Megan Knowlton Balne

Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Theatre fans get ready for one “Weil”d December. This month legendary South Jersey community theatre director Matt Weil is directing not one, but TWO shows for the Holiday Season. Talk about a gift for audiences. This reviewer attended the first, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, at Haddonfield Plays and Players on December 7th.

Several weeks ago Director Weil spoke with your correspondent. When asked if he directs Holiday shows any differently than he approaches others, Mr. Weil replied, “No. The purpose is to tell a story.” And what a story he and the cast at Haddonfield Plays and Players told.

Willy Wonka (played by Tommy Balne) faced a dilemma. He longed to retire from the chocolate business. His lack of either an heir or a successor forced him to continue working.

Young Charlie Bucket (played by Matthew Goodrich) also experienced troubles. His family lacked money. His father’s (Michael Wemer) job at the toothpaste factory provided the household’s only source of income. This extended family consisted of Mrs. Bucket (Marissa Wolf) and both sets of Charlie’s grandparents. Then the toothpaste factory closed.

In the wake of this, Willy Wonka announced a contest. The winners would receive tours of his factory as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate. The contestants needed to find one of five golden tickets placed in packets of Wonka Bars. In spite of his poverty, Charlie found the means to purchase one bar. It contained a winning ticket.

The show opened with Tommy Balne delivering a beautiful version of “Pure Imagination.” That theme continued throughout the evening. Director Matt Weil deserves immense credit for the ingenuity he applied to this project. He took a piece with the spectacular visuals audiences remember from the 1971 film and made it just as memorable on the stage. Mr. Weil also executed this task with minimal scenery. The set itself (also designed by Mr. Weil) consisted of a checkerboard floor and a series of bay openings with flashing lights.

Without the accoutrements of a fantastic confection producing paradise, the suspension of the audience’s disbelief became an immediate challenge for the cast. The performers showed superlative acting ability to create the illusion. The actors’ expressions and reactions reflected the grandeur and wonder of the chocolate factory. The performers also showed fear and rocked to simulate the motion of the boat as Willy led them down the river into the unknown.

Willy Wonka did not lack for special effects, however. Violet Beauregarde (played by Sophie Holliday) turned into a blueberry. The crew executed this task by inflating her costume and through a creative use of lighting. When Charlie and Grandpa Joe (Tony Killian) floated towards the ceiling, Mr. Weil and his team used an innovative means of presenting this scene on the stage. The bubbles added a nice touch.

In the playbill, Mr. Weil described his initial reluctance over directing Willy Wonka:

Frivolous, saccharine, and lacking in in any major substance, Willy Wonka represented everything I was taught to avoid as an artist – or so I thought.                 

The show did contain similarities to Mr. Weil’s other work. For one, the story contained characters just as gluttonous and socially maladjusted as those in The Heiress and The Pillowman.

The kids who found the golden tickets were not ideal children. Veruca Salt (Cassidy Scherz) was even more spoiled than a Siamese kit kat. Her father (Cory Laslocky) enabled her by believing every day was payday and he could buy anything his little girl wanted.  Augustus Gloop (Dominick T. McNew, Jr.) ate to the extent that he made those suffering from hyperphagia seem like vegan dieters. It took three cooks to prepare his feasts. His ebullient mother (Faith McCleery) encouraged him in his gastronomical pursuits. Mike Teavee’s (Jake Gilman) appetite for television eclipsed Gloop’s hunger for food. His mother (Victoria Tatulli) kept him out of school so he could focus on his interest in television. This group made Violet Beauregarde the most normal member of the bunch. She had an addiction to chewing gum. Her Southern belle mom (Lori Alexio Howard) allowed her to do so as often as she liked.

Phineous Trout (Alex Leavitt) played the reporter tasked with interviewing these lucky “winners.” Mr. Leavitt’s caricaturish grin, initial enthusiasm and later astonishment with these characters drew snickers from the audience.

The Oompa-Loompas provided commentary on the children’s behavior. Performers Abigail Brown, Lorelei Ohnishi, Nathan Laslocky, Logan Murphy, Sera Scherz and Gabriel Werner played the roles of Willy Wonka’s factory workers. They performed fantastic renditions of the “Oompa-Loompa” songs while executing Katharina Muniz’s choreography. Costumer Renee McCleery and Assistant to the Costumer Jenn Doyle designed authentic looking garb for these iconic characters.

