Mary Simrin

The Doll: A Magical Christmas at the Village Playbox

What do you do when a Broadway producer tells you your show needs “a hook”? Local playwright Rob Kristie received this advice in response to his touching tale The Doll. The show already contained compelling characters and a strong soundtrack. Just what kind of “hook” did it lack? To incorporate the producer’s suggestion, Mr. Kristie transformed the piece into a “magical” Christmas show.

Appropriately, the Village Playbox launched the Holiday Season on Black Friday. This November 29th the company presented Mr. Kristie’s The Doll: A Magical Christmas. Your correspondent attended this opening night performance.

Samantha Flannery (played by Amanda Rose Kipila) felt alone and isolated due to her blindness. Samantha’s mother, Ann (played by Mary Simrin) provided her only companionship. After the grand opening of his new store, also called Grand Opening!, Adam Barter (Doug Cohen) presented Samantha with a doll that she named Flopsy (Gracie Sokoloff). The latter came to life and encouraged Samantha to experience life. Adam found himself interested in Ann, a widow.

Mr. Kristie and John Blackwell co-directed this outstanding Christmas spectacle. The directors employed a unique means of drawing the spectators into the show at the beginning. Cast members threw “snowballs” into the audience. Those fortunate enough to catch one received a complimentary Christmas ornament. Without giving away spoilers, they crafted an even more spectacular finale.

Vocal Director Mark Kozachyn worked with a host of diverse styles presented by Mr. Kristie’s songwriting. The cast provided him with a lot of talent to guide.

The Neighborhood Children performed as a wonderful acapella chorus on “Children’s Carol.” Doug Cohen and Mary Simrin sang a bossa nova tinged duet on “Completed Day.” Ms. Simrin performed an acapella track on “Any Completed Day.” Mr. Cohen sang a passionate reflection on the true meaning of the Holiday with “Just Like Christmas.”

Because of the range of genres the soundtrack contains, The Doll will appeal to a wide variety of musical tastes. Mary Simrin executed the complexities of “Don’t Take My Time” brilliantly. This majestic song featured a melody in 12/8 time with a bass line that would please both Bootsy Collins and George Clinton. The “2-4” duet performed by Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sokoloff included flamenco style muted guitar strumming a la Jimi Hendrix performed on a 12- string acoustic.  Ms. Sokoloff sang the synthesizer driven “If You Can Imagine.” The performer’s vocals captured the song’s 1980s vibe. Ms. Kipila navigated the disco portions of “Why Can’t I” like an authentic 70s diva.

Perhaps for the first time in the history of musical theatre, a songwriter was influenced by the music of the Drifters. This reviewer heard references to the bass line for “Under the Boardwalk” in “I Really Don’t Care” and “Completed Day.”

Amanda Rose Kipila played an outstanding Samantha. Ms. Kipila possesses a beautiful voice. It complimented Mr. Kristie’s lyrics and melodies on tracks such as “I Really Don’t Care” and “I Don’t Know.” The performer also showed exceptional acting prowess. Ms. Kipila captured Samantha feelings towards a range of experiences such as her loneliness and her surprise upon discovering that Flopsy talked. Ms. Kipila made her character’s change appear realistic.

Gracie Sokoloff applied a lot of energy to her performance as Flopsy. She made the character very likable. Ms. Sololoff “broke the fourth wall” to introduce Scene 3 of Act 2. The performer engaged the audience with great charm, wit and enthusiasm. She maintained that engaging persona throughout the entire show.

Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sololoff complimented one another very well. The former played the character timid about experiencing life. The latter performed as an upbeat free spirit with a zeal for life. The two enacted the conflict very credibly.

Stevie Rose Gerhart coordinated outstanding choreography. The opening number featured the neighborhood children singing while performing an intricate dance routine on “Christmas Time.” Ms. Sokoloff’s effort at showing Ms. Kipila how to dance on “I’ll Lead the Way” became one of the show’s most enjoyable scenes.

Production Teams at the Village Playbox optimize the space allotted to them. When performing at the First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights, they transformed the stage into the world of Dr. Seuss for Seussical. The quick set-changes they executed during the intermissions for Noises Off! will go down in the annals of South Jersey theatrical lore. They proved they could show the same creativity when performing at the Fellowship Methodist Church a few blocks from that venue.

The set created fantastic ambiance. Set designers Paul Becker and Gary Kochey (and the cast members who helped construct it) converted a small stage into the front of the Flannery home, both the inside and outside of Grand Opening!, the exterior of candy store South Street Sweets, a hospital room and a bedroom. They also allowed for Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sokoloff to perform a scene in silhouette from behind a shade.

The sparse use of Christmas lights on the stage worked very well. They allowed the audience to understand that the story occurred during the Holiday Season. They weren’t so prominent that they distracted the audience from the action on stage. The intermittent lighting of the Christmas tree to house right enhanced the mood perfectly. Compliments to Jack Bozzuffi for his work on the sound and lights and Gary Kochey as the light operator.

Other members of the cast included: Mia Grace, Karen Smith, Lisa Aliquo, Chrissy Luther, Gregory Furman, Colin Becker, Michael Mellor, Emily Joyce Kipila, Sophia Izabella Vaughn and Lily Allen.

The Production Crew comprised of: Producer Steve Allen, Costumer, Props and spot light operator Leslie Romanuski, Denise Lallier and Rob Kristie handled props, Stage Manager Paul Becker, and Stage Crew Angela Becker.

The Doll: A Magical Christmas will hook audiences. This performance can be summarized in one word: smileicious. The show runs through December 8th at the Village Playbox.

 

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Friday the 13th theatregoers got lucky. Haddonfield Plays and Players decided to present a witty take on some dirty rotten scoundrels. There may not be honor among thieves, but they sure displayed some pretty good acting, singing and dancing chops. I attended the opening night performance on July 13th.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels told the story of aging con-man Lawrence Jameson (played by Chris Fitting). Accompanied by his assistant, police Inspector Andre Thibault (Kacper Miklus), he took on the guise of a fictitious prince. He travelled the Riviera swindling women. During one con he encountered Freddie Benson (Sidney (Syd) Manfred Maycock III). The latter aspired to a life of chicanery but struggled to get his start. He asked Jameson to teach him the art of the craft.

Initially reluctant, Jameson discovered that one of his marks, the gun toting Jolene Oakes, (Lauren Elisabeth) already arranged their wedding. Facing an exile to the prairies of Oklahoma Jameson reconsidered the novice’s offer. The two teamed up on a comical skit to dissuade her. Then the partnership deteriorated.

The two made a deal. Whoever could swindle the next wealthy woman they met for $50,000 could remain in the area. The loser would leave town. Enter the “soap girl”, Christine Colgate (Kristina Coia). As they utilized some creative hijinks to win the challenge, both men found themselves falling in love with her.

I’ll avoid giving away spoilers. I will note that the script contained outstanding use of foreshadowing. Author Jeffrey Lane and lyricist David Yazbek used it with great subtlety, but it all made sense at the story’s conclusion: and what a conclusion! The ending contained plot twists that rivaled the Saw movies finales.

This show gets my Sienkiewicz Award. This honor comes from a line in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: “I wish it had been worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (directed by Ryk Lewis) impressed me that much.

Chris Fitting cemented his reputation as the sharpest dressed man in South Jersey community theatre. There’s only performance I’ve seen where Mr. Fitting didn’t wear either a suit or a tuxedo. It’s refreshing that even in the modern era some people still find it appropriate to dress up for a night at the theatre.

The wardrobe aside Mr. Fitting’s style of performing puts him in a unique class. The aristocratic tone with the hint of a British accent suited his character brilliantly. He also displayed exceptional skill in adding an Austrian accent to it when his character played the doctor from Vienna.

Mr. Fitting executed some complex song and dance numbers flawlessly. I enjoyed his somber rendition of the ballad, “Love Sneaks In.” Through this tune he added an unexpected dimension to the con-man’s personality. He performed this adjustment in a believable manner.

Syd Maycock possesses a genius for comedy. His befuddled facial expressions while Ms. Koia sang “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True” were just as superb as her singing. He made it obvious he couldn’t believe the things she said. When she prodded him to continue the song, he stumbled over lyrics like he was hearing them for the first time.

When trying to deceive Ms. Coia’s character into giving him the money Mr. Maycock utilized a tender voice of his own. The way he exaggerated it made the inflection hysterical.

His best number occurred when he performed “Great Big Stuff.” Ryk Lewis’ choreography turned it into an awesome song and dance routine with the ensemble. After a performance like this some great big stuff is in store for Mr. Maycock.

Kristina Coia wins the first ever Sienkiewicz Award for Best Actress. Ms. Coia pulled off the most ingenious character transformation I’ve ever seen, heard or read. I won’t give it away as it would ruin the experience for those unfamiliar with the story. Ms. Coia enacted the change in a way that will still surprise audiences.

Aside from revolutionizing the concept of character transformations, Ms. Coia also displayed exceptional vocal capability. She selected the proper voice to sing her character’s songs. Ms. Coia’s soft, tender vocals worked very well on numbers such as “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True.”

These three thespians complimented each other wonderfully. The “Ruffhousin’ Mit Shuffhausen” made for the show’s highpoint. Mr. Fitting attempted to win the bet by forcing Mr. Maycock to admit he could feel below his waist. Mr. Fitting made this effort while singing, dancing and hitting him on the thighs with a cane. Mr. Maycock’s expressions and strained denials were impeccable. Ms. Coia’s concern and naïveté added the perfect enhancement to the scene.

I’m familiar with Gina Petti’s skill as a dancer. Ms. Petti displayed it often in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I’d never heard the performer’s singing skills. The show provided the opportunity. As Muriel Ms. Petti performed lovely renditions of “What Was a Woman to Do” and the “Like Zis/Like Zat” reprise.

Kacper Miklus delivered and sang his lines in a perfect French accent. He joined Ms. Petti for the duet “Like Zis/Like Zat” and crooned the solo “Chimp in a Suit.” He got laughs trying to play the suave suitor to Ms. Petti while struggling to ignite a cigarette with an empty lighter.

Jennifer Gordon choreographed the “Oklahoma?” routine. This one combined elaborate dancing with comedy. Lauren Elizabeth led the ensemble through one rockin’ hoedown.

I would also credit performers Mary Simrin, Julieann Calabrese, Tony Yates, Sarah Blake, Jen Stefan, Rebecca Dilks, Sheila M. Haswell, Andrea Veneziano, Briant Lopez, Ryan Fanelli, and Robert Haggerty for their contributions to the performance.

I had some minor issues with the script. The show broke fourth wall a few times. Most notably when Jolene informed Lawrence that she arranged their wedding, he asked, “Did I miss a scene?”

I also couldn’t tell when the story occurred. The script contained references to Bob Guccione, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump; the latter because of his wealth. As the movie of the same name released in 1988, I figured it took place during the 1980s. Then Lawrence made a joke alluding to George W. Bush. I found this inconsistent.

In the “Give Them What They Want” number, Lawrence added, “then you leave them wanting more.” The cast and crew of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels did just that. The same song borrowed a line from John Keats’ Endymion:  “Truth is beauty.” It may be, but it’s not as beautiful as this performance. If you don’t believe me you have until August 3rd to determine for yourself.