Michael Melvin

The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Sister Act at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Many South Jersey community theatre fans have attended at least one Sister Act production staged this year. When the Maple Shade Arts Council announced that they’d be producing it this July, I’m sure some asked, “Do we really need another Sister Act show..again?” Well, theatre legend Michael Melvin directed this one. So don’t think of it as “just another Sister Act” show. Think of it as the New Testament. I attended the showing at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium on July 15, 2017.

Since Sister Act has been such a popular show this season, I’ll spare readers the usual plot summary. However, to paraphrase director Michael Melvin, I will report that the cast and crew “put together one hell of a heavenly show.”

Watching Phyllis Josephson take the stage again was a true pleasure. I’ve seen her perform in numerous shows; in fact most recently in Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players. She delivered a rap number in that one, but this is the first time I experienced her ethereal vocal style. I found her emotional rendition of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” very moving.

Ms. Josephson turned in a supreme performance as Mother Superior. She balanced the character’s austere nature while still getting laughs at the proper times. After her passionate rendition of the number mentioned above, she followed it up with a stellar on-liner. She also shared great chemistry with her nemesis, Dolores, played by Danielle Harley-Scott.

Ms. Harley-Scott played a wild free spirit and aspiring disco diva forced to masquerade as a nun. This required some range and she executed the challenge very well. She crooned the upbeat numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby!” with spirit. Later in the show she adjusted and delivered a passionate rendition of “Sister Act.” Maintaining her focus while the lights reflected off her sequined blouse was an achievement in itself. Her comedic attempt to lead the nuns in grace made one of the funniest moments of the show.

In a bit of ironic casting, Darryl Thompson, Jr. played “Sweaty” Eddie. I wrote ironic, because I didn’t notice him sweat all evening. The challenging number “I Could Be That Guy” would’ve given most performers a reason to perspire. Mr. Thompson already earned a reputation as a phenomenal vocalist through his previous work. With that acknowledgement, he sang a version of the song that would’ve impressed Berry Gordy.

Casey Grouser (as Sister Mary Robert) displayed extraordinary talent in this production. This performer possesses the strongest voice I’ve ever heard. The brilliant way she modulated it all evening impressed me. Unlike many singers, Ms. Grouser managed to hit high notes without her voice sounding piping. Ms. Grouser shone in her passionate rendition of “The Life I Never Led.”

In other scenes, Ms. Grouser captured her character’s initial timidity by hugging a book, looking down or quickly shuffling off stage. She believably enacted the character’s transformation into a self-confident person. Her overall performance deftly brought out Sister Mary Robert’s inner feelings.

I called Antonio Flores “brilliantly comical” when he played a gangster in City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters. I delighted in watching him step up into the role of crime lord, Curtis. The witty flair he added to “When I Find My Baby” enhanced the tune’s unusual lyrics.

Lori A. Howard and Vitaliy Kin demonstrated great comedic collaboration. Mr. Kin possesses a unique ability to stand out no matter what role he’s playing. Ask anyone who heard him sing Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish during The Wedding Singer. Listening to him shout in Spanish while Ms. Howard translated became my favorite moment in the show.

Erica Pallucci choreographed some extraordinary high-energy dancing. Casey Grouser, Gina Petti and MacKenzie Smith put on a clinic. There’s no question the choreographer deserves some credit for the routines. I’m just thinking these dancers found a lot of inspiration from the funky moves Mr. Melvin showcased when he played TJ this January.

The way Sister Act combined comedy, singing and dancing in the same scenes made it distinct. Matt Maerten, Evan Hairston and Vitaliy Kin combined their talents for the “Lady in the Long Black Dress” number. It made for an unforgettable scene.

I’d also credit performers Jillian Starr-Renbjor, Brian Blanks, Debra Heckmann, Andrea Veneziano William Smith and the ensemble for their comedic and vocal contributions to this stellar production.

The live band made the show even more special. Cameron Stringham did an excellent job coordinating the music. It sounded spectacular without overshadowing the vocals.

