Lori Alexio Howard

The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.

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Lost in Yonkers at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox selected the perfect venue to present Neil Simon’s masterpiece, Lost in Yonkers. With the adoration performers show for the late playwright, it seemed fitting to present the show at a location well suited for veneration. The performance occurred at a church. This cast delivered an apotheosis of this Pulitzer Prize winning play through some inspired performances. I attended the November 1oth performance in Haddon Heights.

Steve Allen and Jenn Edwards co-directed this story of an atypical Jewish family living in 1942 New York. In order to afford his late wife’s medical treatment, Eddie (played by Doug Cohen) borrowed a large sum of money from a loan shark. Fortunately, he received a job offer that would allow him to repay the gangster in 10 months. The position required travel throughout the South. In order to accept it, he needed his semi-estranged mother (played by Phyllis Josephson) to allow his sons, 15-1/2 year-old Jay (Ricky Conway) and 13-1/2 year-old Artie (Colin Becker), to move in with her.

Grandma was an austere disciplinarian. Adding to Jay’s and Artie’s adventure, their quirky Aunt Bella (played by Lori Alexio Howard) also lived with her. Their gangster Uncle Louie (Chuck Klotz) and idiosyncratic Aunt Gertie visited.

One has to credit Mr. Simon for his creativity. It’s difficult to imagine characters this unusual coming together. It’s even more remarkable to put them all together at the apartment above a candy story in the early 1940s. He did so while still crafting a coherent, comical and at times heartbreaking story. It’s not surprising Lost in Yonkers receives the myriad accolades it does.

The cast rose to the level of this extraordinary show. Ricky Conway (as Jay) and Colin Becker (as Arty) performed well as a comic team. Mr. Conway played the more emotional of the two; often moving around and gesticulating. Mr. Becker would remain still and deliver his lines in a laconic deadpan fashion. The two roles made for a nice contrast on stage.

Mr. Conway spoke his lines with a perfect New York accent. He still allowed Jay’s excitable nature to come through in his mannerisms and dialog. Mr. Conway showed great professionalism through the subtle way he displayed the character’s personality. Even in scenes where Jay sat still, he tapped his foot.

Mr. Becker would’ve played a great ‘straight-man’; except that the playwright gave his character some funny lines. The performer’s dispassionate means of expressing them made them much more humorous than they appeared on the printed page. I enjoyed his imitation of Uncle Louie’s explanation of “moxie” the best.

Lori Alexio Howard is a Neil Simon fan. It showed. Ms. Howard portrayed Bella. The respect she has for Mr. Simon is the kind of esteem audiences will show her for this performance.

Bella is one of the more complex characters in the Simon catalogue. Ms. Howard played the character with such enthusiasm she may have elevated Bella into the category of a Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois. She captured the funny side of Bella’s personality, the sadder aspects and the heartbreaking ones all with equal skill. Ms. Howard expressed Bella’s dreams and aspirations in a deeply moving fashion. The longing look in her eye as she did so showed just how seriously she prepared for this role.

It’s difficult to select the appropriate words to express Phyllis Josephson’s skill as a performer. She turned in a terrific portrayal of Grandma. She brought out the character’s change very believably. In the opening scene, she captured the character’s stern nature without even speaking. Ms. Josephson walked in a slow gait before sitting down, maintaining perfect posture and remaining silent. When she did talk, she adopted an authentic German accent; at one point, lecturing Eddie on how she never cried.

Following the confrontation scene, she played Grandma as a mellower character. Even while allowing Eddie and the boys to kiss her and permitting music in the apartment, Mr. Josephson still retained a bit of Grandma’s tougher edge. She did so in a measured way that made the character’s transformation seem even more credible.

Ms. Howard and Ms. Josephson made the confrontation scene in Lost in Yonkers much more intense than I anticipated. The emotional turmoil generated by the argument became difficult to watch very quickly. The entire audience even gasped when Ms. Josephson dumped a cup of hot tea on Ms. Howard. All of that is a credit to how genuine the performers made the fight.

Doug Cohen played Eddie. He conveyed the character’s nervousness by dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. Mr. Cohen showed Eddie’s plight by speaking his monologs with a tint of somberness in his voice. He also delivered the most comical line in the show with perfect style. When Grandma announced that a bag of pistachios disappeared from the candy story, he exclaimed, “That’s still a problem after 35 years!”

