” made the show much more enjoyable. Ms. Starr-Renbjor’s solo number “When There’s No One” made the production remarkable.

Alix Vitarelli played the closest thing Carrie had to a friend as Sue Snell. Aside from her outstanding singing on tracks such as “Once You See” and superb chemistry with her love interest (played by Evan Brody) she played the most challenging role in the show to perfection.

Throughout Carrie, a spotlight (worked by community theatre legend DJ Hedgepath) would shine on Ms. Vitarelli. A voice would question her on the events leading up to prom night. The performer would tremble and nervously explain what occurred.

One scene transitioned from Ms. Vitarelli speaking in the spotlight to interacting with Mr. Stephens (played by John Romano Jr.) and Miss Gardner (played by Mackenzie Smith). She adjusted from playing an uneasy persona to someone having a normal conversation. That’s not an easy achievement with so little time to alter focus.

Ms. Vitarelli’s character also underwent the most internal change during the show. She started out as one of Carrie’s harassers and developed into an unselfish person with compassion. She portrayed this change very believably.

Danielle Janco played an exceptional villain in the role of Chris Hargenson. She also served as dance captain and co-choreographed the “You Shine” number with Mr. Twigg. As the choreography featured a lot of vitality, she did a marvelous job keeping up the dancers’ intensity until the final curtain.

Some time ago I described the Krier family as “the Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre.” Now, unlike a certain monarchy that’s been in the news lately, South Jersey community theatre has two royal families. Joining Tami and Taylor among the Brody family acting dynasty enter Evan.

Mr. Brody played Ms. Vitarelli’s love interest, Tommy Ross. The character also served as the object of Carrie’s affections. This development enhanced the build-up to the story’s end. I felt so glad I brushed my teeth before going to the theatre. My smile kept getting wider as the conflict built. I kept anticipating a nastier and nastier conclusion.

Mr. Brody delivered an emotional musical rendition of the character’s poem “Dreamer in Disguise.” He also interacted with a variety of types of characters. He played the dutiful boyfriend in his scenes with Ms. Vitarelli. He played ‘one of the guys’ when on-stage with his classmates. He became the empathetic friend when he performed with Ms. Reynolds. Like Ms. Vitarelli’s character, the one Mr. Brody played also experienced a change in his view of Carrie. He portrayed that transition convincingly.

Jim Frazer designed both the set and the lighting; the latter with the aid of Rebekah Macchione.  He combined the two for an eerie effect even before the show started. The illumination made the school gymnasium’s walls appear the color of blood. Yet again, I anticipated a show ending climax for the ages.

Then came the ending. The show contained a literal “blood bath” at the end. I preferred a figurative type. While reminiscent of Hamlet I found the conclusion a colossal disappointment. With all the conflict in the story combined with the themes of anger, cruelty and revenge I anticipated serious retribution at the end. The confrontation ended in mere seconds. I believed that Carrie’s enemies got off pretty easy. She allowed them to suffer exponentially less than the torture they inflicted on her would have warranted.

Aside from that one shortcoming, I found the show outstanding. To the cast I say: “you shine.” I’d also like to credit performers Joey Adams, Mackenzie Smith, John Romano, Jr., Brittany Petti, Shannon Forbes, Dannie Romanuski, Evan Hairston, Gavin Petersen and Luke Szyszkiewicz for their contributions to the production. I’d compliment Musical Director, Deborah Bergen and the live band, as well.

In my final assessment of Carrie: The Musical, I’d tell theatregoers “once you see it” at Burlington County Footlighters, you’ll have “a night we’ll never forget.” “The destruction” of this run occurs soon. You can add it to your “evening prayers”, but there’s no guarantee there will be an “epilogue” to the show’s schedule. So “when there’s no one” to go with you, “do me a favor” and go anyway. You may hope it would “stay here instead”, but you only have until May 19th to see it.

 

*Sister Carrie has been adapted into both a musical (1978) and an opera (2016). For the record neither received the same acclaim that Hamilton did.