One of the advantages we community theatre critics enjoy is the opportunity to interact with influential people. I’ve had the privilege to sit next to famous performers, directors and producers at various shows I’ve attended. The Maple Shade Arts Council took this perk to a whole new level. Michael Melvin occupied the next seat over from me when he played Pius VI. (I give him credit for staying in character while doing so.) So this time, I got to sit next to the director, the organization’s president and a Pope. Now I’ve made it as a writer!

So do we really need another version of Sister Act in South Jersey? After watching the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production, an emphatic YES answers that question. This performance contained phenomenal singing, dancing and acting. Just perhaps, a series of Sister Act Two shows may be a welcome addition to the 2017 – 2018 theatrical season. For now, fans can see the original at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium through July 22.

The Critique Compendium Interview: Michael Melvin

michael-melvin

A lot of people like to complain about how busy they are. These people would be well advised not to say that to Michael Melvin.

Mr. Melvin wears so many hats that pretty soon he’s going to need more heads. He recently played Joey in Haddonfield Plays and Players production of Sister Act this February. In a few weeks he will be casting for Sister Act which he will direct at the Maple Shade Arts Council this summer.

During the day, Mr. Melvin works as an Eighth Grade Math and Science teacher in Edgewater Park, NJ. He concurrently works towards his Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership at Montclair State University.

In addition to performing and directing in South Jersey Community Theatre productions, he is the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council; a 501[c]3 non-profit organization. Its membership includes educators, parents, and the general public. The group provides entertaining, educational, and inspirational artistic programs and events for the community. Through the Arts Council, Mr. Melvin has had the privilege of directing the summer theatre campers, as well as directing the adults in the summer musical.

In the past Mr. Melvin served as a board member with Burlington County Footlighters in Cinnaminson, NJ. He also played the drums in musicals such as 13 and Avenue Q.

While Mr. Melvin is very passionate about the performing arts and education, his heart truly belongs to his fiancee, Nicole Traino. He anxiously awaits their wedding day in March 2018 and looks forward to spending the rest of his life with his high school sweetheart.

Despite an exceedingly busy schedule, Mr. Melvin genially agreed to be interviewed on February 22, 2017. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Critique Compendium: You’re a math teacher. So I’m sure you won’t mind taking a little test to prove how well you know your subject. What’s two plus six?

Michael Melvin: Eight.

Critique Compendium: (Long, long pause.) I’ll take your word for it.

Critique Compendium: You’ve taken on leadership roles with both Burlington County Footlighters and The Maple Shade Arts Council. You’re also working towards a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. What’s your definition of leadership?

Michael Melvin: To me, there are the people who sit behind the desk and then there are the people in the trenches. When I become a school administrator I’ll want everyone to know I’ll be there for them. I’m there to help them succeed.

I’m in the Arts Council because I want to see people achieve. My role is to help others achieve greatness.

Critique Compendium: What interested you in stepping up and taking on leadership responsibilities?

Michael Melvin: It all started when I was a young kid. I did summer theatre in Maple Shade. I wasn’t into sports. I was the type who liked to eat cheese fries in the stands! My mom said to try summer theatre. I did and got hooked. I continued doing theatre in high school. In college I focused on math.

In 2012 I got involved with Footlighters performing in the Wedding Singer through friends. At the time there was an opening on the board for a secretary. They asked me if I would be interested in doing it. Taking notes seemed like something I could handle so I said, “Okay.” After that was like a snowball effect.

Critique Compendium: You’re the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council. How did you get involved with that organization?

Michael Melvin: I was in their summer theatre program through the community alliance. A friend told me that the Maple Shade Arts Council was still in existence. In 2013 the Arts Council existed under the township, but no one was running it.

Due to changes in funding and the camp no longer being able to be done in the summer, I wanted to find a way to keep the summer theatre camp as is to better accommodate our campers. I wanted to keep the program I loved and grew up doing as is.  Since then it has blossomed. It’s been a blessing.

Critique Compendium: Could you describe some of the programs the Maple Shade Arts Council sponsors?

Michael Melvin: We have the summer musical for adults, as you know. The first one we did was Urintetown. I’ll say this: it made people aware of us.

