MacKenzie Smith

Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters

“Is it better to hope or to know?” Jimmy Ray (played by DJ Hedgepath) asked.

When Burlington County Footlighters announced their 2018 – 2019 season, Darryl Thompson, Jr. issued a statement via Facebook. Mr. Thompson lamented that he had to wait a year to bring Bright Star to the stage. With over 12 months to plan, organize and prepare this show, was he better off “hoping” audiences would remember it as a spectacular piece or is he now better for “knowing” the answer? I discovered for myself when I attended the opening night performance on May 3rd.

Legendary performer Steve Martin wrote the book and Edie Brickell composed Bright Star’s music. Critics heralded this show. It received myriad award nominations including one for a Grammy. It won the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score and the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Musical. To bring a show of this caliber to the Footlighters stage, Mr. Thompson utilized that year of preparation very effectively.

Bright Star contained a very rare combination of theatrical elements. It featured excellent choreography, catchy Bluegrass musical numbers and an extraordinary story. As Alice (played by Caitlin Alvarez) sang in the opening number:

If you knew my story

You’d have a good story to tell.

The show contained two alternating plot lines. One followed the star crossed love affair between Alice (Caitlyn Alvarez) and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (DJ Hedgepath). The second showed aspiring writer Billy Cane (Robert Stoop) in his pursuit of Margo (Rachel Comenzo) while trying to get published in the Ashville Southern Journal. The latter became the harder challenge. The journal’s editor read new writers with fastidious discernment. This portion of the story occurred twenty years after the first. An older Alice worked as the journal’s editor.

It shows Steve Martin’s brilliance in that he managed to make the life of a writer sound interesting.

Mr. Thompson selected many Footlighters legends as cast members. However, he selected a newcomer to the company’s stage for the lead role. Caitlyn Alvarez earned her place among performers such as DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Star-Renbjor.

Ms. Alvarez’s character appeared in two different incarnations. In one story line, Alice was both the “black sheep” of her family and a love struck teenager. In the other her character became an unemotional, jaded professional more comfortable with texts than with people. Ms. Alvarez animated both aspects of Alice’s personality with equal dexterity.

Ms. Alvarez also possesses a beautiful voice. She opened the show with a wonderful performance of “If You Knew My Story.” Her duets with Mr. Hedgepath on “Whoa, Mama”, “What Could Be Better” and “I Can’t Wait” expressed the hopeful optimism of youth beautifully.

Even allowing for the high standards audiences have for Mr. Hedgepath’s work, he still managed to exceed them. One has to credit him and Ms. Alvarez for their chemistry. That’s quite an achievement for two people working together for the first time.

Several years ago DJ Hedgepath’s mother commented on one of my reviews. She expressed her pride in her son. The way I praised his abilities in my article made her cry. I replied that Mr. Hedgepath is an immensely talented actor. I suggested she start stockpiling boxes of tissues.

I’m not sure whether or not Mrs. Hedgepath accepted my advice. If she did, I’d ask that she donate some of those boxes to Burlington County Footlighters for this run of Bright Star.

Mr. Hedgepath delivered his strongest vocal performance to date in the form of “Heartbreaker.” Through his emotive signing he made an affecting scene even more intense. He and Ms. Alvarez performed a duet on “I Had a Vision” that was even more moving. Mr. Hedgepath’s performance made the audience experience the same emotions as his character. That’s genius.

In the role of Billy, Robert Stoop delivered a stellar version of the show’s title track. In addition, Mr. Stoop had a witty interaction with Ms. Alvarez. He handed her a letter claiming that author Thomas Wolfe wrote a letter praising his writing. Using a monotone voice, Ms. Alvarez informed him that Mr. Wolfe passed away several years prior.

Mr. Stoop also performed an excellent number with Nicholas French (as Daddy Cane). The two sang a banjo accompanied funeral dirge for Billy’s mother with the somber “She’s Gone.”

