Kate Sharff

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.

 

Theatre Review – Jesus Christ Superstar at Collingswood Theatre Company

As a Catholic school graduate I’ve heard my share of takes on Jesus’ last days. By far the Collingswood Theatre Company presented the funkiest; thanks to the aid of the Superstar Band. On July 21st I had the pleasure of watching (and listening to) director CJ Kish’s interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s 1971 masterpiece Jesus Christ Superstar.

The show utilized the best atmospherics I’ve experienced at a theatrical performance. This one included a fog machine, strobe lights and an extraordinary setting. The spectacle took place in the main ballroom at the Scottish Rite building in Collingswood. A large staircase leading to the balcony descended onto the stage itself. At times the chorus spread out among the upper sections surrounding the seating area. This created an eerie effect with the nature of some of the show’s music. Due to the elaborate choreography by Kate Scharff the cast meandered down the aisles in some of the scenes. Plus, the Superstar Band under Brian Kain’s direction played phenomenal music. Forget the performance: any of these elements alone more than justified the cost of admission.

But one can’t forget the performances. This show included the some outstanding ones along with exceptional singing; and it showcased a lot of the latter. Jesus Christ Superstar began its life as a rock opera before transitioning to the stage. It contained no speaking. The cast sang all the dialogue. After hearing the stellar vocals in this show, it made me glad they did.

DJ Hedgepath turned in the best performance I’ve watched him deliver. That’s quite a statement. I’ve written about him so often that readers have wondered if I’m stalking him. Mr. Hedgepath is one of the more active members of the South Jersey community theatre circuit these days. He’s played a diverse array of roles over the past few years. Make that over the last month. Several weeks ago he played the role of Hal, a PhD candidate in mathematics, in Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of Proof. In this show he played Judas Iscariot. The man has range.

Webber and Rice made the Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar a conflicted man. Their Judas felt that Jesus strayed away from his spiritual message and moved into a political one. He “betrayed” Him in the hopes that authorities would protect Him. In the end, Judas felt betrayed by a divine plan. That’s a pretty complex character for a musical.

Mr. Hedgepath proved himself worthy of the challenge. He gazed at Jesus (played by Mike Reisman) with unvarnished hostility through most of the first act. His ability to maintain the same angry expression that long impressed me. Then he convincingly transitioned into a sobbing, broken man through the second part. Mr. Hedgepath’s aptitude for becoming the character was only exceeded by his vocal prowess.

Mr. Hedgepath possesses a very strong voice. His emphatic delivery of “Heaven on their Minds” drew me into the story from the beginning. He also impressed through singing songs rife with sixteenth notes in such a way I could understand all the lyrics. A tenor he nailed the high notes perfectly, as well.

I may not be able to sympathize with Judas, but I could sure empathize with Mr. Hedgepath. The character proved a very difficult one to play, but this performer met the challenge.

On the subject of challenging roles, Mike Reisman played Jesus. This character also experienced his share of conflicts. The human trait of frustration over the state of his ministry plagued him; as did anxiety over his own death.

Mr. Reisman did a wonderful job getting into character. His shoulder length long hair along with his beard and mustache allowed me to visualize him as Him. Through his stage presence I could identify him as a calm peaceful figure. Just as easily he adjusted his temperament and angrily chasing the merchants out of the Temple. In the most moving scene of the show, he and Mr. Hedgepath touched foreheads and cried together following the betrayal.

Mr. Reisman’s strongest moment occurred during his solo number, “Gethsemane.” He hit a high note that I estimate he held for about ten seconds. While doing so he leaned backwards. Singing’s rough when one uses perfect posture. I give this performer a lot of credit for fulfilling the myriad challenges of this difficult character.

Everyone in this show sang very well. I’d like to specially compliment Stef Bucholski (as Mary Magdalene) for her beautiful voice. I really enjoyed her rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” I also liked Ryan Adams’s (Caiaphas) awesome baritone. Hearing good, strong bass vocals in a theatrical production made my evening.

The show’s short run makes my only criticism of it. The Collingswood Theatre Company’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar only ran for three nights from a Tuesday through a Thursday. Perhaps this is nit-picking on my part, but I would’ve preferred more opportunities to attend.

At the show’s conclusion the woman seated in front of me cried. I doubt that’s because the ending surprised her. It’s a testament to how extraordinary the performance.