Lisa Kain Marcelli

Avenue Q at Collingswood Community Theatre

It’s not often one encounters a musical that so well captures the essence of the generation that inspired it. Avenue Q featured iconic anthems to the new millennium such as “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”, “It Sucks to Be Me” and “The Internet is for Porn.” To those unfamiliar with it, a show like this would seem to possess the life-affirming nature of something out of Ibsen or O’Neill. Instead, Avenue Q’s creators opted to explore this era from a lighter point-of-view. They utilized an unusual technique in that they added puppets as characters; even including an explicit love scene between two of them. The Collingswood Community Theatre’s production even included a cameo by the town’s mayor.

You’d have to see this one to believe it.

I attended the Saturday evening performance on January 12, 2019. It took place at the Scottish Rite Theatre in Collingswood.

Director Mary Baldwin established the ambiance the moment I entered the theatre. The set designer, Chuck Jackson, crafted a set that resembled both the buildings from Sesame Street and the neighborhood from Rent. It provided the perfect background for this story.

As those unfamiliar with the show have guessed, Avenue Q contained a pretty complicated plot. A muppet named Princeton (played by Sean Coyle) needed a place to live. He found apartments from Avenue A through Avenue P too expensive. Arriving at Avenue Q, he met a series of eccentric characters. They included: 32 year old Brian (Ross Shannon), an aspiring stand-up comic ten years out of college; his fiancée, a Japanese woman with two masters degrees, named Christmas Eve (Linda Mozdzen); a closeted homosexual muppet investment banker, Rod (played by John Dunn); his muppet roommate Nicky (CJ Kish), pornography addicted muppet Trekkie Monster (also played by CJ Kish) and the building superintendent, former child star Gary Coleman (Alicia Smartt). Muppet Kate Monster (Lisa Kain Marcelli) developed a romantic interest in Princeton. Through all this he sought his purpose.

There’s an old cliché that a person “can never be too rich or too thin.” Avenue Q’s author (Jeff Witty) along with its lyricists and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx apparently believed that a musical can never be “too original.” To complete the ensemble they included muppet Lucy the Slut (Stef Bucholski) to complicate Princeton’s and Kate’s romance. The Bad Idea Bears (performed by Cara Davis and Kate Scharff) served as Princeton’s and Kate’s demons. Kate’s muppet boss, Mrs. Thistletwat (Kaitlyn Halligan) antagonized Kate.

It amazed me that, even including intermission, all this wrapped up in under 2-1/2 hours.

Since the show contained a cartoonish premise, it required actors with skill for voices. I’d credit them for their abilities to, not only speak in unusual voices, but to sing in them as well. My two favorites were the neurotic whining John Dunn chose for Rod and the gravelly tone CJ Kish provided for Trekkie.

Lisa Kain Marcelli performed an extraordinary rendition of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” to conclude Act One. Last summer I complimented Ms. Marcelli for her rendition of “Tell Me It’s Not True” at the Collingswood Community Theatre production of Blood Brothers. She impressed by being able to cry, sing in an English accent while still remaining in key. In retrospect, it seems that she used that performance to practice for this one.

Ms. Marcelli delivered an impassioned version of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.” She explored a range of sad and angry emotions during the performance. She used excellent facial expressions to compliment the number’s somber lyrics while singing like someone becoming unhinged. Ms. Marcelli managed to do all this while operating a puppet. Bravo.

2018 was a sad time for Rhythm and Blues fans. After losing Aretha Franklin in August, we commemorated the 12th anniversary of James Brown’s passing this Christmas. On Boxing Day we recognized the 19th anniversary of losing Curtis Mayfield. It’s refreshing to hear the spirit of real R&B living on in performers such as Stef Bucholski.

It takes a certain kind of talent to make a muppet seem seductive. Enter Stef Bucholski. This performer delivered a sultry, soulful version of “Special.” It showed just how special her singing is.

The group worked in something that’s becoming a tradition at the Collingswood Community Theatre’s winter shows. After the curtain call, the cast performed an encore. They returned to the stage and sang the Philadelphia Eagles fight song.

Olivia Marcelli and Emily Jackson completed the ensemble. Brian Kain directed the music and Katie Scharff choreographed.