In the playbill, Rachel Comenzo thanked Mr. Thompson for “the opportunity to sing again.” Audiences should express their appreciation to the director, as well. Ms. Comenzo proved herself quite the country crooner with her rendition of “Asheville.” She accompanied Mr. Stoop on a wonderful duet of “Always Will.”

Ms. Comenzo has that rare gift where she truly becomes the characters she plays. In her performance as Margo she always found the proper facial expressions to accentuate the scene. Her subtle wincing whenever Max (Christian DeCola) expressed his interest made their interaction more engaging.

Fans know Burlington County Footlighters for the comedy team of Al Krier and Dan Brothers. Performers Stephen Jackson and Alex Davis showed they may be the next great comedy team to originate from that company. The two provided a much needed catharsis to the intense drama that occurred in the show. In addition to their humorous interactions, they performed a catchy song and dance number with Mr. Stoop on “Another Round.”

Audrey DiEnno-Lacroce coordinated spectacular choreography. Several numbers involved the ensemble. The cast executed the intricate maneuvers well. Their skill made an entertaining performance into an awesome one.

Thomas Stone played the villain, Mayor Dobbs. He personified Larouchefoucault’s admonition that: “the evil wouldn’t be so dangerous if it weren’t for the good in them.” Mr. Stone’s character wanted his son, Jimmy Ray, to live a rewarding life. He erred by pursuing that end with unrestrained cruelty. Mr. Stone expressed that sentiment through his excellent rendition of the “A Man’s Gotta Do” reprise. His baritone repetition of the line “a man must protect his family” made it ominous. This brings me to my one criticism of the show.

When Mr. Stone took his curtain call I heard hissing from the audience. Folks: MR. STONE IS A GIFTED ACTOR. HE PLAYED THE ROLE AS WRITTEN BY THE PLAYWRIGHT. HE DID A SUPERB JOB OF IT.

Please do not confuse performers with the characters they play. In that sense, Mr. Stone should take pride in the fact audience members found his performance as Mayor Stone so authentic.

The following performers rounded out the cast: John Romano, Jillian Star-Renbjor, Matt Maerten, Tony Flores, Becky Crunk, Ally Masson, Rachel Ricci, Audrey DiEnno, Lena Dougherty, Shaina Eagan, Gabrielle Hansson, Mark Henley, Riley Rancani, Mackenzie Smith, and Luke Szyskiewicz. Michelle Foster served as Musical Director and Chuck Jackson designed the set.

Ms. Davis’ character described the task of a writer as: “to drink alcohol and feel sorry for yourself.” After watching Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters, theatre critics will struggle to follow that follow that advice; at least the second part of it. Mr. Thompson and his team receive this critic’s praise for giving this phenomenal show the presentation it deserved. We can all drink to that.

Bright Star will shine at Burlington County Footlighters until May 18th.

 

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Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

Not for the first time, Burlington County Footlighters bewildered me. When I heard they’d present a musical about “Carrie”, I cringed. Who would want to see Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie put to music? The answer is apparently no one.* Lucky for theatre fans the show they presented took its inspiration from the Stephen King novel of the same name. I guess I should read the marquee the next time I hear buzz about upcoming Footlighters’ productions.

Now the real question came to mind: would the theatrical production of King’s Carrie terrify me more than a melodic rendition of Dreiser’s prose? I found out when I attended the opening night performance on May 4th.

As the concept originated from the mind of the ‘master of horror’, it wasn’t a typical story of teen angst. Carrie White (played by Cynthia Reynolds) experienced torment from her peers at school. Her home life offered no succor. Her hyper-religious mother (played by Jillian Starr-Renbjor) sheltered her from the outside world. Mrs. White preferred to indoctrinate her daughter with religious thought. In fact she couldn’t utter a sentence unless it contained at least one passage from the Bible.

A repressed socially inept loner subject to incessant bullying: this would not end well, I thought.

And there’s more. Throughout the show Carrie discovered that she possessed telekinetic powers…and a pretty bad temper. I rubbed my hands together and anxiously anticipated a train wreck for the ages.