I’d also credit Chuck Klotz and Amy Bannister for their performances. Mr. Klotz played an entertaining Uncle Louie. The cocky voice he adopted made the character an amusing presence on stage. Ms. Bannister animated Aunt Gert’s unusual tic brilliantly. Half way through her dialog she would speak while inhaling. She managed this challenging task extremely well.

Lost in Yonkers contained aspects that would give it appeal to a wide range of theatregoers. It included hysterical comic yuks along with intense drama. A person can imagine the eccentric characters as part of one’s own family. Even more important it included a compelling story. Perhaps that explains why performers have such admiration for Mr. Simon’s work. Audiences who’ve had the pleasure of seeing the show at the Village Playbox will no doubt share it.

Lost in Yonkers  runs through November 17th at the Village Playbox. After that it pulls an Uncle Louie-like disappearance.

 

 

Big Fish at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Big Fish possessed one complicated title. As this is July, I anticipated a musical ode to that age old summer past time. Not so. The protagonist’s son went “fishing” into his dad’s past to discover the truth about him. Well, the title either alluded to that or Edward’s being a figurative “big fish” in a small pond. At any rate, theatergoers should leave their rods and reels at home. Settle in for an odyssey of singing, dancing and stellar entertainment with the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Edward Bloom loved to share stories with his son. Who wouldn’t want a tale-telling fabulous fabulist of a father? Well, not Will. When he discovered himself about to become a dad, he longed to know the real Edward behind the stories. But time became an issue. Edward received news he had terminal cancer. Would Will learn the truth? I found out when I attended the July 14th performance of Big Fish presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Director Michael Melvin engaged in some unexpected casting for this project. Antonio Baldasari is one of the funniest actors on the South Jersey community theatre circuit. His performance as Aldolpho in the Maple Shade Arts Council’s The Drowsy Chaperone was the most comical character I’ve seen brought to the stage. April Lindley has also played memorable comic characters in recent years. I attended a performance of Shrek: The Musical at the Collingswood Community Theatre in which she played the emotionally volatile Princess Fiona. That character changed moods about as often as most people inhale. With those two at the top of the bill I entered the Maple Shade High School Auditorium expecting some side-splitting entertainment.

Well, the creative Mr. Melvin had other plans. He cast these performers in dramatic, sentimental and heart-rending roles. He made a good decision. These players proved just as adept at performing “serious” characters. To the audience’s delight both Mr. Baldasari and Ms. Lindley delivered performances just as memorable as their comedic work.

Big Fish included sophisticated dance routines choreographed by Erica Paolucci and assistant Mallory Beach, a live orchestra led by Jim Sheffer and vocal direction by Lauren Delfing. All facets combined for an exceptional show. Oh, yes, and DJ Hedgepath played the son. You know it had to be one grand production for me to mention Mr. Hedgepath last.

Mr. Melvin turned Big Fish into a mesmerizing visual spectacle. He coordinated the lighting, as well. The director ensured the different shades of color on the set reflected the mood of the events occurring on-stage. The bright yellow hue combined with the flowers spread around the stage heightened the beauty of the “Daffodils” number. The red, white and blue costumes accentuated the stellar dancing in the “Red, White and True” routine. The dark costumes of the witch ensemble boosted the ominous aura of the “I Know What You Want” scene. The glowing crystal ball the witch (Nicole Perri) held illuminated in various hues.

Antonio Baldasari has done strong supporting work. I relished the opportunity to watch him take the lead as Edward Bloom. He didn’t disappoint. The performer grabbed my attention at the beginning with his solo rendition of “Be the Hero.”

Mr. Baldasari became Edward. He adopted the character’s slow Southern drawl. I liked his calm mannerisms when confronted by the witch and the assassins; but not when confronted by his son. He complimented Ms. Lindley very well in numbers such as “Daffodils” and “Time Stops.” He worked just as proficiently with cast members Tre Deluca on “Fight the Dragons” and DJ Hedgepath on “Showdown.”

