Kori Rife

Arsenic and Old Lace at Burlington County Footlighters

Just when theatre fans thought the horrors of Halloween had passed. Burlington County Footlighters added a touch of terror to the Thanksgiving season this November. After attending this run of Arsenic and Old Lace, no audience members will be able to complain about spending Turkey Day with the family this year. Your correspondent attended the opening night performance on Friday, November 8th.

First time director Matt Dell’Olio (assisted by A. Robert Basile) presented a dark comedy with a disturbing plot. Elaine Harper (played by Alex Davis), a minister’s daughter, became engaged to the most odious creature this planet has produced since humans evolved out of the primordial ooze. She’d planned on marrying the real-life version of H. P. Lovecraft’s the thing that should not be. Her fiancé, Mortimer Brewster (played by Russell Palmieri) worked as a…gasp… theatre critic.

It says something about the Brewster family that a dramatic critic served as its paragon of normalcy. Showing outstating imagination, playwright Joseph Kesselring ensured that one did.

Mortimer’s spinster aunts, Abby Brewster (Susan Dewey) and Martha Brewster (Jeanne Wayman), killed a dozen people. His brother Teddy (Benjamin Couey) believed himself to be Theodore Roosevelt. His other brother Jonathan (Daniel McDevitt) was a serial killer with ambition. He aspired to kill more people than his aunts did.

Mortimer’s realization that no amount of chlorine could cleanse this gene pool caused him to contemplate ending his engagement. At the same time, he attempted to keep his aunts’ macabre hobby from law enforcement. The latter became difficult due to the many visits from police officers (Mark Henley, Tyler Conklin Jeffrey Rife and Nanci Cope). They seemed to spend as much time at the Brewster home as the family did. Mortimer also struggled not to become the latest statistic in Jonathan’s quest.

As one can discern from the plot summary, performer Russell Palmieri had a busy evening playing Mortimer. Mr. Palmieri balanced his facial expressions so they displayed terror, but always with a touch of humor. His best occurred when performer Nanci Cope explained that her character (Officer O’Hara) was a playwright. His reaction to her narrative showed more perturbation than when on the receiving end of Jonathan’s and Dr. Einstein’s (Kori Rife) machinations.

Daniel McDevitt played an outstanding villain in the form of Jonathan. His character may not have liked the comparison to Boris Karloff, but his voice reminded this reviewer of Bobby “Boris” Pickett. His addition of a malevolent tone to his deep baritone made listening to him more enjoyable.

Kori Rife played a terrific sidekick to him as Dr. Einstein. She expressed her lines in a German accent that was easy to understand.

Susan Dewey and Jeanne Wyman made the Brewster sisters’ murderous mayhem witty. Both performers used soft voices when calmly discussing the killings. They maintained the same facial expressions one would use when describing something as benign as the weather. Their deliveries and mannerisms enhanced the comedy in Mr. Kesselring’s script brilliantly.

Footlighters legend Alex Davis added her histrionic talents to the ensemble; as did Footlighters newcomers Ron Brining and Benjamin Couey.

The production team included Stage Manager Will Nelson, Producer Dennis Dougherty, Costumers Amanda Cogdell and Leslie Romanuski.

This production of Arsenic and Old Lace was unique in that two of the best set designers in South Jersey were involved in the project. Jeff Rife opted to forgo working on set design in this one, however, instead focusing on his acting. He played the dual roles of Mr. Gibbs and Lieutenant Rooney. Footlighters’ sublime set specialist, Jim Frazer, handled the set design.

For this show, Mr. Frazer placed a window at stage right that led to an opening outside the Brewster home. It appeared realistic and served its functional purpose by allowing for Mr. McDevitt and Ms. Rife to climb through it.

The set included a real staircase that led to a landing. There it turned a full 90 degrees leading to an upper balcony. In addition to the aesthetic appeal it also served a practical use. Multiple performers climbed it during the show. Benjamin Couey utilized it throughout the evening as his character led imaginary troops into combat.

To borrow one of Teddy’s favorite phrases, theatre fans should “chaaaaarrrrge” to Burlington County Footlighters. After watching this killer comedy, audiences won’t feel quite as disturbed by eccentric relatives at Thanksgiving Dinner: unless they happen to be theatre critics. Everyone will still avoid the elderberry wine, though.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through November 23rd at Burlington County Footlighters. After that, it succumbs to community theatre’s version of “yellow fever” and will rest in one of the metaphorical locks at Teddy’s Panama Canal.

Legally Blonde: The Musical at Bridge Players Theatre

Bridge Players Theatre debunked the myth that blondes have more fun. They showed that it’s the audience that has the most fun during their run of Legally Blonde: The Musical. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, September 28th show in Burlington, NJ. The site of West Jersey’s former capital hosted one capital performance.

The 2001 novel and film Legally Blonde inspired this musical of the same name. With music and lyrics by Lawrence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hatch, it told the story of Elle Woods (played by Alix Vitarelli), a woman perceived as a stereotypical blonde. Her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (played by Mike Gibbins), ended their relationship because he didn’t think her a “serious” person. To win his love, she decided to follow him to Harvard Law School.

While there she discovered that Warner had become engaged to Vivienne Kensington (Caitlin Reed). This development along with the academic demands of the pretentious Professor Callahan (Brian S. Rothman) led her to re-consider her decision to pursue her lost love to law school. Her friendships with beautician Paulette Buonofuonte (Dyani Myles) and recent Harvard Law graduate Emmett Forrest (Antonino Baldassari) caused her to think she may have found her true calling.

The word energy would best describe this production. Jessi Meisel served the dual roles of both Director and Choreographer. The energy Ms. Meisel needed to fill these roles was infectious. It carried over into the cast.

The beginning of Act I would’ve been just as effective as a routine for an exercise program. It opened with the dynamic song and dance number “Omigod You Guys.” It featured over ten cast members performing intricate dance routines together on stage.

The opening to Act II may have been even more demanding. In the role of fitness queen Brooke Wyndham, performer Gina Petti led a group of performers through the musical rendition of an actual exercise workout. I’ve never seen a theatrical scene this difficult to perform. (In fact I’m shaking my head in disbelief as I’m writing this.) The ensemble danced and sang while jumping rope. Let me repeat that. They danced and sang while jumping rope. They even executed a 360 degree turn while doing the latter.

Ms. Petti deserves immense praise for the proficiency she brought to the “Whipped into Shape” sequence. As someone who has choreographed shows in the past, she may have needed all the knowledge and skills she’s acquired from those experiences just to perform this arduous number. Ms. Petti also contributed outstanding lead vocals to the song; a tune that didn’t have the easiest melody to sing. I’m not sure how she managed to so while jumping rope and dancing around the stage for several minutes.

And there was more high impact dancing.

The ensemble performed an astonishing tap number on “What Do You Want.” Alix Vitarelli led a large ensemble through some brilliantly choreographed maneuvers. Credit goes to the entire team for remaining in-synch during the performance.

On the evening I attended, the weather added an additional complication. Even though autumn began a few days before, the atmosphere had the feel of a balmy July night. The temperature hovered in the low 80s. The dew point approached the mid-70s. The theater itself didn’t have air conditioning.

And this was just the weather outside and in the theatre. The performers had hot spotlights beaming down on them all evening.

Not the ideal conditions to perform intensive dance routines.

I’d recommend the performers’ friends and family to skip the tradition of bringing them flowers following the show. Oxygen and electrolytes would be more practical.

Legally Blonde contained some outstanding vocal numbers. I especially enjoyed Dyani Myles’ pining ode to the Emerald Isle: “Ireland.” Caitlin Reed nailed some stratospheric pitches on “Find My Way.”

Alix Vitarelli turned in a phenomenal performance as Elle Woods. Ms. Vitarelli proved herself a triple threat of the highest order all evening.

Ms. Vitarelli channeled the character’s personality through her interpretation of the role. She selected a perfect walk for Elle. She ambled while keeping her back straight and her palms parallel to the floor. The performer silently expressed Elle’s inner thoughts through the facial expressions she displayed. Ms. Vitarelli’s timing captured the bubbly essence, the latent comedy and the disillusion in Elle’s dialog.

Ms. Vitarelli sang an emotional rendition of the show’s title track. She also joined with cast members for some wonderful duets. They included the sorority anthem “Delta Nu Nu” with Ms. Petti and the motivational “Chip on My Shoulder” with Antonino Baldassari; the latter accompanied by the Delta Nus (Amanda Adams, Cynthia Reynolds and Amanda Hoffman).

Any fan of Antonino Baldassari’s must see Legally Blonde. I’ve watched Mr. Baldassari play hysterical characters in musicals (Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone) as well as serious ones (Edward Bloom in Big Fish). The role of Emmett Forrest allowed him the opportunity to showcase his skill at playing both these character types.

Mr. Baldassari displayed his usual aptitude for comedy during Emmet’s makeover. For a funny guy, Mr. Baldassari possesses some serious skill for singing. He best captured the character’s serious side through his duets with Ms. Vitarelli. Their performances on “Chip on My Shoulder” and “Legally Blonde” were both outstanding.

Legally Blonde also gave theatre fans to watch South Jersey community theatre’s preeminent power couples perform on stage together. For those who are unaware, Antonino Baldassari and Gina Petti are married in real life.

I’d also credit performer Cynthia Reynolds. I’ve watched her perform a terrific lead in Carrie: The Musical and as an ensemble member in Spring Awakening. Both shows contained very dark subject matter. Ms. Reynolds showed that she’s just as adept at playing a giddy, upbeat character (Serena) in a lighthearted show.

A physics student, Ms. Reynolds applied her mastery of the science during the dance routines. Circumventing the limitations of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, she calculated the speed and location of her high kicks so they didn’t contact any performers.

I had two criticisms of the show.

The performance began ten minutes late. Even after the curtain went up I still saw audience members walking down the aisles to take their seats. Folks, if you can’t be on time be early.

During one crucial scene in the show, performer Alix Vitarelli came out on stage dressed as the Easter Bunny. In keeping with that theme, it would have been nice if the theatre gave out candy to everyone. I’m just sayin’.

The cast also included the following human performers: Caroline Piotrowski, Kori Rife, Ashley Carragher, William H. Young, Allyssa Winkelspecht, Ryan Mulligan, Gregory Drey, Jimmy Hoffman, Erin Gupta, and Yvette Burroughs-Myles.

The following canine performers added their histrionic skills to the production: Allie Rothman and Pudge Hoffman.

The production team included: Assistant Director Ethan Rundell, Musical Director Diana Dohrmann, Producer Marissa DiPilla, Stage Manager Tim Kirk, ASM Lyz Lydon, Technical Director/Audio Engineer/ Set Construction Manager Jeff Rife and Lighting Design/ Lighting Technician Bob Beaucheane.

The verdict on Legally Blonde: Bridge Players Theatre treated audiences to one high-energy, funny and entertaining performance. The statute of limitations to see it ends on October 5th. Regrettably, it won’t receive a stay of execution. Don’t let the people who’ve already watched the show have all the fun. Endorphins aren’t the only thing that can make a theatre fan happy. Find your way to Bridge Players Theatre before October 5th.

 

Red Wrench at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

Playwright Tesia Nicoli received a unique birthday present from Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. The company chose to present the opening night performance of this gifted playwright’s work on her actual birthday. Ms. Nicoli attended this show in-person. The audience felt like they’d received a present following this powerful performance of Red Wrench on April 5th.

This evening also featured a first for Burlington County Footlighters’s 2nd Stage. It marked the first time the group produced the work of a new playwright. They selected Ms. Nicoli’s Red Wrench for this inaugural endeavor.

Director Carla Ezell continued the tradition of bringing intense drama to the 2nd Stage. The playbill included the following tag line: Following a tragic car accident, a family struggles with their darkest secrets as their father’s life hangs in the balance. Ms. Nicoli’s website provided this summation: Once we know someone’s shocking secrets, can we still love them? The emotional turbulence in Red Wrench rivaled other works performed there.

Red Wrench told the story of a family drama. Harris family patriarch, Bill, (played by Lou DiPilla III) lay dying in the hospital following a car accident. Or was it? Speculation abounded that he intentionally collided with a tree. His son (Jonathan Edmonson), and daughters Casey (Lauren DiPilla) and Sofie (Kori Rife) gathered in the hospital waiting room. As they discussed their lives, past scandals, and family secrets bitterness came to the fore.

The resulting conflict made it seem the Harris family’s members contained more baggage than a Samsonite warehouse. The playwright offset this nicely by including unexpected sources of redemption in the forms of the eccentric stepmother Shannon Harris (Kathy Harmer) and people arriving in the visiting room from outside the Harris family: Daisy (Shay Fuller), Rosie (Stevie Neale) and Mikyla (Angel Ezell).

Ms. Nicoli provided an excellent setting for the actors to exhibit their craft. The hospital waiting room put characters that harbored deep grudges against each other in close proximity. They interrupted and spoke over one another. The behavior showed their latent animosities and lack of respect.

Lou DiPilla III delivered an impassioned performance as Bill Harris. He played an intense scene performing opposite the character’s son, Andy (Jonathan Edmonson). A discussion about Andy taking over the family business segued in Mr. Edmonson’s interjection of a family secret. The conversation became unsettling. Both performers captured the tension inherent in the moment.

Mr. DiPilla also played opposite his real life daughter, Lauren DiPilla. This dynamic carried over into the performance. Their most powerful scene together came as his character lay on his death bed. He revealed his guilt over a past action. The actors displayed the anxiety and the underlying hope in Ms. Nicoli’s dialog.

Jonathan Edmonson and Angel Ezell showed wonderful chemistry during their scenes working with one another. Mr. Edmonson played an unhappy, emotionally adrift adult while Ms. Ezell portrayed a teenage girl who collected unusual facts. This unusual pairing of characters led to one of the show’s pivotal moments. Both performers made for a memorable concretization of Mr. Edmonson’s character’s self-discovery.

Mr. Edmonson, Ms. DiPilla and Kori Rife impressed by playing the feuding siblings. They provided another one of the show’s impressive scenes. The rancor Mr. Edmonson and Ms. Rife exhibited in their performances made their exchange very realistic. Ms. DiPilla’s effort to serve as de facto referee added to the scene’s believability.

Kathy Harmer played the stepmother, Shannon Harris. Her interpretation of the eccentric free-spirit added levity to this intense drama. The playwright used the character to provide a moment of clarity for the Harris siblings later in the show. Ms. Harmer’s performance made the scene impactful.

Performers Shay Fuller, Patrice Cantrell Frazer, Stevie Neale and John Weber rounded out this extraordinary cast.

The incomparable Jim Frazer leant his stellar talents to this production. In addition to the scenic design, Mr. Frazer managed the lighting and sound. His use of the former for The Ether scenes created an unearthly ambiance throughout the theatre.

The opening night performance included a bonus for theatregoers. Following the show the company presented a “talk back” with the playwright, the director and the cast. Those in attendance were treated to insights on the writing of, rehearsal and final production of the show. Footlighters provided wine and cheese, as well. Another “talk back” is scheduled following the closing night performance on Saturday, April 13th.

An emotionally gripping story that at times became uncomfortable to watch, the theme of love ran through Red Wrench. Audiences who like their theatre to contain a lot of conflict moderated by the hope of redemption will love Red Wrench. These theatrical fans should give themselves either an early or belated birthday present by seeing it at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

 

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.

 

Theater Review – Kimberly Akimbo at 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Treading the delicate balance between comedy and tragedy challenges any thespian. The cast and crew of 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters did so brilliantly this April. They selected the perfect script in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo (directed by Gabrielle Affleck) to showcase their skills.

Phyllis Josephson delivered an inspiring performance as Kimberly: a teenager suffering from an incurable disease. The nature of the disorder compounded the tragedy of her situation. This malady caused her to age four-and-a-half times as quickly as a normal adolescent. Ms. Josephson flawlessly expressed the mannerisms and speech inflections of a 16 year old. In an exhibition of her range, she also acted the part of a heart attack victim. After the show I didn’t know if it more appropriate to send her flowers or take her out for ice cream.

Ms. Josephson unveiled her true forte in the emotional scenes with Kimberly’s alcoholic father, Buddy. (Very convincingly played by Zach Palmer.) She cowered like a scared little girl, but also lashed out venomously when he asked embarrassing questions to her love interest, Jeff. (Exceptionally played by Tim Schumann) Palmer’s comedic tirade against the evils of Dungeons and Dragons evened out the scene nicely.

After witnessing Kori Rife’s portrayal of Buddy’s hypochondriac wife, Pattie, I could understand his issues with the bottle. Ms. Rife played the role of a narcissistic, self-obsessed, pregnant woman while still delivering solid comedic chops. In her first appearance on stage she revealed the depth of her talent. Pattie struggled to dictate a message to her unborn child into a tape recorder. The bandages which covered her fingers, due to perceived carpal tunnel syndrome, prevented her from hitting the record button. She slapped it with her hands, and then tried her tongue, and eventually her chin.

Lisa Croce played an exceptional Aunt Debra. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I know Ms. Croce personally.) I haven’t witnessed a devious character played with such humor. She mixed the comedy and criminality very well. I liked how she dragged a mailbox involved in Debra’s scheme across the length of the stage.

2nd Stage featured an unusual set-up. Upon entering, the audience walked through the performance area to their chairs. Seating was limited, and the room got cramped, but I didn’t mind. I liked being up-close. At times I felt part of the show.

In terms of the play itself, I thought it extremely well-written. It began with a family on the verge of disintegration. In spite of the alcoholic father, the self-absorbed mother, terminally ill child, and homeless aunt with a criminal record the comic yuks didn’t stop. That’s an astounding accomplishment from a gifted playwright.

I’ve got bad news and good news. I’ll give you the bad news first. Unfortunately for theater goers, Kimberly Akimbo completed its run at 2nd Stage this past Saturday. Now the good news: the performers actively participate in other community theater projects. Based on the range they showed in this play, you can’t go wrong seeing them in either a comedy or tragedy. I hope we’re lucky and get to see them in a show that fuses the two like Kimberly Akimbo.