Matthew Gallagher

The Lion in Winter at the Ritz Theatre Company

The Ritz Theatre Company selected an appropriate play for the second show of its 35th season. The production combined the viciousness and devious nature of COVID-19, the blood sport of the Democratic Presidential primaries and the perils associated with the Ides of March. That’s quite a trifecta for a story that took place in 1183. Dr. Elisabeth Hostetter directed James Goldman’s take on courtly manipulations and machinations: The Lion in Winter. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, March 7th performance.

While approaching the Ritz Theatre, your correspondent became nostalgic for the elaborate Holiday display that decorated the building in December. The company managed to keep the spirit of the season alive with the set. As the action in Lion in Winter occurred between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the trappings of a Medieval Holiday celebration filled the stage. The festivities during this Yuletide celebration, however, would not be merry ones, however.

Fifty-year old King Henry II (played by John Jackowski) Plantagenet realized he no longer possessed the energy of a young man: as he explained to his 23-year old mistress Alais Capet (played by Elizabeth Darrell). He needed to select a successor from among his three surviving sons to maintain his kingdom. The oldest, Richard (Michael J. Pliskin) had a strong disposition. Geoffrey (Jack Sharkey) possessed keen intelligence. John was a fatuous lad of 16 with a fondness for drink.

To add to the complications, Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Judy Morris) sought vengeance against her husband. Their marriage had suffered since he imprisoned her for the previous decade. Showing that he had some heart, the king allowed his estranged queen to visit the family for Christmas. Through a series of reindeer games involving each of her sons, she conspired to destroy Henry’s aspirations.

The Plantagenet family’s Holiday guest, King Phillip II (Robert Repici) compounded the intrigue. In a bit of a twist on Napoleon Bonaparte’s maxim that, “When your enemy is destroying himself, don’t do anything to distract him,” this monarch created many more diversions.

The Lion in Winter would show Machiavelli that even his ideas could get taken to extremes. Every character had his/her own personal agenda that he/she pursued without impunity. All of them showed an uncanny ability to agree with the last person with whom he/she spoke. With all these similar personalities, the performers still gave their characters their own unique personalities.

John Jackowski brought both Henry’s strengths and weaknesses to the stage. While dragging his leg as he walked, he still carried a commanding presence. Mr. Jackowski balanced the demands of appointing a successor to rule an empire with the challenges of being a father. After imprisoning his wife, he still showed Henry’s respect for her. As ruthless as Henry conducted himself, Mr. Jackowski displayed his human side. His discussion with Ms. Darrell about staring a family of their own served as the most poignant example of this quality.

Judy Morris’ stage presence reflected both the queen’s dignity and her drive for retribution against her husband. She expressed her lines with the elocution of royalty. Yet, her tone contained palpable vitriol. Ms. Morris also showed Eleanor’s frustration when her plans failed. A desire to “win” motivated her character. She even sought to enlist her husband’s mistress in her machinations. Only a love of her family tempered her determination to punish her husband.

Ms. Morris performed an outstanding scene with Jack Sharkey. The two performers showed that issues beyond power politics plagued the family. As Geoffrey, Mr. Sharkey confronted Ms. Morris about his childhood. He explained that she and the king treated him with indifference during his upbringing. This scene provided some much-needed humanization for the Plantagenet family.

Robert Repici played King Phillip II as a cunning conniver. In a brilliant scene opposite Michael J. Pliskin, Mr. Repici showed just how calculating Philip could be. Mr. Pliskin expressed his character’s tender feelings towards Philip. The clever way he and Mr. Repici slowed down their conversation enhanced the scene’s impact. Mr. Repici later explained to Henry that he behaved as he did with Richard in order to annoy the king.

When each of the king’s sons asked for Philip’s assistance, he agreed to aid their efforts to secure the crown. When they realized that all of them approached Philip with the same request, Mr. Repici sat back in his chair sporting an impish grin. He seemed as entertained as the audience watching Henry and his sons attack one another for their scheming.

Mr. Repici performed another excellent display of Philip’s ruthlessness. Ms. Darrel implored him to stop her wedding to one of Henry’s sons. “I’m your sister,” she yelled. Mr. Repici gently stroked her face and then thrust her towards the altar.

Elizabeth Darrell’s character served as a pawn in the Plantagenet’s family’s myriad manipulations. By the end of the story Alais Capet transitioned into an uncouth political practitioner herself. Ms. Darrel made her character’s change credible.

Joseph Colasante showed the essence of the crown’s heir apparent: John. Adopting the diction of a spoiled child, he whined about his right to ascend to the throne. After developing an intense passion for brandy wine, he stumbled about the stage like a drunkard.

Jackie Spence designed stellar costuming for this production. The purple shirt with the fleur-de-lis Mr. Repici wore befitted a French monarch. Mr. Jackowski’s red robe enhanced his royal persona. Their crowns also appeared authentic. Ms. Morris’ green blouse with golden embroidery aided in transforming her into a Medieval monarch.

Matthew Gallagher managed the sound design. Matthew Weil served as the Lighting Designer. Alyssa DeLuca stage managed. Nathan Kunst worked as the show’s Technical Director. Melissa Harnois managed the properties. Bruce A. Curless served as the Producing Artistic Director.

