Musical

Theatre Review – Violet at Burlington County Footlighters

Director Brian Blanks is taking theatergoers on a journey this fall. The station is Burlington County Footlighters and the vehicle is Violet; a deceptively complex musical that explores one person’s voyage of self-discovery. I bought my ticket and embarked on the show’s opening night, September 16th.

Footlighters opted to kick-off their 79th season with this lesser known piece by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. When I arrived a woman in the audience asked me if I’d ever heard of Violet. In fact, even the director told me that among his theatre friends familiarity with it is “about 50/50.” When I heard the tale centered on a young North Carolina woman’s bus trip across America, I figured, “Here we go: yet, another story about a small town girl heading off to Hollywood.” This piece ended up as different from that premise as one could imagine.

Violet (played by Roxanne Paul) suffered a disfiguring accident as a child when her father (played by Chuck Klotz) inadvertently hit her in the face with an axe blade. In 1964, several years following his death, she embarked on a bus trip from her North Carolina home to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She sought a televangelist (Michael Gearty) there she believed could heal her. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” During the sojourn, Violet encountered a host of interesting characters that transformed the trip from an external one into an internal voyage of discovery. During the journey she experienced a series of flashbacks that facilitated the later. All this occurred to the accompaniment of a live band (directed by Cameron Stringham) playing sensational sixties sounding music.

None of the players used microphones. They didn’t need to. Violet featured performers with very strong voices. I encountered Footlighters veteran Dan Brothers in the audience before the musical began. Mr. Brothers can project his voice better than anyone I’ve ever heard. His presence in the building may have inspired the newcomers to this theatre group. When Michael Gearty testified in the role of the evangelist I’m sure people way up in the Heavens could hear him. Soulful Tee (in the role of choir singer Lula Buffington) belted a note that made both my eardrums rattle. As a longtime Motown and Stax fan, I welcomed the volume.

Roxanne Paul delivered a stellar performance as Violet. Her music featured a range of styles, from soulful tracks to upbeat numbers to ballads. Some began a capella. I liked the soft way she vocalized the mellow, “Lay Down Your Head.” While sitting in a bed near the back of the stage, she crooned in a voice soft enough to convey feeling, but loud enough for the audience to hear.

Ms. Paul’s brilliant facial expressions and mannerisms conveyed the character’s vulnerabilities in ways that Brian Crawley’s lyrics couldn’t. Her proficiency added an element that made the serious aspects of the show more impactful.

Darryl S. Thompson Jr. turned in a moving performance as Flick. The lone African-American character in a story he played a crucial role. As the bus travelled through the Deep South before the advent of the Civil Rights Era he encountered prejudice. When a character addressed him with a racial epithet even the audience gasped. I found it interesting that they became just as affronted as the character.

Mr. Thompson also sang some challenging vocal numbers very well. He rightly drew cheers from the house during his rendition of “Let It Sing.” He delivered the number so well it made me wish the songwriter would have let his character sing more often.

Gabrielle Affleck deserves great credit for taking on multifarious, and rather diverse, roles. In this one show Ms. Affleck played an old woman, a choir singer and a prostitute. That’s range. I liked hearing her vocals on the bluesy track “Anyone Would Do.” It’s doubtful anyone would have done it as well as she did.

As mentioned, Violet featured a host of phenomenal voices. I’d compliment Nicholas Zoll, Alex Davis and Glenn Paul for their contributions to the performance, as well.

Throughout the show myriad references were made to Violet’s being “disfigured.” When the subject arose, Ms. Paul did a nice job exhibiting anxiety by wincing and nervously covering her cheek. Her face didn’t have any scars, however. Young Violet (Ms. Orlowski) didn’t either. I could overlook it in the latter case since that character didn’t have as much stage time. Ms. Paul’s Violet appeared on stage in almost every scene. Her “ugliness” served as a crucial part of the show.

Ms. Paul is a good-looking woman. As much as I tried I simply couldn’t visualize her as “deformed.” In retrospect I figured the playwright intended symbolism to show Violet as a beautiful person who needed to discover it for herself. I can accept the premise. It just took me a while to understand it. That’s a reflection on the playwright, not the cast or crew.

A true “team effort” made for the most memorable scene of this show.  With apologies to Kenny Rogers, “Luck of the Draw” just may be the best song ever written about poker. This bouncy number featured Chuck Klotz (as Violet’s father), Emily Orlowski (as Young Violet), Ms. Paul, Mr. Thompson and Brandon Zebley (as Monty) working together. They did a nice job transitioning from Young Violet’s learning the game from her father to modern Violet applying those lessons. I liked hearing so many talented vocalists on the same track.

I enjoyed taking Violet’s journey. In the playbill Mr. Blanks commented on its timeless themes. Unfortunately for theatre fans, time’s ticking on the show’s run. Take a journey to Burlington County Footlighters no later than October 1st.  Don’t miss the bus.

Theatre Review – Bye Bye Birdie Presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Jeanne Gold engaged in the most creative casting I’ve ever encountered. For Haddonfield Plays and Players’ summer musical, Bye Bye Birdie, she selected a real life husband and wife team to star in this production. How can an actual married couple portray two people who are dating? I thought. It’s going to be a colossal effort to suspend my disbelief during this show. The performance opened with the two in the midst of a heated argument. Rosie (played by Megan Knowlton Balne) threatened to leave Albert (played by Thomas Balne), in essence, unless he took a more stable job and gave her more attention. After that exchange, I completely bought into the casting decision.

Bye Bye Birdie featured a sophisticated story line for a musical. The amount of conflict impressed me. Rosie Alvarez wanted her boyfriend, Albert Peterson, to sell his company and give up his career managing rock and roll sensation Conrad Birdie (played by Steve Stonis). She also needed him to develop a life of his own away from his overbearing mother. Thanks to Lisa Croce’s spectacular portrayal of the latter, I’m still trying to determine which of these tasks the more challenging.

In addition to this thorn tree in this garden, teenaged Kim MacAfee (performed by Ashleigh Neilio) battled her own series of romantic conflicts. As a young woman discovering her own maturity, she decided to give up her membership in Conrad Birdie’s fan club. She opted to abandon her childhood crush and devote herself to her boyfriend, Hugo (played by Jack Rooney). Serendipitously for theatergoers, just as that moment occurred she received unexpected news from Mr. Peterson’s company. She’d been selected as the young lady with the honor of kissing Conrad Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show the day before his entering the army.

As I mentioned the two lead performers in this production are married in real life. Since they spend so much time with one another when they’re not on stage, it’s not surprising that they have similar skill sets. Both are extraordinarily strong singers and dancers. They both possess exceptional acting chops, too. Watching the two of them showcase their craft made for a most entertaining evening.

Thomas Balne turned in an amazing performance. His best moment on stage occurred during the upbeat song and dance number “Put on a Happy Face”. The ensemble and he sure made the audience smile. Under choreographer Jennifer Morris Grasso’s direction, they put on a very impressive dance sequence while he sang impeccably.

I also credit Mr. Balne for his crooning of “Baby Talk to Me.” The high notes at the end of the song sounded a bit of out his natural vocal range. He still nailed the notes correctly…on a balmy ninety degree evening, no less. That’s remarkable singing.

Megan Knowlton Balne also conveyed outstanding vocal prowess. A strong performance on an early number, “An English Teacher”, served as a good warm up for the more challenging “Spanish Rose” towards the end of the show. She sang just as proficiently in a Spanish accent as she did with her regular voice. Once again, that’s remarkable singing.

Aside from the great songs, the role called for a very intricate dance number with a group of Shriners. Mrs. Balne’s Rose rose to that challenge, as well. At times I thought the line between dance and gymnastics blurred a bit. It didn’t affect this performer at all.

While Mrs. Balne displayed many strong traits on stage, I found her non-verbal skills without peer. This player can express more emotion with an eye roll than most could with an extended soliloquy. Bravo.

Ashleigh Neilio may only be a freshman in high school, but she displayed the skills of a seasoned stage veteran. Her delivery of “How Lovely to Be a Woman” impressed me. It’s incredible how talented she is at this point in her career. Ms. Neilio sang with great vibrato and sustain. She also caroled with perfect intonation on the high notes. While achieving that difficult feat, she performed the number while changing costumes on stage as she faced the audience. (I can’t even put on a pair of loafers without looking at what I’m doing.) She’s got a bright future in theater. Audiences can look forward to watching Ms. Neilio perform for many years to come.

Steve Stonis (as Conrad Birdie) undoubtedly earned the award for best costumes in this show. The gold suit he wore gave off the colorful attire of a rock star and allowed him the flexibility of movement to out-gyrate Elvis Presley. He also drew laughs during his comedic appearance chugging a bottle of beer while sporting a leopard skin robe. Aside from his fifties crooner style singing, he showed his commitment to playing this character by wearing a pink blouse with a head scarf at the end of the show. That’s dedication.

I’d also like to credit Michael Hicks for his portrayal of Kim’s father. I last saw him play the serious dramatic role of Dr. Sloper in Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress. He turned in a fantastic performance in a light hearted musical. I’d never heard him sing before. His frustrated delivery of “Kids” and fitting facial expressions suited his character perfectly. Mr. Hicks brilliantly expressed Mr. MacAfee’s antediluvian values (even for a 1950s dad). I appreciated watching him in this comedic role.

I relished observing my friend Lisa Croce reprise her role as Mae Peterson. Ms. Croce once told me that she’d like audiences to remember her as “funny”.  I’m sure she achieved that goal with this group of theatergoers. Her artistic choice of voice suited this role. It fit well with her repeated (and mostly successful) efforts to lay guilt trips on Albert. Her modulation on the not so veiled attacks on Rose made her the perfect antagonist to Mrs. Balne’s character.

I wished the performance could’ve included a live band. As a “purist” I feel that musicians performing along with the people singing make for a better listening experience. All the music was pre-recorded and broadcast over the public address system. I understand that the facility lacked the space to fit the required orchestra for some of the songs, however.

The show began with an off-stage relationship developing into a fictional one on stage. By the end of the performance the true love affair turned out to be between the audience and the cast. (I still noticed a little friction among Ms. Croce’s and Mrs. Balne’s characters, though.) See this show no later than August 6th. After that it’s bye bye Bye Bye Birdie at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Theatre Review – Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

While set in the 1930’s, 2009’s Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical could have depicted modern American society. The violence, anxiety about financial security and a background rife with religious fervor made me feel like I was channel surfing between CNBC and Fox News. The performance of Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s proficiently directed show brought me back to Burlington County Footlighters’ theatre.

The drama centered on the lives of the two eponymous characters. Still, it was like watching the musical equivalent of an American take on Plutarch’s Lives. I enjoyed the dichotomy between the outlaw Clyde Barrow (played by Connor Twigg) and his ‘reformed’ brother Buck (played by Brad Kenney). Rachel Comenzo did a phenomenal job in the role of Bonnie. Her unconditional love and blind devotion to Clyde served as an outstanding contrast to Becky Moseley’s performance as Buck’s wife, Blanche. Ms. Moseley really nailed the role of a conflicted wife. While a devoted Christian often citing religious reasoning, her own commitment to her husband won out. Even without the stellar musical numbers, these conflicts alone would’ve made for a memorable show.

Mr. Twigg delivered an energetic performance as the hooligan. He animated all the character’s complexities with equal dexterity. His depiction of Clyde’s reaction to a brutal prison assault convinced me he actually became unhinged. The role of a suave conniver also entered his repertoire. When Bonnie’s mother (played by Gabrielle Affleck) walked in on the two during a romantic tryst, he calmly went along with Bonnie’s dubious explanations. Mr. Twigg also brought great tenderness into his romantic scenes with Ms. Comenzo. He delivered a ukulele accompanied serenade to her while he sat in a bathtub. I have to admit: I never thought I’d watch a ruthless character do that.

Rachel Comenzo played an exceptional Bonnie. Due to the strength of her performance, it’s difficult to select one ‘best’ scene. With that noted she truly shined in her rendition of the ballad “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad”.  Ms. Comenzo has a very strong voice. She modulated it very well on this moving song. The tune opened with the following lyrics.

Dyin’ ain’t so bad.

Not if you both go together.

Only when one’s left behind does it get sad.

But a short and lovin’ life, that ain’t so bad.

I only hope to God that I go first.

I couldn’t live on memories.

Her vocal inflections and facial expressions made me feel it.

The variety of musical numbers enhanced the show. It featured some well composed ballads. Ms. Moseley delivered a somber rendition of “That’s What You Call a Dream”.  I’m preferential to more soulful material. I really enjoyed “Raise a Little Hell” by Mr. Twigg and “Made in America” by the Preacher (played by Michael Melvin) and the ensemble. The Gospel influence in those tracks gave them a unique sound.

While a great show overall, one of the subplots was too cliché. Prior to meeting Clyde, a police officer named Ted Hinton (played by D. J. Hedgepath) took a romantic interest in Bonnie. The interest recurred several times in the show. This is the stereotypical nice guy falls for girl who loves the bad boy. The play had enough romantic conflict, already. I thought this element of the story totally unnecessary.

Mr. Hedgepath played his role very well through a great range of emotions. In scenes with Ms. Comenzo he softened his voice like a bashful suitor. When serving in the posse to gun down the fugitives, he showed remorse. I enjoyed his dolorous rendition of “You Can Do Better than Him” with Mr. Twigg. An actor that talented deserved a better story line with which to work.

Set Designer Jim Frazier and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick deserve a lot of credit for their work. A lot of scene changes occurred in Bonnie and Clyde. The production even included a car that emerged from the back of the stage several times. The crew executed these intricate shifts flawlessly.

The real life Clyde Barrow and his brother Buck are buried together. While Bonnie wrote poetry, Clyde came up with the epitaph on their headstone. It reads: “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Burlington County Footlighters’ run of Bonnie and Clyde ends this weekend. I can’t think of a more fitting encomium.

Theater Review – Rent at Bridge Players Theater Company

Johnathan Larson must’ve had a profound hatred for actors when he wrote Rent. This musical presented the most challenging material I’ve ever witnessed on a live stage. Watching it performed by a community theater group really impressed me. I enjoyed the stellar performances even more.

Rent featured an extraordinary array of musical styles. Tracks such as “One Song Glory” harkened back to standard Rock and Roll. “Tango: Maureen” was just that: a tango. “Seasons of Love” took me back to the age of Aquarius. The musical also had some numbers for more ‘traditional’ theater fans. I thought the titletrack probably the closest to a standard ‘show tune’ sound.

The vocal routines by this cast were mind blowing. Leilah Murphy (as Mimi Marquez) qualified for a Gold Medal in gymnastics with her performance. It’s hard to sing in front of a group of people. It’s harder to sing and dance in front of group of people. During her rendition of “Out Tonight” Ms. Murphy did these things, while swinging from a beam and then sliding down a pole. It impressed me even more that she pulled all this off without getting hurt.

Mike Wemer (as Tom Collins) also displayed some exceptional vocal skills. The reprise to “I’ll Cover You” showcased his vocal prowess the most. Mr. Wemer began the song as a baritone. A high note came in at the end that he nailed flawlessly. I should also point out that this number came up at the most somber moment of the play. Mr. Wemer sang while nearly crying. All I can say is, “Wow.”

Kiara Rodriguez (as Joanne Jefferson) gave Mariah Carey a run for her money as a singer. Several times during the evening Ms. Rodriguez hit notes close to dog whistle territory. As I told the lady sitting next to me, “She hit those notes better than I would have.”

The most challenging aspect of performing Rent involved the subject matter. It followed a group of bohemians through a year of their lives. Their struggles and heartbreaks served as the crux of the story. Most of the characters suffered from HIV or AIDS. It took a very special group of actors to animate this story in such an entertaining way. Kudos also to Amanda Frederick (as Maureen Johnson) for getting the audience involved with “Over the Moon”.

I also have to give credit to Jonathan Mosesku’s performance as Angel Schunard. (For those unfamiliar with the play, the latter character is a drag queen.) Any man who can run around a stage in high heels and not fall down certainly deserves respect. I struggle walking in flip-flops. I don’t know how the hell he pulled that off.

Matt Dotzman (as Mark Cohen), Mike Reisman (as Roger Davis), and Zack Treusch (as Benjamin Coffin III) turned in fine performances, as well.

I also credit director Chris Focarile for pulling the whole thing together. Gina Petti did an exceptional job as choreographer. (Ms. Petti also played a number of roles in the play.) Those two should qualify for a PMP for staging this production. With all the different characters and the host of intricate musical numbers, they did a phenomenal job.

Jonathan Larson may not have liked actors, but I liked the ones in the Bridge Players Theater Company. In addition, I always enjoy seeing Pulitzer Prize winning plays at community theater groups. This way my wallet doesn’t get ‘rent’.

Theater Review – How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying at Burlington County Footlighters

Some will wonder: why spend an evening watching people connive their way up the corporate ladder, cynically manipulate co-workers and eliminate any obstacle, both real and imagined, while doing so? Can’t one see that every day at the office? Perhaps, but Burlington County Footlighters made it an entertaining pleasure to witness such chicanery.

This cast, crew and orchestra got right down to business. Brenda Kelly Bacon directed and choreographed a phenomenal show. This performance showcased everything: singing, acting and elaborate choreography. It featured many memorable musical numbers. J. B. Biggley’s (played by Kevin Esmond) performance of his college fight song, “Grand Old Ivy” will stay with me for decades. The character showed more enthusiasm for his alma mater than I’m accustomed to seeing during March Madness. The musical also showcased some astonishing dance numbers. Several featured tap dancing. As I sat in the front row, my ears hurt a bit from the entire ensemble performing percussive tap. But as the members of Pink Floyd observed: “What price art, eh?”

All the actors turned in outstanding performances. Matt Becker displayed astonishing range in the role of J. Pierrepont Finch. He played a hyper-ambitious young man obsessed with ascending to the top of World Wide Wickets. Still, he did so in a way that made the character likeable and amusing. It’s a struggle to identify his core competency. He delivered comedic chops, sang and danced with equal dexterity.

Angela Longo (Rosemary) played an exceptional romantic distraction for Finch’s ambitions. She delivered a pining rendition of “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” about wanting to be a businessman’s wife. It added a humorous contrast to the following exchange with Smitty (Alexandra Haas).

Rosemary: “What do you call the opposite of a sex maniac?”

Smitty: “A businessman.”

I especially enjoyed watching Becker and Longo merge their skills and work together as a team. Both these thespians possessed very strong, clear voices. I relished the opportunity to hear them sing together. The two performed the ballad “Rosemary” brilliantly. I also enjoyed their rendition of the catchy tune “Been a Long Day” with the aid of Smitty. (Talk about an earworm. As I’m writing this, the song is running through my head again.)

Kaitlyn Delengowski turned in a memorable performance as the ditsy Hedy LaRue. It’s hard enough to speak in a squeaky voice let alone sing in one and stay in key. She played the role as a red-head as opposed to a stereotypical blonde. That added a more realistic touch to the character.

The show featured a litany of memorable musical numbers. I mentioned several already. Another one that I find myself humming from time to time is “The Company Way”.  (Al Krier, as Twimble, did a fantastic job taking the lead on this tune.) Some of the lyrics stuck with me.

I play it the company way

Wherever the company puts me, there I’ll stay.

And

Junior have no fear

Whoever the company fires

I will still be here.        

While listening to the song, I found the extent of its veracity on par with Biblical truth.

I also liked the “Coffee Break” number. The ensemble showed what that can happen in an office during a coffee shortage. Think One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While funny, I did detect a colonel of truth to it.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying delivered a humorous send-up of one ambitious man’s rise to the top. Finch got ahead rather easily. The cast at Burlington County Footlighters succeeded in putting on a great show. I can’t say they succeeded as easily as Finch, though. The amount of time and effort they put into this production was evident in their performances. As always, I applaud and marvel at the passion I see in its thespians. The show runs through February 7th.

 

Theater Review – Avenue Q at Burlington County Footlighters

Way back in my youth I often wondered how Sesame Street would’ve appeared if I’d been under the influence and listening to the Allman Brothers Band’s Live at the Fillmore East. Without the benefit of either of those, this afternoon I received my answer in the form of the Burlington County Footlighters production of Avenue Q. Spending a day listening to muppets curse, discuss homosexuality and internet pornography made me wish I’d put my idea into practice and made a little money off it. I have to admit author Jeff Whitty and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx did a much better job than my meager talents could have.

Director Sean Flaherty, Musical Director Sean Mehlbaum,  and the BCF cast did a phenomenal job bringing this story to life. The cast performed superbly in presenting a pessimistic premise in a witty and entertaining way. The only times I recall the audience not laughing occurred during the musical numbers and the various applause periods.  

I’d never witnessed a community theater production before, and the level of talent I saw in the performers greatly exceeded my expectations. It takes a lot of skill to speak in different voices. It takes even more aptitude to sing in different ones while dancing and working a puppet. A special hat’s off goes to actors Matthew Holman (who played Princeton and Rod) as well as C. J. Kish (who played Nicky, Trekkie, and one of the Bad Idea Bears). I’d never seen either of these actors perform in the past, but I’d have to say I think either one of these thespians could be budding Seth MacFarlaines in terms of vocal skills.

While I would classify Avenue Q as a comedy despite the story’s pessimistic premise, the true highlight of the evening for me took place at the end of Act I. Actress Lindsey Krier’s (Kate Monster) moving performance of the ballad “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” almost brought me to tears. That’s a hell of an accomplishment for an actress playing a muppet. Before readers comment on my emotional reaction to such, here are some of the lyrics.

There’s a fine, fine line between a fairy tale and a lie.

As well as

There’s a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.

And

But there’s a fine, fine line between love and a waste of your time.  

If I had to summarize Avenue Q in one sentence I’d select the first lyric cited above. In essence, the story described the tribulations of a group of people (and muppets) in their early twenties who discover that life isn’t everything they thought it would be while in college. The show included musical numbers to reflect this such as “What Do You Do with a B. A. in English?” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” The characters lived on Avenue Q, located far away from the upscale Avenue A. The character of Princeton searched for a purpose, while his love interest, Kate Monster, searched for a boyfriend. Other dramatis personae included two human characters Brian (Derek L. Miller) an unemployed 32 year old want-to-be stand-up comedian and his similarly unemployed girlfriend with two masters degrees, Christmas Eve (Jillian Starr-Renbjor). The cast of characters also included former child star Gary Coleman as the building superintendent (played exceptionally well by Leilah Murphy). Rounding out the line-up were the two Bad Idea Bear muppets (C. J. Kish and Kori Rife) and Lucy the Slut (played by Rachel Kapulskey). Yes, you read that correctly. One of the muppets was named Lucy the Slut. The onanistic muppet Trekkie (C. J. Kish) rounded out the ensemble.  

It would be an understatement to write that characters this diverse and quirky made for a very interesting show. Prior to the performance the announcer declared that language some would find offensive would occur in the performance. Although the main characters were muppets, this was not a show suitable for children. With my maturity level, I felt a little surprised they let me in the building.

Everyone in the cast performed magnificently in their roles. I admired the way a number of actors/actresses also served as extra puppeteers. It took a lot of talent and hard work to make this show work.

I’d also like to credit the crew for weaving together the lighting, the projections and the set with the functioning windows. The live band sounded tight.  For a high tech show, it impressed me that everything went flawlessly without technical glitches.

Burlington County Footlighters billed Avenue Q as an “adult musical.” The script dealt with adult themes in many ways. Aside from the myriad comedic yuks, it addressed the serious side of growing up. It centered on when a person recognizes the gaps between youthful expectation and grown-up reality. (There’s a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.) I can think of no better testament to the skill of the cast, director and crew at the Burlington County Footlighters than to say everyone left the theater with a smile on his/her face. The show runs through May 17th.