Avenue Q showed the lives of twenty-somethings struggling to cope with life after college. In effect, it centered on the resulting conflict when a person’s reality falls short of his/her dreams. It made for some pretty interesting theatre. The show premiered in 2003. The so-called “Great Recession”, the explosion of the opioid epidemic, and the rise of populism hadn’t occurred at that time. It would be curious to watch the same characters attempt to deal with these kinds of problems. A sequel would make for even more interesting theatre.

The Collingswood Community Theatre will perform Avenue Q through January 20th at the Scottish Rite Theatre.

Blood Brothers at Collingswood Community Theatre

There’s an old superstition that people who miss the Collingswood Community Theatre’s summer show will experience a dull theatrical season. Perhaps playing to that myth the company staged a show that gave it credence.

Those who’ve ever put their shoes on the table will reconsider after seeing Blood Brothers. Those contemplating handing over a newborn twin to a bitter psychopathic woman and then reneging on a promise not to tell the children they are brothers will rethink that decision; to the extent that’s something anyone is actually considering doing. After making sure I avoided black cats in my path, being careful not to walk under any ladders and brushing my teeth to avoid so-called ‘cavities,’ I entered the theatre for the closing performance. It occurred in the Grand Ballroom at the Scottish Rite Theatre on June 29th. Kerry Mahoney directed.

Blood Brothers presented an unusual story line for depicting class divisions in modern Britain. Mrs. Johnstone (played by Lisa Kain Marcelli) and Mrs. Lyons (Faith Charlton) each experienced child bearing issues. The latter couldn’t conceive and her husband (Matt Griffin) refused to adopt. The former was on pace to produce enough progeny to rival the descendants of Abraham.

Mrs. Johnstone struggled with finances and found herself working as housekeeper for the affluent Mrs. Lyons. A doctor informed Mrs. Johnstone that she carried twins. While financially prepared for another child, she couldn’t handle two. The women came up with a solution for both their troubles.

They made a pact that Mrs. Lyons would raise one of the children as her own. As part of this agreement, they would never inform the children they were twins. Mrs. Lyons told of a superstition that separated twins would die if they discovered the truth. To persuade Mrs. Johnstone to agree with the arrangement, Mrs. Lyons explained that since she employed the mom-to-be, she’d get to see her child every day. What a great idea! Everyone wins, right?

No so. It turned out that Mrs. Lyons possessed a malicious and unstable personality. She believed Mrs. Johnstone too fawning over “her” son and decided to fire her. Problem solved. Not for long.

Years later Mrs. Johnstone’s seven year old son Mickey (Brian Kain) made a new friend at the park. Upon discovering that he and Eddie (Ryan Adams) shared the same birthday, they connected. They cemented the friendship by becoming “blood brothers.” Both mothers ended the relationship when they discovered that Eddie and Mickey were the Johnstone twins.

This time Mrs. Lyons opted for a more permanent solution. She talked her husband into moving the family to “the country.” This worked as well as her previous remedy. Seven years later the Lyons family moved into the same area as part of a British government housing program. Mikey and Eddie reconnected. With the passage of time, Mikey’s working class financial struggles and Eddie’s affluent background strained their friendship. Then both fell in love with the same woman, Linda. (Stef Bucholski)

Tears flowed both on and off the stage at the show’s conclusion.

It’s difficult to find the right superlatives to describe Lisa Kain Marcelli’s performance. She played the role to perfection. The performer sang an incredible rendition of the catchy “Marilyn Monroe” trilogy. I wished someone recorded it. Ms. Marcelli and the orchestra, led by Zach Wisely, played the song much better than the London cast’s version. With all the reverb on that one, it sounded like they performed it in the Grand Canyon.

Ms. Marcelli always displayed the proper facial expressions to convey her character’s emotions; and Mrs. Johnstone experienced a range of them. The performer showed despair when she gave up one of her children. She played the scene where she gave Eddie a locket with great tenderness. I also enjoyed her transition from nostalgia to sadness during the “Marilyn Monroe” numbers.

Ms. Marcelli impressed the most at the end of the show. She managed to croon “Tell Me It’s Not True” while crying, singing in an English accent and staying in key. That performance will stay with me.

Chris Fitting played the Narrator. Readers of this blog are familiar with my objection to making “The Narrator” a character in a live performance. After all I’m watching it. I don’t feel the need for someone to tell me what I already know I’m seeing. This time I will credit playwright Willy Russell for his creativity with the role. He made his Narrator a tuxedo clad Rod Serling figure who spoke in the syntax of Dr. Seuss. What a combination!

