Matthew Weil

The Music Man at The Ritz Theatre Company

The Music Man at The Ritz Theatre Company experienced an opening night that has entered into annals of South Jersey theatrical lore.

On June 11th torrential rain and mass flooding plagued the South Jersey area. The Ritz’s building even lost a portion of its power. In response to the audience’s chants of “the show must go on”, the company continued the show.

The audience still went “batty” over the performance; one spectator did so literally. A winged creature of the order chiroptera entered the theatre. After it settled into a comfortable location to enjoy the show the performance continued.

Shortly afterwards all the power went out. The Ritz crew aided the audience in evacuating the building. That bat must have been one rabid theatre fan. It refused to leave.

The distinguished critic and theatrical maven Amber Kushing attended this performance. Ms. Kushing wrote: If the show was that good with less than half the production elements and a bat trying to steal the spotlight, I can’t wait to see the show in its full glory.

I had the opportunity to witness The Music Man “in its full glory” on Saturday, July 20th. Fans, let me tell you: that bat had some good theatre on its radar.

Katie Knoblock directed Meredith Wilson’s musical depiction of Professor Harold Hill’s (played by Matthew Weil) machinations. The “professor” worked as a con man. Set in 1912, he travelled to small towns throughout the country scamming residents. His scheme entailed selling musical instruments and band uniforms to boys for a concert he would conduct. (Bandleaders are known by the title “professor.”) Before the scheduled show date he would leave town with the money. It turned out the “professor” didn’t know how to play, read or conduct music.

Professor Hill’s latest mark (River City, Iowa) presented some unusual challenges. An anvil salesman named Charlie Cowell (played by Robert Repici) vowed to find and expose Hill as a fraud. The professor also developed a romantic interest in the town’s librarian, Marian Paroo (Jessica Ball). The latter added an additional complication as she also worked as the community piano teacher. To further obstruct Hill’s plan, Mayor Shinn (Alan Krier) and the school board harassed him for his credentials. They threatened to jail him if he didn’t produce them.

All these conflicts made for a riveting story. The Music Man included much more than just an entertaining premise, however.

The show featured brilliant choreography. Erica Paolucci coordinated superb dance routines. The Music Man included numerous complex ones involving the ensemble. Joe Kinnon (as Marcellus) led the group through a wonderfully upbeat “Shipoopi.” “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” added the challenge of singing 16th notes while dancing. Performers Bonnie Leigh Renner, Casey Clark, Patricia Kelly, Kathleen Corvino and Brianna Borouchoff executed this difficult routine flawlessly. “Seventy-Six Trombones” included an outstanding tap dance performed by the ensemble. Lindsey Krier impressed through the multiple splits she performed during the evening.

The Music Man added an element I’d never encountered during a theatrical production. The show contained a barber shop quartet. Crooners Steven Zellers, Marty Israel, Guy Kirk and David Epstein mesmerized the audience with their vocal skills. Their renditions of “Ice Cream/Sincere”, “It’s You” and “Lida Rose” made an enjoyable evening of theatre much more entertaining. Jessica Ball’s addition of her vocals to the quartet’s rendition of “Will I Ever Tell You” was phenomenal.

Credit also goes to vocal director Anthony Vitalo, sound designer Matthew Gallagher and sound board operator Sam Tait. The audio on the quartet’s performances sounded like an MP3 playing.

Fans of South Jersey community theatre productions know Matthew Weil as an extraordinary director. For The Music Man, Mr. Weil exchanged his director’s chair for the spotlight. He played the lead role of Professor Harold Hill.

Mr. Weil adopted the cocky, yet confident voice of an unscrupulous huckster. It complimented his singing on “Ya Got Trouble.” He also brought out his character’s sensitive side as the show progressed. Mr. Weil expressed it through an excellent duet with Ms. Ball on “Till There Was You.” The performer also showed off solid dance moves when performing with the ensemble.

Jessica Ball proved herself a strong triple threat. She showed Marian’s development from someone who spurned love into someone willing to open herself up to it. Ms. Ball performed exceptional dance moves even taking center stage during the “Seventy-Six Trombones” tap number.

As multi-talented as Ms. Ball demonstrated herself, I enjoyed her singing the most. In addition to her wonderful performances with the quartet and duets with Mr. Weil, Katy Gentry Hutchings, Nicky Intrieri and Emma Scherz, she displayed outstanding vocals when singing solo. Ms. Ball delivered a moving rendition of “My White Knight.”

This production of The Music Man included a few additional treats for theatre fans. The cast included two generations of the Krier Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre: Alan and his daughter Lindsey. One of South Jersey community theatre’s power couples also shared the same stage: Robert Repici and Lindsey Krier. Folks, this was an historic performance.

Alan Krier met your correspondent’s stratospheric expectations of him…again. He showed once again his extraordinary ability to become whatever character he plays. Mayor Shinn had a penchant for malapropisms. Mr. Krier spoke the lines so naturally that I thought he flubbed them at first. As the evening progressed, I realized that his character talked that way. That’s exceptional acting.

The following performers completed the ensemble: Quinn Wood, Lexie Chiasson, Aren Duffy, Mary McCabe, David A. Schwartz, Mabelle Davison, Isabelle Negrete, Zachary Moore, Darrin Murphy, Kyle Ronkin, Joseph Marney and Kendall DeVecchis.

On the evening I attended The Music Man performers didn’t receive a respite from extreme weather. At show time the thermometer read 95 degrees. Perhaps for the first time, a critic sweated more than the actors before a performance. Even in these conditions, the cast didn’t allow environmental factors beyond their control to affect them. They gave the audience an outstanding show conducted like the professionals they are.

Put The Music Man on your radar while you can. It’s difficult to imagine a community theatre production this good; but to quote Batman: “Everything’s impossible until someone does it.” Barring a series of blizzards, typhoons and earthquakes, the show will run through August 4th at The Ritz Theatre Company.