Connor Twigg both directed and choreographed this tale of teen tragedy. Carrie presented challenges on both accounts. It featured a host of sophisticated dance routines involving multiple performers. It also contained a touching story of an outcast struggling to find her place in the world. Mr. Twigg made an excellent choice in Cynthia Reynolds to take on the lead role.

Ms. Reynolds played the timid, frightened pariah exceptionally. She kept her face pointed down and spoke like someone afraid of letting the words out. Her voice still contained enough volume so the audience could hear her clearly. The mannerisms she chose helped to bring me into the story. She made me very interested to see how her character would behave as the abuse intensified. Ms. Reynolds’s non-verbal cues made me even antsier about the show’s conclusion. I knew it led to a good one.

Michael Gore crafted some unusual melodies for this show. Dean Pitchford’s lyrics didn’t make them any easier to sing. Ms. Reynolds’ character had the most challenging. She handled them like a true theatrical professional. She displayed extraordinary ability sustain notes and navigate the leaps.

One also has to credit Ms. Reynolds for what she’s willing to do for her art. Iggy Pop bled for his. Ms. Reynolds showed a lot of dedication to the craft. She took a bucket of fake blood on the top of her head for her own. From my vantage point, the substance appeared viscous like syrup.

Jillian Starr-Renbjor took on the role of Carrie’s mother, Margaret. Mrs. White possessed two personality traits: an overprotective attitude towards her daughter and religious zealotry. Ms. Starr-Renbjor delivered her lines with a calm, cryptic assuredness. Her performance made Margaret the most terrifying character in the show.

I smiled whenever her character took the stage. This show kept building to a climax my 20 times great-grandchildren would talk about.

I enjoyed how Ms. Starr-Renbjor brought an aspect of her own behavior to the role. She delivered some awesome vocal numbers. Her duets with Ms. Reynolds on “Stay Here Instead” and the minatory “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance” made the show much more enjoyable. Ms. Starr-Renbjor’s solo number “When There’s No One” made the production remarkable.

Alix Vitarelli played the closest thing Carrie had to a friend as Sue Snell. Aside from her outstanding singing on tracks such as “Once You See” and superb chemistry with her love interest (played by Evan Brody) she played the most challenging role in the show to perfection.

Throughout Carrie, a spotlight (worked by community theatre legend DJ Hedgepath) would shine on Ms. Vitarelli. A voice would question her on the events leading up to prom night. The performer would tremble and nervously explain what occurred.

One scene transitioned from Ms. Vitarelli speaking in the spotlight to interacting with Mr. Stephens (played by John Romano Jr.) and Miss Gardner (played by Mackenzie Smith). She adjusted from playing an uneasy persona to someone having a normal conversation. That’s not an easy achievement with so little time to alter focus.

Ms. Vitarelli’s character also underwent the most internal change during the show. She started out as one of Carrie’s harassers and developed into an unselfish person with compassion. She portrayed this change very believably.

Danielle Janco played an exceptional villain in the role of Chris Hargenson. She also served as dance captain and co-choreographed the “You Shine” number with Mr. Twigg. As the choreography featured a lot of vitality, she did a marvelous job keeping up the dancers’ intensity until the final curtain.

Some time ago I described the Krier family as “the Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre.” Now, unlike a certain monarchy that’s been in the news lately, South Jersey community theatre has two royal families. Joining Tami and Taylor among the Brody family acting dynasty enter Evan.

Mr. Brody played Ms. Vitarelli’s love interest, Tommy Ross. The character also served as the object of Carrie’s affections. This development enhanced the build-up to the story’s end. I felt so glad I brushed my teeth before going to the theatre. My smile kept getting wider as the conflict built. I kept anticipating a nastier and nastier conclusion.

Mr. Brody delivered an emotional musical rendition of the character’s poem “Dreamer in Disguise.” He also interacted with a variety of types of characters. He played the dutiful boyfriend in his scenes with Ms. Vitarelli. He played ‘one of the guys’ when on-stage with his classmates. He became the empathetic friend when he performed with Ms. Reynolds. Like Ms. Vitarelli’s character, the one Mr. Brody played also experienced a change in his view of Carrie. He portrayed that transition convincingly.

Jim Frazer designed both the set and the lighting; the latter with the aid of Rebekah Macchione.  He combined the two for an eerie effect even before the show started. The illumination made the school gymnasium’s walls appear the color of blood. Yet again, I anticipated a show ending climax for the ages.

Then came the ending. The show contained a literal “blood bath” at the end. I preferred a figurative type. While reminiscent of Hamlet I found the conclusion a colossal disappointment. With all the conflict in the story combined with the themes of anger, cruelty and revenge I anticipated serious retribution at the end. The confrontation ended in mere seconds. I believed that Carrie’s enemies got off pretty easy. She allowed them to suffer exponentially less than the torture they inflicted on her would have warranted.

Aside from that one shortcoming, I found the show outstanding. To the cast I say: “you shine.” I’d also like to credit performers Joey Adams, Mackenzie Smith, John Romano, Jr., Brittany Petti, Shannon Forbes, Dannie Romanuski, Evan Hairston, Gavin Petersen and Luke Szyszkiewicz for their contributions to the production. I’d compliment Musical Director, Deborah Bergen and the live band, as well.

In my final assessment of Carrie: The Musical, I’d tell theatregoers “once you see it” at Burlington County Footlighters, you’ll have “a night we’ll never forget.” “The destruction” of this run occurs soon. You can add it to your “evening prayers”, but there’s no guarantee there will be an “epilogue” to the show’s schedule. So “when there’s no one” to go with you, “do me a favor” and go anyway. You may hope it would “stay here instead”, but you only have until May 19th to see it.

 

*Sister Carrie has been adapted into both a musical (1978) and an opera (2016). For the record neither received the same acclaim that Hamilton did.

Nunsense A-Men at Burlington County Footlighters

I would’ve lost a bet that nuns would make for the most popular topic in South Jersey community theatre this year. When I read that Burlington County Footlighters planned to present Nunsense A-Men this December, I had to question the wisdom of this decision. Three area companies staged productions of Sister Act over the last several months. How could another theatre company hold my attention regarding the topic of holy sisters? I wondered. I can’t say Footlighters surprised me by figuring a means to do so. They selected a show so unusual it would’ve impressed Samuel Beckett. I attended their opening night performance of Nunsense A-Men on December 8th.

Playwright Dan Goggin crafted a veritable trifecta of distinctiveness. Nunsense contained the most imaginative premise, story and setting I’ve encountered. Here goes my best attempt to explain the tale. The cast consisted of five main characters: all nuns played by male actors. The convent’s cook—the comically named Sister Julia, Child of God—served an improperly prepared helping of vichysoisse to the community’s sisters. As a result 52 perished from food poisoning. The surviving nuns raised enough money for the burials. Thinking they had more cash than needed for the task, the Mother Superior wasted some of the funds on pricey home entertainment amenities. This spending spree left the order with only enough means to bury 48 of the nuns. They placed those remaining in the freezer until they could acquire the funds to finish the task. To raise that capital, they decided to host a variety show at the Mount Saint Helen’s school auditorium. They didn’t change the stage set from the school’s eighth grade production of Grease in the background. Add to this mix a series of eccentric characters. Sister Act this wasn’t.

Director Jillian Starr Renbjor selected an A-level cast for Nunsense A-Men. Her choices gave Musical Director Peg Smith and Choreographer Kaitlyn Delengowski some superb talent with which to work.

Matt Maerten took on the role of erstwhile dancer, Sister Mary Leo. This marked the first occasion I’ve watched a ballet routine performed in a community theatre show. Mr. Maerten executed some impressive turns and jumps throughout the evening. One really has to credit a performer for doing so while wearing a dress. He also delivered some excellent singing on “Benedicte.” He crooned a sensational duet with Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on “The Biggest Ain’t the Best.”

John Romano, Jr. played one bad mother of a Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina. He got the comedy started the moment he took the stage. He delivered his first line by speaking with a high voice. After clearing his throat he reverted to his deeper range. I enjoyed his singing on “Turn Up the Spotlight” as well as his pining for his character’s possible past as a tightrope walker. This performer’s highlight came when he presented a witty take on why nuns should avoid anything stronger than coffee. For the record: I was glad you’re character was okay, Mr. Romano. The remainder of the show wouldn’t have been as entertaining without you.

Connor Twigg played Sister Robert Anne: the wannabe Mother Superior. From the passion he injected into that role, he showed just how badly the character wanted it. His strong singing on “I Just Want to Be a Star” made the title ironic. An actor that talented already is one. He delivered great comedy chops with his Carmen Miranda hat and impressions of the Wicked Witch of the West and Idina Menzel. (Again I emphasize just how original this show’s content.) Reprising his superb tap dancing skills I last saw in The Drowsy Chaperone, Mr. Twigg put on his taps while leading the rest of the cast through a soft shoe dance.

DJ Hedgepath…well, the best compliment I can give him is that he delivered a “DJ Hedgepath kind of performance.” After speaking in a slightly high pitched Southern accent all evening, he crooned his character’s yearning ode to Country stardom: “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.” For this show he added the task of “quiz show host” to his repertoire. Mr. Hedgepath conducted a question period with the audience. It takes a great deal of courage for a performer to interact with live spectators. Mr. Hedgepath handled their unscripted responses perfectly; improvising while remaining in character. To prove once more that there’s no activity he can’t handle on stage: he performed opposite a puppet that he operated. His character, Sister Mary Amnesia, may have struggled with her memory. No one who watched his performance in Nunsense will ever forget it.

Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. rounded out the cast as Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices. At first I felt disappointed by the musical material the show presented him. Mr. Thompson delivered his usual outstanding singing. His duets with Mr. Romano and Mr. Marteen served as good examples. The songs, however, didn’t challenge his extraordinary vocal prowess. It turned out he was making the audience wait for his big number. I’ve described Mr. Thompson as one of the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. He belted out an extraordinary performance of the gospel based “Holier than Thou” number. He proved that in terms of vocal ability, he sure is.

Jim Frazer designed a set that well suited the show. The entire time I watched the performance, I felt like I was in a middle school auditorium staging a performance of Grease. I thought the “Greased Lighting” insignia on the car a nice touch. The chalkboard menu across from the 1950s style counter made the setting more authentic, as well. He also designed the lighting. Nunsense featured more illumination adjustments than most shows. At times the house lights went up, in some scenes the stage lights dimmed while in others a character performed in the spotlight. It impressed me that no glitches occurred.

The show’s opening didn’t grab my attention as I would have preferred. At first performers walked about the theatre interacting with the audience. Following that, the characters walked around the stage prattling. It seemed disorganized, but understanding the characters and the premise after watching the whole show, it made sense. The scene did bring me into the world of the story. I still thought the beginning could’ve started with more immediacy.

I wouldn’t have thought that five men dressed as nuns playing in yet another show about holy sisters could keep my focus for an entire evening. I’d normally attribute this to an early Christmas Miracle, but I have to credit phenomenal performances from gifted cast members. To illustrate how well they suspended my disbelief, when MacKenzie Smith took the stage as Sister Mary Meredith Taco, I thought it strange to watch a female performer portray a nun. Now that’s skill.

For those who missed opening weekend, Hallelujah! Nunsense A-Men runs through December 17th at Burlington County Footlighters.

 

Sister Act at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Many South Jersey community theatre fans have attended at least one Sister Act production staged this year. When the Maple Shade Arts Council announced that they’d be producing it this July, I’m sure some asked, “Do we really need another Sister Act show..again?” Well, theatre legend Michael Melvin directed this one. So don’t think of it as “just another Sister Act” show. Think of it as the New Testament. I attended the showing at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium on July 15, 2017.

Since Sister Act has been such a popular show this season, I’ll spare readers the usual plot summary. However, to paraphrase director Michael Melvin, I will report that the cast and crew “put together one hell of a heavenly show.”