Mr. Fitting expressed the rhyming couplets perfectly. He spoke clearly using the right rhythm and without stumbling over the words. I also enjoyed the minatory delivery method he employed. Through sheer skill Mr. Fitting shaped “The Narrator” into the most unique character I’ve watched performed on stage.

Blood Brothers marked the first time I’ve heard a real Heavy Metal song in a musical’s soundtrack. Mr. Fitting belted out “The Devil’s Got Your Number” like a man possessed. He nailed the feel of the song while capturing the character’s essence at the same time. Bravo.

Faith Charlton possesses a gift for accents. I enjoyed the one she chose for Mrs. Lyons. It sounded like that of an upper class British woman with a hint of madness to it. It suited the role brilliantly.

Ms. Charlton also has a wonderful singing voice. She delivered a beautiful version of “My Child” along with Ms. Marcelli.

As extraordinary as her vocal skills are Ms. Charlton can communicate even more effectively with a look. During one scene she walked to the front row and sat with the audience. She glared at Ms. Marcelli with a blank look that expressed seething rage. She horrified me. Ms. Charlton made it clear that something bad was about to happen to the person on the other end of that stare.

Brian Kain, Ryan Adams and Stef Bucholski played very challenging roles. During the course of the show, their characters took the stage as seven, 14 and 18 year olds. Their renditions of the seven year olds impressed me the most. All three performers jumped about the stage and spoke in higher pitched voices just like children.

The three characters changed as they grew up. Mr. Kain became angry, drug addicted and desperate. Ms. Bucholski transitioned from a care-free young lady into a pregnant woman struggling through a failing marriage. Mr. Adams turned into a well-adjusted, successful professional.

These performers showed excellent chemistry working together. They brought out how the characters’ childhood friendships developed into a devastating love triangle. They made that progression credible.

Mr. Kain and Mr. Adams teamed up for some terrific duets with the numbers “Long Sunday Afternoon/My Friend” and “That Guy.” As the project’s vocal director Mr. Kain led by example with some excellent singing of his own. While I’ve called him “the King of the F Clef” for his superb bass vocals Mr. Adams continues to impress with his skill in the higher registers, too.

I have to admit it disappointed me that Ms. Bucholski didn’t get to sing any solo numbers in this show. With the way the story developed I figured a song about her character’s travails would’ve been perfect for her soulful singing style. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to hear her sing in a near future production.

The performance featured a remarkable ensemble. I’d also like to compliment Matt Griffin, Ryan Piccone, Olivia Marcelli, Adam Nicely, Ian McGowan, Caitlin Halligan, Ryann Burke, Kara Hastings, Emily Jackson, Neil Wettstein, Lindsay Wettstein and Tom Geigel for their work in the show.

I did have one issue with the sound. The drums sounded too loud on occasion. While many purists prefer real drums to the electronic variety, it’s much easier to control the volume of the latter. At times I thought the performers struggled to broadcast over them.

I’d praise Mary Baldwin for the light design, Sarah Baldwin for her work on the light board, and Leah Marcelli and Katie Cotter for their use of the spotlights. They enhanced the story by adding a chilling effect.

The Collingswood Community Theatre troupe presented an ode to superstition that would’ve made both Stevie Wonder and Jeff Beck proud. I have to admit that I was among those who shed tears at the show’s conclusion. It wasn’t because of the story, though. I realized it’s going to be another year until we get to experience a stellar production from them in the Grand Ballroom at the Scottish Rite. Based on the group’s history I know theatregoers won’t have to rub their lucky rabbits’ feet for that to happen.

Sweeney Todd at Collingswood Community Theatre

Without question, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the show that best combines the trilogy of vengeance, cannibalism and hairstyling. This mix gave it an originality seldom witnessed in the annals of theatre. I experienced the pleasure of the Collingswood Community Theatre’s presentation of this Stephen Sondheim musical on July 13, 2017.

The atmosphere director Mary Baldwin created far exceeded what one would expect from community theatre. The cast and crew transformed the Grand Ballroom at the Scottish Rite into an eerie incarnation of Victorian London. The smoke, dim lighting and ominous music fashioned a chilling atmosphere. The lantern carrying cast members pacing onto the stage from all directions added to the sense of dread. It created the perfect mood for the story.

