Melissa Harnois

Virtually Possible Theatre Festival Presented by Amber Kusching

The drama with Amber Kusching’s debut Virtual Theatre Festival began even before the show started. Ms. Kusching’s quintet of virtual plays premiered on a summer evening with expected downpours and thunder hammering in the distance. As an editor for Broadway World, Ms. Kusching crafted a legendary review of an opening night performance on just such an evening. Her witty and detailed appraisal of the Music Man in June of 2019 serves as the benchmark for entertaining community theatre reviews.

In keeping with the social distancing requirements necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the online platform Zoom served as the virtual theatre. With that format, technical issues always concern directors. The minatory weather added another variable.

Would Ms. Kusching’s festival warrant a similar review to the one she wrote one year ago?  Your correspondent learned the answer this August 7th.

The festival featured five one act plays written by Amber Kusching. The set list included material that would provide her fans with a complete Amber Kusching experience. The festival opened with a “quarantine original” called A Light in Dark Places. The two “Kusching classics” Crazy and Cloud Illusions made the bill. For those interested in the playwright’s new work, it featured world premiere plays When It Rains, Divorce and Pushing Up Daisies.

Your correspondent has described Ms. Kusching as a “theatrical guru.” Ms. Kusching could just as aptly be called “the Steve Winwood of South Jersey Community Theatre.” In addition to writing all five plays in a show that she produced, Ms. Kusching directed the original piece A Light in Dark Places.

The play was an interesting choice for a summer show. The action occurred during the winter and a ghost served as one of the characters. The drama centered on the reunion of an estranged mother named Carol (played by Sheila McDonald) and her son Chaddington (Tony Gonzalez). They’d chosen to reunite at the father’s hunting cabin following his death. The haunting presence of the past became manifest in the form of Marjorie (Betty Mitchell), a ghost with a terrifying secret.

Carolyn Tisher Messias directed the next show in the program When It Rains, Divorce. At his brother’s wedding, Daniel (Alex Levitt) prepared to deliver the toast. His mother Karen (played by director, Carolyn Tisher Messias) questioned his wife Lisa’s (Hallie Robin) fidelity. Why? Lisa wore yellow. Karen believed that color a symbol of unfaithfulness. Daniel’s suspicions arose when Lisa’s “friend from work” Rick (Beau Wade) displayed inappropriate closeness with Lisa.

Melynda Antionette directed one of Ms. Kusching’s self-described “favorites.” Crazy explored the tenuous boundaries separating the “normal” from the “deranged.” The playwright utilized a creative structure for the dialog. Psychiatrist (Sheila McDonald) asked a patient a question. After the character responded, the doctor asked a follow-up question. A different character answered and proceeded to speak. Performers Debby Tighe, Randy Hendler, David Grice, Rebekah Cianfaglione and Kat Hebert played the patients.

Ms. Kusching described the next show, Pushing Up Daisies, as: “A play that paints a picture of heartache and yearning with strokes of mystery and humor.” As with A Light in Dark Places, a haunting presence affected the character’s lives. Peter (Alex Levitt) spent his days in a dark room painting daisies. The choice of flower contained a dual meaning. His late daughter (Gracie Brown) shared the same name as the plant. His wife Nicole (Sara Viniar) implored Peter to make peace with the past and embrace the future. Megan Knowlton Balne directed this bittersweet family drama.

Most playwrights find inspiration from others who practice the same craft. Ms. Kusching showed how artists in other fields can provide dramatists with a muse. The Joni Mitchell track “Both Sides Now” stirred Ms. Kusching to craft Cloud Illusions. Melissa Harnois directed this tale of a chance encounter between workaholic lawyer Mitchell (John Nicodemo) and soon-to-be bride Joan (Allison Nicole). As a strong follow-up to Pushing Up Daisies, Cloud Illusions showed the cathartic power of living in the present.

Ms. Kusching’s prose stimulated the actors to deliver virtuoso performances. Alex Levitt and Sara Viniar played affecting characters in Pushing Up Daisies. Mr. Levitt also entertained through his comical proficiency in When It Rains, Divorce. Kat Herbert brought genuine realism to her portrayal of a schizophrenic in Crazy. John Nicodemo and Allison Nicole each brought heart-warming characteristics to their roles in Cloud Illusions.

Most virtual shows lack sophisticated backgrounds. In many, actors position themselves in front of dull colored walls. The more sophisticated perform from a den that includes a canine cameo. Thanks to Tony Gonzalez’s superb technical direction, the plays in this festival included more applicable scenery. The outdoor ambiance of Cloud Illusions and the pre-COVID-19 wedding reception in When It Rains, Divorce, gave the stories more depth. They also made it easier for audience members to suspend their disbelief.

The Virtually Possible Theatre Festival included a first for online theatre. Audience members received a stylish playbill. It included photos and bios of all cast members and directors. The layout integrated a creative use of colors as well.

To paraphrase her own text from Cloud Illusions, Ms. Kusching isn’t looking backwards or forwards. She’s looking up. The playwright presented the Virtually Possible Theatre Festival as a fundraiser for her Philadelphia Fringe Festival project Oz.org. That show will stream through Zoom in September 2020.

One more showing of this festival will take place on August 8th at 7:00 PM.

There may not have been power outages, flooding or bats flying around, but Amber Kusching’s play festival gave the audience a memorable opening night performance. Your correspondent can only hope that his review of it serves as a worthy tribute to the master.

Scrooge: The Musical “Revitalized and Reimagined” at the Ritz Theatre Company

The “Weil”d December continues for South Jersey community theatre fans.

Under Matthew Weil’s direction, the Ritz Theatre Company premiered the “revitalized and reimagined” version of Scrooge: The Musical this week. This perennial Holiday classic took the stage sans Bruce A. Curless in the lead role. It’s also the second Holiday show that Mr. Weil is directing this month: and it’s one extraordinary Christmas tour-de-force. Your correspondent attended the Saturday evening show on December 14th.

While approaching the Ritz, a series of illuminated Christmas wreaths adorning the Ritz building captured your correspondent’s attention. As did the evergreen strands descending from the roof onto the marquee. The red and green colors of the iconic R-I-T-Z letters distinguished this historic South Jersey institution from the other edifices along the White Horse Pike.

As much as those features established the Holiday mood, the Ritz staff made the interior even more festive. Scrooge purists will be delighted that the production team retained the familiar wreath, evergreen garland and Christmas trees that framed the stage.

The “Weil”d December turned into one “Weil”d Winter Wonderland.

The wrapped gifts underneath the Christmas tree seemed superfluous, however. The real present was the one the performers delivered to the audience.

Alan Krier demonstrates courage when selecting theatrical projects. He played dual roles in Bruce Norris’ exploration of housing discrimination: Clybourne Park. For his first directorial endeavor he chose David Lindsey-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole: a Pulitzer Prize winning play centered on a family coping with the death of their child. Mr. Krier’s decision to play the role of everyone’s favorite Christmas curmudgeon may be his bravest choice yet.

As South Jersey community theatre fans know, 2019 marks the first time the Ritz is presenting Scrooge without Bruce A. Curless in the lead role. He is, in essence, the Tom Brady of Scrooge performers. He’s played that role every December for over twenty years. Unlike actors such as George C. Scott, Winfred Owen and Seymour Hicks, Mr. Curless is a veritable institution as Scrooge. When the Ritz’s production team decided to return this South Jersey “Holiday tradition” to the stage, they only thought of one performer to take the mantle of Scrooge from him: Alan Krier.

Mr. Krier pulled off a theatrical Jimmy Garoppolo, as it were. When stepping out of a master’s shadow, he took a franchise with an uncertain future to another level. The witty delivery he employed for the “I Hate People” number drew laughs from the audience. As did his riposte to Marley’s (played by John Nicodemo) announcement that Scrooge would be visited by three ghosts. The nervous, “I’d rather not,” added to the legacy of vintage Krier comedy.

Director Weil made this incarnation of Scrooge much more dramatic than last year’s performance. He discarded the fluff and pageantry (and thankfully, the platforms in the middle of the room) to focus on the story. By removing those layers, he allowed the depth of Charles Dickens’ original tale to surface. A fable of greed, poverty and redemption played out on stage.

Mr. Krier enacted the dramatic scenes with extraordinary skill. His interactions with John Nicodemo (in the roles of Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future) equalled the strongest performances he’s delivered on stage. His somber pining when watching his younger self (played by Robert Repici) and his lost love Isabelle (Lindsey Krier) moved this reviewer. The sorrow on his face when Lindsey Krier performed “Isabelle’s Dance” to end the first act concretized Scrooge’s heart shattering.

The Ritz team understood that the comparisons between Mr. Krier and Mr. Curless would occur. Director Weil didn’t burden Mr. Krier with carrying the show on his own. Mr. Weil surrounded him with a cast of monumentally talented performers. They gave the “revitalized and reimagined” Scrooge its own identity.

Robert Repici and Lindsey Krier delivered a gripping version of “Happiness.” The cool baritone of Mr. Repici’s voice accentuated the song’s bittersweet lyrics. Ms. Krier applied palpable passion and enthusiasm to this number. The addition of the dark background, lighting and snow made the scene a visual spectacle for the ages.

The Cratchit kids (Adalyn Crow, Anna Bizhko, Jeffrey Smith and Lillian Low) delivered the “cute factor” for the “Good Times” number. Kaitlyn Healey’s vocals and Steve Stonis’ operatic syllables made this another unforgettable number.

Mr. Weil ensured that each of Scrooge’s spectral visitors possessed their own distinct personalities.

John Nicodemo’s anguished delivery as Jacob Marley captured the character’s torment. His slouching under the weight of the chains showed it. Mr. Nicodemo’s silence and slow movements made the Ghost of Christmas Future even more minatory.

Daio Fumilayo delivered a haunting performance as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The lighting and white gown gave her character an ethereal ambiance. Ms. Fumilayo’s calm delivery (with just a touch of reverb added) and blank stares at Scrooge reflected the character’s otherworldly nature.

John Romano, Jr. made the Ghost of Christmas Present just as jolly as Good Old Saint Nick himself. His Marc Bolan style wig added good comedic effect. The laughter and mannerisms Mr. Romano used while showing Scrooge both the Cratchits’ and Harry’s Christmas festivities gave the impression that he enjoyed the show just as much as the audience. Mr. Romano moderated his character’s frivolity when Scrooge inquired about Tiny Tim’s fate. The tempered anger in his voice while repeating Scrooge’s point about “excess population” gave the point more impact.

Thanks to Mr. Weil’s hospitality, your correspondent attended a rehearsal for Scrooge. During that session Musical Director Nicholas French and Alan Krier teamed up for “Thank You Very Much.” The two brought immense energy to that run through. They displayed even more vitality during the actual show. This reviewer wouldn’t have through that possible.

Steve Stonis, who directed Scrooge last year, and Adalyn Crow performed outstanding acapella numbers, as well.

While this year’s Scrooge didn’t include a ballet company, it did contain a solo dance in that style. Lisa Krier performed a wonderful routine on the “Celebration” number; the latter composed by Bob Cerulli.

In addition to the talent, Mr. Weil added spellbinding visuals to this version of Scrooge. The snow falling from the ceiling along with the strategic use of lighting (designed by Mr. Weil and operated by Stage Manager Melissa Harnois) enhanced the action on the stage. The periodic illuminating and dimming of the wreath above the stage and Christmas trees on stage left and stage right made the show a spectacular Christmas spectacle.

The other performers who provided their talents for this outstanding show included: Charles Bandler, Liz Baldwin, Jay Burton, Sadie McKenna, Audrey Mitros, Dillinger Crow, Beatrice (Bee) Fraga, Gwen Low and Ella Samuel-Seigel.

Assistant Stage Manager Brian Gensel, Costume Designer Briana Bailey and Sound Operators Sam Tait and Natasia Swan rounded out the production team.

Community theatre fans have the opportunity to get the full range of Mr. Weil’s directorial talents this December. Those impressed with the “revitalized and reimagined” Scrooge are encouraged to attend Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka at Haddonfield Plays and Players. Mr. Weil also directed that show; Scrooge’s Stage Manager Melissa Harnois assistant directed. Wonka runs through December 21st.

Mr. Weil’s direction ensured he won’t be visited by any apparitions this Holiday Season. The stage set, the marquee and the overall story would satisfy the Ghost of Christmas Past. Mr. Krier’s interpretation of Scrooge, the performance of the cast and crew as well as the “reimagined and revitalized” franchise would captivate the Ghost of Christmas Present. (He’d probably be happy that the platforms in the middle of the building are gone, too.) All the new faces in the cast would make even the dreadful Ghost of Christmas Future smile. These performers may ensure the Scrooge franchise a home at the Ritz for the next two decades.

This run, however, passes from the domain of the Ghost of Christmas Present to the Ghost of Christmas Past on December 22nd. Fans should see Scrooge: The Musical before the Ghost of Christmas Future haunts them about the prospect of missing it.

 

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.

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.

10-Minute Comedy Play Festival at the Ritz Theatre Company

87 submissions. 14 contenders. Seven finalists. The Ritz Theatre Company’s 10-Minute Comedy Play festival once again showed that comedy is serious business. The company offered local playwrights the opportunity to write a show that they would present on the Ritz stage. Is the overwhelming response any wonder? I attended the concluding performance on June 1st.

A team of theatrical professionals evaluated the submissions. After all 14 shows were performed, they selected the top seven. The Ritz presented these plays on the evening of June 1st. Each playwright, director and actor who performed in these shows will receive two complimentary tickets to the Ritz production of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor by Kumar Dari. At the conclusion of Saturday’s performances, a team of judges (Kumar Dari, Randy Peterson and Alex Wilkie) selected the top three. The playwright of the winner received $100, they awarded the runner-up $75 and gave the third place finisher $50.

Not to repeat myself, but comedy is serious business. All these perks seemed to inspire the playwrights to produce creative material.

The Ritz Theatre presented this event “in the round.” The seats were arranged in four sections on the actual stage. This format allowed the performers to make eye contact with the spectators. It also enabled the audience to feel like part of the show.

The plays selected for this final performance included a range of subjects. Tom Moran selected a contemporary topic for “I, Phone.” Bruce A. Curless directed performers Hannah Hobson and Giacomo Fizzano through this comical take on how technology is taking over people’s lives.

Scott Gibson’s “What You Wish For” presented a unique perspective on the “genie in a bottle” story. Ryan Strack directed this tale about a woman who discovered that a genie lived in a lamp she purchased. While attempting to return it at the department store, she told her story to another woman she encountered the line. When asked why she wanted to get rid of the wish granting genie, she gave an unexpected reason. Mr. Gibson showed a lot of creativity with plot twist on this story.

It seemed fitting that one of South Jersey’s most versatile theatre gurus, Amber Kusching, directed two shows that made the final seven. Heidi Mae’s “Meeting Heaven” was the most complex. It included five characters. Four of which were: a playwright (Kenwyn Samuel), a bartender (Melissa Mitchem), the playwright’s brother (Adam Corbett), and both the brother’s and the playwright’s love interest, “Heaven” (Sarah Baumgarten). The cast also included a narrator played by Julianne Rose Layden. The narrator was actually the playwright character delivering narration. Ms. Layden’s delivery brought to mind the voice overs common in old detective movies.

Ms. Kusching had Ms. Layden walk around the stage while delivering her lines. She spoke in a sultry voice to convey the piece’s mood. Ms. Layden also made eye contact with audience members. It created the impression that the narrator spoke to theatregoers instead of at them.

Ms. Kusching also directed Jim Moss’ “The Last Shirt off His Back.” Kenwyn Samuel and John Nicodemo performed this witty take on death. It involved a haunted apartment and a pillow made of old tee shirts. I mentioned before that these plays were creative, right?

Death is a popular topic with playwrights. In addition to Mr. Moss’ piece, two of the top three plays found humor in the subject.

Kevin O’Brien’s “Little Deaths” received the third place prize. Sara Rabatin directed performers Julianne McIntosh and Beatrice Alonna through this comical exploration of death and political correctness. One also has to credit the performers for dressing in winter attire on a humid late spring evening.

Melissa Harnois directed the runner-up: Eric Rupp’s “Snickerdoodle.” It featured a young lady (played by Alex Phillips) informing her parents (Jay Burton and Beatrice Alonna) that she planned on entering a clown college. (If that didn’t work out, her back-up career was miming.) The mother’s and father’s responses to the daughter’s craving for the craft of clowning made the show hysterical.

The judges awarded Ken Teutsch’s “What Friends Are For” the first place prize. This Mike Grubb directed piece also explored death from a humorous perspective. It featured an unlikely situation for a comedy show. A character (played by Mr. Grubb) informed his roommate (played by Kyle Jacobus) that he wanted to commit suicide. A discussion that would’ve pleased both Albert Camus and Neil Simon resulted.

The Ritz didn’t include the names of the actors in the program. It was understandable as the event was designed to focus on the work and not the performers. At the end of each play the actors introduced themselves. Due to the format I had trouble hearing everyone’s name, particularly following “What You Wish For.” All the actors performed outstanding work. They all deserve credit for their contributions to a very entertaining evening of theatre. * I would also credit the technical crew of Sadie McKenna, Brian Gensel, Sam Tait and Anastacia Swan for their work on the lighting and sound.

It’s not unusual to see typos in theatrical programs on occasion. I did think it odd to find the word playwright misspelled in the one for this event.

At the evening’s conclusion, the Ritz Theatre’s Artistic Director, Bruce A. Curless, addressed the audience. He explained that it seemed “contradictory having a contest involving art. They’re all winners.” His observation reminded me of something the late Glenn Walker said to me. I once told Glenn that every year I read the books that won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Man-Booker Prize. He replied, “Don’t worry about awards: worry about your audience.” Based on the spectators’ reaction during this festival, none of these playwrights have anything about which to worry.

 

*For all those whose names I either missed or misspelled, if you’d like to be included in this post please message me on either Twitter or Facebook. I’ll make sure to add it.

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.

 

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.

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.