Tommy Balne turned in one of the best performances your reviewer has seen on this side of the Milky Way. Mr. Balne possesses a phenomenal ability to talk with his eyes. His communicative facial expressions were so proficient that your correspondent would’ve been just as entertained watching him all evening.

The role required some physical adeptness. Mr. Balne also executed these challenges without flaw. One of the demands included the ability to twirl a cane. Mr. Balne didn’t have butterfingers. He utilized the prop brilliantly all evening.

In addition to his expressive mannerisms, Mr. Balne proved himself a stellar triple threat. Besides the lead role, he also played the character of The Candy Man. As with his rendition of “Put on A Happy Face” in Bye Bye Birdie, Mr. Balne took a theatrical standard and infused it with his own personality. Besides his awesome vocal stylings, he completed an outstanding dance routine with Tess Smith, Michael Thompson, Leah Cedar and Quinn Wood while delivering the popular tune: “The Candy Man.”

The scene reminded this reviewer of a drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Another famous “Candy Man” crooner hosted it on The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show. Mr. Rich joked to Mr. Davis, Jr. that the winner should receive one of Mr. Davis, Jr.’s shoes. After his performance in Willy Wonka, one of Mr. Balne’s shoes would’ve been a better prize than the tour of factory or a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Matthew Goodrich also performed outstanding song and dance routines. His execution of the “Think Positive” sequence made for one of the show’s most memorable moments. Mr. Goodrich completed some intricate twirls that added superb showmanship to the scene.

Performers Marge Triplo and Lori Clark also added their talents to this extensive cast.

Other members of the Production Team included: Assistant Director Melissa Harnois, Producer Megan Knowlton Balne, Vocal Director Kendra C. Heckler, Stage Manager Sara Viniar, Assistant Stage Manager Brennan Diorio, Set Construction Dan Boris, Lighting Designer Jen Donsky and Props Designer Debbie Mitchell.

South Jersey community theatre aficionados will feel glad Mr. Weil decided to add Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka to his repertoire. He wrote:

Today, my assumption is that you may be sitting there feeling very much the same way I felt one year ago. My hope is that our show will tickle and delight you, that you may take a similar journey as my own, and that you will find Willy Wonka simple, sweet and satisfying – like a bite of chocolate.

The “Weil”d December continues at the Ritz Theatre Company. The director’s next Holiday project is Scrooge: The Musical. That show runs from December 12th through December 22nd.

Audiences don’t need to win a golden ticket at one in ten million odds to see Willy Wonka. It runs through December 21st. After that, the chocolate factory closes forever at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Fun Home at Haddonfield Plays and Players

One knows it’s going to be an interesting evening of theatre when the title refers to a funeral home. Add to that a bildungsroman with the protagonist’s family imploding in the backdrop. This premise led me to anticipate a saturnine night of theatre. Fortunately, director Bill C. Fikaris along with the cast and crew also brought out the wit in Alison Bechdel’s tragicomic biographical piece. I attended the February 3rd performance at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Fun Home is Lisa Kron’s and Jeanine Tesori’s musical stage adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name. It tells Ms. Bechdel’s journey of personal discovery. It chronicled her life from her upbringing in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, through her development as a cartoonist, and finally to her discovery of her lesbian sexuality. While reflecting on her life, Adult Alison (Maura Jarve) sought clues to help her understand her father. (Michael Sheldon) The latter lived as a closeted homosexual. He eventually committed suicide.

The show required three different performers to play Alison. Each one enacted the character at a different stage of her life. Gabrielle Werner played Small Alison, Courtney Bundens performed Medium Alison and Maura Jarve played Adult Alison; the character who also served as the narrator.

The story didn’t follow a linear time progression. The scenes flowed between the past and the present. Having three Alisons allowed the progressions to move seamlessly without confusing the audience.

I thought it interesting that all performers playing Alison looked alike. In one scene where Ms. Jarve and Ms. Wener shared the stage, they both maintained the same facial expressions. I credit them and Ms. Bundens for playing the same person at different stages of her life so believably. (Perhaps they’ll consider re-uniting for Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women in a few years?)

Aside from the script itself, Fun Home contained multifarious components that made it a challenging spectacle to produce. It featured a range of musical material (directed by Chris Weed), elaborate dance routines (choreographed by Amanda Frederick) and sophisticated visual projections (designed by Pat DeFusco and Gary Werner). Even with all these elements, the group still produced the show flawlessly.