Sweeney Todd presented the tale of its pseudonymous character originally known as Benjamin Barker (played by CJ Kish). Judge Turpin (Ryan Adams) imprisoned him on false charges. A nefarious desire motivated this deed: the magistrate longed for Mrs. Barker. The man formerly known as Benjamin Barker escaped a penal colony in Australia. He returned to London calling himself Sweeney Todd. He revealed his lugubrious story to a man he encountered on the street, Anthony (played by Chris Fitting). Then he entered his former residence. Now it housed the pie shop of a widow, Mrs. Lovett (Lisa Kain Marcelli).

The woman revealed that Mrs. Barker poisoned herself following Judge Turpin’s attack. In case some audience members still didn’t quite understand just how evil the judge’s nature: he also took in Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Stacie Krawiecki) as his ward. Now he wanted to marry her. Mr. Todd didn’t take this news well. Through his reaction, Mrs. Lovett determined his true identity.

In a somewhat unexpected lifestyle choice from a good Christian gentleman brought up on the values of Victorian England, Todd consecrated his life to vengeance. At the same time, Mrs. Lovett lamented the high cost of ingredients for her pies. The two then came up with a resourceful solution to both their dilemmas.

CJ Kish delivered an extraordinary performance as Todd. He nailed every one of the role’s complex facets. He sang impeccably. While bringing the character’s dark nature to life, he got laughs, as well. I relished watching him enact myriad emotions when Judge Turpin (Ryan Adams) sat in his barber’s chair. Mr. Kish varied his demeanor from resentment to obsequiousness with each sentence he delivered.

I’ve commented before on the energy Mr. Kish displays on stage. I appreciated the passion he brought to this character, as well. He maintained the same level of intensity from the beginning until the end of the show; not an easy feat with this role’s demands.

I also have to credit Mr. Kish for his appearance. With his bushy hair and mutton chops, I could visualize him as the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” His malign facial expressions rounded out the persona. The careful use of red lights accentuated his horrifying vibe. If someone would allow a figure that ominous to place a razor at his throat, he probably deserved what he got.

Lisa Kain Marcelli did an extraordinary job transforming into her character, Mrs. Lovett. Her British accent sounded very authentic. Vocally, it made me think of Edith Bunker, only from England. One has to credit her for singing so well with that inflection. I especially enjoyed her crooning on “By the Sea.”

As with The Producers, I enjoyed watching Mr. Kish and Chris Fitting work together. Mr. Fitting delivered stellar vocals on the pining ballad “Johanna.” I also appreciated his impassioned acting performance in the scene where he rescued his love from the madhouse.

Faith Charlton had a busy night. This performer portrayed the Beggar Woman and the barber, Pirelli. Ms. Carlton possesses an amazing voice. She showed off her vocal prowess in “The Contest.” In her various roles, she spoke in the accents of a British woman and an Italian man. Later in the show she also delivered dialog in an Irish brogue. That’s quite a range.

If someone asked me, “What provides a better bass tone: a Fender Bass Guitar or Ryan Adams’ voice?” While a difficult choice, I’d be inclined to answer the latter. Mr. Adams selected a great baritone inflection for the judge. His scat singing to Mr. Kish’s whistling on “Pretty Women” served as my favorite moment from the show.

Rounding out the cast, Cara Davis played the role of a young boy. Her measured interpretation of the child’s descent into madness chilled me. Patrick Waldron performed the role of the judge’s henchman, Beadle. I liked how he fused the traits of a viscous thug with those of a music lover into the same character. Stacie Krawiecki contributed her remarkable vocals to the performance, as well. I enjoyed her rendition of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

This Collingswood Community Theatre production featured authentic looking costumes. Ellen Geigel’s designs made the sojourn back to Victorian times even more convincing.

Brian Kain did a superb job conducting a fabulous orchestra.

Sweeney Todd may not be everyone’s favorite musical about cannibalism, revenge and hairstyling. I’m pretty sure it would at least make most people’s top twenty containing that combination. If all had the privilege to watch the Collingswood Community Theatre present it in the Grand Ballroom, it would undoubtedly move up to number one on the list. I’ll never forget it. And I’ll never forgive Collingswood Community Theatre for ending their summer season so soon…well, only until next summer.