Michael Sheldon

Fun Home at Haddonfield Plays and Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director Bill C. Fikaris wrote in the playbill:

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

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

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Spring Awakening at Burlington County Footlighters

South Jersey community theatre fans experienced an historic evening on Friday, September 14th. Both a mother and son directed shows that opened on the same day. Tami Gordon Brody, the matriarch of the Brody acting family, directed a second run of Love, Loss and What I Wore presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. Following his mother’s lead Evan Brody made his directorial debut with Spring Awakening. I attended the latter.

With the waning days of summer upon us, Burlington County Footlighters opted to open their 81st season with Spring Awakening. This show contained elements that would appeal to a wide variety of theatrical fans. It included a unique interpolation of the Aeneid, the music reminiscent of mid-1990s pop along with a whole lot of teenage angst added for dramatic effect. The story combined Nihilistic philosophy with myriad references to onanism. I have to admit: I never would’ve expected someone to fuse that kind of range into any medium; especially a dramatic production. For a show set in the bland days of the late nineteenth century, this musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik sure didn’t lack for diversity.

Several years ago I attended a performance of Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage. At the time I didn’t think it possible to present a show more intense than that one. Well, Footlighters raised that bar again. Imagine something like ‘night Mother put to music with a passionate ill-fated love affair worked into the story. Then add the moral universe of Grimm’s Fairy Tales where children who disobey authority face brutal retribution.

As harsh as all that may seem, Spring Awakening presented a solid exploration regarding the tragedy of the human condition. The music (under the direction of Anthony Sinigaglio) and dancing (choreographed by Tiara Nock) made the heavy themes easier to process. The gifted actors who brought the story to life with such passion required it to balance out the mood.

Spring Awakening told the story of star-crossed lovers Melchoir (Evan Newlin) and Wendla (Jenna German); he an idealistic intellectual driven by reason and she a repressed and isolated young lady with little understanding the world’s ways. They attended unisex schools in Germany during an era when authority figures viewed any nonconformity to society’s mores as anathema. In spite of this bleak background, Melchoir and Wendla developed a friendship that evolved into a deep passionate relationship.

At this point I understood why Footlighters decided to present this show in September. With all the ragweed in the air, people in the South Jersey area have been stocking up on tissues. After processing this set-up I knew they were going to need them. I did not expect the story to end well. The cast and crew’s skill in presenting these characters’ tragic journey allowed me to enjoy the voyage.

Both Mr. Newlin and Ms. German played complex roles to perfection. They exhibited profound capability to bring out the suppressed aspects of their characters’ personalities. These two performers expressed Melchoir’s and Wendla’s inner conflict with holding back their feelings very believably.

Mr. Newlin and Ms. German proved just as adept with their musical numbers. Ms. German delivered a somber rendition of “Mama Who Bore Me” to open the show. It sounded absolutely haunting and established the mood that dwelled over the performance. Mr. Newlin changed tack and showed strong comedic skills, as well. He and the cast added a humorous take on hopeless situations with the “Totally F*cked” number.

Vincent DiFilippo delivered another awesome performance. He nailed the essence of the jittery Moritz. Mr. DiFilppo transitioned from playing the role as a comic character with a nervous disposition to a tragic figure overwhelmed by circumstances. He turned in one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen.

Rachael Grodzielanek and Michael Sheldon played evil authority figures brilliantly. The military style marches they employed when approaching each other added to the characters’ malevolence while adding just a slight touch of the comic.

I liked that the playwright provided opportunities for the supporting characters to perform solos. I’d credit everyone in the ensemble for their contributions to a strong show. Paul Sigall, Evan Hairston, Aaron Wachs, Jerrod Ganesh, Melany Rosa, Alexis Short, Shannon Forbes and Cynthia Reynolds added their talents to a wonderful production.

The visual atmospherics gave this show an exceptional ambiance. During the climax, the stage became eerie. Lighting Designers Naomi Burton and Rebekah Macchione (who also assistant directed) crafted flawless illumination for this moment. While providing a sensual atmosphere a sense of doom pervaded during this pivotal scene. The candles held by the cast members made the moment absolutely ominous.

I must caution theatre goers that Spring Awakening is a show for mature audiences. It includes adult themes, language and an explicit love scene: all of which are legitimate artistic means to present a story. With all that material I’m a little surprised they let me in the door. I would strongly advise those offended by any of the above to avoid this show, but to get out of the house more often.

Set in a world devoid of love yet rife with mindless conservatism, Spring Awakening presented an excruciating take on the tribulations of adolescence. Even though the story took place over a century ago and a continent away, the concepts and themes give it a chilling relevance in our own era. That’s what makes it so impactful. To quote Nietzche, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.”

Spring Awakening goes into eternal slumber at Footlighters after September 29th.

Seussical at Burlington County Footlighters

What better way to spend an evening having fun

Than seeing a musical inspired by the power of imagination?

I found this one more amusing than Mother Goose.

Oh, the thinks you can think when it comes to Seuss.

 

Okay, no one will ever confuse my writing with Mr. Geisel’s. Lest his fans become too distraught by my weak imitation, the Footlighters cast and crew proved much more adept at carrying on his legacy. I attended the premiere of Seussical on September 15, 2017.

 

When I opened the program I was delighted to see

It was directed by theatrical guru Dennis Doherty.

I watched the show before going to bed,

Now these rhyming couplets are stuck in my head!

 

Ugh! Well, I don’t often attend performances that inspire me to imitate the characters’ speech patterns. That shows the quality of this production.

Patrick O’Malley turned in an animated performance as that troublemaking tabby, The Cat in the Hat. The fast paced strutting about the stage with either his hands on his hips or clasping the inside of his jacket deftly mimicked character’s mannerisms.

Of course, the role required a flair for comedy. Mr. O’Malley captured the character’s arch nature. While approaching the sleeping JoJo he placed his finger to his lips to shush the audience. He mimed a sleeping position to show the child slumbered. Then he bellowed, “WAKE UP!”

This demanding part included several complex song and dance numbers. He dazzled with the ironically titled “How Lucky You Are.” The deft way he utilized the cane enhanced the routine. He also did a superb job teaming up with the Hunches on “Havin’ a Hunch.”

Seussical featured the best dance routines I’ve observed. Choreographer Liz Baldwin did phenomenal work coordinating them. Since many of them included several performers, it made the numbers much more intricate. The company impressed me by staying in synch and executing these complex dances so well.

Tre DeLuca shone in an impressive performance as JoJo. He transformed his character from a naïve boy into a mature young man throughout the evening. He served as a great foil to the autocratic General Gengus Khan Schmitz (Suzie Ramsdell) and displayed great chemistry with Mr. O’Malley. I liked his enactment of perplexity when Mr. and Mrs. Mayor (Michael Sheldon and Jenny Scudder) chastised him for “thinking” too much.

Mr. DeLuca delivered memorable singing. He performed a somber rendition on the reprise of “Alone in the Universe.” Duets made up all his other numbers. His high vocals complimented the other ranges. He rounded out the harmonies very well.

Brian Padla turned in a moving performance as the sensitive elephant, Horton. During the first part of the show, he “heard a Who” on a speck of dust. He placed it on top of a clover. While the residents of Whoville performed at the other side of the stage, he listened. His facial expressions captured the feelings of someone enraptured by what he heard.

His non-verbal skills accentuated Mr. Padla’s vocal capabilities. He best combined those strengths on “Here on Who” accompanied by the residents of Whoville.

Under the musical direction of Peg Smith, Seussical featured many stellar vocal performances. Jill Bradshaw sang movingly in her renditions of “The One Feather Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “Notice Me, Horton.” Alex Davis belted out “Amayzing Mayzie” and “Mayzie in Palm Beach” like a seasoned cabaret singer. Kendra Hecker delivered awesome vocals on the soulful sections of “Biggest Blame Fool” and “The People Versus Horton the Elephant.”

I’ve written before about how Burlington County Footlighters likes to bring the audience into their shows. When Brian Bacon and Mark Urmson joined together for the catchy “Monkey Around” they danced down the aisles with Horton in pursuit.

Playwrights Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens didn’t spare any performer dialog laden with rhyming couplets. In their roles as the Mayor and Mrs. Mayor, Michael Sheldon and Jenny Scudder had the most difficult. In the scene where they confronted JoJo about his “thinking”, they alternated rhyming couplets. I credit them for not allowing the word patterns to distract them. They also crooned a moving rendition of “Solla Sollew” along with Mr. Padla and Mr. DeLuca.

I enjoyed JP Helk’s baritone rendition of the Grinch’s voice. I enjoyed it even more when he used it to deliver his jaded rendition of the Grinch’s Christmas story to the Whos.

As always, Jim Frazer did an exceptional job with the set design. Mr. Frazer’s talents make the “willing suspension of disbelief” very easy for audience members. This time he transformed the Footlighters stage into the surreal world of Seuss; ranging from the Jungle of Noor to Whoville to the Circus McGurkus.

Amanda Codgell’s costuming enriched the show. The attire conveyed the characters’ personalities while staying true to Dr. Seuss. At the same time, it didn’t overshadow the performers wearing it. Ms. Codgell did some very inspired work with red bows, such as The Cat in the Hat’s tie and the dual bows on Mazie’s stockings. Mazie’s and Gertrude’s feathers enhanced those characters’ appearance. The Cat’s iconic hat was spot on.

I’d also credit performers Liz Baldwin, Julia Fraupel, Alyssa LaPierre, Suzie Ramsdell, Gabriella Kelsey, Michaelina Petti, Tristan Codgell, Max Hann, Morgan Hann and Harrison Scudder for their contributions to the production.

It didn’t surprise that a show based on imagination would bring together so many creative people. Seussical transported the power of “the thinks you can think” to the stage. The Footlighters cast and crew made it a reality. They put on one “amayzing” show.

Just because you’re a Seuss fan doesn’t make you nerdy,

Go see Seussical at Footlighters before it ends September 30.