Matthew Gallagher

The Apple Tree at the Ritz Theatre Company

The Ritz Theatre welcomed the summer with The Apple Tree; an eclectic hybrid of three diverse tales woven into one coherent musical. Director Bruce A. Curless took theatregoers along this marvelous journey. He gave the audience both a sweet and bitter taste in the characters’ quests for literal and metaphorical fruits. I attended the opening night performance on June 7th.

Oscar Wilde once noted:

The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what it’s monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.

The Apple Tree applied this premise to the stage. This musical received multiple Tony Award nominations in 1967. Barbara Harris won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in the show.

A creative story line wove the three acts together. The playwrights titled Act I “The Diary of Adam and Eve.” Jerome Coopersmith used Mark Twain’s stories “The Diary of Adam and Eve” and “Eve’s Diary” as its source material. Jerome Brock and Sheldon Harnick crafted the next two acts. Philadelphia native Frank R. Stockton’s tale regarding the perils of forbidden love “The Lady or the Tiger?” served as inspiration for the second. Jules Feiffer’s twentieth century twist on the Cinderella story, “Passionella”, comprised the third act.

The Ritz presented this show using their famous “in the round” format. The company arranged the seating in four sections on the Ritz stage. It allowed the actors and audience members to develop a closer rapport with one another.

The ensemble (Giacomo Fizzano, Hannah Hobson, Robert Repici and Alexa Wilder) and the snake (Ellen Sheinkin) drew the audience into the story at the very beginning. With Tiara Knock’s superb choreography and Musical Director Roger Sheinkin’s solo piano in the background, the company recreated the dawn of creation. The ensemble all wore theatrical masks as they danced about the stage. Standing across from one another they elevated a large white cloth then lowered it upon the platform. They removed it to reveal Adam (Joe Grasso).

It’s amazing that a story this complex only required seven cast members to perform it; and perform it they did. The show’s structure required all the actors to play multiple roles.

Daniella DeFassio played the roles of Eve, Barbara, and Passionella. Ms. DeFassio performed each of these diverse characters with equal skill. Her beautiful vocals well suited the catchy melodies on “Friends” and “What Makes Me Love Him.” The performer added humor to the jealous Barbara. The congested voice she used for Passionella added to the character’s appeal.

Joe Grasso took on the roles of Adam, Sanjar and Flip/Prince Charming. Mr. Grasso showed great skill through his expression of Adam’s bad jokes in a way that made the audience laugh. He performed a witty song and dance routine with Ms. DeFassio on “Forbidden Love (in Gaul).” He showcased excellent vocal skills on “Beautiful, Beautiful World” and “Eve.”

Mr. Grasso and Ms. DeFassio performed an outstanding finale together on “George L.” The two showed excellent chemistry as they explored their characters’ inner natures. They captured the plot twist and surprise ending beautifully.

Ellen Sheinkin played both the Snake and the Balladeer. Ms. Sheinkin delivered a powerful performance with Ms. DeFassio during the temptation scene. The performer also exhibited fantastic vocals with her renditions of “The Apple Tree (Forbidden Fruit)” and “I’ll Tell You a Truth.”

After shedding her snake costuming during an on-stage quick change, Ms. Sheinkin transitioned into a spectacular Balladeer. Her story telling prowess enhanced “The Lady or The Tiger?” and “Passionella.”

The ensemble performed wonderful singing and dancing. Under the tutelage of Vocal Director Kristy Jo Swanson and Choreographer Tiara Knock, they delivered engaging routines. My favorite occurred during the “Which Door?” number in Act II. The vocal harmonies combined with the performers’ locations at different parts of the stage created an interesting stereo effect.

Robert Repici performed the role of King Arik. Mr. Repici delivered outstanding bass vocals throughout the second act. Mr. Repici informed me that he has a background in mime so hasn’t focused on singing in theatrical productions until now. He shone in this opportunity.

I’d also like to credit Alexa Wilder for her portrayal of a Fairy Godmother. The Bronx accent she adopted for the role made it memorable.

The show included an extensive production crew. In addition to directing, Mr. Curless managed costumes and props. Matthew Gallagher designed the sound, Matthew Weil designed the lighting and worked as production manager, Melissa Harnois stage managed with the assistance of Brian Gensel and Brennan Diorio.

The Apple Tree took theatregoers on a musical exploration of love and temptation. It also proved the old cliché about life imitating art. Anyone tempted to see it will love it. The Apple Tree will bear fruit at the Ritz Theatre Company through June 23rd.

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Big Fish at the Ritz Theatre Company

“Be the hero of your story,” Edward Bloom (played by Chris Monaco) told his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri). Edward had quite a tale to tell. It included a witch (Rachel Klien), a mermaid (Lauren Bristow) and a giant (Jared Paxson) along with some memorable human characters; one of whom suffered from lycanthropy (Anthony Joseph Magnotta). Big Fish followed this fabulous fabulist of a father as his son Will (Frankie Rowles) endeavored to discover the man behind the myths. Director Matt Reher along with the cast and crew at the Ritz Theatre took the audience along this magical journey. I attended the May 8th performance.