 

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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.

The Glass Menagerie at the Ritz Theatre Company

March Madness came to the Ritz Theatre Company in the form of The Glass Menagerie. The show premiered on Broadway March 31, 1945. Its playwright, Tennessee Williams, was born in March 26, 1911. As alcohol played a role in the story, this run began just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. I attended the March 16th performance.

Director Matthew Weil is a boon for serious theatre fans. Mr. Weil has brought such legendary works as The Fantastiks, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Brighton Beach Memoirs to South Jersey stages. I relished the opportunity to experience his interpretation of an American classic: The Glass Menagerie at the Ritz. The director met the high expectations established by his reputation.

The Glass Menagerie told the story of a troubled family. The shy Laura Wingfield (played by Sara Viniar) lived a sheltered life. Aside from family, a Victrola and collection of glass animals comprised her only companions. Her brother Tom (played by Taylor Darden) aspired to become a writer. His warehouse job bored him. He longed to escape and pursue a life of adventure. Their mother Amanda Wingfield (Lori Howard) struggled to keep the family together. Circumstances made this quite a challenge.

In the wake of their father’s abandonment, the family appeared on the verge of disintegration. As Laura was either unwilling to or unable to support herself, Amanda understood that her daughter would need a husband to take care of her. Recognizing Tom’s need for “adventure” (and a fondness for alcohol) she worried that he’d leave the family the same way his father had. She made a deal with him. If Tom could find a suitor for Laura, Amanda would allow him to leave.

This premise reminded me a bit of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The characters expected an unknown stranger to enter their lives and fix everything. That’s not the best approach to addressing one’s problems. It does provide for some outstanding drama on the stage, however.

An editor of the Tennessee Williams Annual Review, Robert Bray, called The Glass Menagerie a “memory play.” He may not have been describing the story. I’m thinking he referred to the actors’ need to recall all of Williams’ “lyrical language.”

To test this theory I tried an experiment. I opened a copy of (the New Directions Paperbook Ninth Printing) The Glass Menagerie to a page at random. Looking at pages 50 and 51, three quarters of the text is stage direction. One line is Amanda’s. The rest is a page-and-a-quarter soliloquy that Tom delivers.

One always expects outstanding performances from a Matthew Weil directed show. Based on the previous quality of their work, one always expects that from the actors he selected. They all delivered wonderful interpretations of Mr. Williams’ tragedy.

Taylor Darden selected an excellent accent for the role of Tom. Mr. Darden delivered his lines in a slow Southern drawl. Depending upon the situation, at times that drawl morphed into a slur. The performer’s lanky gait made his character even more unique.

Sara Viniar turned in a heartbreaking interpretation of Laura. Her face displayed a sad look for which one couldn’t help but feel sympathy. The performer’s limping about the stage brought out even more pity for the character. All these traits made the character’s struggle to overcome her shyness much more powerful.

Lori Howard no doubt drew upon her real life experience as a mom in her role as Amanda Wingfield. Ms. Howard played the role so credibly that I felt like part of the Wingfield family. When she criticized Tom for his poor posture I sat up straight. During her final scene with Mr. O’Connor, she instructed his character to leave. Her tone of voice and angry facial expressions made me uneasy. That’s an excellent connection with an audience member.

Jared Calhoun played Jim O’Connor: the gentleman caller. Mr. Calhoun selected an excellent voice. It reflected his character’s proficiency at public speaking. He played well opposite Ms. Viniar when trying to coax Laura out of her shyness. Their chemistry together gave this poignant moment much more impact.

This run marked Melissa Harnois’ first endeavor as a Stage Manager. Ms. Harnois coordinated all the facets of this intricate production wonderfully; and the show contained a lot of components to synchronize.

In The Glass Menagerie the lighting became an integral part of the drama. It almost became a character in itself. Jen Donsky designed this critical feature very well. Technical Director Connor Profitt executed it without flaw.

Those with any interest in either classic American theatre or a family drama would enjoy The Glass Menagerie. Don’t follow Tom’s example by going to the movies. This run closes on March 31st. In the playbill Director Matthew Weil discussed the play’s themes of “decisions” and “regret.” South Jersey community theatre fans will regret making a bad decision of their own by not attending the show at the Ritz.

High Fidelity at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players took me back in time this weekend. Not only did the company feature a show set during the 1990s, but Ed Doyle cast a number of familiar faces from his 2017 homage to the 1980s, Rock of Ages. In spite of my enthusiasm for watching Ed “Rico” Santiago, Dana Masterman and Vinnie DiFilippo share the stage again, I had some doubts about the overall program.

If I were to partake in the main character’s favorite past time, the 1990s wouldn’t make my “top five” decades. My “top three” reasons are: our country suffered through a philanderer in the White House, a senior figure in the Federal Government perjuring himself and a sexual misconduct scandal involving a Supreme Court nominee. Bad behavior must’ve been endemic to the 90s as High Fidelity’s protagonist, Rob, engaged in some of his own. The story explored his relationship woes through great music (directed by Jared Moskowitz) and dance routines (choreographed by Katharina Muniz). I attended the October 6th performance.

High Fidelity depicted one man’s quest to cope with heartbreak. Rob (played by Ed “Rico” Santiago) struggled through a difficult breakup with Laura (Dana Masterman). His past relationships with Alison (Jenn Kopesky), Penny (Sara Viniar), Charlie (Krista Reinhardt), Sarah (Trishia Dennis) and Jackie (Amanda Frederick) haunted him. Rob found solace among music and the regulars who frequented his Brooklyn record store.

Someone coping with the loss of his girlfriend while living a dull life may seem like a hackneyed story line. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsey-Abaire gave this premise a fresh take. High Fidelity contained unexpected plot twists and several quirky characters. Add the music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Amanda Green and this musical comedy became an enjoyable evening of theatre.

