Nicole DeRosa Lukatis

The Who’s Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players

No company can celebrate an anniversary like Hadonfield Plays and Players.

A half century ago on this February 14th four lads from Shepherd’s Bush London performed a concert to promote their latest release: a “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb and blind boy with a skill at playing pinball. That Valentine’s Day gig from 1970 has been immortalized by the iconic recording Live at Leeds.

Tommy extended the artistic boundaries of Rock and Roll music upon its release in 1969. Then the record’s “amazing journey” continued. In 1975, The Who decided to “join together” with director Ken Russell to “relay” it to the silver screen. Taking his own advice never to “spend his guitar or pen,” Pete Townshend (and Des McAnuff) adapted Tommy into a musical in 1992.

Adding to the concept’s “success story,” Haddonfield Plays and Players opened their 2020 season with The Who’s Tommy. Your correspondent attended this “welcome” addition to the company’s repertoire on January 31st. HPP didn’t have to “bargain” with him to do so, either.

Bill C. Fikaris proved himself a “sensation” through his direction of this show. Along with Music Director Arlo Ehly, Musical Conductor Alex Ayala and Choreographer Chris McGinnis, the team at HPP injected the spirit of Pete Townshend’s masterpiece into the performance. They presented a high energy show with a lot of movement. Can one imagine anything based on The Who’s music without it?

The Who’s fans can now claim their favorite group capable of producing a high-tech visual spectacle on par with a Pink Floyd show. The design and special effects brought the audience into the world of the story. Chris Miller’s lighting strips positioned at the four corners of the stage added a unique style of illumination to the set. Sound and Projection Designer Pat DeFusco produced stellar visuals. They simulated London flats, an RAF airfield and neon arcade signs. Set designers Ed Ortiz and Glenn Funkhouser painted a Union Jack on the stage floor. The ubiquitous smoke gave the show the aura of a rock concert.

The ambiance was vintage Who. It would have made Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle and Keith Moon proud. Its authenticity made your correspondent wary of getting hit by shrapnel from smashed guitars and exploding drum kits.

In addition to his musical genius, Mr. Townshend showed creativity at crafting memorable characters. Mr. Fikaris selected gifted performers to bring them to the stage.

The show featured three incarnations of Tommy. Wesley Halloway played the four year old version, Nicky Intrieri performed the 10 year old one and Dennis Summerville took on the role of adult Tommy. All three Tommys sang the high-pitched melody from the “See Me, Feel Me” number. Their vocals sounded cleaner and more professional than those on the original 1969 album.

Mr. Fikaris utilized these performers effectively during the mirror scenes. While one Tommy stared into the looking glass, a different one gazed back. It made for one of the show’s most spectacular visuals.

Mr. Summerville played an outstanding Tommy. He enacted all of Tommy’s personality traits with equal skill. The performer stood still with a blank stare while either in front of the mirror or playing pinball. Mr. Summerville became enthusiastic following Tommy’s moment of realization. He accompanied it with a stirring rendition of “Welcome.” His impassioned vocals captured the essence of “I’m Free” after Mrs. Walker (Shaina Egan) smashed the mirror.

Listening to theatrical vocalists sing Rock and Roll songs is always entertaining. Mr. Summerville made it more of a pleasure than usual. He belted out powerful vocals on the heavier songs such as “Pinball Wizard” and “Sensation.” His soft falsetto on “See Me, Feel Me” articulated the character’s sensitive side.

Justin Walsh played Tommy’s father, Captain Walker. Mr. Walsh’s face held the look of a concerned parent all evening. During the “Acid Queen” and “Hawker” numbers, he showed the nuance between an expression of anxiety and one of repulsion. Mr. Walsh modulated the character’s outlook by singing “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found” with an optimistic tone. He also showed professional acting ability during the altercation between the Lover (played by Keian Hagstrom) and he.

Shaina Egan performed a superior Mrs. Walker. Ms. Egan adopted a very natural sounding British accent for the role. Her expressive facial movements showed the character’s inner turmoil regarding her son’s condition. Her vocals captured the upbeat sentiments of “Twenty-One” and “It’s a Boy” with sincerity. Ms. Egan expressed Mrs. Walker’s frustration through her rendition of “Smash the Mirror.” Her Townshendesqe swinging motion of the chair added a nice touch.

Gary Werner played the lovable lush Uncle Ernie. Mr. Werner added humor to the show during his “Fiddle About” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” numbers. The performer added a slight slur to his voice. Mr. Werner did so in a clever way. One could understand his character drank. He still expressed the lyrics so that the audience could understand them.

“Acid Queen” would make the list of Tommy’s best numbers. Legends Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle even sang it with The Who. While an intimidating song to attempt, Joyel Crawford met the challenge. Ms. Crawford gave the song the sultry, soulful treatment it warranted.

Jerrod Ganesh performed the role of the sadistic Cousin Kevin. Mr. Ganesh’s vicious vocals and quick movements demonstrated he character’s malicious nature. He applied the cigarette prop for maximum effect.

Courtney Bundens portrayed Sally Simpson. With a pining look from “behind blue eyes” Ms. Bundens showed her character’s infatuation with Tommy. The performer’s vocals on “Sally Simpson” and “Sally’s Question” made the character even more likable.