Besides the musical numbers, the show contained serious drama. Mr. Baldasari and Mr. Hedgepath played superb opposites. Mr. Baldasari’s laid back and imaginative persona worked well against Mr. Hedgepath’s angry and analytical nature. April Lindley and Jayne Collotti (as Will’s wife Josephine) served as mediators. Even without the songs, this conflict alone would have made for a great story.

DJ Hedgepath’s fans will be delighted, as usual. I enjoyed his renditions of “Stranger”, “What’s Next” and the “Be the Hero” reprise. In addition to the hostility to Mr. Baldasari’s character, he showed great emotion when visiting him in the hospital. He brought out Will’s development very believably.

April Lindley turned in an absolutely awesome performance as Sandra. Ms. Lindley delivered her lines in a perfect Southern accent. She inspired empathy for Sandra through her flawless facial expressions.

Ms. Lindley established a new standard for dramatic vocals. With the dying Edward resting in her lap she sang “I Don’t Need a Roof” while crying. She performed as though every word agonized her character even more. All the time she remained in key. Ms. Lindley brilliantly extended a rest before hitting the final note. It made a deeply emotional moment even more powerful.

The highlight of this show occurred during the “Little Lamb from Alabama/Time Stops” sequence. April Lindley, Shaina Egan and Emma Kelly joined together to perform this song and dance number. They sounded just like the Andrews Sisters playing on an MP3. The “Little Lamb from Alabama” number featured a quick upbeat tempo. It segued into “Time Stops” sung by Ms. Lindley and Mr. Baldasari. For that one the three dancers slowed down and performed the same moves in slow motion. They executed this transition with precision.

I also compliment the other cast members who contributed to the production. Tre Deluca (played Young Will the night I attended), Jane Collotti, stilt walker Stephen Jackson, Nicholas French, Nicole Perri, Allison Abiva, James Gallagher, Ryan Bogie, Matthew Maerten, Mallory Beach, Erin Daly, Laura Foley, Jerrod Ganesh, Evan Hairston, Lori Alexio Howard, Nicole Manning, Jordan Moore, Lisa Palena and William Young.

During the intermission Mr. Melvin told me to “get the tissues ready for Act II.” I’m sure audience members shed tears at its conclusion, but not because of the story. I doubt I’m the only person who felt sad that it ended. Missing out on the experience would’ve made me even more miserable. For theatre fans still in the doldrums you have until July 21st to catch Big Fish.

To Kill a Mockingbird at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ

Harper Lee crafted a unique American take on the traditional bildungsroman. The author’s powerful exploration of a young girl’s maturation through her harsh exposure to the world around her made for the timeless novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Fortunately, for theatre fans, Christopher Sergel adapted this Pulitzer Prize winning classic for the stage. Under the direction of Matthew Weil, The Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ presented an extraordinary interpretation when I attended the March 3rd performance.

Due to the immense success of both the book and the film, most in the general public are already familiar with the story. This presents a challenge for theatrical companies. How does one make something so well-known still interesting and engaging to audiences? The answer: through phenomenal performances. To Kill a Mockingbird included a host of them.

Maude Atkinson (played by Nicky O’Neal) expressed the following thoughts on Atticus Finch: “The highest honor the town can give a man: the ability to do good.” The actor who played him (Cory Laslocky) didn’t “do good.” He did a phenomenal job in his performance. Mr. Laslocky did extraordinary work balancing the character’s complexities; most notably when he cross examined Mayella Ewell (played by Kaitlin Healy). He displayed a reserved easy going manner with his deliberate questioning. Through his words he became a man who could be firm and tough. He managed this difficult equilibrium throughout the entire show; his convincing portrayal of the character’s passionate closing argument serving as the lone exception.

The moment that affected me the most in Mockingbird occurred during Mr. Laslocky’s exchange with his witness Tom Robinson (played by Mikal Odom). Mr. Odom’s stage presence and delivery during this scene were without peer. I’ve never experienced a performer capturing a character’s emotional state so well. With a Southern drawl, shaky voice and teary eyes he explained the events leading to his false accusation. He brought out the character’s fear and anxiety in a way that I could feel.  If his awesome performance didn’t move you: you’re not human.

Shawn O’Brien delivered a memorable interpretation of the villain, Bob Ewell. This performer really got into character. His choice of voice, exaggerated mannerisms and yelling captured the essence of a bitter, alcoholic racist. Several times in the courtroom scenes his shouting and swigging of a bottle convinced me he became unhinged. During a later scene his evil laughing while wheedling a piece of wood even gave me a chill.

