Mike Gibbins

Quaran-Mean Girls: The Virtual Musical

The spirit of American ingenuity thrives among South Jersey Community Theatre performers. While the COVID-19 outbreak has postponed all live theatrical shows, a group of dedicated performers didn’t allow the pandemic to keep them from practicing their craft and entertaining audiences. The production team of Alix Vitarelli, Amanda Adams and Mike Gibbins created the internet piece: QuaranMean Girls: The Virtual Musical. Your correspondent attended the virtual premiere on Saturday, April 25th.

In a time of social distancing, the production team took the adage “safety first” to another level. All of the performers recorded their parts in their own homes. The editors arranged the footage so it appeared the actors performed together. The combination of strong acting and professional production values facilitated this fan’s suspension of disbelief.

This story of a high school student coping with a crush, wanting to fit in with the popular kids while struggling to find one’s identity spoke to this reviewer. Part of that may have had to do his current situation. Sitting home alone on a Saturday night with nowhere to go put him took him back to his high school years. A bigger reason had to do with the quality of the production itself.

 QuaranMean Girls told the story of Cady (played by Alix Vitarelli). The character grew up in Africa where her parents studied wildlife. A lack of funding forced them to move back to the United States. Cady then found herself in an even harsher environment: the social jungle of an American high school.

Two groups competed for Cady’s friendship. Flamboyant Damian (James Lim) and Goth-girl Jamie (Shannon Harkins) approached her at first. Then the popular crowd, known as The Plastics, invited her to join their clique. Led by Regina George (Nicolette Palombo), they included the insecure Gretchen (Amanda Adams) and the dimwitted Karen (Shannon Forbes). More conflict resulted as Cady discovered that she and Regina competed for the affections of Aaron (Mike Gibbins).

It’s pretty much a theatrical law that any show regarding high school must have an underlying bildungsroman. As the story progressed, Cady needed to determine if she wanted to hide her mathematical aptitude or be her true self.

Alix Vitarelli’s fans will love QuaranMean Girls: The Virtual Musical. This project served as the perfect medium for Ms. Vitarelli’s multiple talents. It allowed this entertainer to showcase her abilities as a producer, editor, actor and vocalist.

Ms. Vitarelli possesses an outstanding aptitude for non-verbal communication. Even though she wasn’t in the same room with the other people in the scenes, Ms. Vitarelli always displayed the proper expressions at the perfect times.

The quality of Ms. Vitarelli’s vocal tracks sounded professionally recorded. It allowed the audience to hear her stellar vocals with near MP3 quality sound. Her beautiful performances on “Stupid with Love”, “Fearless” and “I See Stars” are well worth a listen.

On most occasions, directors are limited by the space on the set. The team took advantage of the freedoms a virtual setting allowed them. The use of the pumpkin motif that transitioned into the club scene during Shannon Forbes’ “Sexy” ode to Halloween and world peace made the song even more memorable. Superimposing Nicolette Palombo’s face on wildlife during the “Apex Predator” number showed phenomenal creativity.

All of the cast members displayed great imagination working on this project. As they weren’t in the same location when they performed, the performers needed to show that they were either talking to or listening to another person in the scene. All the actors executed this challenging task very well.

The show featured a wide range of genres for a musical. Shannon Hawkins sang a moving exploration of Gretchen’s insecurity on “What’s Wrong with Me.” Nicolette Palombo delivered sultry soulful vocals on “Someone Gets Hurt.” Charlie Barney kicked it old school on “Who’s House is This?” accompanied by Ms. Vitarelli, Ms. Hawkins, Ms. Forbes and the ensemble. Shannon Forbes delivered a gripping “I’d Rather Be Me.”

While the virtual setting expanded the project’s creative boundaries in many ways, it did limit the opportunity for sophisticated choreography. James Lin didn’t allow it to confine his abilities. Mr. Lin preformed several superb routines. He executed an excellent pirouette at the end of “Where Do You Belong.” Mr. Lin added solid dance moves to the jazzy “Stop.”

The production team still managed to put together a solid opening dance sequence for “It Roars.” Once again through skillful editing, Ms. Vitarelli performed while accompanied by a group of dancers. Several performers played multiple ones in the sequence.