Watching Phyllis Josephson take the stage again was a true pleasure. I’ve seen her perform in numerous shows; in fact most recently in Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players. She delivered a rap number in that one, but this is the first time I experienced her ethereal vocal style. I found her emotional rendition of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” very moving.

Ms. Josephson turned in a supreme performance as Mother Superior. She balanced the character’s austere nature while still getting laughs at the proper times. After her passionate rendition of the number mentioned above, she followed it up with a stellar on-liner. She also shared great chemistry with her nemesis, Dolores, played by Danielle Harley-Scott.

Ms. Harley-Scott played a wild free spirit and aspiring disco diva forced to masquerade as a nun. This required some range and she executed the challenge very well. She crooned the upbeat numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby!” with spirit. Later in the show she adjusted and delivered a passionate rendition of “Sister Act.” Maintaining her focus while the lights reflected off her sequined blouse was an achievement in itself. Her comedic attempt to lead the nuns in grace made one of the funniest moments of the show.

In a bit of ironic casting, Darryl Thompson, Jr. played “Sweaty” Eddie. I wrote ironic, because I didn’t notice him sweat all evening. The challenging number “I Could Be That Guy” would’ve given most performers a reason to perspire. Mr. Thompson already earned a reputation as a phenomenal vocalist through his previous work. With that acknowledgement, he sang a version of the song that would’ve impressed Berry Gordy.

Casey Grouser (as Sister Mary Robert) displayed extraordinary talent in this production. This performer possesses the strongest voice I’ve ever heard. The brilliant way she modulated it all evening impressed me. Unlike many singers, Ms. Grouser managed to hit high notes without her voice sounding piping. Ms. Grouser shone in her passionate rendition of “The Life I Never Led.”

In other scenes, Ms. Grouser captured her character’s initial timidity by hugging a book, looking down or quickly shuffling off stage. She believably enacted the character’s transformation into a self-confident person. Her overall performance deftly brought out Sister Mary Robert’s inner feelings.

I called Antonio Flores “brilliantly comical” when he played a gangster in City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters. I delighted in watching him step up into the role of crime lord, Curtis. The witty flair he added to “When I Find My Baby” enhanced the tune’s unusual lyrics.

Lori A. Howard and Vitaliy Kin demonstrated great comedic collaboration. Mr. Kin possesses a unique ability to stand out no matter what role he’s playing. Ask anyone who heard him sing Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish during The Wedding Singer. Listening to him shout in Spanish while Ms. Howard translated became my favorite moment in the show.

Erica Pallucci choreographed some extraordinary high-energy dancing. Casey Grouser, Gina Petti and MacKenzie Smith put on a clinic. There’s no question the choreographer deserves some credit for the routines. I’m just thinking these dancers found a lot of inspiration from the funky moves Mr. Melvin showcased when he played TJ this January.

The way Sister Act combined comedy, singing and dancing in the same scenes made it distinct. Matt Maerten, Evan Hairston and Vitaliy Kin combined their talents for the “Lady in the Long Black Dress” number. It made for an unforgettable scene.

I’d also credit performers Jillian Starr-Renbjor, Brian Blanks, Debra Heckmann, Andrea Veneziano William Smith and the ensemble for their comedic and vocal contributions to this stellar production.

The live band made the show even more special. Cameron Stringham did an excellent job coordinating the music. It sounded spectacular without overshadowing the vocals.

One of the advantages we community theatre critics enjoy is the opportunity to interact with influential people. I’ve had the privilege to sit next to famous performers, directors and producers at various shows I’ve attended. The Maple Shade Arts Council took this perk to a whole new level. Michael Melvin occupied the next seat over from me when he played Pius VI. (I give him credit for staying in character while doing so.) So this time, I got to sit next to the director, the organization’s president and a Pope. Now I’ve made it as a writer!

So do we really need another version of Sister Act in South Jersey? After watching the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production, an emphatic YES answers that question. This performance contained phenomenal singing, dancing and acting. Just perhaps, a series of Sister Act Two shows may be a welcome addition to the 2017 – 2018 theatrical season. For now, fans can see the original at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium through July 22.