The show’s most unforgettable moment occurred during the confrontation scene. While Atticus stood guard outside the jail housing Tom Robinson an angry mob arrived. They’d planned on hanging the accused. Showing shades of Atticus, his daughter, Scout (played by Sofia DiCostanzo) did an outstanding job in her dialog with Walter Cunningham (played by Mike Lovell). Ms. DiCostanzo delivered her lines as a naïve child engaging Mr. Lovell’s (probably intoxicated) character in conversation. She recognized him as one of her classmate’s father. After asking him to say “hello” to his son for her, he bowed his head as if in shame. He calmly instructed the mob to disburse and “go home.” While it had a lot of competition for this title, these performers made the scene the play’s most powerful.

The playwright chose to utilize a technique about which I experienced mixed feelings. In following the book, the playwright had the character of Jean Louise Finch (the Scout character as an adult) narrate throughout the show. The performer who played this role, Nellie Brown, did outstanding work as a story teller. Her expressions and delivery were very expressive as she recounted the events that transpired both on and off the stage. In addition Ms. Brown spent most of the show in view of the audience. I liked how she smiled nostalgically as the action played out. I could envision her as a person reliving all these events in her mind. She possesses a pleasant voice. Ms. Brown would be a good choice to narrate an audio version of the book. Someone that gifted in the performing arts deserves a better role to exhibit her talent.

In my view, the role of Jean Louise Finch brought to mind the character of Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films. A narrator’s role in a comedy is much more effective. The method of having a character do so in a live dramatic play stops the action too much for my taste. In a medium that’s very dialog heavy, I find it adds too much ‘telling’ to the script. In this case Ms. Brown’s exceptional story telling ability made the narrator’s role enjoyable. Besides, an actor’s role is to interpret the script as written: not to correct bad writing.

Sensitive theatre fans should be aware that the show contained usage of racial epithets. The language complimented the theme of the story and fit the less-enlightened historical time period. For these reasons I didn’t find it offensive.

The show featured a very unusual intermission. During the trial scene Judge Taylor (played by Andrew Kushner) came out from behind the bench and walked to the front of the stage. He announced there’d be a 10 minute “recess.” As he spoke the house lights came on. The players remained on the stage during the break. They continued playing the parts of courtroom observers waiting for the hearing to resume. From their gestures and facial expressions it looked like Lori A. Howard and Mike Lovell had a pretty interesting conversation going on. I would’ve liked to have heard it.

It made me very happy to see Paul Sollimo (who played Nathan and “Boo” Radley) back on stage again. When they find the person who started this unfounded rumor about his retirement, they should do to him what the drunken mob wanted to do to Tom Robinson. (Even theatre critics are guilty of ‘bad writing’ once in a while.)

So many performers did exceptional jobs in this show that it’s unfair to leave anyone out. I’d like to credit Kyle Smart, Carter Weiss, Rhonda V. Fidelia, Kaitlin Healy, Sean O’Shea, Jay Burton, Andrew Kushner, Doug Supleee, Ann Moser Trenka, Nicky O’Neal, Lori A. Howard and Natasha Truitt for their contributions, as well. The show wouldn’t have been as engaging without them.

The play reflected the life of one of it’s characters. Kind of like Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird comes out of seclusion, makes a huge impact and then returns to exile for a while. Fans of great literature, theatre and acting would be well served to see it performed at The Ritz Theatre while they can. The show runs through March 19th.

The Critique Compendium Interview: Lori A. Howard

lori-howardTen years ago Lori A. Howard left the prosaic New York area to re-settle in the cultural cornucopia we know as South Jersey. At the time, she worked as the Assistant Development Director at the Walnut Street Theatre. Since then she’s transitioned from schmoozing donors to wowing community theatre audiences. They’re glad she did. Fans will no doubt remember Lori’s moving performance of Kate Jerome at the Haddonfield Plays and Players recent production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. Audiences will also recall her comical work in The Drowsy Chaperone and The Addams Family Musical, both presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council; an organization where she volunteers and gives back to a community for which she has unparalleled passion.