The most memorable scene in the show occurred when Ms. Vitarelli and Mike Gibbins performed a duet on “More is Better.” In addition to the tender vocals, the scene included a kiss between the two characters. Mr. Gibbins and Ms. Vitarelli made it seem realistic.

While most of the editing showed excellent attention the detail, the background of the school hallway contained a glitch. Due to the tape loop, your correspondent saw the two gentlemen wearing gray tee shirts more often than he’s seen the people he lives with during the shutdown. Other than that one minor shortcoming, the production team employed the backgrounds exceptionally well.

The performers also deserve tremendous credit for their work on hair and makeup. All the salons had been closed for close to a month prior to the show’s premiere. One wouldn’t know that from watching QuaranMean Girls.

Other members of the cast included: Crystal Clear, Gregory Drey, Sydney Johnson, Ellorah Maeve, Rebekah Adams, Zac Bacaro, William Reid, Allyssa Winkelspecht, Caroline Piotrowski, Aaron Wachs, Elizabeth Bove, Kirk Slingluff, Kathryn Pepe, Gina Petti Baldasari, JR Fitzgerald, Israel Orengo, Kori Rife, Lauren Craven, Sophie Manglass and Jeff Rife.

Those who missed the premiere can still see QuaranMean Girls: The Virtual Musical. It’s available at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgNAoxOXu5Eh8f9n9QrBEiA.

The team announced that its next project will be 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. After the quality of this show, audiences will no doubt anticipate that production.

Even more we all anticipate the opportunity to see all these performers back on stage in a physical theatre again. Virtual theatre has its own merits, but there’s something special about live performances that no media can substitute.

Legally Blonde: The Musical at Bridge Players Theatre

Bridge Players Theatre debunked the myth that blondes have more fun. They showed that it’s the audience that has the most fun during their run of Legally Blonde: The Musical. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, September 28th show in Burlington, NJ. The site of West Jersey’s former capital hosted one capital performance.

The 2001 novel and film Legally Blonde inspired this musical of the same name. With music and lyrics by Lawrence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hatch, it told the story of Elle Woods (played by Alix Vitarelli), a woman perceived as a stereotypical blonde. Her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (played by Mike Gibbins), ended their relationship because he didn’t think her a “serious” person. To win his love, she decided to follow him to Harvard Law School.

While there she discovered that Warner had become engaged to Vivienne Kensington (Caitlin Reed). This development along with the academic demands of the pretentious Professor Callahan (Brian S. Rothman) led her to re-consider her decision to pursue her lost love to law school. Her friendships with beautician Paulette Buonofuonte (Dyani Myles) and recent Harvard Law graduate Emmett Forrest (Antonino Baldassari) caused her to think she may have found her true calling.

The word energy would best describe this production. Jessi Meisel served the dual roles of both Director and Choreographer. The energy Ms. Meisel needed to fill these roles was infectious. It carried over into the cast.

The beginning of Act I would’ve been just as effective as a routine for an exercise program. It opened with the dynamic song and dance number “Omigod You Guys.” It featured over ten cast members performing intricate dance routines together on stage.

The opening to Act II may have been even more demanding. In the role of fitness queen Brooke Wyndham, performer Gina Petti led a group of performers through the musical rendition of an actual exercise workout. I’ve never seen a theatrical scene this difficult to perform. (In fact I’m shaking my head in disbelief as I’m writing this.) The ensemble danced and sang while jumping rope. Let me repeat that. They danced and sang while jumping rope. They even executed a 360 degree turn while doing the latter.

Ms. Petti deserves immense praise for the proficiency she brought to the “Whipped into Shape” sequence. As someone who has choreographed shows in the past, she may have needed all the knowledge and skills she’s acquired from those experiences just to perform this arduous number. Ms. Petti also contributed outstanding lead vocals to the song; a tune that didn’t have the easiest melody to sing. I’m not sure how she managed to so while jumping rope and dancing around the stage for several minutes.

And there was more high impact dancing.

The ensemble performed an astonishing tap number on “What Do You Want.” Alix Vitarelli led a large ensemble through some brilliantly choreographed maneuvers. Credit goes to the entire team for remaining in-synch during the performance.

On the evening I attended, the weather added an additional complication. Even though autumn began a few days before, the atmosphere had the feel of a balmy July night. The temperature hovered in the low 80s. The dew point approached the mid-70s. The theater itself didn’t have air conditioning.

And this was just the weather outside and in the theatre. The performers had hot spotlights beaming down on them all evening.

Not the ideal conditions to perform intensive dance routines.

I’d recommend the performers’ friends and family to skip the tradition of bringing them flowers following the show. Oxygen and electrolytes would be more practical.

Legally Blonde contained some outstanding vocal numbers. I especially enjoyed Dyani Myles’ pining ode to the Emerald Isle: “Ireland.” Caitlin Reed nailed some stratospheric pitches on “Find My Way.”

Alix Vitarelli turned in a phenomenal performance as Elle Woods. Ms. Vitarelli proved herself a triple threat of the highest order all evening.

Ms. Vitarelli channeled the character’s personality through her interpretation of the role. She selected a perfect walk for Elle. She ambled while keeping her back straight and her palms parallel to the floor. The performer silently expressed Elle’s inner thoughts through the facial expressions she displayed. Ms. Vitarelli’s timing captured the bubbly essence, the latent comedy and the disillusion in Elle’s dialog.

Ms. Vitarelli sang an emotional rendition of the show’s title track. She also joined with cast members for some wonderful duets. They included the sorority anthem “Delta Nu Nu” with Ms. Petti and the motivational “Chip on My Shoulder” with Antonino Baldassari; the latter accompanied by the Delta Nus (Amanda Adams, Cynthia Reynolds and Amanda Hoffman).

Any fan of Antonino Baldassari’s must see Legally Blonde. I’ve watched Mr. Baldassari play hysterical characters in musicals (Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone) as well as serious ones (Edward Bloom in Big Fish). The role of Emmett Forrest allowed him the opportunity to showcase his skill at playing both these character types.

Mr. Baldassari displayed his usual aptitude for comedy during Emmet’s makeover. For a funny guy, Mr. Baldassari possesses some serious skill for singing. He best captured the character’s serious side through his duets with Ms. Vitarelli. Their performances on “Chip on My Shoulder” and “Legally Blonde” were both outstanding.

Legally Blonde also gave theatre fans to watch South Jersey community theatre’s preeminent power couples perform on stage together. For those who are unaware, Antonino Baldassari and Gina Petti are married in real life.

I’d also credit performer Cynthia Reynolds. I’ve watched her perform a terrific lead in Carrie: The Musical and as an ensemble member in Spring Awakening. Both shows contained very dark subject matter. Ms. Reynolds showed that she’s just as adept at playing a giddy, upbeat character (Serena) in a lighthearted show.

A physics student, Ms. Reynolds applied her mastery of the science during the dance routines. Circumventing the limitations of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, she calculated the speed and location of her high kicks so they didn’t contact any performers.

I had two criticisms of the show.

The performance began ten minutes late. Even after the curtain went up I still saw audience members walking down the aisles to take their seats. Folks, if you can’t be on time be early.

During one crucial scene in the show, performer Alix Vitarelli came out on stage dressed as the Easter Bunny. In keeping with that theme, it would have been nice if the theatre gave out candy to everyone. I’m just sayin’.

The cast also included the following human performers: Caroline Piotrowski, Kori Rife, Ashley Carragher, William H. Young, Allyssa Winkelspecht, Ryan Mulligan, Gregory Drey, Jimmy Hoffman, Erin Gupta, and Yvette Burroughs-Myles.

The following canine performers added their histrionic skills to the production: Allie Rothman and Pudge Hoffman.

The production team included: Assistant Director Ethan Rundell, Musical Director Diana Dohrmann, Producer Marissa DiPilla, Stage Manager Tim Kirk, ASM Lyz Lydon, Technical Director/Audio Engineer/ Set Construction Manager Jeff Rife and Lighting Design/ Lighting Technician Bob Beaucheane.

The verdict on Legally Blonde: Bridge Players Theatre treated audiences to one high-energy, funny and entertaining performance. The statute of limitations to see it ends on October 5th. Regrettably, it won’t receive a stay of execution. Don’t let the people who’ve already watched the show have all the fun. Endorphins aren’t the only thing that can make a theatre fan happy. Find your way to Bridge Players Theatre before October 5th.