Monette Solomon

Into the Woods at the Ritz Theatre Company

Once upon a time there was a rapping witch, a comical carnivore of a wolf and a mooooving death scene involving a cow. Then a writer named Lames Lapine encountered songwriter Stephen Sondheim. They took these tales and translated them into a story for the stage. Director Craig Hutchings heard this fairy tale and decided to make it a reality. He worked his magic on the staff at the Ritz Theatre Company. Like Jack with the magic beans, he planted the idea of presenting Into the Woods this autumn. The audience who witnessed the October 26th performance lived happily ever after.

Into the Woods brought a unique concept to theatre. In essence, Lapine and Sondheim combined elements of various fairy tales and set them to music. They took the stories of “Cinderella” (played by Jenna Lubas), “Little Red Riding Hood” (played by Brittany Marie), “Jack and the Beanstalk” (Zachary Moore and Melissa Manzano), and “Rapunzel” (Jamie Talamo) and used them as part of a larger narrative (eloquently explained by Ryan Ruggles).

A witch (Jennie Knackstedt) promised a baker (Joshua Bessinger) and his wife (Megan Ruggles) that she would grant them a child if they could provide her with the following items before three midnights passed: a cape as red as blood, a strand of hair as yellow as corn, the whitest cow and a golden slipper. To my surprise, this quest concluded by the end of the first act: yet another happy fairy tale ending, right? Well…

As local South Jersey writer Christine Hardy once observed, “There’s a reason why fairy tales always end with a wedding.” Into the Woods proved this hypothesis. Act Two injected a dose of “realism” into this fantasy world.

Jenna Lubas delivered strong operatic vocals on the emotional number “Cinderella at the Grave.” Jennie Knackstedt sang a somber lament on parental estrangement with “Last Midnight.” Megan Ruggles performed a moving meditation on regret with “Moments in the Woods.”

To balance out this mood, Into the Woods contained humor. Robert Repici played the most comical death scene involving a cow possibly ever performed on stage. Brittany Marie made “Little Red” into an emotionally charged character. Michael J. DeFlorio turned the villain of her tale into quite the witty wolf. The audience echoed his howls with those of laughter.

Mr. DeFlorio also played Cindarella’s prince in this show. His scenes with another lovelorn regent (Rapunzel’s prince played by Anthony Crosby) made for the evening’s funniest moments. These pretentious princes exaggerated every action they took on stage. This included their singing on the melodramatic duet “Agony.” I also enjoyed Mr. DeFlorio’s struggles to sheathe his sword.

In keeping with the spirit of the season, Into to Woods put some outstanding costuming on display. Costuming Designer AJ Garcia took on quite a project with this show. The pauper style garb that Cinderella, the Baker and his wife and Jack and his mother wore appeared very authentic. On the upper class end of the spectrum, so did Cinderella’s gown, the elaborate uniforms worn by the princes and the witch’s elegant dress in the second act. Even without the music (directed by Collin Maier), the choreography (by Michele Romond) and the excellent acting, Into the Woods would’ve made for an entertaining Halloween parade.

The story book and forest setting (by Krysten Cummings and Joshua Bessinger) made an exceptional framework for action on the stage. The lighting (by Jen Donsky) enhanced it spectacularly.

The cast included A LOT of talent. I’d also credit Krysten Cummings, Ellorah Mead, Monette Solomon, Nicholas French, Jomarie Apelt, Chris Jewell, Maggie Harbord and Sadie McKenna for adding their skills to this stellar ensemble.

Into the Woods made for a scintillating sylvan spectacle; an awesome autumnal arboreal undertaking. The Sunderer of Sorrows and Destroyer of Delights will inflict upon it the same fate as the giant in Jack’s story after November 18th at the Ritz Theatre Company.

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Rock of Ages at Haddonfield Plays and Players

When narrator Lonny described the action in Rock of Ages as taking place during “the Reagan Era” my face scrunched. Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Lonnie? I thought. My entire memory of that period consists of spending the summer watching the Iran-Contra Hearings. I hoped I wouldn’t start wiggin’ out in the theatre. Then I took a chill pill. I realized that I live in a time when people in government “just say no” to engaging in illegal deals with a hostile foreign power. Theatre goers should feel even more stoked that Haddonfield Plays and Players opted to bring back the era’s best attribute fer sure: the gnarly music. They delivered some schweet renditions in Rock of Ages when I attended the mahvelous performance on July 22, 2017.

The show featured a most fresh premise. Author Christopher D’Arienzo re-worked the old small-town girl goes to Hollywood concept. He crafted the musical in a way so that host of hit songs from the 1980s delivered the 411.

The dancers in this show earned my respect fast; and continued to earn it throughout the entire performance. La’Nise Ambrose did monumental work in coordinating the moves. I give immense credit to dudettes Audrey DiEnno, Katharina Munoz, Tiara Nock and Nicolette Palombo. They kept up the same level of intensity the entire evening; and the show required a lot of intensity to maintain.

The high tech production quality impressed me. Rock of Ages featured a live band and a big screen. Combined with the singing and dancing, it made for a complex show. Director Ed Doyle did an extraordinary job coordinating all these facets.

Anyone interested in the popular music of the 1980s MUST see this show. As a fan of the era’s tunes, I got stoked to hear the rock-o-rama presented in this type of forum. The quality of singing enhanced the tracks much more than I’d expected. How much better these songs sounded when performed by the cast surprised me.

Few would dispute Lou Gramm delivered outstanding vocals during Foreigner’s prime. Performers Michael Robert Anderson and Dana Masterman made him sound dag. They sang one of the best duets I’ve ever heard on “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” They combined with Vinnie DiFillipo to deliver a passionate “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Mr. Anderson and Ms. Masterman weren’t the only performers who delivered memorable duets. Ed “Rico” Santiago and Aaron Blake combined their skills for a comical rendition of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feelin’.”I liked the way they managed to sing this tender ballad in their characters’ voices.

Dana Masterman turned in a totally ace performance. While an extremely gifted vocalist, she possesses boss skills for non-verbal communication. This performer’s smiling and upbeat facial expressions reflected those of an idealistic young woman. As the show progressed, Ms. Masterman deftly conveyed disillusion over her character’s romantic problems and career failures. Her shibby inability to quite master pole dancing got laughs, as well.

After hearing Michael Robert Anderson croon these 80s classics, fans would gag on a spoon listening to the originals. Mr. Anderson sang so remarkably well that I had trouble imagining a struggling musician could have such talent. Still, he acted the role of Drew very convincingly. He sustained a high note on “Oh, Sherrie” without vibrato. Singers in 80s cover bands would be well served to study his technique.

The show contained a large cast. No one person could bogart all the accolades. The posse worked very well together and complimented one another’s talents to the max.

Holly Birch Knapp’s performance as the radical Reginia was, well, radical. She displayed exceptional passion leading the “We’re Not Gonna Take It” number.

Vinnie DiFillipo showed fantastic comedy prowess as the randy rock star. Monette Solomon delivered outstanding vocals on “Anyway You Want It” and “Shadows of the Night.” I applaud Bill Zeoli and David Fusco for the ability to sing with authentic German accents. I’d also compliment performers Armando Mendez, Trisha Dennis, Jenn Kopesky-Doyle, Faith McCleery, Jenni Pines, Amanda Frederick, Cara Dickinson, Shannon McClernan and Jeremy Noto for their contributions to the ensemble.

I also enjoyed hearing the live band under Mark Kozachyn’s direction. Eric Madden shred his guitar like a true 80s axe-man.

“So what’s your damage with this production?” You may ask. I found it grody that Antonio Baldasari didn’t have more stage time as Aresenal’s new lead singer. The man possesses a genius for comedy. If Mr. Baldasari stood in front of an audience reading the phone book he’d find a way to make people laugh. In his limited scenes, he still amused the audience.

Rock of Ages reminded me that the 80s contained some choice music. I’m not being bogus when I write that that the cast and crew presented one tubular production. I’ve fallen for this show and I can’t get up. Cowabunga! Grab the Bartles and Jaymes and jet to the theatre. Where’s the beef? It’s totally happening at Haddonfield Plays and Players until August 4th.