We also do cabarets. We did art workshops before and we’re looking to do them again. We’ve done a Holiday heirloom workshop. We present a teen show, too.

The new thing is the junior program for kids in Kindergarten through third grade.

We’re focused on theatrical shows, but I don’t consider the Maple Shade Arts Council a “theatre organization.” We’re hoping to branch out into other performing arts.

Critique Compendium: How does the Maple Shade Arts Council select the shows it’s going to present?

Michael Melvin: We try to pick something the community hasn’t seen before. We want to do something unique that will interest people.

For our first show we figured we needed to attract actors first. We decided on Urinetown with the: “If you build it they will come philosophy.” We wanted to create a spark in the town. We created a conflagration.

The Addams Family had wider appeal. The Drowsy Chaperone featured old style music. We like to put on shows people can relate to. We picked Sister Act because a “summer show should be a fun show.” We present happy-go-lucky, make you feel good musicals for the summer.

As the Arts Council grows we’ll add more variety.

Critique Compendium: Did you perform in the Haddonfield Plays and Players version of Sister Act to get a “practice” Sister Act under your belt?

Michael Melvin: I wasn’t in Sister Act to learn about the show. I read Phyllis Josephson’s Facebook post about the auditions. I wanted to do a show with Phyllis. I sent a video submission. (Director) Chris (McGinnis) got back to me right away. I didn’t tell anyone about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I wanted to get back to acting. I had fun diving into the role.

Now I have to delete that memory of the show. I’m working with a new production team. Darryl (S. Thompson, Jr.) is the Assistant Director. We’ll give the show a new twist.

Critique Compendium: How did the council decide to do The Drowsy Chaperone? That show was outstanding.

Michael Melvin: Thank you. It was the first time I knew I wasn’t going to direct. I asked (director) Brian Padla what he wanted to do. I knew we had a “unique space.” (Since Maple Shade High School was under renovations) we had a smaller forum (in Nolan Hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.) I had no clue about the show myself. When Brian suggested it I said let’s look into it. I liked the cool music. When I watched the Aldopho scene on youtube I loved it!

Critique Compendium: What are some of the challenges in running a small non-profit volunteer organization?

Michael Melvin: The key is the word volunteer. People’s lives are hectic. The hard part is how to strike a passion with people to put in that extra effort. I believe in the organization. Over the last three years I’ve seen a lot of parents putting in their efforts.

We’re doing something great in the community. We’re bringing people to Maple Shade.

It’s very challenging to rally the troops to see the vision and then get them to buy into the vision. When I see that happen is the best part.

Critique Compendium: What makes you interested in playing a role?

Michael Melvin: I’m a character actor. I like comedic parts. I know I’m not going to play the ingénue. When I played Joey (in Sister Act) I grew a crazy moustache. I like weird characters. I love comedies. I enjoy becoming somebody who has no similarities with myself.

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

Michael Melvin: I’d say Legally Blonde. I was Professor Callahan. I’d never played a villain before. That character never changed the entire show.

When I told Jill (Starr-Renbjor, the director) I was going to try out for the part she said I was, “too nice.” When I went to the audition I dressed professorial and sang a song from the musical. I got the part.

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

Michael Melvin: In my senior year of high school I played Jean Valjean. To show how much I knew about theatre at the time, I’d never heard of Les Mis! I didn’t understand the nuances of theatre then. I did a lot of research for the part. Vocally it was a challenge. The role is a tenor and I’m a bass/baritone. That was hard as was being on stage the entire show and singing the entire show.

Critique Compendium: You’ve both performed as well as directed. Which do you prefer?

Michael Melvin: After being in Sister Act I prefer directing. I feel like I get more nervous when I’m on stage. Will I forget my lines? Will I forget the music? As an actor you’re concerned about yourself.

As a director you put yourself in every actor’s shoes. It gives you the opportunity to work with people. I love directing.

Critique Compendium: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.

Michael Melvin: I would probably say, my senior year in Les Mis. The coolest moment was knowing it was my last show in high school. I was the last one out for curtain call. I remember the emotions that went along with that. I’d worked with these people so long. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do theatre again.

Critique Compendium: How long was it until you performed again?

Michael Melvin: I spent four or five years off stage.

I didn’t perform in college. In college theatre was for the majors. They had phenomenal talent, anyway. I was focused on math and education at the time.

Critique Compendium: You’re also a gifted singer. Who influenced you musically?

Michael Melvin: My parents brought me up listening to 60s, 70s, and 80s music; the older music. I’m not into modern music. I wasn’t influenced by one person vocally. I listen to a weird mix such as country, Hamilton (the soundtrack), and Frank Sinatra.

Critique Compendium: What actors have influenced you?

Michael Melvin: I like to look at actors I’m similar to. I’d say Kevin Chamberlain who played Horton in Seussical and Fester in the Addams Family. I like Broadway performer Brian D’Arcy James. I can relate to Patton Oswalt’s personality.

I tell kids to know your type, know who you are. Having a niche is helpful.

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

Michael Melvin: Robin Williams because of his comedy background. You can’t figure out his mind. He keeps you on your toes. He could look at a prop and turn it into a bazillion things. He forced you to up your game or say, “I can’t keep up with this!”

Critique Compendium: What do you do when you’re not on stage?

Michael Melvin: I love watching Philly sports: the Phils, Eagles, and Sixers. I collect Funko Pop. I don’t have as much free time as I used to. It’s important for me to spend time with my fiancée.

Critique Compendium: I’ve heard that you chose a very unique way to propose to her. Could you tell us about that?

Michael Melvin: I told her they were going to do a read through at Footlighters for a script a friend of mine wrote. I let her know about it months in advance. Actually, I wrote the play. Each scene was something that happened during our relationship.

On the night of the “read through” we had heart candles all around the stage. As we went through the script she realized that all the scenes were familiar. Then I proposed to her on stage. The lights came up and there were 50 to 60 people in the audience.

We both have a passion for theatre. I feel like Footlighters helped me reconnect with friends and my high school band director, which led to me accepting a coaching job at our old high school marching band. We ended up coaching together and that ultimately led to us reconnecting and getting back together. I’m grateful BCF gave me the opportunity to propose on their stage.

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare for a role?

Michael Melvin: The biggest thing is: when going into auditions don’t soley focus on one role. An actor should be diverse and understand all the parts. I read through script several times. I read it from the other characters’ perspectives. I’ll write down the line before and the line after my character’s on notecards. That helps me get a better understanding.

Critique Compendium: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

Michael Melvin: I bring dedication. When you work with me I’m all in. At Haddonfield Plays and Players (production of Sister Act) I was very quiet. I wanted to prove that I wanted to work hard. I didn’t mention anything about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I’ll push myself in ways I don’t normally. I’ll push through things, such as singing tenor with a bass voice, even if it doesn’t come naturally to me.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

Michael Melvin: When I do comedy: not breaking character and laughing.

Haddonfield Plays and Players’ stage is close to the audience. It’s difficult with that smaller space not to laugh when you see your friends laughing.

Holding that character is tough. Becoming that other character is hard, too. Not letting Mike break through is the hardest part.

Critique Compendium: How would you like audiences to remember you?

Michael Melvin: As an Arts Council leader: I hope at the end of the day people see that I love what I do. I hope they see the passion and why I do what I do. My intentions are pure and my desire to help people is evident. I want to see the kids go off and succeed. I want to see them grow.

I want other people to find that passion that I found. That’s the ultimate gift you can give someone.

Critique Compendium: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

Michael Melvin: He’s a great guy. He can be slightly undiagnosed OCD. He’s slightly perfectionist, but in the nice way. He’s very open when he works with people.

Mike’s a “worker.” Mike does too much work. He needs to relax. I would have more of my hair this way. I need to relax.

The good news is that I’m self-aware of all this.

Critique Compendium: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

Michael Melvin: Wide ranging or diverse. I’ve had a lot of unique experiences: Directing kids, adults, shows, stage crew, and building sets. It’s always been something different.

Critique Compendium: What’s next for you?

Michael Melvin: Sister Act auditions for the Maple Shade Arts Council are on April 2nd and 4th. We’ve received a lot of great feedback, so far.

Music Man, Jr. takes place over the summer. We have 60 kids in the program.

I’m finishing my master’s program. I’m also getting a wedding together for next March.

Critique Compendium: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?

Michael Melvin: Without a doubt take a chance. Take the most out of every opportunity. If you’re in the lead or ensemble every opportunity can build you up. Everything is meaningful and impactful. Stick with it.

You will never meet as many great people as in the arts. It’s a lifelong blessing for anybody who sticks with it.

More information about Mr. Melvin is available at his website: www.michaelanthonymelvin.com.

Theatre Review – Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I’m not in the habit of reviewing musicals like Sister Act. Nevertheless, I had faith that Haddonfield Plays and Players with the aid of director/choreographer Chris McGinnis, musical director Robert Stoop and the rest of the cast and crew would put on a good show. Hallelujah! Now I have to testify that when it comes to musicals: there’s ‘nun’ like it. I rejoiced after watching the February 4, 2017 performance.

Sister Act told the story of aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier. (Paige Smallwood) On Christmas Eve of 1977 she witnessed her gangster boyfriend murder someone. Fearing for her safety, she sought help from the Philadelphia PD. The officer with whom she spoke, a man with the clammy nickname “Sweaty Eddie”, (Terrance Hart) happened to be someone from her past. In fact, he had a crush on her in high school. In order to hide Deloris before the court date, he opted to place her in the one location the thugs would never suspect: a convent. In addition to worrying about the criminals, Deloris now contended with an austere Mother Superior (Tami Gordon Brody) and living a lifestyle antithetical to her usual one. The nuns had a choir, but that didn’t ameliorate the situation. To be as polite as possible: it didn’t perform at Deloris’ musical level. Think Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz without the musicians playing in the same key.

Paige Smallwood delivered a spectacular performance; and it started the moment she took the stage. The “Take Me to Heaven” number fused funk, soul and disco. She, (accompanied by performers Amanda Barrish and Dana Masterman), delivered a high energy rendition that drew me into the show. After getting my attention, she did an outstanding job keeping it. The stellar moments kept coming; culminating with her emotional singing of “Sister Act.” When not taking soul singing to another level, she got laughs through her perfect comedic timing. One also has to credit the great tap number she performed with the ensemble, as well.

Terrance Hart sang one of the most challenging numbers in the show. The melody on “I Could Be that Guy” stretched from bass to alto. (And I thought Motown songs challenged vocal ranges.) But this “Sweaty Eddie” didn’t sweat it. Mr. Hart hit Larry Grahm territory with the lower registers and would’ve impressed Smokey Robinson the way he nailed the higher notes.

Then Mr. Hart took the Motown adage: “the rhythm needs to move your feet and the lyrics need to stir your soul” literally. He and the ensemble accompanied this soulful ballad with a superb dance number. I credit him for not getting distracted by the numerous costume changes while performing.

I’ve watched Tami Gordon Brody display her acting talents in several shows at Haddonfield Plays and Players. In Sister Act I finally had the opportunity to hear her vocal prowess. The Mother Superior character possessed an unemotional disposition. The “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” number served as a catharsis for her inner turmoil. Ms. Gordon Brody channeled the character’s feelings exceptionally well through her delivery.

Both Ms. Gordon Brody and Ms. Smallwood played off each other extraordinarily well. The former served as the passionless character; always speaking and moving in a measured fashion. The latter behaved as a free spirit lacking inhibitions. Their scenes together made for some amusing personality clashes.

I also enjoyed Kelsey Hogan’s performance as Sister Mary Robert. Among this exceptionally talented group of performers, she displayed the best acting ability. In the show’s early phases, she spoke in a soft voice reflecting the character’s timid nature. I could still understand her words, so I credit her for still talking loud enough to hear. During “The Life I Never Led” she belted out a high note that nearly made the building rattle. Ms. Hogan projected the tune with confidence and authority. The delivery concretized the character’s development through the course of the evening.

Billed as a musical comedy, the show contained some humorous numbers, as well. Phyllis Josephson drew laughs by adorning a pair of sunglasses and becoming a rapping nun. I also found the “It’s Good to Be a Nun” track (performed by Karen Henry, Mary Corradino, Lori Clark and the ensemble) quite witty. The bass line made it sound like a country song. It really stood out in a musical comprised of soulful tunes.

The funniest moments of the show occurred when the hoodlums played by Eric Acierto, Michael Melvin, and Carlos Diaz (also the Dance Captain) took the stage. In essence, they applied the Keystone Cops premise to bad guys. These players accompanied Curtis on the “When I Find My Baby” number. Mr. Melvin took the lead on the sultry “Lady in the Long Black Dress” track. Listening to these performers sing and watching them dance more than justified the cost of admission.

I have to give Mr. Melvin credit. About a year-and-a-half ago I heard him sing gospel and soulful style music in Bonnie and Clyde. I already knew he had a talent for Rhythm and Blues. I never would’ve suspected he had such funky dance chops in his repertoire, too.

As the character of Monsignor O’Hara, Charles L. Bandler played the one role in the show that lacked any rhythm whatsoever. He used this to fantastic humorous effect. His high pitched giggling made the character even more comical.

I also credit Taylor Brody, Kristine Bonaventura, Breyona Coleman and Brooke McCarthy for their work in the ensemble. They rounded out the cast very well.

I had two issues with Sister Act. The first entailed a reference to the Smurfs. The action took place between 1977 and 1978. While the Smurfs debuted in Europe during the late 1950s, the popular animated series didn’t premiere in the US until 1981. I thought the reference historically inaccurate.

Also, who was the performer who played Curtis? I found him very funny. His use of a lollypop added great comedic effect for a street tough. His vocals on “When I Find My Baby” brought out a lot of laughs, too.

I didn’t see his head shot on the board. The character of “Curtis” wasn’t listed in either the playbill or on the company’s web site. I wondered if, like the protagonist in the show, he wasn’t hiding out from someone.

Seriously though, the gentleman played a great role. He deserves to be acknowledged.

I had a revelation this weekend. It’s gospel truth that the audience experienced a heavenly evening watching Sister Act. Fortunately for theatregoers, I didn’t attend the ‘soul’ performance. For those who would like the opportunity to see it at Haddonfield Plays and Players, their prayers will be answered. Barring some kind of divine intervention, the show will run through February 18th. Can I get an “Amen” to that?

Theatre Review – The Drowsy Chaperone at The Maple Shade Arts Council

I could use many expressions to describe The Maple Shade Arts Council’s presentation of The Drowsy Chaperone: sleep inducing would not be one of them. This Brian Padla directed performance showcased the greatest collection of talent ever assembled in a church basement. When I attended on July 9th, even the audience featured exceptional performance artists. (Rachel Comenzo attended as did other luminaries of the South Jersey community theater community.) An entertaining evening of music and comedy resulted.

Mr. Padla, the cast and crew deserve great credit for putting on a musical this involved. They merit even more accolades for doing so while in the Council’s “temporary home.” The staff managed to convert a small stage in the basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s Nolan Hall into a professional theatrical platform with an orchestra section and dressing rooms. As if that didn’t warrant kudos, the show well exceeded my expectations; and they were stratospheric even before I walked in the door. As many readers are probably already aware: I’m familiar with the work of producers Michael Melvin and Jillian Starr-Renbojr as well as that of performers Connor Twigg, Gabrielle Affleck and Casey Grouser.

The “musical within a comedy” featured a unique premise. It began with the lights out. A lone voice broke the darkness. The Man in the Chair (played by Dennis Dougherty) delivered a humorous monologue ruminating on musical theatre. He described an obscure show from the 1920s called The Drowsy Chaperone as his favorite. Then he pulled out a vinyl recording of the musical and placed it on his record player. The performers took the stage and acted it out. From time-to-time the show would freeze allowing Mr. Dougherty’s character to provide witty commentary. While The Drowsy Chaperone’s script turned out to be musical theatre’s answer to a B movie, the Man in the Chair’s exposition combined with wonderful singing and dancing made it an unforgettable piece for theater fans.

One of the Man in the Chair’s vignettes concerned the fate of the actor who played Aldolpho in the original production. It turns out the performer met an ignominious end. After drinking himself to death his poodles partially devoured him. All theatregoers should hope that destiny doesn’t befall Antonino Baldasari. (He portrayed Aldolpho in this production.)

Mr. Baldasari played the funniest role I’ve had the pleasure of watching on a live stage. As a parody of a lusty Latin lothario he carried a long cane that he just couldn’t seem to control; always dropping it at the most inconvenient moment. His high-pitched stretching of the word what could be the best one-word catch phrase in the history of comedy. He then took the humor to another height by crooning “A Message from a Nightingale.” In that challenging number he portrayed an Oriental man singing with a Spanish accent. He impressed me the most by keeping a straight face through the whole show: something those of us in the audience couldn’t do.

I give Connor Twigg great credit for taking on the role of Robert Martin, let alone playing it so well. He performed a phenomenal tap dance while singing “Cold Feets”. (Joe Lee—as George—expertly accompanied him towards the number’s end.) A few scenes later he wore a blindfold while roller skating. To round out the character he also delivered numerous funny lines perfectly. Mr. Twigg had a full evening.

I’ve attended shows where Gabrielle Affleck either performed or directed. In the title role of this one, I had the chance to hear her sing for the first time. Ms. Affleck is such a talented vocalist that I’m stunned I’ve never heard her perform a musical number before. I enjoyed her melodic rendition of the so-called ode to alcoholism “As We Stumble Along”. Because of the unorthodox mixture of tango with comedy, I’d select her duet with Mr. Baldasari, “I Am Aldolpho” as the stand-out number from this show.

The Drowsy Chaperone seemed to spare no performer from singing a song that challenged one’s ability to keep a straight face. Following a great rendition of the narcissistic “Show Off” in Act I, Nicollete Palombo (as Janet van de Graaff) sang the most unusual ballad ever written, called “Bride’s Lament”, in Act II. The Man in the Chair warned the audience that this track had “terrible lyrics.” What an understatement. The dolorous lament compared a woman’s lover to a monkey. One can only admire the way Ms. Palombo voiced such an emotional recitative without cracking a smile.

The production featured many exceptional performances. I also applaud James Gallagher, Matthew Maerten, Sarah Harris, Casey Grouser, Debbi Heckmanm and Lori A. Howard for their enactments. Alex Davis, Haley Melvin, Mary Melvin, Kevin Roberts, Frankie Simpson and Amber Stolarski rounded out the ensemble nicely.

The orchestra, led by Cameron Stringham, sounded fantastic. The sound quality impressed me; especially when taking the venue into account. At times I thought I was listening to the soundtrack on CD. The songs in this show were rather complex, as well. The “Overture” had the band come in mid-way through a pre-recorded performance. Some songs included rests in unusual places. One track simulated a record skipping. They and the cast delivered all these numbers flawlessly.

The show did experience some technical glitches. A loud humming noise came through the PA system a few times during Act II. Then the sound briefly cut out. These things happen. The issue is how performers handle them when they occur. One of these episodes transpired with most of the ensemble on the stage. No one reacted to the snafu. Everyone remained in-character and continued their performances while the sound crew corrected the problem. That’s professionalism.

The talent level at South Jersey community theatre productions always impresses me. I write that a lot, but this show was special. I’d never heard of The Drowsy Chaperone, but I left thinking it the most entertaining musical I’ve witnessed. Before the show I met Michael Melvin, the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council. He thanked me for the reviews I’ve written of his and the Council’s work. If anything, as audience members, we should be thanking Mr. Melvin and his organization for producing such fantastic shows. Their current staging of The Drowsy Chaperone is a great reason why. It runs through July 16th.

 

The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council

It’s not often one witnesses the triumvirate of comedy, horror and fencing in the same show. The Maple Shade Arts Council production of The Addams Family:  A New Musical Comedy (directed by Michael Melvin) seamlessly incorporated all three. Just for good measure they included some outstanding musical and dance numbers from a stellar cast to round out the performance.