Ed “Rico” Santiago (as Rob) possesses a rare gift for connecting with spectators. Unlike many performers he regularly makes eye contact with theatregoers. Combine that with his pleasant delivery, witty presence and adeptness for singing upbeat numbers Mr. Santiago’s ability to engage an audience is without peer.

Mr. Santiago displayed great range in High Fidelity. In spite of the character’s despicable behavior, he still induced the audience to support Rob. His stirring rendition of “Laura, Laura” served as a major reason why.

Dana Masterman (as Laura) displayed great talent through her use of non-verbal communication. Even when her character wasn’t singing, speaking or dancing, Ms. Masterman made Laura a key figure on the stage. She ensured the audience always understood precisely what Laura thought and felt about the action. The best example in this show occurred during her first scene with Ian (played by Tommy Balne). The performer captured the situation’s awkwardness perfectly.

Ms. Masterman’s singing capability equals her aptitude for facial expressions. She delivered outstanding vocals on “Number Five with a Bullet”: a track that fused aspects of country, rock and soul music. As if that didn’t provide a challenge, Ms. Masterman performed part of this number while climbing over a couch.

The “She Goes” routine grabbed the number one spot on my “top five” High Fidelity highlights list. While Lauren Hope Gates (as Allison) and Mr. Santiago delivered strong vocals, the back-up dancers made the number a classic. Vinnie DiFillipo, Matthew Weil and Jonathan Greenstein performed a comically choreographed routine that made the evening’s highpoint.

For those romantic minded theatregoers out there, the show included some additional love stories. The one between Dick (Joseph Grosso) and Anna (Faith McLeery) allowed these two performers to sing the delightful reprise to “It’s No Problem” together. I’d add that moment to the “top five” list, also.

The ensemble contained eccentric characters. They made the show even more amusing. Barry (played by Anthony Vitalo) strived to put together a band although he didn’t play anything. When he did assemble the members of Sonic Death Monkey, he showed himself to be quite the balladeer. He performed a terrific rendition of “Saturday Night Girl” accompanied by Matthew Weil and Johnathan Greenstein. The latter used the same hair stylist as Mr. T. for this show, apparently.

Singer Marie (Allison Korn) was “complex.” She engaged in brief affair with Lyle Lovett, but couldn’t say it was with Lyle Lovett although it was with Lyle Lovett. Ms. Korn delivered the sober lament of those coping with difficult breakups, “Ready to Settle”, with somber conviction.

In keeping with the “list” theme, Tommy Balne catapulted his character into the pantheon of “top three” Yogi’s. Joining the distinguished company of the Bear and the Berra, add Ian.

Among a cast of funny and talented performers, Mr. Balne made his role the most humorous. Famed for organizing Kurt Cobain’s intervention, Ian attempted to win over Laura with his mystic appeal. Mr. Balne’s wig, costume and clever insertions of the yoga tree pose would make him any comedy fan’s Ghandi.

I did find one aspect of the show a bit disappointing. Alluding to his earlier work, Mr. Doyle placed one of Stacey Jaxx’s records in the store. Last year Vinnie DiFilippo portrayed that fictional singer in Rock of Ages. The prop kindled my hope that he’d reprise the role in this show. While that character didn’t appear, Mr. DiFilippo compensated by performing a spectacular Bruce Springsteen impression.

I would also like to complement performers Jenn Kopesky, Sara Viniar, Krista Reinhardt, Trisha Dennis, Amanda Frederick and Jeremy Noto for their work in this production.

High Fidelity would make my “top five” list of musical comedies set in the 1990s. We all know the scandals that shamed our nation in the 90s will never recur. However, let’s hope playwrights and musicians craft more period pieces like High Fidelity. Let’s also hope that this cast and crew members from Haddonfield Plays and Players are available to bring it to the stage. No one will ever accuse me of perjury after writing that.

High Fidelity goes the way of grunge music, the Macarena and the US budget surplus after October 20th.

The Fantasticks at the Ritz Theatre Company

When I read the title of the Ritz Theatre Company’s latest production, The Fantasticks, I figured it referred to the cast.  The show featured South Jersey community theatre legends Alan Krier, Bruce A. Curless and Michael Pliskin among other notables. While the show didn’t focus on their personal stories, it sure lived up to the title. I attended the opening night performance on June 1st.

To add to the billing, Matthew Weil (with the assistance of Siarra Ingram) directed this musical. Mr. Weil has a history of organizing the stage very creatively. For The Fantasticks, he utilized a similar set-up to the one he used for Brighton Beach Memoirs. In this show, however, the audience didn’t sit around the stage: they sat on the stage. This allowed the actors to mingle a bit with the spectators while taking their places for the opening scene.

The set-up also gave the thespians the opportunity to make eye contact with the audience while performing. I didn’t just feel like the players spoke to me: they did speak to me. It made the theatrical experience much more personal.

The Fantasticks told the story of teenage beaus Luisa (played by Kristy Joe Slough) and Matt (AJ Klein). The two lived next door to one another, but their feuding fathers Hucklebee (Alan Krier) and Bellamy (Charles J. Gill) kept them apart. The dads did so both figuratively and literally. They erected a wall (played by Brian Gensel) between their properties to keep the two separated…or so they wanted their kids to believe.

In the witty duet “Never Say No” the fathers explained that kids always do the opposite of what they’re told. The audience learned these men wanted their children to marry.

Realizing that a physical boundary and a fake quarrel wouldn’t suffice to bring their scheme to fruition, the dads enlisted the aid of a professional. A man who called himself El Gallo (Michael Pliskin) offered to enact an abduction. After recruiting one time Shakespearean actor Henry (Bruce A. Curless) and his sidekick Mortimer (John Nicodemo) the gang feigned an attempt to kidnap Luisa. Following a brief sword fight, Matt ‘saved’ her and emerged the hero.