Tommy even included a number written by a legendary bluesman. As the huckster Hawker, Keian Hagstrom sang Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Eyesight to the Blind.” In this sequence, performer Faith McCleery portrayed the harmonica player. Ms. McCleery made her character even more interesting than the Marilyn Monroe icon in the movie version of Tommy.

Tommy contained mesmerizing dance sequences. “Pinball Wizard”, “Acid Queen” and “Miracle Cure” featured spectacular routines. Dance Captain Nicole Lukaitis set a stellar example for the ensemble. The Lads and Lasses executed elaborate moves all evening.

In addition to some different lyrics and arrangements, Mr. Townshend added a “new song” to the musical version of Tommy. This refreshing inclusion of something different made the musical more appealing. Justin Walsh and Shaina Egan delivered a beautiful duet on “I Believe My Own Eyes.”

Other members of the Production Team included: Producer Tami Funkhouser, Stage Manager Omi Parrilla-Dunne, Set Builder Glen Funkhouser, Set Construction/Sound Engineer Kalman Dunne, Costume Designer Renee McCleery, Costume Assistant Brennan Diorio, and Properties Nicole DeRosa Lukaitis and Tami Funkhouser.

The following performers completed the cast: Audrey DiEnno, Jaime Weingard, Jonathan Greenstein, Jake Van Horn, Jake Hufner, Gia Lukatis and Gianna Leonen.

Who fans who would go “anyway, anyhow, anywhere” to experience the band’s music would be well served to go to Haddonfield Plays and Players this February. The opportunity is also a “bargain” for fans of community theatre in South Jersey. Hop in your “magic bus” and head over to the playhouse. “The song is over” this February 15th. So is this run of Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

 

A Christmas Story at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players gave theatergoers an early Christmas present this year. The company opted to present the theatrical version of the beloved Holiday favorite A Christmas Story. They didn’t have to triple dog dare me to see this one. I attended the opening night performance on Friday, December 7.

Ralphie (played by Elliott Crosby) wanted just one thing for Christmas: (take a deep breath) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock. To do so, he orchestrated a plan. He saturated his mom and dad with flyers in some unconventional places. For a school project he crafted an essay describing how much he hoped to receive one. He even asked the Santa at Higbee’s Department Store for it.

I’ll write what everyone reading this is thinking: a kid could put his eye out with that thing. Keep in mind this is theatre. It made for a good story.

Director Emily McHale, the cast and crew selected a very challenging show to perform. A Christmas Story isn’t just a classic: almost every scene in it is iconic. Who isn’t familiar with Flick and the pole, Dad and Ralphie changing the flat tire and the Old Man’s “major award”? It’s difficult to present something this popular without drawing comparisons to the original. Despite the hurdle Ms. McHale selected the perfect cast to achieve this task. They give this version a unique character.

Dan Safeer delivered exceptional narration. I last saw Mr. Safeer perform in Murder by Poe, also presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. In that show he delivered an impassioned rendition of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” from memory. The Old Ralph role took that premise to a higher level.

In addition to Ralphie’s quest for (take a deep breath) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock, A Christmas Story included several ancillary vignettes. Mr. Safeer’s character established the background for all of them. Some of these set-ups were quite verbose. The performer rendered them flawlessly.

Elliott Crosby brought the role of young Ralphie to the stage. He brought out the humor in the character’s quest for (take another deep breath) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock.

Playing Ralphie required a lot of range. Mr. Crosby displayed it. He became a strong straight man when Wesley Halloway (as Ralphie’s brother Randy) cried, “I have to go wee-wee!” He stuttered and trembled when performing opposite Ralphie’s love interest, Esther (played by Emma Scherz).

Pat DeFusco and Nicole DeRosa Lukatis complimented each other very well as the parents. They displayed witty interaction working together as The Old Man filled out the quiz to win a “major award.” They enacted a very witty “Battle of the Lamp” scene that would delight the film’s fans.

Mr. DeFusco’s gravelly voice well suited The Old Man’s persona. It enhanced his profanity implied jabberwocky. His subtle mannerisms got laughs, too. My favorite occurred through his expressions of dislike for Mother’s meatloaf.

Ms. Lukatis played a great contrast as the more realistic of the two parents. The performer showed Mother’s empathetic side when downplaying Raphie’s fight to The Old Man. She still brought out the humor in the character. Ms. Lukatis best did so during the famous scene where Mother placed a bar of soap in Ralphie’s mouth.

I’d credit Nell Watts (as Raphie’s teacher Miss Shields) for presenting the performance’s funniest moment. While marking papers with an oversized pencil she hollered about the importance of “MARGINS.” Upon reading Ralphie’s paper she abruptly shifted the character’s mood. Ms. Watts expressed immense enthusiasm over (take a deep breath again) his written request for a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock. Ms. Watts danced about the stage and praised the paper with a distinct brand of farcical melodrama.

Performers Wesley Holloway, Zach Johnson, Kevin Stickel, Maddox Morfit-Tighe, Emma Scherz, Grazie Sokoloff, Logan Murphy, Novalee Seward, and Emma Scott completed the comical ensemble.

This Christmas I might not get a (take a deep breath one last time) a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built into the stock. Watching A Christmas Story at Haddonfield Plays and Players proved a much better gift. A Holiday show this entertaining can be as rare as Indiana snakes, gators and monsoons. It runs through December 22nd. If you don’t see it by then, you might as well be afflicted with soap poisoning.