Ms. Howard graciously agreed to be interviewed on February 6, 2017. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

 

Question: I figure you’ll be a big success one day since you’re such a talented performer. Normally, I’d ask for an autograph. Since I’d just end up selling it for big money some day: could you give me ten thousand dollars now?

 

Answer: (Laughs) If I had it, I’d give it to you.

 

Q: Tell me a little about yourself.

 

A: I live in Marlton with my husband, Edwin, and my son and daughter.

 

Q: How old are your children?

 

A: My son is ten. My daughter’s six.

 

 

Q: What first interested you in the performing arts?

 

A: Oh, I’ve been doing it since I can remember. I always loved singing, dancing and performing.

 

Q: When did you start performing?

 

A: At five or six. I took dance classes. I grew up in North Jersey so I saw a lot of Broadway shows.

 

Q: Why did you come to South Jersey?

 

A: I got a job at the Walnut Street Theatre in the Development Department. I had a wonderful boss. I taught at the theatre school and worked there for 10 years. I taught kids acting class for five, six and seven year olds. We did fairy tale plays and told jokes. We worked on art projects, too.

 

I do a similar class with the Maple Shade Arts Council. This is their pilot year. My husband builds sets for us. Anne-Marie Underwood and I did class with 29 kids last Saturday. (2/4/17)

 

Q: How did you get involved with the Maple Shade Arts Council?

 

A: I worked at Maple Shade High School.

I was cast in the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production of The Addams Family. It was the first time I’d been on stage in 15 years.

 

Q: Why the long hiatus?

 

 

A: Family life came first for me; then my career. I also understudied at the Walnut Street Theatre, but people were always healthy!

 

 

Q: What types of things make you want to play a role?

 

A: Well, a great script. There are a lot of rich characters in theatre. I also like to work with a great production team. Working with Matthew Weil and Sarah Viniar on Brighton Beach Memoirs and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind.

 

Q: Why did you want to be in The Addams Family?

 

A: I liked the show and soundtrack. I wanted to give theatre a shot again. I had a lot of fun with my character.

 

Q: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

 

A: In a play: Kate in Brighton Beach. We had a small cast. We really became like a little family. Kate Jerome was a juicy part. She did what she had to do to keep her family’s heads above water. She was feisty. I loved her!

Into the Woods was my favorite musical. I played the Witch. The theme is what happens after you get your happily ever after; when your dreams and wishes change.

 

 

Q: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

 

A: I played Katerina in The Taming of the Shrew. Learning the language was a challenge. So was the physicality.

 

Q: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.

 

A: It would be at the end of Brighton Beach. Kate called for Eugene to come down and join the family. The family members in Europe escaped Poland. It had a happy resolution.

My family is Bronx Italian. Bronx Italian and Brooklyn Jewish seem to have very similar family dynamics. With the way the characters and script are written, I heard echoes of my grandmother’s kitchen table.

 

Q: What actors have influenced you?

 

A: From Broadway I’d have to say Bernadette Peters. She has a distinctive voice. I love how she performs Sondheim. She speaks to my heart.

 

I also appreciate Kate Winslett’s depth. She captures characters so brilliantly.

 

Q: If you had the opportunity to work with any actor either living or dead, who would it be?

 

A: Dustin Hoffman. He’s a good everyman with a little quirkiness. He’s very identifiable. He’s in so many of my favorite movies. I’ve always been a big fan. It would be fun to banter with him.

 

Q: You have a tremendous enthusiasm for community theatre. Why?

 

A: It’s something that you can do at any age and on the local level. It gives artists that can’t pursue it professionally the opportunity to come together. The passion and talent are there. I’ve met amazing people through it. My whole family and I do it together. The brilliant people I’ve met have brought joy and richness to my life.

 

Q: I didn’t recognize you playing one of the gangsters in The Drowsy Chaperone. What was it like performing in that show?

 

A: A lot of fun. I didn’t expect to play a male. Debra Heckman (the other gangster) and I ran with it and had a lot of fun.

 

Q: Brighton Beach Memoirs featured an unusual set-up as the audience was seated both in front of and behind the stage. How did you like working with that format?