With all the intrigue, family issues, and relentless ambition, The Lion in Winter will appeal to fans of films such as The Godfather and Goodfellas. Those with an interest in Dr. Henry Kissinger’s tomes on realpolitik will find it enjoyable, as well. The show runs through March 22nd. With the amount of conflict in this story, it’s doubtful this lion will go out like a lamb.

The Wiz at the Ritz Theatre Company

While many in South Jersey lamented not seeing some individuals with no heart, no brain and no guts wearing green this weekend, The Ritz Theatre Company provided an outlet. They treated audiences to a rhythm and blues infused extravaganza down the Yellow Brick Road and into the Emerald City compliments of The Wiz. Your correspondent attended the November 9th performance. Kyrus Keenan Westcott directed.

L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz inspired this musical. It’s unlikely that Baum anticipated the story presented as a dance extravaganza accompanied by the funky soul music of the 1970s. William F. Brown’s and Charlie Smalls’ concept worked, however. Perhaps the Hamilton of its day, The Wiz premiered in 1974 with an all African American cast.

 The Wiz described an amazing journey. Following an argument with her Aunt Em (played by Danielle Harley-Scott), Dorothy (played by Olivia West) longed to escape from Kansas. A wind storm then came through town transporting her to a place called Oz. Upon arrival, Dorothy then longed to return to her Kansas home. A group of Munchkins suggested she visit the Emerald City and ask The Wiz (Darryl Thompson, Jr.) for advice.

While traveling along the Yellow Brick Road she encountered a trio of interesting characters. They included a Scarecrow (Kyle Smith), a Tin Man (Malik Muhammad) and a Lion (Craig Bazan). As these individuals also needed The Wiz’s assistance with their problems, they accompanied her. Upon meeting him, he offered to help, but on the condition they first kill Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. (Danielle Harley-Scott) The four companions’ journey had only just begun.

Devon Sinclair performed exceptional choreography for this show. The mesmerizing dance sequences included groups of Tornados, Monkeys, Poppies as well as other members of the cast. Mr. Sinclair arranged stellar moves for these entertaining scenes. The ensemble impressed by executing them so well.

Olivia West’s acting made Dorothy a very easy character with whom to empathize. Ms. West accentuated this trait through her singing. She delivered moving numbers such as “Soon as I Get Home” and the “Finale” beautifully. Her duet with the Lion (Craig Bazan) on “Be a Lion” was also very touching. The performer showed the same vocal proficiency when singing upbeat numbers such as the iconic “Ease on Down the Road.”

Kyle Smith approached the role of the Scarecrow with a lot of intelligence. His raggedy costume (designed by Yu’seph Cornish) made his character appear very authentic. Mr. Smith added further realism to the role with the way he wobbled while walking. He also sang a marvelous rendition of “Born on the Day Before Yesterday.”

Malik Muhammad put his heart into playing the Tin Man. Mr. Muhammad performed fantastic dance moves. He impressed by doing so in such an elaborate costume. The sparkles he wore in his beard complimented it very well. The axe he carried seemed symbolic of the outstanding vocal chops he delivered all evening. His warm voice well suited “Slide Some Oil to Me” and “What Would I Do if I Could Feel.”

Craig Bazan showed a lot of courage taking on the role of the Lion. In addition to strong dancing and vocal skills, Mr. Bazan displayed a strong aptitude for comedy. He played a hysterical scene when enticed by the Poppies. His delivery on the ironically titled “Mean Ole Lion” made the song much more comical.

The title of “The Wiz” would well suit Darryl Thompson, Jr. even better than the character he played. Once again Mr. Thompson, Jr. showcased the wizardry of his voice for theatre fans. Mr. Thompson, Jr. sang an inspirational version of “Believe in Yourself.” He also performed “Meet the Wizard” so powerfully that it would’ve have been just as easy to hear him without a microphone.

 1970s Oz experienced a bigger witch infestation problem than Salem did during the late seventeenth century. All three of Oz’s enchantresses put the audience under a spell. They achieved it through their vocal charms. Siiyara Nelson played Addaperle, April Johnson performed Glinda, and Danielle Harley-Scott took on the role of Evillene.

The ensemble included performers: April Johnson, John Clark, Terrance T Hart, Dhameer Kennedy, Shakeer Hood, Rafi Mills, Kiara Johnson, Zoe Holmes, Melanie Camille, Breyona Coleman and Mikaela Rada.

The production team comprised: Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott, Vocal Director Michelle Foster, Costume Designer Yu’seph Cornish, Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher and Set and Light Designer Chris Miller.

Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott wrote in the playbill:

 …I don’t want you to think of this as “the black version of The Wizard of Oz.” I think this story and these characters and this music deserve so much more than that notion. While it does tell the story through the eyes and musicality of African Americans, it speaks a universal language that everybody can enjoy.

That’s so true. A tale of someone struggling to overcome obstacles on a quest to find “home” is one that all people can understand. The Wiz’s powerful message of believing in one’s self resonates with everyone.

The Wiz works its magic through November 24th. After that, it’s back to Kansas for the Ritz Theatre Company; well, make that Haddon Township’s Arts District.

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.

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.

Ritz Big Fish 05

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.