At this point in the play, I became confused. The act’s final number “Happy Ending” befuddled me even more. Matthew Weil has directed such innovative dramas as The Pillowman and The Heiress. Those plays featured some mind bending plot twists experienced by complex characters. This story concluded much more neatly than I expected.

Then Mr. Pliskin announced the show included a second act. After intermission, then it turned into what I expected from a Matthew Weil directed show. The story arcs in The Fantastics rivaled the other two shows’ I cited. I’ll spare theatregoers spoilers. They deserve the opportunity to experience Mr. Weil’s theatrical journey for themselves. As a teaser, I will note that Act II began with Ms. Slough, Mr. Klein, Mr. Krier and Mr. Gill arguing in song about a plumb being “too ripe.”

The lighting (operated by Stage Manager Sara Viniar) fashioned a spectacular ambiance. The blue shade created a perfect simulation of moonlight. The yellows illuminated the stage just like sunshine. The colors accentuated the tinsel Mr. Gensel dropped on Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough to simulate rain and the paper he fluttered to mimic snow. The lighting also made me feel like the scenes occurred during the time of year indicated by the narrator.

Here we go with ‘the narrator’ thing again. I’ve often ranted about how much I loathe when a playwright makes ‘the narrator’ a character. That was until I experienced Michael Pliskin’s performance in this show. Mr. Pliskin possesses a gift for storytelling. While the show featured excellent dance routines (choreographed by Angela Longo), stellar singing (vocally directed by Robert Stoop) and outstanding acting, Mr. Pliskin’s narration impressed me the most. No one can tell a story like Michael Pliskin. If he’d like to expand his artistic horizons, I’d suggest he consider narrating audio books.

In addition to that role, Mr. Pliskin also played the villain, the deceptively intricate El Gallo. (Phonetically that’s gah-yo, as the character would tell you.) He delivered his lines with a Spanish accent embellished just enough for comic effect. The performer also delivered the most humorous death scene ever portrayed on stage. To balance out his evening, he also sang a moving “Try to Remember” that those who heard will never forget.

Kristy Joe Slough showcased extraordinary operatic vocals throughout the evening. She performed a wonderful solo number “Much More.” Ms. Slough sang duets beautifully with both Mr. Pliskin and Mr. Klein. While doing so, she chose the perfect facial expressions to enhance the lyrics. This performer displayed great dexterity with the ballet moves she performed, as well.

AJ Klein animated Matt’s love for Luisa through both his singing and his mannerisms. He displayed great energy in utilizing the entire stage for one of his dance numbers. Mr. Klein portrayed his character’s growth very credibly. One also has to respect a performer willing to wear both a sweater and a leather jacket on a muggy evening.

The highpoint of the evening occurred when Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough sang “They Were You” together. Both performers sat in front of me while doing so. With the passion in their voices and the yearning in their eyes, they made me feel the love between the two characters.

Alan Krier and Charles J. Gill teamed up for some solid duets of their own. While doing so, they made an exceptional comedy team. Mr. Pliskin even joined them to provide a musical answer on the cost of staging a fake kidnapping. In the “It Depends on What You Pay” number, the trio brought out some pretty hearty laughter from the audience.

Bruce A. Curless and John Nicodemo played two of the funniest henchmen in the history of theatre. Brian Gensel made the most memorable surprise entrance I’ve ever witnessed. (I won’t spoil it for future theatregoers.) I’d compliment Steve Weber for providing wonderful accompaniment in the form of his piano playing. I’d also commend Brennan Diorio for the costuming and Melissa Harnois for her work as assistant stage manager.

I encountered a gentleman in the audience who’d seen The Fantasticks numerous times. As Mr. Pliskin sang the final note of the “Try to Remember” reprise, he moved this fan. One could hear this gentleman’s simple observation: “beautiful” resounding through the theatre as the lights faded. After the show I asked this theatregoer what he thought of this performance compared to the others he’d attended. Without hesitation he told me, “This is New York.” Is there any better theatrical compliment?

Perhaps, there is. With the superlative nature of this performance, it’s possible that someday Broadway audiences will say, “This is The Fantasticks at the Ritz.” That would truly be a “Happy Ending” for this run.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans can watch The Fantasticks live up to its name through June 16th.

Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.

Tami Gordon Brody: The Critique Compendium Interview

Tami HeadshotAfter a 20-year hiatus from the stage to raise her two sons, Tami Gordon Brody has certainly been making up for lost time over the last five years. Upon the urging of her son Taylor, who is also an actor, Tami embarked on her first audition in two decades; Haddonfield Plays & Players’ 2011 production of Titanic and was cast as Charlotte Cardoza. Since then, she has been lucky enough to portray some of musical theatre’s great “women of a certain age” roles. Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, with Voorhees Theatre Company, Joanne in Company with Cumberland Players, Carmen Bernstein in Curtains and most recently Mother Superior in Sister Act, both at Haddonfield Plays and Players.   She’s also taken on some “strictly acting” roles, such as Harriet, in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at South Camden Theatre Company and Reba Freitag in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, at HP&P.   Up next, Tami is thrilled to be working with director Craig Hutchings in the Ritz Theatre production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in the role of Mrs. Potts.

In the course of “making up for lost time”, Ms. Brody kindly offered her time to be interviewed on 6/7/17. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

 

 

Critique Compendium: What first interested you in the performing arts?

Tami Gordon Brody: When I was young my father worked in the record business. He was head of promotion for Columbia. I took singing lessons, but my voice wasn’t suited for pop music. When I got a little older I discovered musical theatre while at Cherry Hill High School East.

 

Critique Compendium: You’ve said that you’re “making up for lost time” in terms of your performance schedule. What motivates you to be so active in community theatre productions?

Tami Gordon Brody: What do you do after work? Some people play tennis. I do theatre. I love doing it. When I leave work I get to be the actress.

 

Critique Compendium: From looking over your resume, it seems like you’re equally comfortable performing in either musicals or playing strictly acting roles. Which do you prefer?

Tami Gordon Brody: When I was younger I would’ve said musicals. My background is in musical theatre. I was a singer who acted. There have been some directors who have helped build my confidence as an actress. While I prefer musical theatre, acting challenges me more. I enjoy the challenge of it.

 

Critique Compendium: You’re a very talented vocalist. Who influenced you musically?

Tami Gordon Brody: I’d have to say Barbara Streisand and Ella Fitzgerald. Every Jewish girl loves Barbara. (Laughs.) Ella had such a pure, rich voice.

I have other performers I look to now for inspiration such as Victoria Clark, Christine Ebersole and Bernadette Peters. Bernadette Peters was the ingénue when she could be the ingenue. I’m finding that there are many amazing roles for “women of a certain age.” Musical Theatre is one of the few mediums where you don’t get replaced by younger actors.

There’s a show on Broadway now called War Paint. The two performers leads in it (Ebersole and Patty LuPone) are both women over 50.

Helen Mirren is another example of that type of actress. There are amazing roles for “women of a certain age.” I think you really need to have lived a life to play them.

 

Critique Compendium: Do you feel that you’ve matured as a performer when you play these roles?

Tami Gordon Brody: My priorities are different than they were when I was in my 20s. Now I pick and choose what I want to do.

When I was younger performing was about attention. Now it’s about being part of a bigger thing. It’s about telling a story. I’d rather be part of a strong cast.

It’s great having the opportunity to become someone else. Theatre is ageless.

 

 

Critique Compendium: If I could return to the subject of your vocal talents. You’ve done voice overs for the Special Olympics of New Jersey, Karl’s Baby and Children’s Furniture (in Philadelphia) and JCCA Maccabi Games. How did you get into that field?

Tami Gordon Brody: Karl’s is my big claim to fame. (Laughs) My ex-husband is a filmmaker. He asked me if I’d be interested in doing some voice over work. To do it I needed to lose my Jersey accent! It’s a different kind of medium. They want you to say things a certain way. After recording they speed up the track to eliminate the pauses. It’s very unnatural. So in that sense it’s much different than theatre.

 

Critique Compendium: What kinds of things interest you in playing a role?

Tami Gordon Brody:  Sometimes, it’s the story. For instance, Parade was an important story. In that show, I played a Senator’s wife. Although it was a smaller role, I got to be part of it.

Then there was Mother Superior in Sister Act. Roles like that one really gives you a chance to create a character.

I look at the way the character is written. Of course, you have to be practical about how young you can play.

It has to be something I’m going to enjoy doing. I also like roles that are a challenge emotionally, such as Joanne in Company. I wanted to find out why she was so angry and drank. I wanted to convey the character’s emotions. It’s important to make the audience feel.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you handle an audience that doesn’t feel?

Tami Gordon Brody: Every audience is different. You get different reactions from different crowds.

A performer must listen to the audience. It’s important to be mindful of their responses. Timing is important to allow them to react. Sometimes, you may get the same reaction to a line or a moment on stage and you come to expect it.   Then you’ll get an occasional audience that doesn’t react the way you expect.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

Tami Gordon Brody: Oh, Joanne in Company. But I would love to play Golde in Fiddler again. Both are iconic roles. I do enjoy playing flawed characters better than playing ‘normal’ ones. Some are just fun though.

 

Critique Compendium: Why?

Tami Gordon Brody: My Jewish upbringing. My great-grandfather grew up in a village in Russia just like Anatekvah . Golde is the character I’ve played that’s the closest to me. It was very personal.

Although, I’ve loved all the roles I’ve played. I learn things about other people by playing different characters. Some aren’t like me at all. I like learning about people and cultures. Now, in Beauty and the Beast, I’m playing an animated character.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

Tami Gordon Brody: Harriet in Broken Glass. That was my first straight acting role. The caliber of talent in that show was unlike anything I’d worked with before. I had to reach. It’s good to have to reach. It was hard work. I wasn’t going to be able to rely on my singing. Until then, I was more insecure about acting than singing. Although, you don’t want to see me dance. (Laughs)

 

Critique Compendium: First, allow me to wish you a belated Happy Mother’s Day. You had the experience of working with both your sons, Taylor and Evan, in: Parade. You and Taylor will be sharing the stage once again at the upcoming production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Ritz Theatre Company this summer. What was it like sharing the stage with your children?

Tami Evan and Taylor

Tami Gordon Brody: Amazing! It was the greatest experience! I’m so proud of them. They’re so talented. They’re so much more advanced than I am vocally.

Taylor and Evan got the bug. Taylor (to Ms. Brody’s left in photo) was in Fiddler on the Roof with me too. Evan (to Ms. Brody’s right) will be playing Kenickie in Grease this summer in Blackwood.

Unfortunately, (because of our theatrical schedules) sometimes we can’t always see each other’s shows. Theatre is something we share. We can lean on each other and help each other. It’s great to have this shared love with my children.

My boyfriend Glen is also an actor, and it is something that I can share with him as well. We all understand the commitment that goes into doing a show – which is a wonderful thing.

 

Critique Compendium: What performers have influenced you?

Tami Gordon Brody: I’d say Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey and Helen Mirren. They can really transform themselves into different characters; and they don’t need accoutrements to make that happen.

 

Critique Compendium: If you had the opportunity to work with any other actor either living or dead, who would it be?

Tami Gordon Brody: I’d love to work with Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and definitely Nathan Lane. His comic timing is amazing. These are people I could learn from. When I was younger the answers might not have been the same. Back then I would’ve been interested in their “star power.”

 

Critique Compendium: In addition to your busy performance schedule, you’re the Vice President of Haddonfield Plays and Players. What inspired you to take on a leadership role with that organization?