The musical pieces served as a good catharsis to offset the serious nature of the story. They contained a lot of the comedy. The Bechdel children decided to write a commercial for the family funeral home. The resulting “Come to the Fun Home” sounded like an upbeat Jackson Five-esque number. Gabrielle Werner, Zach Johnson and Jake Gilman even performed it like the Motown group. In keeping with the 70s pop theme, later Vinnie DeFilippo and the company joined together for a Partridge Family encomium in the form of “Raincoat of Love.”

Ms. Frederick’s choreography made these numbers much more entertaining. As did her coordination of the entire company for the opening number “It All Comes Back.” I enjoyed the cast’s proficient execution of the number’s myriad vocal harmonies.

The drama made its way into the musical numbers as well; especially at the end. Michael Sheldon’s duet with Maura Jarve on “Telephone Wire” was powerfully moving. Mr. Sheldon’s follow-up “Edges of the World” captured the character’s anger, frustration and turmoil. Sensitive theatregoers may have their dreams haunted by Megan Knowlton Balne’s rendition of “Days and Days.”

To facilitate the scene changes Fun Home included visual images projected on to the back drop. The roadside setting passing by added realism to “Telephone Wire.” The pictures of Ms. Bechdel’s actual drawings kept the story in perspective. I found the projections (and sound) of working televisions very creative as well.

In addition to all this, Fun Home included some extraordinary performances.

Michael Sheldon portrayed the tortured Bruce. In the fall of 2016 I watched Mr. Sheldon play the Mayor of Whoville in a production of Seussical at Burlington County Footlighters. Bruce was about as antithetical to a character speaking in cheery, rhyming couplets as one can imagine.

Mr. Sheldon met this role’s challenges. He gave his character depth when he played a devoted father opposite Young Alison (Ms. Werner). He became sly and manipulative in his scenes with Mr. DiFilippo. He released the character’s anger when performing with Ms. Balne. He showed himself to be emotionally lost when singing the “Telephone Wire” number with Ms. Jarve. The anguish came through his voice when he sang “Edges of the World.”

Megan Knowton Balne played his wife, Helen. She captured the seething rage the character kept suppressing. I most enjoyed her performance opposite Ms. Bundens. While holding a glass of wine she described when she first discovered her husband’s homosexuality. It occurred during their honeymoon. She related the story like someone ready to go ballistic, but managing to keep her composure. It proved an excellent segue into the “Days and Days” number.

Courtney Bundens portrayed the most entertaining version of Ms. Bechdel in the character of Medium Alison. I enjoyed the way she found humor in the character’s nervousness. Ms. Bundens and Julie Roberts exhibited great chemistry working together as Alison and she explored their feelings for one another. It made Ms. Bundens’ performance of “Changing My Major” the pivotal moment of the show.

This production of Fun Home contained an unusual feature. Some performers may have been acting, but I’ve never seen a show with that many left-handed people in the cast. It seemed like the stage contained more southpaws than all the pitching staffs of the National League East combined.

While I don’t share the same challenges my left-handed friends face, I do think of them every time I drive a car, turn a doorknob and use a can opener.

Director Bill C. Fikaris wrote in the playbill:

On the surface, Fun Home would seem like a tragic evening of theatre. However, the beauty of this piece is that it’s incredibly uplifting and provides us with a feeling of hope by the end of Alison’s journey.

With material this intricate, it’s a credit to the cast and crew that they could convey this message of optimism in the wake of such tragedy. Fun Home closes after February 16th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Theatre Review – Bye Bye Birdie Presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Jeanne Gold engaged in the most creative casting I’ve ever encountered. For Haddonfield Plays and Players’ summer musical, Bye Bye Birdie, she selected a real life husband and wife team to star in this production. How can an actual married couple portray two people who are dating? I thought. It’s going to be a colossal effort to suspend my disbelief during this show. The performance opened with the two in the midst of a heated argument. Rosie (played by Megan Knowlton Balne) threatened to leave Albert (played by Thomas Balne), in essence, unless he took a more stable job and gave her more attention. After that exchange, I completely bought into the casting decision.

Bye Bye Birdie featured a sophisticated story line for a musical. The amount of conflict impressed me. Rosie Alvarez wanted her boyfriend, Albert Peterson, to sell his company and give up his career managing rock and roll sensation Conrad Birdie (played by Steve Stonis). She also needed him to develop a life of his own away from his overbearing mother. Thanks to Lisa Croce’s spectacular portrayal of the latter, I’m still trying to determine which of these tasks the more challenging.