 

A: It was a wonderful challenge. (Director) Matthew (Weil) wanted the audience to feel as though they were in the house. It would’ve been hard to create that effect with a regular stage set-up. Also, the actors don’t have to worry about putting their bad sides to the audience. Matthew did an amazing job. I cannot credit him enough for it.

 

Q: During that show, the actors remained on the stage even when they weren’t part of the action. What was it like being on stage while not participating in the action?

 

A: I didn’t have issue with sitting on the stage. It gave me the chance to watch the whole show.

 

Q: What do you do when you’re not on stage?

 

A: I’m a stay-at-home mom. I keep busy with my kids. I take them to karate, ballet, and I volunteer at their school. I run the science fair there every June.

 

Q: How do you prepare for a role?

 

A: It depends. If the script is of particular time period, I might look at books, fashion styles and see what was going on at the time. I immerse myself in the script. I might voice lines to my husband or in the mirror, too.

 

Q: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

 

A: I’m very passionate. I’m very committed to getting something right. I will work with director until everything is “as it should be.”

I have a good sense of humor. I try to say hello to everyone. My daughter and I bake and bring cookies to rehearsals.

 

Q: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

 

A: Never quite knowing how they’re going to react. You never know if the laughs will come from the same spots. Different audiences may respond to different lines. You can’t assume that the audience will react in a certain way. It’s their experience. The audience will interpret. You have to respond accordingly.

 

Q: How would you like audiences to remember you?

 

A: I hope they think I did my job. It’s important as actor to understand the role in the greater scheme of the play. I don’t want to stick out in a bad way. I want to fit into the puzzle as the author intended.

 

Q: Have you ever worked with a script that contained bad writing?

 

A: Every actor comes across something that doesn’t come across the way they want. You need to find way to identify with an aspect of it and make it your own.

 

Q: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

 

A: I ask too many questions about the script, character, and time period. The more of a background I have the more real I can try to make it.

I’m also committed to playing off them well. I hope they would say they had as much fun as I did.

 

Q: Joseph Conrad said that he always kept one fact about his characters out of his novels. This way it was known only to him. Do you take a similar approach with the roles you play?

 

A: Backstory is always helpful. If you can create one or can get information from the rest of the script or if you can answer questions that the audience doesn’t have to know: it adds to the script and the circumstances. It gives you more to work with. A great director can help with that, too.

 

Q: Have you ever thought about directing?

 

A: I was a co-director at Maple Shade High School. I directed in college. I went to Flagler College in Saint Augustine Florida. It’s a small liberal arts college with a good theatre department.

 

Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?

 

A: Go for it. Absolutely. It can bring you so much. It can boost your confidence. Plays have historical value. You meet amazing people. No matter what field you’re planning on going into, there’s an aspect of the performance arts you will benefit from. You will walk away with invaluable experiences for the rest of your life.

 

You don’t have to do it professionally. If it’s in your heart, you’ll be a richer person for it.

 

Q: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

 

A: Varied.

 

Q: I’d like to ask a bit of a personal question. It involves two characters featured in shows you performed. If you were single and available, with whom would you prefer to take a romantic cruise: Lerch from The Addams Family or Aldolpho from The Drowsy Chaperone?

 

A: (Laughs) The same actor (Antonio Baldassari) played both of them! He’s a friend of mine. Funny guy.

I would say Lerch. He’s a man of fewer words and I would enjoy the vacation more. Aldolpho would talk about himself the whole time.

 

Q: What’s next for you?

 

A: To Kill a Mockingbird opens at the Ritz on March 2nd. It runs through the 19th. Matthew Weil is directing. I’m thrilled to be back on his team. It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

I’m on the board of the Maple Shade Arts Council. I’m the Director of Fundraising. My son did their camp. My daughter is performing in Annie.

They present a summer musical, a teen show in fall, and a show for the youngest group in the winter. This is in addition to the summer camp. I’m proud to be part of their organization.

I’m grateful to be part of the community. South Jersey has so many local theatre companies. There are so many people giving their time and talents to such a rich community.

Theatre Review – Brighton Beach Memoirs at Haddonfield Plays and Players

The Haddonfield Plays and Players theatre group has a history of presenting challenging “dramedies.” It seemed fitting that they’d add Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs to their repertoire. This semi-autobiographical sketch of an extended Jewish family living in 1937 New York featured a host of comedic yuks coupled with intense drama. The cast and crew met the demands of this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.