Nunsense A-Men at Burlington County Footlighters

I would’ve lost a bet that nuns would make for the most popular topic in South Jersey community theatre this year. When I read that Burlington County Footlighters planned to present Nunsense A-Men this December, I had to question the wisdom of this decision. Three area companies staged productions of Sister Act over the last several months. How could another theatre company hold my attention regarding the topic of holy sisters? I wondered. I can’t say Footlighters surprised me by figuring a means to do so. They selected a show so unusual it would’ve impressed Samuel Beckett. I attended their opening night performance of Nunsense A-Men on December 8th.

Playwright Dan Goggin crafted a veritable trifecta of distinctiveness. Nunsense contained the most imaginative premise, story and setting I’ve encountered. Here goes my best attempt to explain the tale. The cast consisted of five main characters: all nuns played by male actors. The convent’s cook—the comically named Sister Julia, Child of God—served an improperly prepared helping of vichysoisse to the community’s sisters. As a result 52 perished from food poisoning. The surviving nuns raised enough money for the burials. Thinking they had more cash than needed for the task, the Mother Superior wasted some of the funds on pricey home entertainment amenities. This spending spree left the order with only enough means to bury 48 of the nuns. They placed those remaining in the freezer until they could acquire the funds to finish the task. To raise that capital, they decided to host a variety show at the Mount Saint Helen’s school auditorium. They didn’t change the stage set from the school’s eighth grade production of Grease in the background. Add to this mix a series of eccentric characters. Sister Act this wasn’t.

Director Jillian Starr Renbjor selected an A-level cast for Nunsense A-Men. Her choices gave Musical Director Peg Smith and Choreographer Kaitlyn Delengowski some superb talent with which to work.

Matt Maerten took on the role of erstwhile dancer, Sister Mary Leo. This marked the first occasion I’ve watched a ballet routine performed in a community theatre show. Mr. Maerten executed some impressive turns and jumps throughout the evening. One really has to credit a performer for doing so while wearing a dress. He also delivered some excellent singing on “Benedicte.” He crooned a sensational duet with Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on “The Biggest Ain’t the Best.”

John Romano, Jr. played one bad mother of a Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina. He got the comedy started the moment he took the stage. He delivered his first line by speaking with a high voice. After clearing his throat he reverted to his deeper range. I enjoyed his singing on “Turn Up the Spotlight” as well as his pining for his character’s possible past as a tightrope walker. This performer’s highlight came when he presented a witty take on why nuns should avoid anything stronger than coffee. For the record: I was glad you’re character was okay, Mr. Romano. The remainder of the show wouldn’t have been as entertaining without you.

Connor Twigg played Sister Robert Anne: the wannabe Mother Superior. From the passion he injected into that role, he showed just how badly the character wanted it. His strong singing on “I Just Want to Be a Star” made the title ironic. An actor that talented already is one. He delivered great comedy chops with his Carmen Miranda hat and impressions of the Wicked Witch of the West and Idina Menzel. (Again I emphasize just how original this show’s content.) Reprising his superb tap dancing skills I last saw in The Drowsy Chaperone, Mr. Twigg put on his taps while leading the rest of the cast through a soft shoe dance.

DJ Hedgepath…well, the best compliment I can give him is that he delivered a “DJ Hedgepath kind of performance.” After speaking in a slightly high pitched Southern accent all evening, he crooned his character’s yearning ode to Country stardom: “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.” For this show he added the task of “quiz show host” to his repertoire. Mr. Hedgepath conducted a question period with the audience. It takes a great deal of courage for a performer to interact with live spectators. Mr. Hedgepath handled their unscripted responses perfectly; improvising while remaining in character. To prove once more that there’s no activity he can’t handle on stage: he performed opposite a puppet that he operated. His character, Sister Mary Amnesia, may have struggled with her memory. No one who watched his performance in Nunsense will ever forget it.

Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. rounded out the cast as Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices. At first I felt disappointed by the musical material the show presented him. Mr. Thompson delivered his usual outstanding singing. His duets with Mr. Romano and Mr. Marteen served as good examples. The songs, however, didn’t challenge his extraordinary vocal prowess. It turned out he was making the audience wait for his big number. I’ve described Mr. Thompson as one of the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. He belted out an extraordinary performance of the gospel based “Holier than Thou” number. He proved that in terms of vocal ability, he sure is.

