Olivia West

The Wiz at the Ritz Theatre Company

While many in South Jersey lamented not seeing some individuals with no heart, no brain and no guts wearing green this weekend, The Ritz Theatre Company provided an outlet. They treated audiences to a rhythm and blues infused extravaganza down the Yellow Brick Road and into the Emerald City compliments of The Wiz. Your correspondent attended the November 9th performance. Kyrus Keenan Westcott directed.

L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz inspired this musical. It’s unlikely that Baum anticipated the story presented as a dance extravaganza accompanied by the funky soul music of the 1970s. William F. Brown’s and Charlie Smalls’ concept worked, however. Perhaps the Hamilton of its day, The Wiz premiered in 1974 with an all African American cast.

 The Wiz described an amazing journey. Following an argument with her Aunt Em (played by Danielle Harley-Scott), Dorothy (played by Olivia West) longed to escape from Kansas. A wind storm then came through town transporting her to a place called Oz. Upon arrival, Dorothy then longed to return to her Kansas home. A group of Munchkins suggested she visit the Emerald City and ask The Wiz (Darryl Thompson, Jr.) for advice.

While traveling along the Yellow Brick Road she encountered a trio of interesting characters. They included a Scarecrow (Kyle Smith), a Tin Man (Malik Muhammad) and a Lion (Craig Bazan). As these individuals also needed The Wiz’s assistance with their problems, they accompanied her. Upon meeting him, he offered to help, but on the condition they first kill Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. (Danielle Harley-Scott) The four companions’ journey had only just begun.

Devon Sinclair performed exceptional choreography for this show. The mesmerizing dance sequences included groups of Tornados, Monkeys, Poppies as well as other members of the cast. Mr. Sinclair arranged stellar moves for these entertaining scenes. The ensemble impressed by executing them so well.

Olivia West’s acting made Dorothy a very easy character with whom to empathize. Ms. West accentuated this trait through her singing. She delivered moving numbers such as “Soon as I Get Home” and the “Finale” beautifully. Her duet with the Lion (Craig Bazan) on “Be a Lion” was also very touching. The performer showed the same vocal proficiency when singing upbeat numbers such as the iconic “Ease on Down the Road.”

Kyle Smith approached the role of the Scarecrow with a lot of intelligence. His raggedy costume (designed by Yu’seph Cornish) made his character appear very authentic. Mr. Smith added further realism to the role with the way he wobbled while walking. He also sang a marvelous rendition of “Born on the Day Before Yesterday.”

Malik Muhammad put his heart into playing the Tin Man. Mr. Muhammad performed fantastic dance moves. He impressed by doing so in such an elaborate costume. The sparkles he wore in his beard complimented it very well. The axe he carried seemed symbolic of the outstanding vocal chops he delivered all evening. His warm voice well suited “Slide Some Oil to Me” and “What Would I Do if I Could Feel.”

Craig Bazan showed a lot of courage taking on the role of the Lion. In addition to strong dancing and vocal skills, Mr. Bazan displayed a strong aptitude for comedy. He played a hysterical scene when enticed by the Poppies. His delivery on the ironically titled “Mean Ole Lion” made the song much more comical.

The title of “The Wiz” would well suit Darryl Thompson, Jr. even better than the character he played. Once again Mr. Thompson, Jr. showcased the wizardry of his voice for theatre fans. Mr. Thompson, Jr. sang an inspirational version of “Believe in Yourself.” He also performed “Meet the Wizard” so powerfully that it would’ve have been just as easy to hear him without a microphone.

 1970s Oz experienced a bigger witch infestation problem than Salem did during the late seventeenth century. All three of Oz’s enchantresses put the audience under a spell. They achieved it through their vocal charms. Siiyara Nelson played Addaperle, April Johnson performed Glinda, and Danielle Harley-Scott took on the role of Evillene.

The ensemble included performers: April Johnson, John Clark, Terrance T Hart, Dhameer Kennedy, Shakeer Hood, Rafi Mills, Kiara Johnson, Zoe Holmes, Melanie Camille, Breyona Coleman and Mikaela Rada.

The production team comprised: Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott, Vocal Director Michelle Foster, Costume Designer Yu’seph Cornish, Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher and Set and Light Designer Chris Miller.

Director Kyrus Keenan Westcott wrote in the playbill:

 …I don’t want you to think of this as “the black version of The Wizard of Oz.” I think this story and these characters and this music deserve so much more than that notion. While it does tell the story through the eyes and musicality of African Americans, it speaks a universal language that everybody can enjoy.

That’s so true. A tale of someone struggling to overcome obstacles on a quest to find “home” is one that all people can understand. The Wiz’s powerful message of believing in one’s self resonates with everyone.

The Wiz works its magic through November 24th. After that, it’s back to Kansas for the Ritz Theatre Company; well, make that Haddon Township’s Arts District.

Disney’s Mary Poppins at the Ritz Theatre Company

Yet again the Ritz Theatre Company is bringing the magic of Disney to the South Jersey Area. This summer they’re mesmerizing audiences with Mary Poppins. This piece, directed and choreographed by Brian Rivell, contains something that would appeal to just about anyone. It features elaborate special effects, unbelievable dance sequences and some stellar performances. I witnessed the spectacle for myself on July 20th.

The Banks family had problems. An emotionally distant man George (played by Paul McElwee) devoted himself to making money. Winifred (Jenna Lubis) harbored doubts about sacrificing her acting career to marry him. Their two children (played by Cassidy Scherz and Colin Rivell) behaved unruly. To show the extent of their issues, they’d been through more nannies than the Trump Administration has been through National Security Advisers….and Communications Directors…and Secretaries of State. Enter Mary Poppins (played by Martha Marie Wasser) to fix this mess.

This show contained extraordinary special effects. Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish floated through the air. An overturned table moved right-side up after Ms. Wasser waved her hand. Broken shelves fixed themselves following the same motion. The Ritz Theatre presented one enchanted production. Well-earned kudos goes out to Technical Director William Bryant.

The lighting made the performance a visual delight. The panels on both sides of the stage illuminated. The London backdrop took on different hues throughout the evening. Stars projected on the backs of the seats prior to the “Anything Goes” number. The display brought the audience into the show. Light Board Operator Casey Clark also gets well deserved praise for the spectacle.

Mary Poppins contained sophisticated and intricate dance routines. Brian Rivell coordinated awesome choreography. The cast did a superb job executing it. How to pick a favorite? I would suggest “Step in Time”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Anything Can Happen” as the strongest contenders for that title. However, if I wrote down all the routines on separate pieces of paper, placed them in a hat and drew one at random it wouldn’t be difficult to make an argument for that one being the best.

CJ Kish (as Bert) always performs with great passion and energy. At times it seems like he’s flying around the stage. In Mary Poppins he did so literally. Mr. Kish performed one sequence in which he executed flips in mid-air and hopped about as though dancing atop chimney brushes.

This show is a “must see” for Mr. Kish’s fans. I found the title of one of his musical number “Twists and Turns” very appropriate. He performed the best dance routines I’ve seen him do. He’s such a talented actor and vocalist (as evidenced by “Chim Chim Cher-eee”) that I hadn’t realized the extent of his dancing ability.

Martha Marie Wasser’s performance wasn’t “practically perfect”: Ms. Wasser turned in a flawless rendition of everyone’s favorite nanny. I always credit performers who can dance in heels. Ms. Wasser had some tricky numbers in which to do so. In “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” the tempo changed several times. She and cast executed the routine seamlessly and while singing.

Ms. Wasser adopted all the mannerisms of the title character. From the way she held her umbrella, to her calm manner of speech and through the posture she adopted while floating through the air Ms. Wasser transformed herself into the real Mary Poppins.

I’d also compliment Ms. Wasser on her singing ability. The show contained a number of Disney classics. Ms. Wasser made them her own. “Practically Perfect” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” stood out as the most beautiful.

The Banks family sure had its problems. They didn’t prevent the performers playing them from displaying their own vocal prowess. The four performed well together as a group on “Cherry Tree Lane” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Paul McElwee (as George) delivered a moving rendition of “Good for Nothing.” Jenna Lubas (as Winifred) sang an incredible version of “Being Mrs. Banks.”

In addition to their scenes with Mr. McElwee and Ms. Lubas, Cassidy Scherz (Jane) Colin Rivell (Michael) got to share the stage with Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish. They displayed great chemistry working together on numbers such as “Step in Time” and “Practically Perfect.”

My favorite scene occurred during the smackdown between the dueling nannies. Mary Poppins and Miss Andrew (played by Kendra Cancellieri Hecker) confronted one another by using their signature method as a weapon. The former utilized “a spoonful of sugar” and the latter opted for “brimstone and treacle.” It made for a stellar clash enacted by Ms. Wasser and Ms. Hecker. The musical number itself made the audience the real winners of this conflict.

Credit also goes to performers Anne Buckwheat, Darrin Murphy, Kendra Cancelleri Hecker, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Olivia West, Jamie Talamo, Ryann Ferrara, Caleb Tracy, Kyle Ronkin, Darrel Wood, Lindsey Krier, Kelsey Hodgkiss and Leah Senseney. They each contributed to an outstanding ensemble.

Mary Poppins stays on as long as she’s “needed.” The Ritz Theatre Company anticipates that will be until August 5th. Take advantage of that opportunity. The Ritz is being generous. With the superb quality of entertainment I’ve experienced at that company, community theatre fans should feel grateful she’s “needed” there at all. Mary Poppins is another reason why.

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.