Nicholas French

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.

Advertisements

Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters

“Is it better to hope or to know?” Jimmy Ray (played by DJ Hedgepath) asked.

When Burlington County Footlighters announced their 2018 – 2019 season, Darryl Thompson, Jr. issued a statement via Facebook. Mr. Thompson lamented that he had to wait a year to bring Bright Star to the stage. With over 12 months to plan, organize and prepare this show, was he better off “hoping” audiences would remember it as a spectacular piece or is he now better for “knowing” the answer? I discovered for myself when I attended the opening night performance on May 3rd.

Legendary performer Steve Martin wrote the book and Edie Brickell composed Bright Star’s music. Critics heralded this show. It received myriad award nominations including one for a Grammy. It won the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score and the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Musical. To bring a show of this caliber to the Footlighters stage, Mr. Thompson utilized that year of preparation very effectively.

Bright Star contained a very rare combination of theatrical elements. It featured excellent choreography, catchy Bluegrass musical numbers and an extraordinary story. As Alice (played by Caitlin Alvarez) sang in the opening number:

If you knew my story

You’d have a good story to tell.

The show contained two alternating plot lines. One followed the star crossed love affair between Alice (Caitlyn Alvarez) and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (DJ Hedgepath). The second showed aspiring writer Billy Cane (Robert Stoop) in his pursuit of Margo (Rachel Comenzo) while trying to get published in the Ashville Southern Journal. The latter became the harder challenge. The journal’s editor read new writers with fastidious discernment. This portion of the story occurred twenty years after the first. An older Alice worked as the journal’s editor.

It shows Steve Martin’s brilliance in that he managed to make the life of a writer sound interesting.

Mr. Thompson selected many Footlighters legends as cast members. However, he selected a newcomer to the company’s stage for the lead role. Caitlyn Alvarez earned her place among performers such as DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Star-Renbjor.

Ms. Alvarez’s character appeared in two different incarnations. In one story line, Alice was both the “black sheep” of her family and a love struck teenager. In the other her character became an unemotional, jaded professional more comfortable with texts than with people. Ms. Alvarez animated both aspects of Alice’s personality with equal dexterity.

Ms. Alvarez also possesses a beautiful voice. She opened the show with a wonderful performance of “If You Knew My Story.” Her duets with Mr. Hedgepath on “Whoa, Mama”, “What Could Be Better” and “I Can’t Wait” expressed the hopeful optimism of youth beautifully.

Even allowing for the high standards audiences have for Mr. Hedgepath’s work, he still managed to exceed them. One has to credit him and Ms. Alvarez for their chemistry. That’s quite an achievement for two people working together for the first time.

Several years ago DJ Hedgepath’s mother commented on one of my reviews. She expressed her pride in her son. The way I praised his abilities in my article made her cry. I replied that Mr. Hedgepath is an immensely talented actor. I suggested she start stockpiling boxes of tissues.

I’m not sure whether or not Mrs. Hedgepath accepted my advice. If she did, I’d ask that she donate some of those boxes to Burlington County Footlighters for this run of Bright Star.

Mr. Hedgepath delivered his strongest vocal performance to date in the form of “Heartbreaker.” Through his emotive signing he made an affecting scene even more intense. He and Ms. Alvarez performed a duet on “I Had a Vision” that was even more moving. Mr. Hedgepath’s performance made the audience experience the same emotions as his character. That’s genius.

In the role of Billy, Robert Stoop delivered a stellar version of the show’s title track. In addition, Mr. Stoop had a witty interaction with Ms. Alvarez. He handed her a letter claiming that author Thomas Wolfe wrote a letter praising his writing. Using a monotone voice, Ms. Alvarez informed him that Mr. Wolfe passed away several years prior.

Mr. Stoop also performed an excellent number with Nicholas French (as Daddy Cane). The two sang a banjo accompanied funeral dirge for Billy’s mother with the somber “She’s Gone.”

In the playbill, Rachel Comenzo thanked Mr. Thompson for “the opportunity to sing again.” Audiences should express their appreciation to the director, as well. Ms. Comenzo proved herself quite the country crooner with her rendition of “Asheville.” She accompanied Mr. Stoop on a wonderful duet of “Always Will.”