Jim Frazer designed a set that well suited the show. The entire time I watched the performance, I felt like I was in a middle school auditorium staging a performance of Grease. I thought the “Greased Lighting” insignia on the car a nice touch. The chalkboard menu across from the 1950s style counter made the setting more authentic, as well. He also designed the lighting. Nunsense featured more illumination adjustments than most shows. At times the house lights went up, in some scenes the stage lights dimmed while in others a character performed in the spotlight. It impressed me that no glitches occurred.

The show’s opening didn’t grab my attention as I would have preferred. At first performers walked about the theatre interacting with the audience. Following that, the characters walked around the stage prattling. It seemed disorganized, but understanding the characters and the premise after watching the whole show, it made sense. The scene did bring me into the world of the story. I still thought the beginning could’ve started with more immediacy.

I wouldn’t have thought that five men dressed as nuns playing in yet another show about holy sisters could keep my focus for an entire evening. I’d normally attribute this to an early Christmas Miracle, but I have to credit phenomenal performances from gifted cast members. To illustrate how well they suspended my disbelief, when MacKenzie Smith took the stage as Sister Mary Meredith Taco, I thought it strange to watch a female performer portray a nun. Now that’s skill.

For those who missed opening weekend, Hallelujah! Nunsense A-Men runs through December 17th at Burlington County Footlighters.

 

Sister Act at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Many South Jersey community theatre fans have attended at least one Sister Act production staged this year. When the Maple Shade Arts Council announced that they’d be producing it this July, I’m sure some asked, “Do we really need another Sister Act show..again?” Well, theatre legend Michael Melvin directed this one. So don’t think of it as “just another Sister Act” show. Think of it as the New Testament. I attended the showing at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium on July 15, 2017.

Since Sister Act has been such a popular show this season, I’ll spare readers the usual plot summary. However, to paraphrase director Michael Melvin, I will report that the cast and crew “put together one hell of a heavenly show.”

Watching Phyllis Josephson take the stage again was a true pleasure. I’ve seen her perform in numerous shows; in fact most recently in Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players. She delivered a rap number in that one, but this is the first time I experienced her ethereal vocal style. I found her emotional rendition of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” very moving.

Ms. Josephson turned in a supreme performance as Mother Superior. She balanced the character’s austere nature while still getting laughs at the proper times. After her passionate rendition of the number mentioned above, she followed it up with a stellar on-liner. She also shared great chemistry with her nemesis, Dolores, played by Danielle Harley-Scott.

Ms. Harley-Scott played a wild free spirit and aspiring disco diva forced to masquerade as a nun. This required some range and she executed the challenge very well. She crooned the upbeat numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby!” with spirit. Later in the show she adjusted and delivered a passionate rendition of “Sister Act.” Maintaining her focus while the lights reflected off her sequined blouse was an achievement in itself. Her comedic attempt to lead the nuns in grace made one of the funniest moments of the show.

In a bit of ironic casting, Darryl Thompson, Jr. played “Sweaty” Eddie. I wrote ironic, because I didn’t notice him sweat all evening. The challenging number “I Could Be That Guy” would’ve given most performers a reason to perspire. Mr. Thompson already earned a reputation as a phenomenal vocalist through his previous work. With that acknowledgement, he sang a version of the song that would’ve impressed Berry Gordy.

Casey Grouser (as Sister Mary Robert) displayed extraordinary talent in this production. This performer possesses the strongest voice I’ve ever heard. The brilliant way she modulated it all evening impressed me. Unlike many singers, Ms. Grouser managed to hit high notes without her voice sounding piping. Ms. Grouser shone in her passionate rendition of “The Life I Never Led.”

In other scenes, Ms. Grouser captured her character’s initial timidity by hugging a book, looking down or quickly shuffling off stage. She believably enacted the character’s transformation into a self-confident person. Her overall performance deftly brought out Sister Mary Robert’s inner feelings.

