Matt Maerten

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.

 

24 Hour Play Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

How’s this for a challenge? You and a group of your fellow performers arrive at the theatre. Someone hands you a hat. From it you select first a genre, then a prop, during the third round a character, after that a task, and finally a style of delivery. Then you’re given a line that must appear in the play. You and your team then have 24 hours to write an original dramatic work based on the criteria you selected. Once the time runs out, you and your team will perform the play to a live audience. Now who would have the courage to attempt this?

Well, on February 23rd, a select group of 14 brave performers accepted this dare. They chose to participate in Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage’s Sixth Annual 24 Hour Theatre Festival on February 24th. The three teams they assembled treated an audience to superb performances. They followed these shows with some outstanding improv.

The teams presented remarkable writing. All the plays included compelling characters, conflict and plot twists; that quite an achievement for works written less than a day before show time.

The one unifying factor in all the plays included the use of the line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” All the teams worked around the difficulty of applying a statement written in the present tense to their stories.

The team called the Space Cadets opened the evening’s festivities. The troupe consisted of performers Kelly Deeny, Pat Frazer, Tim Kirk, Kathy Smith and Chrissy Wick. They presented an interstellar speed dating play called “What Planet Are You From?” The group interpolated characters from some popular space themed films, a lovelorn woman…and a cat. Even with only 24 hours’ notice to put the show together, they still engaged in some creative casting. It seemed appropriate that the gentleman named Kirk took the lead in a sci-fi story.

The Space Cadets were tasked with writing a science fiction play that included the use of an overhead projector, a character who rapped whenever speaking, and the use of “positions.” The players received instructions to deliver their lines “seductively.”

The Sutter Home Girls comprised the next team to take the stage. Its members included Angel Ezell, Carla Ezell, Tasha Holmes, Nina Law and Eylis Skamarakas. Their “Not Going Home for Christmas” show featured a melodramatic take on a group session at a mental health institution. Their assignment included use of a Christmas tree, one character who only spoke in Disney lyrics, a character who used a hula hoop the entire play and a “sweet” delivery.

I liked how they began and ended their show the same way by lighting the Christmas tree. It also impressed me how, in spite of the play’s brevity, Tasha Holmes even managed to work in a couple of costume changes.

The Chun-Kay team rounded out the evening. Members DJ Hedgepath, Stephen Jackson, Matt Maerten and Darryl Thompson presented “The Transfigured Night” in the mystery/detective genre. To craft this whodunit they received direction to use a foot measurer, include a clown as a character, and to deliver five tongue twisters excitedly.

The latter instruction served as a starting point for this group. Almost every line Mr. Thompson spoke included at least one. Even with the limited rehearsal time, he expressed the dialog clearly and without tripping over his words.

Footlighters 2nd Stage put on a much better triple bill than I expected. All the teams wrote strong scripts. Every performer sounded much more prepared than the rehearsal time allowed.

Then the real ‘improv’ portion of the program commenced. At the beginning of the show, the master of ceremonies, Gaby Affleck, asked audience members to give ideas for ‘quirky’ characters. The players then drew these suggestions from a hat.

First, the performers put on a version of a dating game. The bachelorette, Chrissy Wick, asked questions of three actors who took on the ‘quirky’ roles. Ms. Wick received the task of guessing the character’s description.  Eylis Skamarakas took on the role of a Wookie with laryngitis, Angel Ezell played a pilot who hated to fly, and Kelly Deeny performed as doctor with a case of the giggles.

Some performers as well as some daring audience members participated in the hat game. Individuals put on comical hats and then gave a brief talk as though making a dating video.

The ‘improv’ section concluded with a party scene. DJ Hedgepath played the host tasked with identifying the quirky character each guest played. Stephen Jackson performed as an angry bartender, Tim Kirk acted the role of a child learning to count, and Darryl Thompson acted the role of a disgruntled priest.

I’d also give kudos to Gaby Affleck and Jim Frazer for the professional way they ran the evening’s events.

The performers played eclectic roles extremely well and with very little preparation. That demonstrated the level of talent they all possess. While both funny and entertaining, I’d classify the evening as inspiring above all else. They proved that American ingenuity thrives in the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

 

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.