John Blackwell

The Doll: A Magical Christmas at the Village Playbox

What do you do when a Broadway producer tells you your show needs “a hook”? Local playwright Rob Kristie received this advice in response to his touching tale The Doll. The show already contained compelling characters and a strong soundtrack. Just what kind of “hook” did it lack? To incorporate the producer’s suggestion, Mr. Kristie transformed the piece into a “magical” Christmas show.

Appropriately, the Village Playbox launched the Holiday Season on Black Friday. This November 29th the company presented Mr. Kristie’s The Doll: A Magical Christmas. Your correspondent attended this opening night performance.

Samantha Flannery (played by Amanda Rose Kipila) felt alone and isolated due to her blindness. Samantha’s mother, Ann (played by Mary Simrin) provided her only companionship. After the grand opening of his new store, also called Grand Opening!, Adam Barter (Doug Cohen) presented Samantha with a doll that she named Flopsy (Gracie Sokoloff). The latter came to life and encouraged Samantha to experience life. Adam found himself interested in Ann, a widow.

Mr. Kristie and John Blackwell co-directed this outstanding Christmas spectacle. The directors employed a unique means of drawing the spectators into the show at the beginning. Cast members threw “snowballs” into the audience. Those fortunate enough to catch one received a complimentary Christmas ornament. Without giving away spoilers, they crafted an even more spectacular finale.

Vocal Director Mark Kozachyn worked with a host of diverse styles presented by Mr. Kristie’s songwriting. The cast provided him with a lot of talent to guide.

The Neighborhood Children performed as a wonderful acapella chorus on “Children’s Carol.” Doug Cohen and Mary Simrin sang a bossa nova tinged duet on “Completed Day.” Ms. Simrin performed an acapella track on “Any Completed Day.” Mr. Cohen sang a passionate reflection on the true meaning of the Holiday with “Just Like Christmas.”

Because of the range of genres the soundtrack contains, The Doll will appeal to a wide variety of musical tastes. Mary Simrin executed the complexities of “Don’t Take My Time” brilliantly. This majestic song featured a melody in 12/8 time with a bass line that would please both Bootsy Collins and George Clinton. The “2-4” duet performed by Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sokoloff included flamenco style muted guitar strumming a la Jimi Hendrix performed on a 12- string acoustic.  Ms. Sokoloff sang the synthesizer driven “If You Can Imagine.” The performer’s vocals captured the song’s 1980s vibe. Ms. Kipila navigated the disco portions of “Why Can’t I” like an authentic 70s diva.

Perhaps for the first time in the history of musical theatre, a songwriter was influenced by the music of the Drifters. This reviewer heard references to the bass line for “Under the Boardwalk” in “I Really Don’t Care” and “Completed Day.”

Amanda Rose Kipila played an outstanding Samantha. Ms. Kipila possesses a beautiful voice. It complimented Mr. Kristie’s lyrics and melodies on tracks such as “I Really Don’t Care” and “I Don’t Know.” The performer also showed exceptional acting prowess. Ms. Kipila captured Samantha feelings towards a range of experiences such as her loneliness and her surprise upon discovering that Flopsy talked. Ms. Kipila made her character’s change appear realistic.

Gracie Sokoloff applied a lot of energy to her performance as Flopsy. She made the character very likable. Ms. Sololoff “broke the fourth wall” to introduce Scene 3 of Act 2. The performer engaged the audience with great charm, wit and enthusiasm. She maintained that engaging persona throughout the entire show.

Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sololoff complimented one another very well. The former played the character timid about experiencing life. The latter performed as an upbeat free spirit with a zeal for life. The two enacted the conflict very credibly.

Stevie Rose Gerhart coordinated outstanding choreography. The opening number featured the neighborhood children singing while performing an intricate dance routine on “Christmas Time.” Ms. Sokoloff’s effort at showing Ms. Kipila how to dance on “I’ll Lead the Way” became one of the show’s most enjoyable scenes.

Production Teams at the Village Playbox optimize the space allotted to them. When performing at the First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights, they transformed the stage into the world of Dr. Seuss for Seussical. The quick set-changes they executed during the intermissions for Noises Off! will go down in the annals of South Jersey theatrical lore. They proved they could show the same creativity when performing at the Fellowship Methodist Church a few blocks from that venue.

The set created fantastic ambiance. Set designers Paul Becker and Gary Kochey (and the cast members who helped construct it) converted a small stage into the front of the Flannery home, both the inside and outside of Grand Opening!, the exterior of candy store South Street Sweets, a hospital room and a bedroom. They also allowed for Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sokoloff to perform a scene in silhouette from behind a shade.

The sparse use of Christmas lights on the stage worked very well. They allowed the audience to understand that the story occurred during the Holiday Season. They weren’t so prominent that they distracted the audience from the action on stage. The intermittent lighting of the Christmas tree to house right enhanced the mood perfectly. Compliments to Jack Bozzuffi for his work on the sound and lights and Gary Kochey as the light operator.

Other members of the cast included: Mia Grace, Karen Smith, Lisa Aliquo, Chrissy Luther, Gregory Furman, Colin Becker, Michael Mellor, Emily Joyce Kipila, Sophia Izabella Vaughn and Lily Allen.

The Production Crew comprised of: Producer Steve Allen, Costumer, Props and spot light operator Leslie Romanuski, Denise Lallier and Rob Kristie handled props, Stage Manager Paul Becker, and Stage Crew Angela Becker.

The Doll: A Magical Christmas will hook audiences. This performance can be summarized in one word: smileicious. The show runs through December 8th at the Village Playbox.

 

Noises Off at the Village Playbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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