I called Antonio Flores “brilliantly comical” when he played a gangster in City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters. I delighted in watching him step up into the role of crime lord, Curtis. The witty flair he added to “When I Find My Baby” enhanced the tune’s unusual lyrics.

Lori A. Howard and Vitaliy Kin demonstrated great comedic collaboration. Mr. Kin possesses a unique ability to stand out no matter what role he’s playing. Ask anyone who heard him sing Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish during The Wedding Singer. Listening to him shout in Spanish while Ms. Howard translated became my favorite moment in the show.

Erica Pallucci choreographed some extraordinary high-energy dancing. Casey Grouser, Gina Petti and MacKenzie Smith put on a clinic. There’s no question the choreographer deserves some credit for the routines. I’m just thinking these dancers found a lot of inspiration from the funky moves Mr. Melvin showcased when he played TJ this January.

The way Sister Act combined comedy, singing and dancing in the same scenes made it distinct. Matt Maerten, Evan Hairston and Vitaliy Kin combined their talents for the “Lady in the Long Black Dress” number. It made for an unforgettable scene.

I’d also credit performers Jillian Starr-Renbjor, Brian Blanks, Debra Heckmann, Andrea Veneziano William Smith and the ensemble for their comedic and vocal contributions to this stellar production.

The live band made the show even more special. Cameron Stringham did an excellent job coordinating the music. It sounded spectacular without overshadowing the vocals.

One of the advantages we community theatre critics enjoy is the opportunity to interact with influential people. I’ve had the privilege to sit next to famous performers, directors and producers at various shows I’ve attended. The Maple Shade Arts Council took this perk to a whole new level. Michael Melvin occupied the next seat over from me when he played Pius VI. (I give him credit for staying in character while doing so.) So this time, I got to sit next to the director, the organization’s president and a Pope. Now I’ve made it as a writer!

So do we really need another version of Sister Act in South Jersey? After watching the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production, an emphatic YES answers that question. This performance contained phenomenal singing, dancing and acting. Just perhaps, a series of Sister Act Two shows may be a welcome addition to the 2017 – 2018 theatrical season. For now, fans can see the original at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium through July 22.

City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters

I spent a long evening of being mesmerized this May 5th. The excessive amount of talent on stage nearly overwhelmed me when I attended the opening of Burlington County Footlighters presentation of City of Angels. This Daryl S. Thompson, Jr. directed piece contained superb acting, great dancing and extraordinary singing. It also featured performances by several South Jersey Community Theatre legends. DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor all returned to the Footlighters stage. To add to the show’s appeal, Jim Frazer designed the set and Cameron Stringham served as musical director. Mallory Beach and Erica Paloucci handled the choreography.

Well, what else is there to say?  Oh, DJ Hedgepath and Rachel Comenzo once again showed us mortals why we all need to keep our day jobs. This is the easiest review I’ve ever written. Enjoy the rest of your day.

For the benefit of those people who like details, I’ll continue.

The show applied the “story-within-a-story” approach to a musical. It told the tale of screenwriter Stine’s (DJ Hedgepath) quest to write the script for a movie called City of Angels. In the course of doing so, he battled Hollywood producer and director Buddy Fidler’s (Steve Rogina) incessant meddling, he struggled to keep his marriage to Gabby (Rachel Comenzo) together; a feat complicated by his infidelity with Donna (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), and the voice of his protagonist, Stone (John Romano), tussled with him in his head.

In a manner reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, characters from real life ended up in the imagined story. One has to credit the performers who played dual roles during the same evening.

Kaitlyn Delengowski stood out as portraying the two most diverse characters. I really enjoyed the high-pitched squealy voice she selected for the Carla character; quite a departure from that of the haughty, Alaura Kingsley.

As to where the story went after that: your guess is as good as mine. With the Hollywood characters becoming the movie characters, the plot twists in the detective’s quest and Stine’s re-writes, I found it far too complicated to follow. It didn’t matter, though. The fantastic singing and superb performances made for a very enjoyable evening.

The story didn’t possess the same complexity as some of the melodies, however. David Zippel’s lyrics didn’t quite compliment Cy Coleman’s odd musical phrasing, either. They gave the singers a challenge.