Tami Gordon Brody: I did two shows with them (Titanic and Full Monty). Dave Stavetski (the President of HP&P) got me to go to a meeting. I helped out with creating the posters in front of the theatre.  Now that I am on the board, I handle the playbills, social media, media and advertising. I’m happy to give back to them. We have an amazing leadership team. They’re a really great group of dedicated people.

Dave is very civic minded. He’s very involved in sharing the arts in South Jersey.

Our space allows for the ability to do shows that other people can’t do. For instance look at (director) Matt Weil’s innovative use of space in The Pillowman. You wouldn’t see a show like that in a larger theatre.

We have a successful StageKidz program. Last year, we switched to a five show season. We used to do seven shows. This gives us more production time for each, mainstage show. It also allows us to provide additional special programming – like our annual production of Number the Stars, as well as our successful cabaret series. Whenever I perform I think, “Look at how much I’m getting.” Being involved with HP&P gives me the satisfaction of giving back. You make connections with the other performers. Creating lasting relationships. Community theatre in South Jersey is getting stronger and stronger. So many theatres mean more opportunities for actors. There’s a lot of talent down here.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you balance a career, family and other activities with the demands of performing in community theater productions?

Tami Gordon Brody: When I’m at work I focus on work. It all comes down to time management. Theatre teaches it. It helps with other aspects of my life. It’s a responsibility.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare for a role?

Tami Gordon Brody: I write the lines on index cards. I use them for memorization.  It’s all about time management. I’ve got the instrumental rehearsal tracks of Beauty and the Beast in my car.  I sang it on the way over here.

I know I need to do my homework. I need to get past my frustration and learn what I need to know. Then I don’t have to worry about it. I need to understand the character. I need to be prepared. Sometimes it entails not only knowing my lines, but that of my fellow actors as well.

It’s not always easy to do theatre. It means something different to everyone. I’m very proud of what I do. The roles that satisfy me the most are the ones where I work the hardest.

You have to live up to the role. Golde and Joanne are iconic roles. People expect it to be a certain way. I also want to be as good as my fellow cast members. I do enjoy playing flawed characters better than playing ‘normal’ ones. Some are just fun, though.

 

Critique Compendium: This is the first time you’ve worked with director Craig Hutchings since you played Harriet in the South Camden Theatre Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass. What’s it like working with him again?

Tami Gordon Brody: Craig is an “actor’s director.” He’s always looking at the acting. He gives notes and character suggestions. To him, the lyric is just as important as the dialog. He brings depth to the characters.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s next for you?

Tami Gordon Brody: After Beauty and the Beast I’ll be taking a rest. I would love an opportunity to assistant direct next season.  I’m hoping to be as versatile as some other theatre people. But, I like performing more. If the right role presented itself, I would definitely audition!

I can honestly say if I didn’t have theatre I’d be half a person. I don’t know what I’d be doing without it.

 

The Pillowman at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players’ promotional material for The Pillowman contained a warning that they intended the show for “mature audiences.” When I purchased my ticket on-line I gave my real name. When I picked it up at the box office, I mentioned who I was to the person at the counter. In spite of the management’s repeated assertions that audience members should possess the emotional characteristics of an adult, they still allowed me to attend the show. It delighted me that they chose to be flexible with their policy. I attended the Saturday afternoon performance on May 13th.

Director and set designer Matthew Weil didn’t waste time in establishing the show’s tone. I entered the theatre 20 minutes prior to the start time. The scene that greeted me explained a lot about the “mature audiences” disclaimer. The stage contained a table, a light directly over it and two chairs against a dark background. A blindfolded performer sat in one of them. The dim lights made it difficult to see. Eerie music played in the background. I credit Mr. Weil for this creative use of ambiance. It allowed him to capture the beauty and the horror of Martin McDonagh’s piece before the story even began.

As with his direction of Brighton Beach Memoirs, (also presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players) Mr. Weil utilized an innovative stage set-up. He designed it as a square with one corner pointing to the front of the theatre. By doing so, it allowed performers to get closer to the audience during key scenes. As I sat to stage right of the corner, the angle of vision gave me a similar perspective as the protagonist when the detectives questioned him. That allowed me to empathize with the main character and really get into the story during the interrogations.

The story centered on a writer named Katurian (played by Michael Pliskin). Without understanding the reason, two police officers Tupolski (played by Michael Doheny) and Ariel (Ryan Ruggles) entered the room and began questioning him. The mystery deepened when they asked about his fiction; with particular emphasis on the ones that included child killings. They explained that someone murdered two children in a similar fashion to those described in his stories. To add to the tension, they held his mentally deficient brother Michal (played by Andy Spinosi) in the next room. They threatened to harm him if Katurian didn’t cooperate.

The story contained philosophical undertones that would’ve impressed Aristotle. As Mr. Weil wrote in the playbill:

 Camouflaged in this gripping piece of theatre are a series of meditations on the nature and existence of art. Is art capable of corrupting? Does it feed off suffering? Should writers be brought to task for dealing in violence and child abuse? Is the artist responsible for the consequences of art? What is or should be the relationship between art and politics?

Michael Pliskin delivered an impassioned performance as Katurian; with emphasis on the word impassioned. The role demanded a range of emotions from the performer. During the interrogation scenes he captured the character’s confusion and terror. Tears came to his eyes when expressing his affection for his brother. Mr. Pliskin impressed most with his skill as a story teller. In several scenes he recited stories written by Katurian. Mr. Pliskin’s awe inspiring deliveries made them much more interesting and entertaining than they would appear on the written page. It would’ve been a very satisfying evening if the show consisted of him only doing that.

In some ways similar to Lenny in Of Mice and Men, the ‘Mikal’ role challenges thespians to perform it credibly. Andy Spinosi animated the character exceptionally well. In addition to enacting Michal’s complexities, several times he did an excellent imitation of Katurian from his character’s perspective.

Michael Doheny and Ryan Ruggles delivered a remarkable take on the good cop / bad cop dynamic. A comedic performance is difficult; getting laughs with dark humor is much harder. Through their skillful interpretations, these two gifted performers made it appear facile; quite a feat with the nature of the story.

Jonathan Greenstein and Marissa Wolf each delivered terrifying performances as the Father and Mother. The two presented their roles like more frightening caricatures of Edward Gorey characters. I especially enjoyed Ms. Wolf’s evil laugh. Having to sleep with the lights on for a few nights is a small price for watching these two exceptional renditions.

Sara Scherz returned to the Haddonfield Plays and Players stage as the girl from Katurian’s “The Little Jesus” story. Aside from the usual challenges of getting into character, this role contained some added physical efforts, as well; and not just speaking in-synch with Mr. Pliskin. Ms. Scherz managed all these intricacies flawlessly.

I had one criticism regarding the script. I found it ironic that a story centered on a writer contained some very poor writing. The dialog contained A LOT of repetition. Several times in the opening scene Tuploski and Ariel repeated each other’s lines back-and-forth. That annoyed me. The second act opened with Michal repeating various things Katurian said to him. That annoyed me even more. Michal then spoke about his “itchy ass” numerous times. At that point I actually thought about leaving.

Listening to the same lines of dialog repeated verbatim over and over just strains my patience and wastes time. In fairness to Mr. McDonaugh, he did include some excellent writing; particularly in the form of Katurian’s prose. The playwright added pauses at effective times, too. With these techniques in his creative arsenal, I didn’t understand the need for characters to keep repeating the same lines.

I expressed my concern about Haddonfield Plays and Players “maturity” requirement to my friend, the esteemed actress and director, Lisa Croce. She suggested I act like I possessed the emotional intelligence to attend the show. To which I replied, “If I was that good an actor, I’d be on stage.” Well, I may have gotten in to see the show, but the skills of the cast far exceeded my meagre abilities. They delivered impressive performances of challenging roles in a very difficult play. No doubt, Mr. Weil’s tutelage contributed to that effort. That’s no fluff. The Pillowman meets the same fate as many of Katurian’s characters after May 20th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ

Harper Lee crafted a unique American take on the traditional bildungsroman. The author’s powerful exploration of a young girl’s maturation through her harsh exposure to the world around her made for the timeless novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Fortunately, for theatre fans, Christopher Sergel adapted this Pulitzer Prize winning classic for the stage. Under the direction of Matthew Weil, The Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ presented an extraordinary interpretation when I attended the March 3rd performance.

Due to the immense success of both the book and the film, most in the general public are already familiar with the story. This presents a challenge for theatrical companies. How does one make something so well-known still interesting and engaging to audiences? The answer: through phenomenal performances. To Kill a Mockingbird included a host of them.

Maude Atkinson (played by Nicky O’Neal) expressed the following thoughts on Atticus Finch: “The highest honor the town can give a man: the ability to do good.” The actor who played him (Cory Laslocky) didn’t “do good.” He did a phenomenal job in his performance. Mr. Laslocky did extraordinary work balancing the character’s complexities; most notably when he cross examined Mayella Ewell (played by Kaitlin Healy). He displayed a reserved easy going manner with his deliberate questioning. Through his words he became a man who could be firm and tough. He managed this difficult equilibrium throughout the entire show; his convincing portrayal of the character’s passionate closing argument serving as the lone exception.

The moment that affected me the most in Mockingbird occurred during Mr. Laslocky’s exchange with his witness Tom Robinson (played by Mikal Odom). Mr. Odom’s stage presence and delivery during this scene were without peer. I’ve never experienced a performer capturing a character’s emotional state so well. With a Southern drawl, shaky voice and teary eyes he explained the events leading to his false accusation. He brought out the character’s fear and anxiety in a way that I could feel.  If his awesome performance didn’t move you: you’re not human.

Shawn O’Brien delivered a memorable interpretation of the villain, Bob Ewell. This performer really got into character. His choice of voice, exaggerated mannerisms and yelling captured the essence of a bitter, alcoholic racist. Several times in the courtroom scenes his shouting and swigging of a bottle convinced me he became unhinged. During a later scene his evil laughing while wheedling a piece of wood even gave me a chill.

The show’s most unforgettable moment occurred during the confrontation scene. While Atticus stood guard outside the jail housing Tom Robinson an angry mob arrived. They’d planned on hanging the accused. Showing shades of Atticus, his daughter, Scout (played by Sofia DiCostanzo) did an outstanding job in her dialog with Walter Cunningham (played by Mike Lovell). Ms. DiCostanzo delivered her lines as a naïve child engaging Mr. Lovell’s (probably intoxicated) character in conversation. She recognized him as one of her classmate’s father. After asking him to say “hello” to his son for her, he bowed his head as if in shame. He calmly instructed the mob to disburse and “go home.” While it had a lot of competition for this title, these performers made the scene the play’s most powerful.

The playwright chose to utilize a technique about which I experienced mixed feelings. In following the book, the playwright had the character of Jean Louise Finch (the Scout character as an adult) narrate throughout the show. The performer who played this role, Nellie Brown, did outstanding work as a story teller. Her expressions and delivery were very expressive as she recounted the events that transpired both on and off the stage. In addition Ms. Brown spent most of the show in view of the audience. I liked how she smiled nostalgically as the action played out. I could envision her as a person reliving all these events in her mind. She possesses a pleasant voice. Ms. Brown would be a good choice to narrate an audio version of the book. Someone that gifted in the performing arts deserves a better role to exhibit her talent.

In my view, the role of Jean Louise Finch brought to mind the character of Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films. A narrator’s role in a comedy is much more effective. The method of having a character do so in a live dramatic play stops the action too much for my taste. In a medium that’s very dialog heavy, I find it adds too much ‘telling’ to the script. In this case Ms. Brown’s exceptional story telling ability made the narrator’s role enjoyable. Besides, an actor’s role is to interpret the script as written: not to correct bad writing.

Sensitive theatre fans should be aware that the show contained usage of racial epithets. The language complimented the theme of the story and fit the less-enlightened historical time period. For these reasons I didn’t find it offensive.

The show featured a very unusual intermission. During the trial scene Judge Taylor (played by Andrew Kushner) came out from behind the bench and walked to the front of the stage. He announced there’d be a 10 minute “recess.” As he spoke the house lights came on. The players remained on the stage during the break. They continued playing the parts of courtroom observers waiting for the hearing to resume. From their gestures and facial expressions it looked like Lori A. Howard and Mike Lovell had a pretty interesting conversation going on. I would’ve liked to have heard it.

It made me very happy to see Paul Sollimo (who played Nathan and “Boo” Radley) back on stage again. When they find the person who started this unfounded rumor about his retirement, they should do to him what the drunken mob wanted to do to Tom Robinson. (Even theatre critics are guilty of ‘bad writing’ once in a while.)

So many performers did exceptional jobs in this show that it’s unfair to leave anyone out. I’d like to credit Kyle Smart, Carter Weiss, Rhonda V. Fidelia, Kaitlin Healy, Sean O’Shea, Jay Burton, Andrew Kushner, Doug Supleee, Ann Moser Trenka, Nicky O’Neal, Lori A. Howard and Natasha Truitt for their contributions, as well. The show wouldn’t have been as engaging without them.

The play reflected the life of one of it’s characters. Kind of like Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird comes out of seclusion, makes a huge impact and then returns to exile for a while. Fans of great literature, theatre and acting would be well served to see it performed at The Ritz Theatre while they can. The show runs through March 19th.

Theatre Review – Brighton Beach Memoirs at Haddonfield Plays and Players

The Haddonfield Plays and Players theatre group has a history of presenting challenging “dramedies.” It seemed fitting that they’d add Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs to their repertoire. This semi-autobiographical sketch of an extended Jewish family living in 1937 New York featured a host of comedic yuks coupled with intense drama. The cast and crew met the demands of this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.

I attended the premiere performance on September 15th. The evening also entailed HPP’s rolling out of an original stage set-up. They relocated it closer to the center of the theatre. While tasked with animating Neil Simon’s dialog, this cast had the additional duty of playing to both sides of the room. Due to the new seating configuration, I expected to spend most of the evening staring at the backs of performers’ heads. The talented assembly of thespians accommodated this new format like seasoned stage veterans. I’d also give credit to director Matthew Weil for coordinating everyone around this original arrangement.

Dylan Corbett (as Eugene Jerome) faced the toughest challenge. While his character played an active role in the story’s events, he also served as a narrator. On numerous occasions he addressed the audience directly. With it seated both in front of and in back of the stage, this presented quite a challenge. I sat in the row against the far wall. Mr. Corbett’s deft movements to both sides of the stage made me feel like he spoke to me personally the entire night. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for anyone under these circumstances; especially for someone performing in his second community theatre show.

The play’s action took place over the span of two weeks. Mr. Corbett convincingly transformed from an immature, libidinous kid into a young man and then back again. That’s not an easy feat with a script covering that short a time span.

Nick Ware played an outstanding Stanley Jerome. He’s a very expressive performer. I really enjoyed the animated way he gesticulated while explaining how he stood up to his boss, thus risking his job at a time his family depended on his salary. He added a nice touch of humor when asking his cousin Nora (played by Meaghan Janis) to mention Abraham Lincoln’s “principles” at dinner. This would allow him to segue into a discussion about it with his father. His method of interjecting the topic at supper proved much more comical.

Lori A. Howard portrayed the epitome of a Jewish mother living in 1930s New York. She chose the perfect voice to compliment the role of Kate Jerome. Ms. Howard got into the character so well that I consciously avoided her after the show. (I worried she’d be forcing me to eat liver.) While she delivered funny lines well, her character possessed much more depth than simple “comic relief.” Mrs. Jerome battled anxieties over her husband’s health, her son Stanley’s wild ways and her sister’s descent into self-pity after becoming a widow. Combined with these challenges, Ms. Howard also served as the core holding this troubled family together. I liked the way she manifest all this tension in her argument with the character’s sister Blanche (performed by Marissa Wolf).

In addition to this altercation with Ms. Howard, Ms. Wolf launched an intense dispute with Blanche’s daughter, Nora (played by Meaghan Janis). These two performers did a phenomenal job during this heated exchange. While difficult to watch, the rewards of witnessing two talented performers play characters who want to love, but struggle in doing so made it worthwhile. They executed this difficult scene so realistically that I felt uncomfortable. That’s superb acting.

Doug Suplee (as Jack Jerome) played the clan’s patriarch. The role reminded me a bit of Mike Brady with a New York accent. Mr. Suplee brought to life the character of a wise father committed to the well-being of his family. I liked the way he showed tenderness as a surrogate father to his niece, Nora. He became a stern, but loving parent to his son, Stanley in their scenes together. When Kate worried about her sister’s condition, Mr. Suplee counseled her wisely. Understand the Brady reference now?

I also give credit to 11 year old, Sera Scherz in the role of Laurie Morton. She played an unemotional, detached young lady very well. The talent she displays at this point in her career shows she has a great future ahead of her in theatre.

During long portions of the show, performers who weren’t involved in the scenes didn’t leave the stage. They either sat at the ends of stage left or stage right. I found that unusual. I suspected that the new configuration had something to do with that. The designer located both egresses at the middle of the stage. None of these entertainers did anything to attract attention in these instances. However, at times my gaze drifted towards them because I wondered if they had a role in the action.

Several weeks ago, Lori A. Howard informed me that HPP’s presentation of Brighton Beach Memoirs “features an extraordinary cast that is my honor to work with.” After attending the show I could understand her enthusiasm. The show runs through October 1st. After that, Brighton Beach Memoirs becomes a memory at Haddonfield Plays and Players.