In addition to this thorn tree in this garden, teenaged Kim MacAfee (performed by Ashleigh Neilio) battled her own series of romantic conflicts. As a young woman discovering her own maturity, she decided to give up her membership in Conrad Birdie’s fan club. She opted to abandon her childhood crush and devote herself to her boyfriend, Hugo (played by Jack Rooney). Serendipitously for theatergoers, just as that moment occurred she received unexpected news from Mr. Peterson’s company. She’d been selected as the young lady with the honor of kissing Conrad Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show the day before his entering the army.

As I mentioned the two lead performers in this production are married in real life. Since they spend so much time with one another when they’re not on stage, it’s not surprising that they have similar skill sets. Both are extraordinarily strong singers and dancers. They both possess exceptional acting chops, too. Watching the two of them showcase their craft made for a most entertaining evening.

Thomas Balne turned in an amazing performance. His best moment on stage occurred during the upbeat song and dance number “Put on a Happy Face”. The ensemble and he sure made the audience smile. Under choreographer Jennifer Morris Grasso’s direction, they put on a very impressive dance sequence while he sang impeccably.

I also credit Mr. Balne for his crooning of “Baby Talk to Me.” The high notes at the end of the song sounded a bit of out his natural vocal range. He still nailed the notes correctly…on a balmy ninety degree evening, no less. That’s remarkable singing.

Megan Knowlton Balne also conveyed outstanding vocal prowess. A strong performance on an early number, “An English Teacher”, served as a good warm up for the more challenging “Spanish Rose” towards the end of the show. She sang just as proficiently in a Spanish accent as she did with her regular voice. Once again, that’s remarkable singing.

Aside from the great songs, the role called for a very intricate dance number with a group of Shriners. Mrs. Balne’s Rose rose to that challenge, as well. At times I thought the line between dance and gymnastics blurred a bit. It didn’t affect this performer at all.

While Mrs. Balne displayed many strong traits on stage, I found her non-verbal skills without peer. This player can express more emotion with an eye roll than most could with an extended soliloquy. Bravo.

Ashleigh Neilio may only be a freshman in high school, but she displayed the skills of a seasoned stage veteran. Her delivery of “How Lovely to Be a Woman” impressed me. It’s incredible how talented she is at this point in her career. Ms. Neilio sang with great vibrato and sustain. She also caroled with perfect intonation on the high notes. While achieving that difficult feat, she performed the number while changing costumes on stage as she faced the audience. (I can’t even put on a pair of loafers without looking at what I’m doing.) She’s got a bright future in theater. Audiences can look forward to watching Ms. Neilio perform for many years to come.

Steve Stonis (as Conrad Birdie) undoubtedly earned the award for best costumes in this show. The gold suit he wore gave off the colorful attire of a rock star and allowed him the flexibility of movement to out-gyrate Elvis Presley. He also drew laughs during his comedic appearance chugging a bottle of beer while sporting a leopard skin robe. Aside from his fifties crooner style singing, he showed his commitment to playing this character by wearing a pink blouse with a head scarf at the end of the show. That’s dedication.

I’d also like to credit Michael Hicks for his portrayal of Kim’s father. I last saw him play the serious dramatic role of Dr. Sloper in Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress. He turned in a fantastic performance in a light hearted musical. I’d never heard him sing before. His frustrated delivery of “Kids” and fitting facial expressions suited his character perfectly. Mr. Hicks brilliantly expressed Mr. MacAfee’s antediluvian values (even for a 1950s dad). I appreciated watching him in this comedic role.

I relished observing my friend Lisa Croce reprise her role as Mae Peterson. Ms. Croce once told me that she’d like audiences to remember her as “funny”.  I’m sure she achieved that goal with this group of theatergoers. Her artistic choice of voice suited this role. It fit well with her repeated (and mostly successful) efforts to lay guilt trips on Albert. Her modulation on the not so veiled attacks on Rose made her the perfect antagonist to Mrs. Balne’s character.

I wished the performance could’ve included a live band. As a “purist” I feel that musicians performing along with the people singing make for a better listening experience. All the music was pre-recorded and broadcast over the public address system. I understand that the facility lacked the space to fit the required orchestra for some of the songs, however.

The show began with an off-stage relationship developing into a fictional one on stage. By the end of the performance the true love affair turned out to be between the audience and the cast. (I still noticed a little friction among Ms. Croce’s and Mrs. Balne’s characters, though.) See this show no later than August 6th. After that it’s bye bye Bye Bye Birdie at Haddonfield Plays and Players.