Rachel Comenzo delivered a transcendent performance on the intricate “It Needs Work”. Perhaps inspired by her skill, DJ Hedgepath followed it up several tunes later with his stellar rendition of the equally difficult “Funny”.

The musical began with an unconventional and difficult opening to perform. It started as scat singing that transitioned into a barber shop quartet. Performers Stephen Jackson, Matthew Maerten, Emily Huddell and Kori Rife accepted the challenge of hooking the audience with this unusual material. They executed this task brilliantly.

Not many players would volunteer for the opportunity to sing a duet containing sixteenth notes. Fans familiar with them already know that Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor possess exceptional vocal prowess. They showed it with their rendition of “What You Don’t Know about Women.”

DJ Hedgepath and John Romano shared their own dual moment in the spotlight, as well. They delivered an outstanding performance on the “You’re Nothing without Me” number.

The cast delivered outstanding presentations. Mr. Romano tuned in a solid performance as the hard-boiled detective. I enjoyed his interactions with his edgy secretary (Jillian Star-Renbjor), the wealthy wife (Kaitlyn Delengowski) and the gangsters (Wayne Renbjor and the brilliantly comical Tony Flores). Noel McLeer played the missing girl very well, too. This group made me feel like I watched a musical interpretation of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Steve Rogina’s portrayal of the arrogant Hollywood director added a nice element to the story, as well.

Unlike many directors, Darryl Thompson, Jr. chose not to spend the night in the control booth. Instead, he opted to add his own superior vocal talents to the show. I’ve heard him sing bluesy and soulful material in the past. In this production, he showcased his ability to croon jazzy tracks with “Ya Gotta Look Out for Yourself” and the tender ballad “Stay with Me.”

I’d also like to credit Vitaliy Kin’s performance in the roles of Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz. I still remember several years ago hearing him perform Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish in The Wedding Singer. As comical as it was, he sang the tune very well. In this show, he delivered an awesome “All Ya Have to Do is Wait” number featuring a salsa and conga dance.

It thrilled me to hear Rachel Comenzo showcase her vocal talents once again. I watched her perform several non-singing roles last year. Ms. Comenzo’s rendition of “With Every Breath I Take” as nightclub singer, Bobbi, made up for the long wait. Her voice delivered great vibrato, soft inflection and outstanding modulation. I thought the band a little too loud on this number. Without a microphone, she still found a way to deliver soft notes in a manner so the audience could still hear her clearly. I’m still trying to figure out how that was even possible.

While crooning this moving number she also used extraordinary facial expressions toward Mr. Romano’s character. As difficult as this may be to believe, she conveyed Bobbi’s emotions non-verbally so well, that the scene would’ve been just as effective had she been silent.

With the possible exception of Mr. Hedgepath, I’ve never watched a performer get into character as well as Ms. Comenzo. Somehow, she manages this so flawlessly, that one sometimes loses sight of just how proficient she is at doing so. That’s talent.

It’s always difficult to select a ‘best’ DJ Hedgepath moment. His duets with Mr. Romano and monumental solo rendition of “Funny” would be good contenders. I also liked when he stepped out of the spotlight to put on the trench coat, glasses and hat and become one of the background dancers. In addition to his superior skill as a performer, you have to respect actors who are willing to accept any role to remain on the stage.

The City of Angels title aptly fit the show. The cast took the audience to heaven. The production impressed so much that “you can always count on me” to tout its praises “with every breath I take.” It’s true that “ya gotta look out for yourself.” There’s nothing “funny” about that, but “eve’rybody’s gotta be somewhere.” So why not use “the buddy system” and take a friend to go see it? “All ya have to do is wait” until the next performance.

 

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.

 

Theatre Review – Proof at Burlington County Footlighters Second Stage

Based on data accumulated over the years, I’ve developed a hypothesis that Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage possesses a formula for excellent shows. This derivative is congruent with the mode of an outstanding theatre company. I figured the probability of them continuing to do so variable in proportion to their locus of material. Their operation has proved my theory many times, but the outcome usually defies logic. The product they delivered in the form of Proof took their reputation to another plane.

I had the opportunity to evaluate this event on its opening night June 17th. I’m pleased to write that my reflection will not be a mean one. That’s a good ‘sine.’ Director Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s translation of the text into a stage production made for a terrific outcome.

I enjoyed the plot’s complexity. There seemed no limit to the quantity of conflict. Catherine (played by Rachel Comenzo) struggled to cope with her father’s death, her abrasive sister’s badgering her to move to New York, and the professional and possibly personal interests of one of her father’s former students. All this drama may seem unequal to the boundaries of a two hour show. But there was more. At the midpoint the play centered on Catherine’s revelation of an oblique proof of unknown origin: one that could revolutionize the field of mathematics.

When I discovered that Rachel Comenzo would be playing the role of a ‘math geek’ it didn’t add up. Much to her credit, the moment the show opened, she became the character. While the large glasses, sweat suit and hair worn back fit Catherine’s appearance, Ms. Comenzo became her. I liked her utilization of quick dialog and snappy swearing. The way she’d pause and with a wry smile sarcastically reply to Claire’s (played by Betty Moseley) strained questioning showed exceptional artistic aptitude. In the scenes prior to Catherine’s father passing away she adjusted her speaking to a more deliberate pace. Emile Zola once observed that: “To be an artist requires the gift. To have the gift requires hard work.” Ms. Comenzo showed me that she took the time to really understand and immerse herself in the character.

Watching Ms. Comenzo in a role this complex was the key feature of this run. In the past I’ve watched her play Bonnie (in Bonnie and Clyde), Morticia (in The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy) and Curley’s wife (in Of Mice and Men).  I found all of those characters to be one-dimensional, but the strength of Ms. Comenzo’s performances made every one of them interesting and memorable. I wondered how she would play a strong, multi-dimensional character. Her performance proved she was equal to the task. It’s a struggle for me to find the proper superlatives to describe how well she brought Catherine to life.

DJ Hedgepath once again showed why the theatre is his prime domain. As expected, this thespian displayed his superior range as a performer. Hal’s character required him to display the traits of a nervous suitor, a studious mathematician and a person with questionable motives; at least in the other characters’ perceptions. Mr. Hedgepath convincingly depicted them all.

As they function so well together, I welcomed the opportunity to watch Ms. Comenzo and Mr. Hedgepath share the same stage again. The contrasts between their characters allowed their reciprocal skills to feed off one another. She playing the intellectual struggling with powerful inner demons, he as her father’s ambitious former student. In Proof these opposites became an ordered pair. Their enactments showed why these two masters are fast becoming icons on the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

Becky Moseley delivered a solid performance as Claire. Her character couldn’t seem to get along with anybody except a few partying mathematicians, but I really enjoyed watching her. I liked her performance best during her first scene with Ms. Comenzo. The way Ms. Moseley established tension through her delayed delivery and short questions made the dialog reminiscent of Harold Pinter. I felt uncomfortable listening to her interrogation. That’s the kind of emotional response great performers bring about in audience members.

Bernard Dicasimirro took on the challenging role of Robert: a brilliant mathematician who deteriorated into a mentally imbalanced man. I always applaud performers who select these types of characters. In a sense one has to play two distinctly unique personalities during the same evening. Just like a well-educated intellectual Mr. Dicasimirro spoke very professionally and calmly in his lucid scenes. Then he ranted like a madman while explaining his groundbreaking proof to Catherine. I’d read the play, but I even jumped when he ordered Catherine to read it.

Some unnerving statistics bothered me about this show. The set had a smaller surface area than the mainstage at Footlighters, but it still seemed unequal to the lack of people in the audience. Aside from myself, I noticed only two other people who aren’t community theater performers in South Jersey. I read Proof before I saw it on the stage. While the prospect of going out on Friday or Saturday night to watch a play about math may not sound like a great option, it does explore a great human drama.

A dedicated cast and crew with the addition of a great director factor into all of BCF Second Stage’s presentations. Upon reflection I’ve found that in all probability a normal show for them will contain great emotional power; the origin of which will be the degree of talent from the combination of the performers. Their presentation of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize Winning play wasn’t an outlier. The frequency Footlighters’ Second Stage puts on such dramas is the difference. The volume of their quality of work gives them a unique angle. The $10 price tag made this showing an absolute value. For those needing an entertaining evening out in the Cinnaminson area this June, I’d rate seeing Proof the best solution to that problem.

 

Theatre Review – Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

While set in the 1930’s, 2009’s Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical could have depicted modern American society. The violence, anxiety about financial security and a background rife with religious fervor made me feel like I was channel surfing between CNBC and Fox News. The performance of Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s proficiently directed show brought me back to Burlington County Footlighters’ theatre.

The drama centered on the lives of the two eponymous characters. Still, it was like watching the musical equivalent of an American take on Plutarch’s Lives. I enjoyed the dichotomy between the outlaw Clyde Barrow (played by Connor Twigg) and his ‘reformed’ brother Buck (played by Brad Kenney). Rachel Comenzo did a phenomenal job in the role of Bonnie. Her unconditional love and blind devotion to Clyde served as an outstanding contrast to Becky Moseley’s performance as Buck’s wife, Blanche. Ms. Moseley really nailed the role of a conflicted wife. While a devoted Christian often citing religious reasoning, her own commitment to her husband won out. Even without the stellar musical numbers, these conflicts alone would’ve made for a memorable show.

Mr. Twigg delivered an energetic performance as the hooligan. He animated all the character’s complexities with equal dexterity. His depiction of Clyde’s reaction to a brutal prison assault convinced me he actually became unhinged. The role of a suave conniver also entered his repertoire. When Bonnie’s mother (played by Gabrielle Affleck) walked in on the two during a romantic tryst, he calmly went along with Bonnie’s dubious explanations. Mr. Twigg also brought great tenderness into his romantic scenes with Ms. Comenzo. He delivered a ukulele accompanied serenade to her while he sat in a bathtub. I have to admit: I never thought I’d watch a ruthless character do that.

Rachel Comenzo played an exceptional Bonnie. Due to the strength of her performance, it’s difficult to select one ‘best’ scene. With that noted she truly shined in her rendition of the ballad “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad”.  Ms. Comenzo has a very strong voice. She modulated it very well on this moving song. The tune opened with the following lyrics.

Dyin’ ain’t so bad.

Not if you both go together.

Only when one’s left behind does it get sad.

But a short and lovin’ life, that ain’t so bad.

I only hope to God that I go first.

I couldn’t live on memories.

Her vocal inflections and facial expressions made me feel it.

The variety of musical numbers enhanced the show. It featured some well composed ballads. Ms. Moseley delivered a somber rendition of “That’s What You Call a Dream”.  I’m preferential to more soulful material. I really enjoyed “Raise a Little Hell” by Mr. Twigg and “Made in America” by the Preacher (played by Michael Melvin) and the ensemble. The Gospel influence in those tracks gave them a unique sound.

While a great show overall, one of the subplots was too cliché. Prior to meeting Clyde, a police officer named Ted Hinton (played by D. J. Hedgepath) took a romantic interest in Bonnie. The interest recurred several times in the show. This is the stereotypical nice guy falls for girl who loves the bad boy. The play had enough romantic conflict, already. I thought this element of the story totally unnecessary.

Mr. Hedgepath played his role very well through a great range of emotions. In scenes with Ms. Comenzo he softened his voice like a bashful suitor. When serving in the posse to gun down the fugitives, he showed remorse. I enjoyed his dolorous rendition of “You Can Do Better than Him” with Mr. Twigg. An actor that talented deserved a better story line with which to work.

Set Designer Jim Frazier and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick deserve a lot of credit for their work. A lot of scene changes occurred in Bonnie and Clyde. The production even included a car that emerged from the back of the stage several times. The crew executed these intricate shifts flawlessly.

The real life Clyde Barrow and his brother Buck are buried together. While Bonnie wrote poetry, Clyde came up with the epitaph on their headstone. It reads: “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Burlington County Footlighters’ run of Bonnie and Clyde ends this weekend. I can’t think of a more fitting encomium.