Ms. Comenzo has that rare gift where she truly becomes the characters she plays. In her performance as Margo she always found the proper facial expressions to accentuate the scene. Her subtle wincing whenever Max (Christian DeCola) expressed his interest made their interaction more engaging.

Fans know Burlington County Footlighters for the comedy team of Al Krier and Dan Brothers. Performers Stephen Jackson and Alex Davis showed they may be the next great comedy team to originate from that company. The two provided a much needed catharsis to the intense drama that occurred in the show. In addition to their humorous interactions, they performed a catchy song and dance number with Mr. Stoop on “Another Round.”

Audrey DiEnno-Lacroce coordinated spectacular choreography. Several numbers involved the ensemble. The cast executed the intricate maneuvers well. Their skill made an entertaining performance into an awesome one.

Thomas Stone played the villain, Mayor Dobbs. He personified Larouchefoucault’s admonition that: “the evil wouldn’t be so dangerous if it weren’t for the good in them.” Mr. Stone’s character wanted his son, Jimmy Ray, to live a rewarding life. He erred by pursuing that end with unrestrained cruelty. Mr. Stone expressed that sentiment through his excellent rendition of the “A Man’s Gotta Do” reprise. His baritone repetition of the line “a man must protect his family” made it ominous. This brings me to my one criticism of the show.

When Mr. Stone took his curtain call I heard hissing from the audience. Folks: MR. STONE IS A GIFTED ACTOR. HE PLAYED THE ROLE AS WRITTEN BY THE PLAYWRIGHT. HE DID A SUPERB JOB OF IT.

Please do not confuse performers with the characters they play. In that sense, Mr. Stone should take pride in the fact audience members found his performance as Mayor Stone so authentic.

The following performers rounded out the cast: John Romano, Jillian Star-Renbjor, Matt Maerten, Tony Flores, Becky Crunk, Ally Masson, Rachel Ricci, Audrey DiEnno, Lena Dougherty, Shaina Eagan, Gabrielle Hansson, Mark Henley, Riley Rancani, Mackenzie Smith, and Luke Szyskiewicz. Michelle Foster served as Musical Director and Chuck Jackson designed the set.

Ms. Davis’ character described the task of a writer as: “to drink alcohol and feel sorry for yourself.” After watching Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters, theatre critics will struggle to follow that follow that advice; at least the second part of it. Mr. Thompson and his team receive this critic’s praise for giving this phenomenal show the presentation it deserved. We can all drink to that.

Bright Star will shine at Burlington County Footlighters until May 18th.

 

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Ritz Theatre Company

Once again the arts mirror sports. As football fans watch teams vying for the championship battling to eliminate each other in the playoffs, the Ritz Theatre Company treated audiences to a similar premise. They opened this year’s season with a tale of a young man eliminating rivals in his quest for an earldom. To show just how driven he was, he utilized even more ruthless methods than Sean Payton. I witnessed the spectacle myself on January 19th.

Set in Edwardian Britain, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder delivered just what the title promised. It showed Monty Navarro’s (played by Taylor Darden) ascent from poverty into the British aristocracy. Following his mother’s death, Miss Shingle (Trisha Dennis) told him a family secret. Mrs. Navarro was a relative of the posh D’Yasquith family. They had disowned her for marrying out of her class in favor of a travelling musician.

Upon this discovery, Monty wrote to Lord Asquith D’Yasquith, Sr. requesting a job. The latter responded by telling Monty never to contact him again.

To complicate matters for Monty, he’d fallen in love with the sprightly Sibella (Sophie Jones). She rejected him opting instead to marry a wealthy man in spite of finding him rather dull.

Monty had no money. Because of that he’d lost the woman he loved. And he was eighth in line to become the Earl of Highhurst. Monty personified Frank Sinatra’s observation that: “Lack of money is the root of all evil.” He resolved to ascend the social ladder by taking out a few rungs. Monty chose to murder his way into an earldom.

The premise would suggest A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder a terrifying horror story. Author Robert L. Freedman and songwriter Steven Lutvak instead developed Roy Horniman’s concept into a musical comedy. Director Peter John Rios chose the perfect cast for such an endeavor.

Taylor Darden’s stage presence made him the perfect Monty. Through his boyish-looks along with his mischievous mannerisms he became the character. The way he winked at the audience at the show’s end expressed Monty’s inner thoughts wittily. Mr. Darden also used props for comedic effect very well; especially through the way he scurried about the stage with an axe.

Mr. Darden treated the audience with his exceptional vocal prowess. He performed a wonderful ode to Monty’s love interest in “Sibella.” Mr. Darden displayed range by delivering a memorable comedic number with the same proficiency. The audience enjoyed his duet with Nicholas French on the double entendre laden “Better with a Man.”

For theatre fans who enjoy operatic vocals, this show is a must see. Musical director Michael J. Weaver worked with a trio of talented performers. Sophie Jones (as Sibella), Mariel Rosati (as Phoebe) and Alyssa Batsakis (as Miss Barley) all performed superb vocals with a challenging score. I’d also compliment Mr. Weaver’s stellar piano playing to accompany them.

The evening’s highlight came when Mr. Darden, Ms. Jones and Ms. Rosati teamed-up for the “I’ve Decided to Marry You” number. Phoebe proposed to Navarro while Sibella listened in on the other side. The routine included some elaborate coordination and choreography (also by Peter John Rios). A set with two doors was placed in the center of the stage. Ms. Jones remained on one side, Ms. Rosati and Mr. Darden on the other. As they sang Ms. Jones tried to listen in and then enter the other room as Mr. Darden struggled to block her. The scene made for quite a visual spectacle.

When a show contains numerous dramatis personae it can become difficult to follow. When the same actor performs most of the roles all of them can seem similar. Performer Nicholas French ensured that didn’t happen. Mr. French played eight members of the D’Yasquith family; that included two women.

Mr. French gave every character its own distinct personality. For Lord Adalbert D’Yasquith, Sr. he adopted an austere, dignified persona. He played Asquith D’Yasquith, Jr. as a sybaritic playboy. Working with Alyssa Batsakis (as Miss Barley) in that role the two performers displayed great chemistry as one another’s love interest. Lord Adalbert D’Yasquith, Jr. behaved like a glutton; even making snorting noises while dining.

This actor proved just as adept at playing the female family members. Mr. French showed himself a much better performer than the one he played: Lady Salome D’Yasquith Pumphrey. His rendition of aspiring philanthropist Lady Hyacinth D’Yasquith, was among his best.

Mr. French showed extraordinary skill playing all these roles. His rendition of “I Don’t Understand the Poor” and his performance as weightlifter Major Bartholomew D’Asquith were absolutely hysterical. He displayed the most talent performing the Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Yasquith. For that role he wore prosthetic teeth which gave the character an overbite. Even with that obstruction in his mouth, Mr. French still delivered his lines clearly.

After Mr. French’s performances as each character I could understand just how much having money and status meant to Mr. Navarro. It had to for him to want in to this family.

As one can surmise, playing eight characters in one show required “the fastest quick changes ever” as the director described them in the playbill. One has to credit Mr. French and “quick change dresser” Briana Bailey for executing them so flawlessly.

Michael J. DeFlorio played a superbly comical Chief Inspector Pinckney. With his Sherlock Holmes outfit, continuous mouth twitching and drawling of a British accent he made his stage time very entertaining.

The following performers rounded out the cast: Trishia Dennis, Caroline Milby, Shawn Hudson, Megan Felasco, Bryce Menard, and Charles Finchon.

Act Two opened with the musical question, “Why Are All the D’Yasquiths Dying?” The mourners at the final funeral sang the lines:

I happened to notice there wasn’t a lot of crying

I even heard a snigger from the back

Oh, it really is a shame

How I start to feel the same

How many are there left to bury after what’s-his-name?

Theatre fans won’t take that attitude when this run of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder wraps. The Ritz is currently the only regional licensor of the show. Theatre fans in the South Jersey area should see it while they can. It meets the fate of many D’Yasquith family members after February 3rd.

Scrooge: The Musical at The Ritz Theatre Company

What better way to commemorate the Holiday Season than with a high-tech Christmas spectacle? I’ve commented before about how The Ritz Theatre Company has transformed the South Jersey area into the Wonderful World of Disney. This time the company converted it into a Winter Wonderland. I attended their presentation of Scrooge: The Musical on December 21st.

Upon approaching the theatre I noticed the Ritz lettering colored in red and green. Inside the building lit Christmas trees surrounded by gifts adorned the left and right of the stage. A lighted wreath hung over its center flanked by two others on both sides.

It’s not beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, I thought. This is Christmas.

Director Steve Stonis selected an excellent team to coordinate this elaborate production. Kate Orlando choreographed, Marley Boone designed the costumes and Nicholas French served as Musical Director. The show even included a local ballet troupe: the Cooper River Ballet. Ann Moser Trenka choreographed that group’s routines.

Mr. Stonis brought the audience into the show. Two small platforms were placed in the middle of the theatre on both the left and right of the audience. Actors performed several scenes from them. Performers utilized the aisles for both the action and the dance routines, as well.

During the scene where a man requested a charitable donation from Ebenezer Scrooge, performers Michael Arigot and Bruce A. Curless delivered part of the exchange right in front of me. I got an up-close view of two stellar performers perfecting the craft of acting.

While a delightful Holiday experience, the show included a tint of sadness. This run will serve as Bruce A. Curless’ swan song as Scrooge. This production marks the last time he’ll take on the role of everyone’s favorite Christmas curmudgeon. Mr. Curless made it a memorable one.

When directors chose to utilize the entire room, it gives performers opportunities to interact with the audience. Mr. Curless used the opportunity brilliantly. I enjoyed his disgruntled murmurs while looking at audience members.

Scrooge is a pretty complex character. In the Dickens tale, he transformed from a misanthrope into a philanthropist within a few hours. He even transitioned from Isabel’s adoring suitor into an avaricious miser in the same scene. Scrooge: The Musical added another element to the role: humor. Mr. Curless’ performance captured all these facets of Scrooge’s personality while keeping the role entertaining.  

Mr. Curless performed a comical take on “I Hate People.” Scrooge may not have cared for others, but the audience sure loved Mr. Curless’ musical description of it.

Michael Arigot performed various male roles throughout the evening; some rather diverse. Mr. Arigot chose exceptional voices for them. The horrifying one he used for Jacob Marley enhanced his minatory presence; as did the addition of reverb to it. The comical cockney tone of Mr. Fezziwig made that figure quite amusing. The performer’s ebullient Ghost of Christmas Present brought out the character’s essence. His upbeat rendition of “I Like Life” with Mr. Curless enhanced it.

Hannah Keeley played various female characters. They included Mrs. Cratchit, Mrs. Fezziwig, Isabelle and the Ghost of Christmas Past. I enjoyed her shocked reaction in the first role when Mr. Cratchit (played by Steve Stonis) proposed a toast to Ebenezer Scrooge. These characters provided Ms. Keely with various opportunities to showcase her lovely voice. The most enjoyable occurred when she performed the fitting “Somewhere in My Memory” as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The show included a remarkable duet between Mr. Arigot and Ms. Keeley. While playing the roles of Young Scrooge and Isabele, they performed a somber rendition of “Happiness.” The tune’s minor key melody showed it to be ironically titled. These two performers—accompanied by Mr. Curless—captured the song’s dreary spirit in a way that made it haunting.

Scrooge’s songwriter Leslie Bricusse provided other performers with opportunities to perform vocal numbers. As Tiny Tim, Addie Crow sang a wonderful rendition of “Beautiful Day.” Urchins Megan Lex and Lily Bunting exhibited their vocal prowess on the tunes “Where is Love?” and “Believe” respectively.

Perhaps in homage to The Nutcracker, Scrooged included some stellar ballet routines. They enhanced the show’s entertainment value. The Cooper River Ballet opened the show by accompanying the cast during the “Overture.” During this performance dancers occupied the stage and both platforms in the middle of the theatre. The set-up created a terrific effect. The group also performed during the “Shades”, “Celebration” and “Isabelle” numbers.

Scrooge included an extensive cast. I’d also like to credit performers Holly Guzik, Emily Ferry, Jameson DeMuro, Olivia Bee Sposa, Max Ruggles, Joey Liberson, Dillinger Crow, Olivia Bathurst, Barbara Fraga, Caroline Grexa, Irelyn Wilkinson, and Audrey Mirtos.

The following members of the Cooper River Ballet added their talents as well: Abby Barrett, Taylor Carey, Emily Collins, Madeline Connor, Caroline Filosa, Lucas Filosa, Kim Fiordimondo, Caroline Hanifen, Gemma Miller and Evan Pirouz.

On multiple levels, I found Scrooge The Musical an outstanding show. I did have one criticism. The show began nine minutes late.

This run of Scrooge will probably be best remembered as Mr. Curless’ final performance in the title role. While his fans may wish that’s “humbug,” in the words of Dr. Seuss: Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened. The show I attended certainly gave the audience a lot of reasons to do so.

Scrooge: The Musical runs through December 23rd at the Ritz Theatre Company.

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.

Big Fish at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Big Fish possessed one complicated title. As this is July, I anticipated a musical ode to that age old summer past time. Not so. The protagonist’s son went “fishing” into his dad’s past to discover the truth about him. Well, the title either alluded to that or Edward’s being a figurative “big fish” in a small pond. At any rate, theatergoers should leave their rods and reels at home. Settle in for an odyssey of singing, dancing and stellar entertainment with the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Edward Bloom loved to share stories with his son. Who wouldn’t want a tale-telling fabulous fabulist of a father? Well, not Will. When he discovered himself about to become a dad, he longed to know the real Edward behind the stories. But time became an issue. Edward received news he had terminal cancer. Would Will learn the truth? I found out when I attended the July 14th performance of Big Fish presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Director Michael Melvin engaged in some unexpected casting for this project. Antonio Baldasari is one of the funniest actors on the South Jersey community theatre circuit. His performance as Aldolpho in the Maple Shade Arts Council’s The Drowsy Chaperone was the most comical character I’ve seen brought to the stage. April Lindley has also played memorable comic characters in recent years. I attended a performance of Shrek: The Musical at the Collingswood Community Theatre in which she played the emotionally volatile Princess Fiona. That character changed moods about as often as most people inhale. With those two at the top of the bill I entered the Maple Shade High School Auditorium expecting some side-splitting entertainment.

Well, the creative Mr. Melvin had other plans. He cast these performers in dramatic, sentimental and heart-rending roles. He made a good decision. These players proved just as adept at performing “serious” characters. To the audience’s delight both Mr. Baldasari and Ms. Lindley delivered performances just as memorable as their comedic work.

Big Fish included sophisticated dance routines choreographed by Erica Paolucci and assistant Mallory Beach, a live orchestra led by Jim Sheffer and vocal direction by Lauren Delfing. All facets combined for an exceptional show. Oh, yes, and DJ Hedgepath played the son. You know it had to be one grand production for me to mention Mr. Hedgepath last.

Mr. Melvin turned Big Fish into a mesmerizing visual spectacle. He coordinated the lighting, as well. The director ensured the different shades of color on the set reflected the mood of the events occurring on-stage. The bright yellow hue combined with the flowers spread around the stage heightened the beauty of the “Daffodils” number. The red, white and blue costumes accentuated the stellar dancing in the “Red, White and True” routine. The dark costumes of the witch ensemble boosted the ominous aura of the “I Know What You Want” scene. The glowing crystal ball the witch (Nicole Perri) held illuminated in various hues.

Antonio Baldasari has done strong supporting work. I relished the opportunity to watch him take the lead as Edward Bloom. He didn’t disappoint. The performer grabbed my attention at the beginning with his solo rendition of “Be the Hero.”

Mr. Baldasari became Edward. He adopted the character’s slow Southern drawl. I liked his calm mannerisms when confronted by the witch and the assassins; but not when confronted by his son. He complimented Ms. Lindley very well in numbers such as “Daffodils” and “Time Stops.” He worked just as proficiently with cast members Tre Deluca on “Fight the Dragons” and DJ Hedgepath on “Showdown.”

Besides the musical numbers, the show contained serious drama. Mr. Baldasari and Mr. Hedgepath played superb opposites. Mr. Baldasari’s laid back and imaginative persona worked well against Mr. Hedgepath’s angry and analytical nature. April Lindley and Jayne Collotti (as Will’s wife Josephine) served as mediators. Even without the songs, this conflict alone would have made for a great story.

DJ Hedgepath’s fans will be delighted, as usual. I enjoyed his renditions of “Stranger”, “What’s Next” and the “Be the Hero” reprise. In addition to the hostility to Mr. Baldasari’s character, he showed great emotion when visiting him in the hospital. He brought out Will’s development very believably.

April Lindley turned in an absolutely awesome performance as Sandra. Ms. Lindley delivered her lines in a perfect Southern accent. She inspired empathy for Sandra through her flawless facial expressions.

Ms. Lindley established a new standard for dramatic vocals. With the dying Edward resting in her lap she sang “I Don’t Need a Roof” while crying. She performed as though every word agonized her character even more. All the time she remained in key. Ms. Lindley brilliantly extended a rest before hitting the final note. It made a deeply emotional moment even more powerful.

The highlight of this show occurred during the “Little Lamb from Alabama/Time Stops” sequence. April Lindley, Shaina Egan and Emma Kelly joined together to perform this song and dance number. They sounded just like the Andrews Sisters playing on an MP3. The “Little Lamb from Alabama” number featured a quick upbeat tempo. It segued into “Time Stops” sung by Ms. Lindley and Mr. Baldasari. For that one the three dancers slowed down and performed the same moves in slow motion. They executed this transition with precision.

I also compliment the other cast members who contributed to the production. Tre Deluca (played Young Will the night I attended), Jane Collotti, stilt walker Stephen Jackson, Nicholas French, Nicole Perri, Allison Abiva, James Gallagher, Ryan Bogie, Matthew Maerten, Mallory Beach, Erin Daly, Laura Foley, Jerrod Ganesh, Evan Hairston, Lori Alexio Howard, Nicole Manning, Jordan Moore, Lisa Palena and William Young.

During the intermission Mr. Melvin told me to “get the tissues ready for Act II.” I’m sure audience members shed tears at its conclusion, but not because of the story. I doubt I’m the only person who felt sad that it ended. Missing out on the experience would’ve made me even more miserable. For theatre fans still in the doldrums you have until July 21st to catch Big Fish.

Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Ritz Theatre Company

The magic of Disney transformed South Jersey into a mystical wonderland; well, more so than usual. Twenty-first century exurbia altered into the form of a rustic medieval village. A mysterious enchanted castle settled on the outskirts. The Ritz Theatre served as the source of this enchantment. The building became even more bewitching this July 28th. I experienced a supernatural evening in the form of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast directed by Craig Hutchinson.

In the prologue voiceover, Rick Williams delivered a stellar reading of the backstory for this “tale as old as time.” In it, a handsome prince discovered the perils of vanity in the most unpleasant way possible. He turned a homely beggar woman away from his door because of her appearance. Spoiler alert for those who’ve never had contact with the outside world: a witch bore the guise of the old woman. She cursed the good-looking young man, making him into a hideous beast. In the process, his servants experienced their own metamorphoses. They started changing into various items in the household.

Only one thing could end the curse. Spoiler alert for those surprised by the first spoiler alert: it’s the love of a good woman. The beast must find a young lady who can look past his horrifying appearance. But this quest contained an added challenge. The Beast must complete it before all the petals fell off the rose the witch gave him. At the story’s beginning, the rose was almost bare.

The action then turned to the bookish Belle (Annabelle Garcia). Somewhat of an outcast due to her love of literature, she still drew the interest of the most desirable man in town, Gaston (Nicholas French). While spurning his affections, her father, Maurice, (played by Bruce A. Curless), became lost in the woods. In order to avoid a coven of wolves, he took shelter in the Beast’s castle. The latter didn’t take kindly to uninvited guests, so he imprisoned the father. In order to free him, Belle promised the Beast she would stay with him forever. Then as the rose withered, their relationship bloomed.

Annabelle Garcia interpreted her character’s role as “beauty” very broadly. I witnessed no paucity of pulchritude from this performer. Ms. Garcia showcased a beautiful voice, beautiful dance moves and beautiful acting ability. Belle proved quite a demanding role, and this thespian rose to the level it required.

Ms. Garcia turned Belle into the epitome of a Disney heroine. Her selection of voice brought to mind Judy Garland’s from The Wizard of Oz; only more mellifluous. Even when delivering lines, her voice contained a melodic quality to it. This performer treated the audience with impressive singing. Her delivery of “A Change in Me” drew on the character’s feelings and expressed them proficeintly.

Ms. Garcia also wowed theatregoers with her dancing ability. Her most memorable scene occurred when she took part in the fast, high-energy “Be Our Guest” routine along with the ensemble.

A true triple threat, Ms. Garcia also exhibited superb aptitude for non-verbal communication. Even when other action occurred on stage, she remained in character through her perfect use of facial expressions. The way she laughed in her scenes with Maurice (Bruce A. Curliss) showed the character’s genuine affection for her father. It came across as believable and sincere. Bravo.

Bryan M. Pitt put on one beast of a performance as the Beast. I liked the way he brought out the character’s inner turmoil through his vocals. He delivered “If I Can’t Love Her” in a dolorous tone that stirred me. One has to credit him for doing this so well without allowing a burdensome costume to distract him.

Mr. Pitt varied the monster’s emotions very well. Through his character interpretation he showed the Beast possessed much more depth and complexity than what appeared on the surface. When required, he played an angry, frightening creature speaking in a harsh tone that invoked terror. The reverb added to his voice in the first act enhanced this effect.

Like a true stage veteran, he portrayed the character’s change in a measured way that made it credible. Mr. Pitt brought out the Beast’s vulnerability when admitting to Belle he didn’t know how to read. He also got laughs when squealing as Belle bandaged his wounds.

I always enjoy the opportunity to hear Tami Gordon Brody sing. Her rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” didn’t disappoint. It provided the perfect background to Belle’s and the Beast’s solo dance.

This show featured elaborate costuming. To illustrate just how extravagant, it’s difficult to argue the Beast’s as the best. David M. Mooney (as Cogsworth) played a realistic appearing clock. Tami Gordon Brody (Mrs. Potts) took the stage as a tea-kettle. Achilles Inverso (as Luminaire) donned the attire of candelabra. Nicky Intrieri performed as a teacup. Brittany Marie (Babette) played a feather duster. Jane Ericksen wore a dresser most of the evening. The ensemble acted as various pieces of silverware. These players deserve immense respect for not allowing costumes that inhibited movement to affect their performances. That’s true professionalism.

In addition, the “normal” characters wore authentic appearing gowns from the 18th century. They made for quite a visual spectacle.

David M. Mooney and Achilles Inverso displayed outstanding comedic chemistry working together. Their respective costuming added to the humorous effect, but they didn’t allow themselves to become reliant on them for humor. As with Ms. Garcia, they selected the perfect voices to correspond with their characters. I enjoyed Mr. Mooney’s English accent and Mr. Inverso’s French intonation. The inflections enhanced the witty banter between the two.

Nicholas French (Gaston) and Matt Flocco (Lefou) performed well as a comedy team. In addition, I  enjoyed their singing together on the apotheosis of self-admiration the appropriately titled “Gaston.”

Nicholas French may have played a reprehensible character in the form of Gaston, but I still relished they way he performed. It’s quite a trial to play a lothario in an appropriate way to a Disney audience, but Mr. French did so. He teamed up with Ms. Garcia on the outstanding duet: “Me.”

I had one minor issue with the show. I know this is Disney, but dancing wolves? In the story’s context, they were supposed to be threatening creatures. Seeing them dance, made them less so; and Beauty and the Beast isn’t Cats. That’s not to diminish the work of the dancers. More thought out writing would’ve gotten the playwright’s point across better.

Choreographer Jessica Quindlen put together memorable routines. I’d credit dancers Casey Clark, Olivia West, Lindsey Krier, Nicky O’Neal, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Margot Adams, Matthew Janis, Madeline Kendall, Annie Raczko, Kahlil Wyatt, Mike Wemer, Brian Gensel and John Sayles for the technical ability to execute them.

I also enjoyed Taylor Brody in the role of the malevolent Monseiur D’Arque. Bruce A. Curless played the eccentric Maurice exceptionally well.

During intermission, the Ritz allowed theatregoers the opportunity to purchase illuminating roses. When the proper scene arose a series of roseate glows dotted the auditorium. Watching a dark theatre light up with red flowers added to the optical display.

Some “tales as old as time” never get old; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among them. A curse may have ignited the main story spark, but it blessed the audience with a truly enchanting evening. Unfortunately for theatre fans, the petals are falling off the rose while you’re reading this. The magical opportunity to see Beauty and the Beast ends this August 6th.