The musical told a tale of trauma in the Addams household. Wednesday (played by Casey Grouser) found her true love. She and her boyfriend Lucas (Robert Achorn) recently engaged. Her fiancé hailed from the “normal” world. In order to introduce the two families, she arranged a dinner at the Addams home. As if that didn’t make for a tense evening, she told her father Gomez (D. J. Hedgepath) about her pending nuptials. To add to the conflict she asked that he not tell her mother Morticia (Rachel Comenzo) about the arrangement until after dinner. Gomez NEVER kept a secret from Morticia; a fact she brought to his attention repeatedly during the show. The story contained more conflict and tension I would have expected from a light -hearted musical.

One has to respect D. J. Hedgepath for taking on the role of Gomez. Any theatrical performance is a challenge; especially when taking on a role iconized by another actor. After watching Mr. Hedgepath’s interpretation of Gomez, I’ll now view John Astin’s performance of the character on the same level as his role as The Riddler. (Mr. Astin is very talented, but he’s no Frank Gorshin.) At first I found it unusual to see Gomez Addams without a chalk stripe suit and smoking a cigar in every scene. As the show went on, Mr. Hedgepath reinvented the role as his own. He brought much more passion and energy to Gomez than other actors I’ve seen. For purists: he did include many “cara mias” while kissing Morticia’s arms from her wrist down to her shoulder. He also added fencing to his repertoire.

Rachel Comenzo clearly studied the role of Morticia. With crossed arms, fingers spread across her upper arms, and her pale face with a blank look the role became the actress. As usual, she showed off her exceptional vocal prowess. She showcased her abilities best in “Just around the Corner”. The song contained a homonym. The lyric went: death is just around the corner. Ms. Comenzo explained to the audience that, “death is just around the coroner. Get it?” It’s usually a bad sign when a performer needs to explain a joke to an audience. Ms. Comenzo did so very naturally and with such charm that she still got laughs.

I also have to give Ms. Comenzo credit for her skill as a dancer. Most of the choreography required her to dance in a long dress while wearing heels. She managed this difficult task flawlessly.

The real highlight of The Addams Family came during the “Tango de Amor” number with Gomez, Morticia and the Addams family ancestors. The ensemble performed a complex tango with Gomez and Morticia in the spotlight. I applaud choreographer Sarah Dugan for putting this together. Watching Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo tango together brought to mind the legendary drum battle between Ginger Baker and Art Blakey. The level of talent displayed on stage is difficult to put into words. These two triple threats executed an intricate dance sequence brilliantly. It was a pleasure to see this much aptitude in one musical. Not that the two actors competed with one another, but if they had, like in the famous drum battle, the audience would’ve been the true winner.

Many memorable musical performances took place in The Addams Family. Casey Grouser (Wednesday), Lori Alexio Howard (Alice Beineke), Brian Padla (Uncle Fester) and Jacob Long (Pugsley Addams) all turned in very strong vocal performances. Mr. Hedgepath delivered a moving rendition of the somber ballad “Happy/Sad”.

I did feel a bit let down at one point with the song selection. When the second act began I thought ZZ Top were about to play. It turned out it was just Nicholas Olszewski in the guise of Cousin It.

I’d also like to give special acknowledgement to Phyllis Josephson as Grandma. She didn’t get a lot of stage time in this show, but she proved the old adage, “There are no small roles: only small actors.” Every time she had the spotlight, the audience became hysterical. I enjoyed her tone of voice. It sounded similar to the “Cat Lady” on the television show The Simpsons. Unlike that character, I could still understand her clearly, though.

My only criticism of the show concerned the technical issues. Several times a loud humming noise broadcast over the loudspeakers. Hearing the actors became challenging. Much to their credit, they remained focused and didn’t let it interrupt their performance. At the beginning of the show the acoustics were poor, as well. Both the orchestra and the dialog sounded muddled. Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo both project their voices very well. I know my difficulty hearing had nothing to do with the actors.

At a key moment in the performance, the cast played a game called “Full Disclosure”. They passed a chalice around the dinner table. The person drinking from it would have to reveal a secret. One wouldn’t have to give it to members of the audience for them to disclose how well the cast and crew presented The Addams Family. That’s no secret. The show runs through July 18th  at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium.