Krista Reinhardt

High Fidelity at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players took me back in time this weekend. Not only did the company feature a show set during the 1990s, but Ed Doyle cast a number of familiar faces from his 2017 homage to the 1980s, Rock of Ages. In spite of my enthusiasm for watching Ed “Rico” Santiago, Dana Masterman and Vinnie DiFilippo share the stage again, I had some doubts about the overall program.

If I were to partake in the main character’s favorite past time, the 1990s wouldn’t make my “top five” decades. My “top three” reasons are: our country suffered through a philanderer in the White House, a senior figure in the Federal Government perjuring himself and a sexual misconduct scandal involving a Supreme Court nominee. Bad behavior must’ve been endemic to the 90s as High Fidelity’s protagonist, Rob, engaged in some of his own. The story explored his relationship woes through great music (directed by Jared Moskowitz) and dance routines (choreographed by Katharina Muniz). I attended the October 6th performance.

High Fidelity depicted one man’s quest to cope with heartbreak. Rob (played by Ed “Rico” Santiago) struggled through a difficult breakup with Laura (Dana Masterman). His past relationships with Alison (Jenn Kopesky), Penny (Sara Viniar), Charlie (Krista Reinhardt), Sarah (Trishia Dennis) and Jackie (Amanda Frederick) haunted him. Rob found solace among music and the regulars who frequented his Brooklyn record store.

Someone coping with the loss of his girlfriend while living a dull life may seem like a hackneyed story line. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsey-Abaire gave this premise a fresh take. High Fidelity contained unexpected plot twists and several quirky characters. Add the music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Amanda Green and this musical comedy became an enjoyable evening of theatre.

Ed “Rico” Santiago (as Rob) possesses a rare gift for connecting with spectators. Unlike many performers he regularly makes eye contact with theatregoers. Combine that with his pleasant delivery, witty presence and adeptness for singing upbeat numbers Mr. Santiago’s ability to engage an audience is without peer.

Mr. Santiago displayed great range in High Fidelity. In spite of the character’s despicable behavior, he still induced the audience to support Rob. His stirring rendition of “Laura, Laura” served as a major reason why.

Dana Masterman (as Laura) displayed great talent through her use of non-verbal communication. Even when her character wasn’t singing, speaking or dancing, Ms. Masterman made Laura a key figure on the stage. She ensured the audience always understood precisely what Laura thought and felt about the action. The best example in this show occurred during her first scene with Ian (played by Tommy Balne). The performer captured the situation’s awkwardness perfectly.

Ms. Masterman’s singing capability equals her aptitude for facial expressions. She delivered outstanding vocals on “Number Five with a Bullet”: a track that fused aspects of country, rock and soul music. As if that didn’t provide a challenge, Ms. Masterman performed part of this number while climbing over a couch.

The “She Goes” routine grabbed the number one spot on my “top five” High Fidelity highlights list. While Lauren Hope Gates (as Allison) and Mr. Santiago delivered strong vocals, the back-up dancers made the number a classic. Vinnie DiFillipo, Matthew Weil and Jonathan Greenstein performed a comically choreographed routine that made the evening’s highpoint.

For those romantic minded theatregoers out there, the show included some additional love stories. The one between Dick (Joseph Grosso) and Anna (Faith McLeery) allowed these two performers to sing the delightful reprise to “It’s No Problem” together. I’d add that moment to the “top five” list, also.

The ensemble contained eccentric characters. They made the show even more amusing. Barry (played by Anthony Vitalo) strived to put together a band although he didn’t play anything. When he did assemble the members of Sonic Death Monkey, he showed himself to be quite the balladeer. He performed a terrific rendition of “Saturday Night Girl” accompanied by Matthew Weil and Johnathan Greenstein. The latter used the same hair stylist as Mr. T. for this show, apparently.

Singer Marie (Allison Korn) was “complex.” She engaged in brief affair with Lyle Lovett, but couldn’t say it was with Lyle Lovett although it was with Lyle Lovett. Ms. Korn delivered the sober lament of those coping with difficult breakups, “Ready to Settle”, with somber conviction.

In keeping with the “list” theme, Tommy Balne catapulted his character into the pantheon of “top three” Yogi’s. Joining the distinguished company of the Bear and the Berra, add Ian.

Among a cast of funny and talented performers, Mr. Balne made his role the most humorous. Famed for organizing Kurt Cobain’s intervention, Ian attempted to win over Laura with his mystic appeal. Mr. Balne’s wig, costume and clever insertions of the yoga tree pose would make him any comedy fan’s Ghandi.

I did find one aspect of the show a bit disappointing. Alluding to his earlier work, Mr. Doyle placed one of Stacey Jaxx’s records in the store. Last year Vinnie DiFilippo portrayed that fictional singer in Rock of Ages. The prop kindled my hope that he’d reprise the role in this show. While that character didn’t appear, Mr. DiFilippo compensated by performing a spectacular Bruce Springsteen impression.

I would also like to complement performers Jenn Kopesky, Sara Viniar, Krista Reinhardt, Trisha Dennis, Amanda Frederick and Jeremy Noto for their work in this production.

High Fidelity would make my “top five” list of musical comedies set in the 1990s. We all know the scandals that shamed our nation in the 90s will never recur. However, let’s hope playwrights and musicians craft more period pieces like High Fidelity. Let’s also hope that this cast and crew members from Haddonfield Plays and Players are available to bring it to the stage. No one will ever accuse me of perjury after writing that.

High Fidelity goes the way of grunge music, the Macarena and the US budget surplus after October 20th.

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Night of 1000 Plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Last night I discovered one of the lesser known verities about South Jersey. The Garden State serves as home to a host of creative dramatists. Fortunately for theatrical fans, Haddonfield Plays and Players provided these budding Ibsens, Ephrons and Simons with a forum to exhibit their art. With their Night of 1000 Plays, the company turned over their stage to these newcomers. I attended the second annual installment of this program on June 8th.

The stylistic range impressed me. The evening included a host of comedies, some solid dramas as well as a topical tragedy. A cautionary tale regarding the perils of not knowing The Rules to Save a Princess framed the program.

Relationships served as the most popular muse for South Jersey’s playwrights. The excerpt from Lili Myers’ The Gentle Indifference of the World (directed by Jennie Pines) explored the dynamics between four friends played by Ms. Myers, Ricky Conway, Moses Ali and Isabella Capelli. The piece contained an impressive amount of conflict and drama. Amber Kushing’s He Loves Me Not (directed by Eilis Skamarakis) allowed performers Jessi Meisel, Jeff Skomsky, and Kahil A. Wyatt to explore one woman’s struggle through an abusive relationship. Mr. Wyatt also played a witty “bad boy” as the title character in Patti Perry’s Nephew Nemesis (directed by Jeannine James). Rebecca Dilks, San Safeer and Gina Lerario rounded out the cast in this oblivious and dysfunctional family. John Cassidy’s The Teenage Boys Society (directed by Tony Yates) focused on social as well as romantic relationships. It surveyed the trials of adolescence through performers Kahlil A. Wyatt, Ricky Conway, Tony Yates, Jennie Pines and Jeff Skomsky.

Other playwrights delivered some unconventional takes on family relationships. John Cassidy’s The Golden Rule  (directed by Jennie Pines) presented to most unusual metaphor for salted butter this reviewer has ever encountered. Performers Nicole Lukaitis, Dan Safeer, Lili Myers, Isabella Capelli and Brenna Dougherty took on the various family roles in this piece.

Playwright Rich Renner crafted two vignettes influenced by observational humor. In Lisa’s Carpet (directed by Eilis Skamarakas), performers Dan Safeer, Kahlil A. Wyatt and Sheila McDonald showed the risks of trying to cover up household accidents. The same playwright also made a spectacle of the absurdity of using too many spectacles. Night Glasses (directed by Amber Kusching) showed performers Robert Bush and Debby Tighe coping with this situation as it kept them up at night.

The three acts of Casey Tingle’s (directed by the playwright and Nicole Lukaitis) The Rules to Saving a Princess occurred at the beginning, the middle and the end of the evening. Performers Jennie Pines, Krista Reinhardt, Tony Yates, Nicole Lukaitis and Ricky Conway brought this tale to the stage.

Susan Goodell’s No History (directed by Amber Kusching) showed how an unusual classified ad can lead to an uncomfortable Holiday dinner. Performers Krista Reinhardt, Sheila McDonald and Robert Bush allowed the audience to sit in on this comical Christmas chronicle.

The comedy continued with pieces such as Patti Perry’s April Fools (directed by Jeannine James).  Performers Rebecca Dilks, Jeff Skomsky, Sheila McDonald, and Kahlil A. Wyatt enacted a macabre series of jokes that led to an unexpected consequence. John Cassidy’s Artistic Architecture (directed by Eilis Skamarakas) allowed Jessi Meisel to instruct Moses Ali, Brenna Dougherty and Ricky Conway on a rather unconventional approach to the subject.

Taylor Blum crafted a dramatic take on the theme of relationships in Shattered Glass (directed by Amber Kushing). Ricky Conaway delivered a powerful monologue to enhance the writing.

The program included two high minded dramas. Both exceeded this reviewer’s expectations.

Sera Scherz crafted an impressive piece in the form of Through My Eyes (directed by Jeannine James and assistant directed by Sera Scherz). It featured performers Brenna Dougherty and Lili Myers alternating lines as they addressed the audience. The play explored the themes of vengeance, bigotry and forgiveness. Debby Tighe, Jeff Skomsky and Ricky Conway rounded out the cast.

Amber Kusching’s haunting When I Fell in Love (directed by Tony Yates) surveyed the themes of devotion and tragic loss. The playwright placed all three characters in different locations while they spoke indirectly to one another. The play also included sophisticated symbolism. Gary Werner, Nicole Lukatis and Isabella Capelli all delivered impassioned performances bringing the script to life.

While advertised as a Night of 1000 Plays, the Haddonfield Plays and Players could have also called the evening the Night of 1000 Roles. The individuals who participated in this endeavor stayed busy. Most of the performers worked in various capacities in multiple plays. Ricky Conway performed in six of them, Kahlil A. Wyatt in five and Jeff Skomsky in four. Nicole Lukaitis performed in three and directed one. Jennie Pines performed in two and directed two. Jeannine James, Isabella Capelli, Eilis Skamarakis and Amber Kusching each directed three. Ms. Kushing also wrote two of the shows presented.

In addition to her multifarious other roles, Nicole Lukaitis served as the overall program producer. I’d compliment her and stage manager Omaira Parrilla-Dune for providing such a professional environment for these playwrights to showcase their creativity. I’d also express gratitude in allowing audiences to enjoy them.

Pat DeFusco did an exceptional job as the stage announcer. His witty asides added to the evening’s entertainment value.

In the 1930s Paris became famous for its American expatriate community. Notables such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein emigrated there to practice their craft. Just shy of a century later, South Jersey is developing into a similar community for aspiring writers and playwrights.

For those who missed the opportunity to experience Night of 1000 Plays during its limited run, don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll have the chance to attend plays written by these playwrights again. Just perhaps, the next time they’ll be featured in a city located slightly north of the South Jersey area.

Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.