Michael Lovell

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.

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Theatre Review – Parade at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I have some “real big news” for both fans of “pretty music” as well as those who prefer “a rumblin’ and a rollin’” in their seats. Haddonfield Plays and Players are putting on an outstanding production of the musical Parade. I experienced the pleasure of witnessing the show firsthand at the premiere on October 20, 2016. Director Pat De Fusco understood one person couldn’t “do it alone.” The cast and crew earned their share of “the glory” for this remarkable performance. Many times “it’s hard to speak my heart.” So I hope readers will forgive me for “all the wasted time” I spent on this “prelude.” I would point out that the substantive parts of this review are “not over yet”; and there’s a lot of substance to this one.  So “what am I waiting for?”

Parade (book by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by James Robert Brown) told a disturbing tale for a musical. The action commenced on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1913. With the backdrop of a parade commemorating this Georgia holiday, authorities discovered the body of a 13 year-old factory worker named Mary Phagan (Played by Alexa Reeves) in the basement of the building she worked. In order to advance his political career, Georgia Governor Slaton (played by Michael Doheny) pressured District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (played by Michael Lovell) to quickly convict someone of the crime. He opted to frame a Jewish migrant from Brooklyn, Leo Frank (played by Andrew Jarema).

Mr. Jarema’s role reminded me of a character from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. With his big spectacles, clean-cut looks and straight hair he looked the part of an average man drawn into a bizarre happening through forces beyond his control. He showed great range in his performance, as well. When police asked his character to identify Mary’s body he became squeamish and anxious. During an enactment of (false) court room testimony, Mr. Jarema did a superb job transforming from a timid man wrongly accused into a predatory lothario. I enjoyed his spirited performance in the later incarnation during the jazzy “Come Up to My Office” number. He also demonstrated tenderness singing the “This is Not Over Yet” ballad accompanied by Lucille Frank (played by Arielle Egan). I have to applaud this performer for transitioning his character into a courageous and even heroic figure by the end of the show.

Arielle Egan played an outstanding supportive wife in the role of Mrs. Frank. Mr. Jarema’s character didn’t make it easy for her. In spite of his taking his anger and frustration out on her, sometimes in rather shrill tones, she conveyed both her anxiety and devotion to him. I found her renditions of “You Don’t Know This Man” and “All the Wasted Time” very moving.

I also liked the way she adjusted her character’s personality throughout the show. While visiting her husband in prison she expressed a desire to leave town during his trial. Like her counterpart’s, her character became more audacious throughout the performance. Later in the show her character approached the governor at a private party and asked him to re-open her husband’s case. Her animation of Mrs. Frank made this change credible.

The best moment in the show occurred with Darryl Thomson, Jr.’s soulful performance on “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall.” With the chain gang serving as a chorus and the image of the scorching sun over the Georgia landscape in the background, he sang the blues in a way that would’ve made Robert Johnson jealous. I enjoyed the song so much it gave me the blues because it ended too soon.

I also appreciated Taylor Brody’s portrayal of cynical reporter Britt Craig. His dark suit along with the tie hanging loosely under his unbuttoned top button looked the part of a beat reporter in search of a scoop. So did his taking notes while attending Ms. Phagan’s funeral. The rendition of “Real Big News” really captured his character’s essence. Visuals of newspaper headlines projected against the background enhanced the atmosphere on this tune, as well.

I applaud Michael Arigot for his very emotional portrayal of Frankie Epps. He began by playing a carefree teenager courting Mary Phagan. Following her death he delivered heartbreaking singing during “The Funeral Sequence.” I found that portion of the show very poignant. Following that, he compellingly played a man consumed with rage and obsessed with the need for vengeance.

Parade featured a veritable high tech extravaganza. A projector flashed images on the rear wall during several crucial scenes. A pre-recorded soundtrack played in the background for the musical numbers. Several times the harmony played so loud it drowned out the singers’ voices. Towards the end of the show the music cut out several times. With a show this complex these things happen. None of the performers let the distractions affect their performances. They remained focused until the sound crew addressed the issues. That’s a credit to everyone’s professionalism.

I also want to credit Michael Lovell (as DA Hugh Dorsey) and William H. Young (as Riley) for the interrogation. If I may borrow a line from Hamilton, these gentlemen made me feel like I was “in the room where it happens.” The questioning occurred the same way I would’ve imagined a politically ambitious DA grilling an African-American witness in the Deep South during the early twentieth century. Mr. Lovell delivered threats with veiled hostility. Mr. Young prayed and trembled while listening. The proficiency of these two performers made this scene uncomfortably realistic.

My “verdict” on Haddonfield Plays and Players production is that this show was phenomenal. If someone tells you I made different comments regarding Parade, tell that person, “‘That’s what he said.’ ’You don’t know this man.’”

“Somethin’ ain’t right,” though. “It don’t make sense” that the show’s “finale” will take place just a few short weeks away on November 5th. The performance deserves a longer run. Where’s the “hammer of justice” here? Visit Haddonfield Plays and Players before Parade passes by. That’s my “closing statement.”

Last Night of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players

Last Night of Ballyhoo developed into the most multifaceted story I’ve ever watched unfold on a live stage. The drama fused the premiere of the Gone with the Wind in 1939, with a quasi-love triangle involving two cousins, coupled with a prevalence of latent anti-Semitism among Southern Jewish society. The incipient phases of the Second World War along with a cotillion that glitterati from all over the South would be in Atlanta to attend served as the backdrop. To exacerbate the complexity, the humorous dialog during the opening scenes convinced me I misread the synopsis. The play began as a comedy! There’s only one word to describe a show like this: awesome.

This Tony Award Winning Alfred Uhry play may sound like a mind-twisting intellectual exercise. The written version of it may well be just that. However, the performers at Haddonfield Plays and Players brought the text to life in a way that made the story easy to follow. I had the pleasure of attending the Opening Night performance of this Mark Karcher directed presentation on February 19th.

Jessica Braynor delivered an outstanding performance as Lala Levy. Ms. Braynor vividly expressed the mannerisms and bubbly Southern accent of an effervescent young woman struggling to assimilate into high society. Her character’s social awkwardness provided a good portion of the humor in this show. She also transitioned into a tragic figure as her mother, played by Lauren Fabbri-Picerno, pushed—well, make that shoved– her daughter to become part of the de facto Southern aristocracy.

Alex Levitt played an exceptional Joe Farkas; the surprising hero of the story. Mr. Levitt showed great range in his performance, as well. He became anxious and fidgety in response to Lala’s advances. In the scene where he first encountered Sunny Freitag (played by Marnie Kanarek) he exhibited coyness and tenderness. I applaud his ability to do so proficiently while speaking in a thick Brooklyn accent.

The stand out moment of this performance (rightly) occurred during the climax. I’ll avoid spoilers, but I will mention that it consisted of an argument between Mr. Levitt and Ms. Kanarek. For the only time in the show Mr. Levitt’s character lost his temper. Ms. Kanarek displayed indignation at being screamed at while at the same time her character didn’t understand what she did wrong. That’s a tough scene to play and a difficult one for an audience to watch. The two executed this challenge brilliantly.

For a serious show, Last Night of Ballyhoo did contain a lot of humorous dialog. I liked the interplay between Tami Gordon Brody (in the role of Reba Freitag) and Lauren Fabbri-Picerno (as Boo Levy). I’m not sure if the playwright intended the line to be comical, but I found Ms. Fabbri-Picerno’s observation that there shouldn’t be a star on the family’s Christmas Tree because “we’re Jewish” quite amusing.

I’m preferential to laid-back, deadpan wit. Plenty of it occurred in this show. Michael Lovell (as Adolph Freitag) delivered some droll thoughts on marriage. While dozing in his chair with a newspaper over his face, he added some snoring at unusual times during the show.

Alex Young’s character (Preachy Weil) showed why he didn’t have a reputation for honesty. He followed up many of his fabulist declarations, with the expression, “What do you think?” The long, drawn out Southern drawl he used made his delivery more memorable.

In terms of Alfred Uhry’s play itself, I did have some minor issues with it. The story began with a lot of humor, especially around Lala’s quest to get a date for Ballyhoo. When I watched the performance I thought the playwright’s transition to tragedy too abrupt. The more I reflected, I realized a lot of foreshadowing occurred prior to that happening. For those who haven’t seen the show, I won’t provide a detailed explanation. I’d just suggest paying close attention.

I’ve also read that there’s controversy over the Last Night of Ballyhoo’s conclusion. While watching that portion of the performance, I had some questions about it, myself. To be fair to Mr. Uhry, many great dramas have recondite endings. I don’t have an opinion on that one way or the other. How an artist prefers to close his/her work is always at that person’s discretion. I’d suggest theater fans attend the show and draw their own conclusions, no pun intended.

I have to express my admiration for the show’s cast. They managed to play multi-dimensional characters in a dramedy very convincingly. The thought provoking nature of the subject matter got me thinking after the show. While watching it I experienced an enjoyable evening of quality entertainment. I’d prefer attending the Haddonfield Plays and Players performance of Last Night of Ballyhoo to going to the premiere of Gone with the Wind or being present at the real Ballyhoo any evening.