I attended the premiere performance on September 15th. The evening also entailed HPP’s rolling out of an original stage set-up. They relocated it closer to the center of the theatre. While tasked with animating Neil Simon’s dialog, this cast had the additional duty of playing to both sides of the room. Due to the new seating configuration, I expected to spend most of the evening staring at the backs of performers’ heads. The talented assembly of thespians accommodated this new format like seasoned stage veterans. I’d also give credit to director Matthew Weil for coordinating everyone around this original arrangement.

Dylan Corbett (as Eugene Jerome) faced the toughest challenge. While his character played an active role in the story’s events, he also served as a narrator. On numerous occasions he addressed the audience directly. With it seated both in front of and in back of the stage, this presented quite a challenge. I sat in the row against the far wall. Mr. Corbett’s deft movements to both sides of the stage made me feel like he spoke to me personally the entire night. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for anyone under these circumstances; especially for someone performing in his second community theatre show.

The play’s action took place over the span of two weeks. Mr. Corbett convincingly transformed from an immature, libidinous kid into a young man and then back again. That’s not an easy feat with a script covering that short a time span.

Nick Ware played an outstanding Stanley Jerome. He’s a very expressive performer. I really enjoyed the animated way he gesticulated while explaining how he stood up to his boss, thus risking his job at a time his family depended on his salary. He added a nice touch of humor when asking his cousin Nora (played by Meaghan Janis) to mention Abraham Lincoln’s “principles” at dinner. This would allow him to segue into a discussion about it with his father. His method of interjecting the topic at supper proved much more comical.

Lori A. Howard portrayed the epitome of a Jewish mother living in 1930s New York. She chose the perfect voice to compliment the role of Kate Jerome. Ms. Howard got into the character so well that I consciously avoided her after the show. (I worried she’d be forcing me to eat liver.) While she delivered funny lines well, her character possessed much more depth than simple “comic relief.” Mrs. Jerome battled anxieties over her husband’s health, her son Stanley’s wild ways and her sister’s descent into self-pity after becoming a widow. Combined with these challenges, Ms. Howard also served as the core holding this troubled family together. I liked the way she manifest all this tension in her argument with the character’s sister Blanche (performed by Marissa Wolf).

In addition to this altercation with Ms. Howard, Ms. Wolf launched an intense dispute with Blanche’s daughter, Nora (played by Meaghan Janis). These two performers did a phenomenal job during this heated exchange. While difficult to watch, the rewards of witnessing two talented performers play characters who want to love, but struggle in doing so made it worthwhile. They executed this difficult scene so realistically that I felt uncomfortable. That’s superb acting.

Doug Suplee (as Jack Jerome) played the clan’s patriarch. The role reminded me a bit of Mike Brady with a New York accent. Mr. Suplee brought to life the character of a wise father committed to the well-being of his family. I liked the way he showed tenderness as a surrogate father to his niece, Nora. He became a stern, but loving parent to his son, Stanley in their scenes together. When Kate worried about her sister’s condition, Mr. Suplee counseled her wisely. Understand the Brady reference now?

I also give credit to 11 year old, Sera Scherz in the role of Laurie Morton. She played an unemotional, detached young lady very well. The talent she displays at this point in her career shows she has a great future ahead of her in theatre.

During long portions of the show, performers who weren’t involved in the scenes didn’t leave the stage. They either sat at the ends of stage left or stage right. I found that unusual. I suspected that the new configuration had something to do with that. The designer located both egresses at the middle of the stage. None of these entertainers did anything to attract attention in these instances. However, at times my gaze drifted towards them because I wondered if they had a role in the action.

Several weeks ago, Lori A. Howard informed me that HPP’s presentation of Brighton Beach Memoirs “features an extraordinary cast that is my honor to work with.” After attending the show I could understand her enthusiasm. The show runs through October 1st. After that, Brighton Beach Memoirs becomes a memory at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council

It’s not often one witnesses the triumvirate of comedy, horror and fencing in the same show. The Maple Shade Arts Council production of The Addams Family:  A New Musical Comedy (directed by Michael Melvin) seamlessly incorporated all three. Just for good measure they included some outstanding musical and dance numbers from a stellar cast to round out the performance.

