Kevin Roberts

True West at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

There’s a saying in sports that, “you don’t see a lot of big plays involving two rookies.” After Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage production of Sam Shepard’s True West no one can apply that expression to theatre. It featured the debut of both a director (Edwin Howard) and a leading man (Darin DeVivo) when I attended the opening night performance on April 13th.

The show featured a creative script. Screenwriter Austin (played by Kevin Roberts) house sat for his mother (Regina Deavitt Beaucheane) during her sojourn to Alaska. His hermetic brother Lee (Darin DeVivo) ended up visiting. Austin worked on a story that he’d been pitching to a Hollywood producer. Lee discussed his travels. During the course of their conversation, Austin agreed to help Lee write a story he had in his head. Complications ensued when the producer, Saul (played by Chuck Klotz), arrived. He decided that he liked Lee’s story more than Austin’s. He wanted Austin to abandon the one he’d been working on and help his brother with his.  Perhaps as a bit of homage to Eugene O’Neil’s Beyond the Horizon, the brothers came to realize they’d been living each other’s dreams.

Edwin Howard did a superb job with Sam Shepard’s material. He ensured True West hooked the audience’s attention from the moment the lights went up.

Most theatrical shows focus on visual elements. This one placed much more emphasis on sound. It opened with an unconventional scene. Mr. Roberts sat at a kitchen table clacking on an old typewriter. Crickets chirped in the background. Mr. DeVivo walked about the stage. He used a gait that allowed his boots to tap percussively against the floor.

I first thought it brave of both the playwright and the director to begin a show with neither character speaking for several minutes. Then I realized the various sounds compensated for the silence. The performers established the mood through their actions.

Mr. DeVivo and Mr. Roberts displayed extraordinary chemistry working together. During the first act Austin’s dialog contained a lot of questions. This writing approach could have made the story drag. These two performers ensured that it stayed interesting.

Mr. Roberts looked the part of an intellectual. I thought it clever how he kept his collar buttoned through most of the show. His choice of voice sounded like that of an erudite Ivy League educated intellectual. When his character became intoxicated, he adjusted his delivery and played the scene convincingly.

Mr. DeVivo made his stage debut at Lee. He delivered such a strong performance that I have to believe the playbill contained a misprint. One has to respect his selection of such a demanding role to begin his career. He brought the character to life through both his dialog and mannerisms.

The character experienced a range of emotions during the play; the most memorable of which was anger. Mr. DeVivo portrayed the character’s temper so realistically that I flinched whenever he raised his voice. Whenever he became upset I felt uncomfortable watching him. In perhaps a theatre first, he hit a plate loaded with toast so hard that he sent the bread several feet into the air.

As memorable as I found the toast toss, my favorite scene was much more low- keyed. During one discussion, the two men stood across from one another. They each placed their hands on their hips and struck the same pose. While showing the characters’ similarity as brothers, they drew attention to the physical contrasts between them.

Chuck Klotz portrayed, Saul, the Hollywood producer. He selected the perfect voice for the role. He attempted to persuade Austin into working with Lee like a true Tinsletown dealmaker.

Even with the limited stage time afforded her, Regina Deavitt Beaucheane turned in a fine performance as the mother. The laid back approach she took towards the role contrasted well with the tension occurring on stage.

Both Edwin Howard and Jim Frazer played multiple roles behind the scenes. Mr. Howard worked with Mr. Frazer on the set design. Mr. Frazer and Tim Sagges teamed up to handle the lighting and sound.

Earlier in this review I mentioned the importance sound played in True West. Those with sensitive hearing should be aware that the show contained a lot of noise. Aside from Mr. DeVivo’s hollering, it included pots and pans getting tossed onto the floor, aluminum cans either getting thrown into a sink or being hit with a golf club and pounding on a table.

Those with an aversion to getting hit by toast may not want to sit in the front row, either.

To see newcomers perform so well with material this challenging, one wonders what kind of show would suit them for their sophomore efforts. Just a thought: are Mr. Howard and Mr. DeVivo familiar with Buried Child? Until then, True West runs through April 21st at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage.

 

 

 

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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.