At the beginning, playwright John August and songwriter Andrew Lippa gave the audience a sense of the evening they could expect. The “Be the Hero” track included a section where Edward Bloom described his unconventional approach to fishing. Calling it the “Alabama Stomp,” Mr. Monaco led the ensemble through a percussive dance routine. Fish leapt out of the water in response to it.

It’s quite a challenge to dance and sing at the same time. Big Fish added a tricky third element by requiring performers to catch large fish thrown from off stage. The cast executed this task without flaw.

The Ritz provided extraordinary atmospherics for this show. In the prelude to the “I Know What You Want” number, Technical Director Connor Profitt transformed the theatre into an eerie swamp. As Edward and his friends searched for the witch, the cricket sounds, dim lighting and smoke made it easy for me to suspend my disbelief.

Lauren Bristow’s solo dancing contained excellent choreography by Devon Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair also coordinated more elaborate routines that included the cast and ensemble; the best comprised the witch’s “I Know What You Want”, “Little Lamb from Alabama” and “Closer to Her.”

Aside from the fantastical elements, Big Fish contained a very “human” story. Edward (Chris Monaco) liked to relate the events of his life through fictitious tales. He described his and his wife Sandra’s (Megan Ruggles) courtship in hyper-romantic terms; as shown through the “Closer to Her” and “Daffodils” numbers. He entertained his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri) with stories containing a message. An encounter with a witch (Rachel Klein) taught him not to fear death. A mermaid (Lauren Bristow) showed him that love changes a person.

Young Will’s frustration with his father’s tale telling became hostile when he reached adulthood. His wife Josephine (Jamie Talamo) encouraged him to seek the lessons hidden in Edward’s stories. Upon receiving news of his father’s illness, Will (Frankie Rowles) sought to traverse the metaphorical river between them. When Will discovered that his father co-signed a mortgage for his high school sweetheart’s (Jenny Hill played by Colleen Murphy) home, he confronted his father.

Chris Monaco made his Ritz Mainstage debut in the lead role. He captured the upbeat nature of Edward’s personality along with his frustration with Will’s focus on “truth.” Mr. Monaco showed the depth of the character’s affection for Sandra in his scenes with Mrs. Ruggles. And most important: the man could tell a story.

Frankie Rowles played an excellent antagonist to Mr. Monaco. He concretized Will’s own annoyance with his father and his “tall tales.” Mr. Rowles conveyed that sentiment in song through a powerful rendition of “Stranger.” Without giving away spoilers, I will write that the performer enacted his character’s change in a believable fashion.

Big Fish contained beautiful music. Mr. Monaco performed a pining rendition of “Time Stops.” Megan Ruggles and members of the ensemble performed the quick dance moves from “Little Lamb from Alabama” in slow motion. Ms. Ruggles bashful vocals complimented the longing in Mr. Monaco’s.

Act One ended with “Daffodils.” The title referred to Sandra’s favorite flower. Mr. Monaco’s character proceeded to remove one-at-a-time from a bag while serenading Ms. Ruggles. The two performers captured the essence of the following exchange in song.

Sandra: You don’t even know me.

Will: I have the rest of my life to find out.  

Ms. Ruggles delivered a heart rending version of “I Don’t Need a Roof.” To add to the song’s mood, she cradled Mr. Monaco in her lap as she sang. Her performance made this scene the most touching moment of the show. With so many touching moments in Big Fish, this is a noteworthy achievement.

Moira Miller added superb costuming to this production. It enhanced the visual spectacle. From the country folk of Ashton, Alabama to the mystical figures the attire reflected each character’s personality.

Will’s clothing showed the iconoclastic nature of the man underneath it. He wore a jacket and tie to his son’s wedding reception along with a pair of khakis. His son dressed in a traditional suit. The attire displayed the variance in the two characters’ personalities.

The costumes the witch, the mermaid and the giant wore showed remarkable creativity. The witch’s included a pattern that resembled the surface of a cobra’s skin. The gold texture on the ringmaster (Amos Calloway played by Anthony Joseph Magnotta) costume glittered under the lights.

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Chris Monaco and Ensemble

In homage to Edward’s fondness for hyperbole, I write that Big Fish contained enough props to fit in a small warehouse. While a bit of an exaggeration, it’s absolute fact that Melissa Harnois did an excellent work managing all these items. As the set (designed by William Bryant) included Edward’s attic, it contained a lot of miscellany.

Malik Muhammad, AJ Love, Chantel Cumberbatch and Meredith Meghan completed the ensemble.

Hillary Kurtz executed Chris Miller’s lighting design without flaw. Matthew Gallagher managed the sound design. Brian Bacon served as Musical Director.

With a great message, fantastical characters and superb musical numbers, Big Fish made for one entertaining evening of theatre going. Director Matt Reher wrote: Truth is not the same as fact. Regarding my assessment of Big Fish, they are.

Big Fish runs through May 19th at the Ritz Theatre Company.