The musical told a tale of trauma in the Addams household. Wednesday (played by Casey Grouser) found her true love. She and her boyfriend Lucas (Robert Achorn) recently engaged. Her fiancé hailed from the “normal” world. In order to introduce the two families, she arranged a dinner at the Addams home. As if that didn’t make for a tense evening, she told her father Gomez (D. J. Hedgepath) about her pending nuptials. To add to the conflict she asked that he not tell her mother Morticia (Rachel Comenzo) about the arrangement until after dinner. Gomez NEVER kept a secret from Morticia; a fact she brought to his attention repeatedly during the show. The story contained more conflict and tension I would have expected from a light -hearted musical.

One has to respect D. J. Hedgepath for taking on the role of Gomez. Any theatrical performance is a challenge; especially when taking on a role iconized by another actor. After watching Mr. Hedgepath’s interpretation of Gomez, I’ll now view John Astin’s performance of the character on the same level as his role as The Riddler. (Mr. Astin is very talented, but he’s no Frank Gorshin.) At first I found it unusual to see Gomez Addams without a chalk stripe suit and smoking a cigar in every scene. As the show went on, Mr. Hedgepath reinvented the role as his own. He brought much more passion and energy to Gomez than other actors I’ve seen. For purists: he did include many “cara mias” while kissing Morticia’s arms from her wrist down to her shoulder. He also added fencing to his repertoire.

Rachel Comenzo clearly studied the role of Morticia. With crossed arms, fingers spread across her upper arms, and her pale face with a blank look the role became the actress. As usual, she showed off her exceptional vocal prowess. She showcased her abilities best in “Just around the Corner”. The song contained a homonym. The lyric went: death is just around the corner. Ms. Comenzo explained to the audience that, “death is just around the coroner. Get it?” It’s usually a bad sign when a performer needs to explain a joke to an audience. Ms. Comenzo did so very naturally and with such charm that she still got laughs.

I also have to give Ms. Comenzo credit for her skill as a dancer. Most of the choreography required her to dance in a long dress while wearing heels. She managed this difficult task flawlessly.

The real highlight of The Addams Family came during the “Tango de Amor” number with Gomez, Morticia and the Addams family ancestors. The ensemble performed a complex tango with Gomez and Morticia in the spotlight. I applaud choreographer Sarah Dugan for putting this together. Watching Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo tango together brought to mind the legendary drum battle between Ginger Baker and Art Blakey. The level of talent displayed on stage is difficult to put into words. These two triple threats executed an intricate dance sequence brilliantly. It was a pleasure to see this much aptitude in one musical. Not that the two actors competed with one another, but if they had, like in the famous drum battle, the audience would’ve been the true winner.

Many memorable musical performances took place in The Addams Family. Casey Grouser (Wednesday), Lori Alexio Howard (Alice Beineke), Brian Padla (Uncle Fester) and Jacob Long (Pugsley Addams) all turned in very strong vocal performances. Mr. Hedgepath delivered a moving rendition of the somber ballad “Happy/Sad”.

I did feel a bit let down at one point with the song selection. When the second act began I thought ZZ Top were about to play. It turned out it was just Nicholas Olszewski in the guise of Cousin It.

I’d also like to give special acknowledgement to Phyllis Josephson as Grandma. She didn’t get a lot of stage time in this show, but she proved the old adage, “There are no small roles: only small actors.” Every time she had the spotlight, the audience became hysterical. I enjoyed her tone of voice. It sounded similar to the “Cat Lady” on the television show The Simpsons. Unlike that character, I could still understand her clearly, though.

My only criticism of the show concerned the technical issues. Several times a loud humming noise broadcast over the loudspeakers. Hearing the actors became challenging. Much to their credit, they remained focused and didn’t let it interrupt their performance. At the beginning of the show the acoustics were poor, as well. Both the orchestra and the dialog sounded muddled. Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo both project their voices very well. I know my difficulty hearing had nothing to do with the actors.

At a key moment in the performance, the cast played a game called “Full Disclosure”. They passed a chalice around the dinner table. The person drinking from it would have to reveal a secret. One wouldn’t have to give it to members of the audience for them to disclose how well the cast and crew presented The Addams Family. That’s no secret. The show runs through July 18th  at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium.