Rachel Comenzo

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.

 

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The Explorer’s Club at Burlington County Footlighters

Explorer's Club SetThat’s got to be the most underrepresented topic in the history of theatre, I thought when Gaby Affleck described her latest project to me. As an award winning director of shows ranging from Dracula to Of Mice and Men, Ms. Affleck could’ve opted to bring any subject to the stage. Just what did she choose this time? She decided to direct her first farce: a play about explorers. While a topic traditionally overlooked by community theatre companies, the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters more than compensated for this history of neglect. I embarked on a voyage of laugher (and TO SCIENCE) during the opening night performance of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorer’s Club this November 3rd.

The story contained a hyper-extreme conflict by the standards of 1879 Victorian society. Explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume (played by Rachel Comenzo) aspired to be the first woman to join The Explorer’s Club. Ms. Spote-Hume encountered resistance from the membership. Not much of a surprise, there. Initially, I thought the whole ‘farce’ premise had to do with men from that less enlightened era even allowing a woman to enter their building. At any rate, the conflict continued to build as the botanist, Lucius Retaway (played by Michael Muller) and the dashing Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) competed for her affections. In addition, a native she named ‘Luigi’ (played by Matt Dell’Olio) caused an international incident by greeting Queen Victoria in his tribe’s traditional manner: he slapped her across the face. With the overall tone of the story, I wondered if the playwright used this detail to add a bit of subtext.

As one would expect from a farce, the show featured a host of eccentric characters. Also, as anticipated, Ms. Affleck selected the perfect performers to play them. Ethan Rundell met the challenge of portraying the effeminate snake lover, Professor Cope. Lou DiPilla’s expressive performance of religion scholar, Dr. Sloane, blessed the audience. Dennis Dougherty depicted Guniea pig aficionado Professor Walling. Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) seemed to lose all the men who followed him on his expeditions; his latest voyage to discover the East Pole proved no exception. It’s some club when the botanist (played by Michael Muller) who named a coma and death inducing plant after the woman he loved came across as the ‘normal’ one.

Mr. Muller and Mr. Petrillo played opposite one another particularly well. Their performances concretized the conflict between the nerdy botanist and the rugged explorer. Ms. Comenzo deftly displayed interest towards their characters at different times. Her warm smiles towards Lucius and extension of her lips toward Percy in various scenes accentuated the conflict.

Theatrical shows always contain some attribute that makes them unique. Speeches served as this one’s main feature. Ricardo Estevez delivered an impassioned oration regarding his insatiable need for vengeance and retribution…while playing a monk. His inclusion of karate chops and kicks while moving about the entire stage enhanced the performance. He selected impeccable gestures to compliment his delivery.

Rachel Comenzo spoke with flawless diction when delivering her character’s opening lecture. One also has to credit her for keeping a straight face. The new society her character discovered looked like a nation of people from the Blue Man Group. This performer impressed by pronouncing place names most people can’t attempt to spell.

I also applaud Ms. Comenzo for her choice of accent. In the playbill she mentioned devoting a great deal of time towards perfecting it. Her efforts paid off handsomely. She played the dual roles of twin sisters in the show. She adjusted her voice to fit each character and make both distinct.

Matt Dell’Olio possesses a genius for delivering soliloquys. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, he presented a monologue about Lobster Bisque soup in a method that made it rival the “to be or not to be” monolog from Hamlet. In this show, he presented a solo speech just as gripping. He did so while speaking in gibberish. With a character talking incomprehensibly, gestures and facial expressions become more crucial. He nailed them. Mr. Dell’Olio also displayed phenomenal dexterity prancing around the stage.

Last year Mr. Dell’Olio earned BCF’s Best Actor Award for his performance in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. His robust portrayal in this one may have netted him another one.

I didn’t believe it possible for Jim Frazer to design a better set than the Christmas Village he created for 2016’s A Christmas Carol. This one came close. It captured the essence of a manly “Old Boys’ Club” while including a touch of comedy. The stage featured enormous tusks arranged like an archway, the ubiquitous deer heads, bearskin rugs hung on the wall and a globe displayed off to stage left. I give Mr. Frazer credit for creativity by including the mounted walrus head made by the show’s makeup artist Jasmine Chalfont.

The bar scenes proved a challenge for the cast. Mr. Dell’Olio’s character would say, “Here’s your drink, sir.” Then he would quickly slide a glass towards the front of the counter. It amazed me that every time he did this, the character he tossed the drink towards caught it the moment it slid off the bar…at least until the very end of the show.

Bernard DiCasimirro (as Sir Bernard Humphreys) dropped a glass before taking his curtain call. This performer made the best recovery I’ve witnessed at a live performance. Burlington County Footlighters legend Dan Brothers sat in the first row. While watching the play I thought Mr. Brothers would’ve been a solid addition to this show. He inadvertently got his chance. In response to Mr. Brothers’ jeer, Mr. DiCasimirro tossed the glass’ contents at him. I credit the performer for this improvised move. It made the miscue much more entertaining than it would have been if he’d executed the scene as written.

Harry Percy discussed following up his discovery of the East Pole with a trip to the West Pole. If he embarks on that voyage of exploration, let’s hope this cast and crew is available to tell the story.

I enjoyed Ms. Affleck’s latest journey as a director. “Farce is nothing to laugh at!” She wrote in the playbill. “It’s hard work.” That work paid off in the form of The Explorer’s Club. Audiences may survey it at Burlington County Footlighters through November 18th.

City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters

I spent a long evening of being mesmerized this May 5th. The excessive amount of talent on stage nearly overwhelmed me when I attended the opening of Burlington County Footlighters presentation of City of Angels. This Daryl S. Thompson, Jr. directed piece contained superb acting, great dancing and extraordinary singing. It also featured performances by several South Jersey Community Theatre legends. DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor all returned to the Footlighters stage. To add to the show’s appeal, Jim Frazer designed the set and Cameron Stringham served as musical director. Mallory Beach and Erica Paloucci handled the choreography.

Well, what else is there to say?  Oh, DJ Hedgepath and Rachel Comenzo once again showed us mortals why we all need to keep our day jobs. This is the easiest review I’ve ever written. Enjoy the rest of your day.

For the benefit of those people who like details, I’ll continue.

The show applied the “story-within-a-story” approach to a musical. It told the tale of screenwriter Stine’s (DJ Hedgepath) quest to write the script for a movie called City of Angels. In the course of doing so, he battled Hollywood producer and director Buddy Fidler’s (Steve Rogina) incessant meddling, he struggled to keep his marriage to Gabby (Rachel Comenzo) together; a feat complicated by his infidelity with Donna (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), and the voice of his protagonist, Stone (John Romano), tussled with him in his head.

In a manner reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, characters from real life ended up in the imagined story. One has to credit the performers who played dual roles during the same evening.

Kaitlyn Delengowski stood out as portraying the two most diverse characters. I really enjoyed the high-pitched squealy voice she selected for the Carla character; quite a departure from that of the haughty, Alaura Kingsley.

As to where the story went after that: your guess is as good as mine. With the Hollywood characters becoming the movie characters, the plot twists in the detective’s quest and Stine’s re-writes, I found it far too complicated to follow. It didn’t matter, though. The fantastic singing and superb performances made for a very enjoyable evening.

The story didn’t possess the same complexity as some of the melodies, however. David Zippel’s lyrics didn’t quite compliment Cy Coleman’s odd musical phrasing, either. They gave the singers a challenge.

Rachel Comenzo delivered a transcendent performance on the intricate “It Needs Work”. Perhaps inspired by her skill, DJ Hedgepath followed it up several tunes later with his stellar rendition of the equally difficult “Funny”.

The musical began with an unconventional and difficult opening to perform. It started as scat singing that transitioned into a barber shop quartet. Performers Stephen Jackson, Matthew Maerten, Emily Huddell and Kori Rife accepted the challenge of hooking the audience with this unusual material. They executed this task brilliantly.

Not many players would volunteer for the opportunity to sing a duet containing sixteenth notes. Fans familiar with them already know that Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor possess exceptional vocal prowess. They showed it with their rendition of “What You Don’t Know about Women.”

DJ Hedgepath and John Romano shared their own dual moment in the spotlight, as well. They delivered an outstanding performance on the “You’re Nothing without Me” number.

The cast delivered outstanding presentations. Mr. Romano tuned in a solid performance as the hard-boiled detective. I enjoyed his interactions with his edgy secretary (Jillian Star-Renbjor), the wealthy wife (Kaitlyn Delengowski) and the gangsters (Wayne Renbjor and the brilliantly comical Tony Flores). Noel McLeer played the missing girl very well, too. This group made me feel like I watched a musical interpretation of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Steve Rogina’s portrayal of the arrogant Hollywood director added a nice element to the story, as well.

Unlike many directors, Darryl Thompson, Jr. chose not to spend the night in the control booth. Instead, he opted to add his own superior vocal talents to the show. I’ve heard him sing bluesy and soulful material in the past. In this production, he showcased his ability to croon jazzy tracks with “Ya Gotta Look Out for Yourself” and the tender ballad “Stay with Me.”

I’d also like to credit Vitaliy Kin’s performance in the roles of Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz. I still remember several years ago hearing him perform Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish in The Wedding Singer. As comical as it was, he sang the tune very well. In this show, he delivered an awesome “All Ya Have to Do is Wait” number featuring a salsa and conga dance.

It thrilled me to hear Rachel Comenzo showcase her vocal talents once again. I watched her perform several non-singing roles last year. Ms. Comenzo’s rendition of “With Every Breath I Take” as nightclub singer, Bobbi, made up for the long wait. Her voice delivered great vibrato, soft inflection and outstanding modulation. I thought the band a little too loud on this number. Without a microphone, she still found a way to deliver soft notes in a manner so the audience could still hear her clearly. I’m still trying to figure out how that was even possible.

While crooning this moving number she also used extraordinary facial expressions toward Mr. Romano’s character. As difficult as this may be to believe, she conveyed Bobbi’s emotions non-verbally so well, that the scene would’ve been just as effective had she been silent.

With the possible exception of Mr. Hedgepath, I’ve never watched a performer get into character as well as Ms. Comenzo. Somehow, she manages this so flawlessly, that one sometimes loses sight of just how proficient she is at doing so. That’s talent.

It’s always difficult to select a ‘best’ DJ Hedgepath moment. His duets with Mr. Romano and monumental solo rendition of “Funny” would be good contenders. I also liked when he stepped out of the spotlight to put on the trench coat, glasses and hat and become one of the background dancers. In addition to his superior skill as a performer, you have to respect actors who are willing to accept any role to remain on the stage.

The City of Angels title aptly fit the show. The cast took the audience to heaven. The production impressed so much that “you can always count on me” to tout its praises “with every breath I take.” It’s true that “ya gotta look out for yourself.” There’s nothing “funny” about that, but “eve’rybody’s gotta be somewhere.” So why not use “the buddy system” and take a friend to go see it? “All ya have to do is wait” until the next performance.

 

Theatre Review – The Drowsy Chaperone at The Maple Shade Arts Council

I could use many expressions to describe The Maple Shade Arts Council’s presentation of The Drowsy Chaperone: sleep inducing would not be one of them. This Brian Padla directed performance showcased the greatest collection of talent ever assembled in a church basement. When I attended on July 9th, even the audience featured exceptional performance artists. (Rachel Comenzo attended as did other luminaries of the South Jersey community theater community.) An entertaining evening of music and comedy resulted.

Mr. Padla, the cast and crew deserve great credit for putting on a musical this involved. They merit even more accolades for doing so while in the Council’s “temporary home.” The staff managed to convert a small stage in the basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s Nolan Hall into a professional theatrical platform with an orchestra section and dressing rooms. As if that didn’t warrant kudos, the show well exceeded my expectations; and they were stratospheric even before I walked in the door. As many readers are probably already aware: I’m familiar with the work of producers Michael Melvin and Jillian Starr-Renbojr as well as that of performers Connor Twigg, Gabrielle Affleck and Casey Grouser.

The “musical within a comedy” featured a unique premise. It began with the lights out. A lone voice broke the darkness. The Man in the Chair (played by Dennis Dougherty) delivered a humorous monologue ruminating on musical theatre. He described an obscure show from the 1920s called The Drowsy Chaperone as his favorite. Then he pulled out a vinyl recording of the musical and placed it on his record player. The performers took the stage and acted it out. From time-to-time the show would freeze allowing Mr. Dougherty’s character to provide witty commentary. While The Drowsy Chaperone’s script turned out to be musical theatre’s answer to a B movie, the Man in the Chair’s exposition combined with wonderful singing and dancing made it an unforgettable piece for theater fans.

One of the Man in the Chair’s vignettes concerned the fate of the actor who played Aldolpho in the original production. It turns out the performer met an ignominious end. After drinking himself to death his poodles partially devoured him. All theatregoers should hope that destiny doesn’t befall Antonino Baldasari. (He portrayed Aldolpho in this production.)

Mr. Baldasari played the funniest role I’ve had the pleasure of watching on a live stage. As a parody of a lusty Latin lothario he carried a long cane that he just couldn’t seem to control; always dropping it at the most inconvenient moment. His high-pitched stretching of the word what could be the best one-word catch phrase in the history of comedy. He then took the humor to another height by crooning “A Message from a Nightingale.” In that challenging number he portrayed an Oriental man singing with a Spanish accent. He impressed me the most by keeping a straight face through the whole show: something those of us in the audience couldn’t do.

I give Connor Twigg great credit for taking on the role of Robert Martin, let alone playing it so well. He performed a phenomenal tap dance while singing “Cold Feets”. (Joe Lee—as George—expertly accompanied him towards the number’s end.) A few scenes later he wore a blindfold while roller skating. To round out the character he also delivered numerous funny lines perfectly. Mr. Twigg had a full evening.

I’ve attended shows where Gabrielle Affleck either performed or directed. In the title role of this one, I had the chance to hear her sing for the first time. Ms. Affleck is such a talented vocalist that I’m stunned I’ve never heard her perform a musical number before. I enjoyed her melodic rendition of the so-called ode to alcoholism “As We Stumble Along”. Because of the unorthodox mixture of tango with comedy, I’d select her duet with Mr. Baldasari, “I Am Aldolpho” as the stand-out number from this show.

The Drowsy Chaperone seemed to spare no performer from singing a song that challenged one’s ability to keep a straight face. Following a great rendition of the narcissistic “Show Off” in Act I, Nicollete Palombo (as Janet van de Graaff) sang the most unusual ballad ever written, called “Bride’s Lament”, in Act II. The Man in the Chair warned the audience that this track had “terrible lyrics.” What an understatement. The dolorous lament compared a woman’s lover to a monkey. One can only admire the way Ms. Palombo voiced such an emotional recitative without cracking a smile.

The production featured many exceptional performances. I also applaud James Gallagher, Matthew Maerten, Sarah Harris, Casey Grouser, Debbi Heckmanm and Lori A. Howard for their enactments. Alex Davis, Haley Melvin, Mary Melvin, Kevin Roberts, Frankie Simpson and Amber Stolarski rounded out the ensemble nicely.

The orchestra, led by Cameron Stringham, sounded fantastic. The sound quality impressed me; especially when taking the venue into account. At times I thought I was listening to the soundtrack on CD. The songs in this show were rather complex, as well. The “Overture” had the band come in mid-way through a pre-recorded performance. Some songs included rests in unusual places. One track simulated a record skipping. They and the cast delivered all these numbers flawlessly.

The show did experience some technical glitches. A loud humming noise came through the PA system a few times during Act II. Then the sound briefly cut out. These things happen. The issue is how performers handle them when they occur. One of these episodes transpired with most of the ensemble on the stage. No one reacted to the snafu. Everyone remained in-character and continued their performances while the sound crew corrected the problem. That’s professionalism.

The talent level at South Jersey community theatre productions always impresses me. I write that a lot, but this show was special. I’d never heard of The Drowsy Chaperone, but I left thinking it the most entertaining musical I’ve witnessed. Before the show I met Michael Melvin, the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council. He thanked me for the reviews I’ve written of his and the Council’s work. If anything, as audience members, we should be thanking Mr. Melvin and his organization for producing such fantastic shows. Their current staging of The Drowsy Chaperone is a great reason why. It runs through July 16th.

 

Theatre Review – Proof at Burlington County Footlighters Second Stage

Based on data accumulated over the years, I’ve developed a hypothesis that Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage possesses a formula for excellent shows. This derivative is congruent with the mode of an outstanding theatre company. I figured the probability of them continuing to do so variable in proportion to their locus of material. Their operation has proved my theory many times, but the outcome usually defies logic. The product they delivered in the form of Proof took their reputation to another plane.

I had the opportunity to evaluate this event on its opening night June 17th. I’m pleased to write that my reflection will not be a mean one. That’s a good ‘sine.’ Director Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s translation of the text into a stage production made for a terrific outcome.

I enjoyed the plot’s complexity. There seemed no limit to the quantity of conflict. Catherine (played by Rachel Comenzo) struggled to cope with her father’s death, her abrasive sister’s badgering her to move to New York, and the professional and possibly personal interests of one of her father’s former students. All this drama may seem unequal to the boundaries of a two hour show. But there was more. At the midpoint the play centered on Catherine’s revelation of an oblique proof of unknown origin: one that could revolutionize the field of mathematics.

When I discovered that Rachel Comenzo would be playing the role of a ‘math geek’ it didn’t add up. Much to her credit, the moment the show opened, she became the character. While the large glasses, sweat suit and hair worn back fit Catherine’s appearance, Ms. Comenzo became her. I liked her utilization of quick dialog and snappy swearing. The way she’d pause and with a wry smile sarcastically reply to Claire’s (played by Betty Moseley) strained questioning showed exceptional artistic aptitude. In the scenes prior to Catherine’s father passing away she adjusted her speaking to a more deliberate pace. Emile Zola once observed that: “To be an artist requires the gift. To have the gift requires hard work.” Ms. Comenzo showed me that she took the time to really understand and immerse herself in the character.

Watching Ms. Comenzo in a role this complex was the key feature of this run. In the past I’ve watched her play Bonnie (in Bonnie and Clyde), Morticia (in The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy) and Curley’s wife (in Of Mice and Men).  I found all of those characters to be one-dimensional, but the strength of Ms. Comenzo’s performances made every one of them interesting and memorable. I wondered how she would play a strong, multi-dimensional character. Her performance proved she was equal to the task. It’s a struggle for me to find the proper superlatives to describe how well she brought Catherine to life.

DJ Hedgepath once again showed why the theatre is his prime domain. As expected, this thespian displayed his superior range as a performer. Hal’s character required him to display the traits of a nervous suitor, a studious mathematician and a person with questionable motives; at least in the other characters’ perceptions. Mr. Hedgepath convincingly depicted them all.

As they function so well together, I welcomed the opportunity to watch Ms. Comenzo and Mr. Hedgepath share the same stage again. The contrasts between their characters allowed their reciprocal skills to feed off one another. She playing the intellectual struggling with powerful inner demons, he as her father’s ambitious former student. In Proof these opposites became an ordered pair. Their enactments showed why these two masters are fast becoming icons on the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

Becky Moseley delivered a solid performance as Claire. Her character couldn’t seem to get along with anybody except a few partying mathematicians, but I really enjoyed watching her. I liked her performance best during her first scene with Ms. Comenzo. The way Ms. Moseley established tension through her delayed delivery and short questions made the dialog reminiscent of Harold Pinter. I felt uncomfortable listening to her interrogation. That’s the kind of emotional response great performers bring about in audience members.

Bernard Dicasimirro took on the challenging role of Robert: a brilliant mathematician who deteriorated into a mentally imbalanced man. I always applaud performers who select these types of characters. In a sense one has to play two distinctly unique personalities during the same evening. Just like a well-educated intellectual Mr. Dicasimirro spoke very professionally and calmly in his lucid scenes. Then he ranted like a madman while explaining his groundbreaking proof to Catherine. I’d read the play, but I even jumped when he ordered Catherine to read it.

Some unnerving statistics bothered me about this show. The set had a smaller surface area than the mainstage at Footlighters, but it still seemed unequal to the lack of people in the audience. Aside from myself, I noticed only two other people who aren’t community theater performers in South Jersey. I read Proof before I saw it on the stage. While the prospect of going out on Friday or Saturday night to watch a play about math may not sound like a great option, it does explore a great human drama.

A dedicated cast and crew with the addition of a great director factor into all of BCF Second Stage’s presentations. Upon reflection I’ve found that in all probability a normal show for them will contain great emotional power; the origin of which will be the degree of talent from the combination of the performers. Their presentation of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize Winning play wasn’t an outlier. The frequency Footlighters’ Second Stage puts on such dramas is the difference. The volume of their quality of work gives them a unique angle. The $10 price tag made this showing an absolute value. For those needing an entertaining evening out in the Cinnaminson area this June, I’d rate seeing Proof the best solution to that problem.

 

Theater Review – Of Mice and Men at Bridge Players Theater Company

Finally an American has produced a drama on par with Shakespeare. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men animated the concepts of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations in a way that made them distinctly American and, yet, universal. He interwove the freedom to “live off the fatta’ the land” with the quest for love and companionship. At the same time he explored the individual’s place in a society he’s no longer of value to. The cast and crew at the Bridge Players Theater in Burlington, NJ turned in performances commensurate with such high-minded concepts.

I admire director Gabrielle Affleck’s choice of projects. Several months ago I enjoyed watching her lead a production of Kimberly Akimbo; a challenging play written by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire. For her follow-up endeavor, Ms. Affleck decided to “up her game”, if you will, and selected another story with difficult and controversial material. This time a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote the script. This show also featured a dog (Ladybird “Lady” Ezell) in the live show. One can only respect this artist’s courage.

I found the interplay between Breen Rourke (as George) and Paul Sollimo (as Lenny) outstanding. A year-and-a-half ago I watched Mr. Rourke play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in Glengarrry, Glen Ross. I still recall the masterful way he voiced the role in a shrill, whinny voice. It made me wonder how he’d play a drifter from 1930s California. His authentic delivery of George’s diction and locution surprised me. As the show continued I realized I shouldn’t have been. He possesses superb acting abilities. He showed his character’s descent from rugged idealism to disillusionment very steadily and believably.

I also have to give Mr. Rourke credit for his performance in the opening scene. The playwright assigned most of the dialog to his character. At times I thought the scene a soliloquy. He impressed me for remembering all the words, let alone for the genuine manner he delivered them.

I found the casting of Paul Sollimo in the role of Lenny as somewhat ironic. The dialog described the character as “dumb”. Mr. Sollimo is a genius in the field of acting. I’ve watched him play several “sophisticated “characters extremely well over the years. I wondered what he would bring to the role of Lenny. It allowed him to exhibit his craft at its pinnacle. Mr. Sollimo brilliantly transformed himself into the character. He crawled around on the floor, giggled childishly and spoke like someone slow of mind. He pronounced words in the identical way I imagined the character would have when I read the novel. This outstanding performance led me to sympathize with Lenny more than I’d expected to.

I’ve always believed that no amount of histrionic prowess can rescue bad script writing. Rachel Comenzo’s performance of “Curley’s wife” proved me wrong. I’ve always believed, to put this as politely as I can, Mr. Steinbeck’s development of “Curley’s wife” in the novel was the worst character portrayal in the history of the English language. Seriously: Steinbeck couldn’t have even given her a name? (See my earlier review of the novel version of Of Mice and Men.) I thought the character description in the play version a bit better. Curley’s wife seemed misunderstood and longed to seek a better life. The author still failed to fully develop it.

Ms. Comenzo deserves immense credit for animating such a poorly written character so well. In her final scene with Lenny, she delivered an emotional exposition of Curley’s wife’s background leading into her desire to escape her unhappy surroundings. Ms. Comenzo’s pining facial expression and soft voice modulation actually made me empathize with the character. That’s difficult for a performer to do with a strong character. I never would’ve thought it possible with a weak one. It shows the immense level of her acting skills that she achieved that with so little assistance from the playwright.

Mr. Rourke, Mr. Sollimo and Ms. Comenzo put on an acting clinic. The rest of the cast delivered great performances, as well. I’d especially note that Greg Northam played a very moving Candy. His gingerly gait and slumped over posture added to my empathy for him. Richard Priest (as Crooks) and Fred Ezell (as Carlson) utilized memorable voices for the roles they played.

I would warn theater goers that some of the dialog contained racial epithets. The playwright had an ulterior motive for including it, however. Later in the show Mr. Steinbeck expressed his animosity towards this sort of racial bigotry. In a moving scene between Crooks (played by Richard Priest) and Lenny, the lone African American character discussed his disdain with the other characters for excluding him simply because of his race. As the original play premiered in 1937, I admired the then progressive view on race relations.

I’d also liked to give a shout out to Jeff Rife. The man did a phenomenal job with the set design. I also give him credit for engineering the set in such a way that made the intricate changes between scenes more manageable for the cast and crew.

The story in Of Mice and Men has become iconic in our culture. Mr. Steinbeck’s tale is a masterpiece of the highest order. It’s still well worthwhile to revisit; especially, when performed by such an outstanding cast and crew. The Bridge Players Theater Company’s presentation brought to mind a line from Henryk Sienkwiewicz’s epic novel Quo Vadis: “I only wish it was worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” The show runs through May 14.

Neil Simon’s Rumors Presented by Burlington County Footlighters

I heard a rumor that Burlington County Footlighters were putting on a show that featured a series of misunderstandings, slapstick humor and numerous comedic antics. Much to my relief they didn’t present a stage rendition of a Three’s Company episode. On Friday night I experienced the pleasure of attending the opening night showing of Neil Simon’s Rumors directed by Scott Angehr.

The title served as a good summation of this show’s content.  Upon arriving for a dinner party hosted by the Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife, guests Ken Gorman (Played by Gary Werner) and Chris Gorman (played by Corinne Hower-Greene) discovered him bleeding while his wife and servants were missing. They suspected he attempted suicide. They then called a doctor. When Chris got him on the phone, Ken then told her to say everything was fine. It turned out the Deputy Mayor only shot off part of his earlobe. Ken thought it best to discover what happened before contacting anyone else. He didn’t want his friend to get involved in a scandal.

Following that, more guests started arriving. Lenny Ganz (played by Paul Sollimo) and Claire Ganz (Megan Shafranski) entered the house. Ken and Chris used a series of stories to explain why the Deputy Mayor, his wife and the servants weren’t at the party. After they discovered the truth, more guests showed up. The four of them decided not to tell the new arrivals, Ernie Cusack (Greg Northram) and Cookie Cusack (Valerie Brothers), what had happened. This turned in to quite a challenge as Mr. Cusack worked as a psychoanalyst.

Gossip swirled around the characters’ romantic peccadillos. That led to even more misunderstandings. Are you following the plot at all? Well, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that all these antics made for an enjoyable evening of comedic mishaps from a series of quirky characters played by talented thespians.

The true highlight of the evening took place in the interplay between Glenn Cooper (played by Dan Brothers) and his wife Cassie (played by the omni-talented Rachel Comenzo). In the past I’ve watched Mr. Brothers perform serious dramatic roles. Most recently I saw him play the grief-stricken father in Footlighters’ production of Rabbit Hole. I’ve also attended several performances featuring Ms. Comenzo. She’s a gifted actress, but I’ve always thought her a stronger singer and dancer. When I read the cast list, it interested me to see how the two of them would play a married couple in a comedy. They both delivered performances well in excess of my expectations.

There’s an old adage about Hell having no fury like a woman scorned. Ms. Comenzo showed that Humorous Heaven has a special place for one, too. She did a phenomenal job of balancing anger and comedy in her opening argument with Mr. Brothers. I liked the way she could raise her voice in the context of an emotional conversation while still speaking clearly. Following this outburst, she admired herself in the mirror. These mannerisms provided great insight into the character.

Mr. Brothers did a fantastic job playing the “innocent” husband in the face of his wife’s accusations. In addition, he handled the physical comedy very well. In the hands of most performers slapstick becomes caricature. Mr. Brothers demonstrated that he isn’t “most performers.” He convincingly handled falling down after getting hit by a door. The most memorable moment of his performance occurred after his wife assaulted him with a phone. Mr. Brothers has a natural bass voice. With cotton stuffed up his nose he spoke in a high-pitched nasal squeal. Like his counterpart, he talked very clearly.

Proficiency at physical comedy must run in the family. Mr. Brother’s real-life wife, Valerie Brothers, got in on the act in her role as Cookie Cusack. Her character suffered from back problems that prevented her from both “walking” and “sitting”.  The audience roared as she made her way across the stage on her hands and feet with her body at a 90 degree angle. In order to do that she first had to lift herself out of a chair using only her upper body.

As readers if this blog are aware, in the past I’ve been attacked for making “troubling” and “disturbing” comments about female costuming. During this show I did have an observation about one of the actress’ attire. In the interest of artistic integrity I’m going to state it.

Corrine Hower-Greene played Chris Gorman, very well. From the trembling voice, the facial expressions and stumbling around the stage with a wine bottle she displayed the appropriate mannerisms of a neurotic woman. I thought some of her attire too distracting, though. While the plain black evening gown she wore contrasted well with the solid white background, my eyes kept getting drawn to her shoes. I agree that glittery silver shoes would be appropriate attire for a dinner party. I could imagine her character wearing them to such an occasion. For me, they stood out and kept diverting my attention. With the exception of Valerie Brothers, whose character wore a white dress, all the other actors wore dark colored shoes. As I wrote, Ms. Hower-Green is an exceptional performer with great stage presence. Audiences should be watching her performance, not staring at her shoes.

The antics and misunderstandings continued until the final curtain. The surprise ending left open the possibility of a sequel. If someone writes one, let’s hope the cast of Burlington County Footlighters’ production is available. They had such fantastic chemistry working together that I’d welcome the opportunity to see them reprise these roles. And that’s a fact, not a rumor.

The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council

It’s not often one witnesses the triumvirate of comedy, horror and fencing in the same show. The Maple Shade Arts Council production of The Addams Family:  A New Musical Comedy (directed by Michael Melvin) seamlessly incorporated all three. Just for good measure they included some outstanding musical and dance numbers from a stellar cast to round out the performance.

The musical told a tale of trauma in the Addams household. Wednesday (played by Casey Grouser) found her true love. She and her boyfriend Lucas (Robert Achorn) recently engaged. Her fiancé hailed from the “normal” world. In order to introduce the two families, she arranged a dinner at the Addams home. As if that didn’t make for a tense evening, she told her father Gomez (D. J. Hedgepath) about her pending nuptials. To add to the conflict she asked that he not tell her mother Morticia (Rachel Comenzo) about the arrangement until after dinner. Gomez NEVER kept a secret from Morticia; a fact she brought to his attention repeatedly during the show. The story contained more conflict and tension I would have expected from a light -hearted musical.

One has to respect D. J. Hedgepath for taking on the role of Gomez. Any theatrical performance is a challenge; especially when taking on a role iconized by another actor. After watching Mr. Hedgepath’s interpretation of Gomez, I’ll now view John Astin’s performance of the character on the same level as his role as The Riddler. (Mr. Astin is very talented, but he’s no Frank Gorshin.) At first I found it unusual to see Gomez Addams without a chalk stripe suit and smoking a cigar in every scene. As the show went on, Mr. Hedgepath reinvented the role as his own. He brought much more passion and energy to Gomez than other actors I’ve seen. For purists: he did include many “cara mias” while kissing Morticia’s arms from her wrist down to her shoulder. He also added fencing to his repertoire.

Rachel Comenzo clearly studied the role of Morticia. With crossed arms, fingers spread across her upper arms, and her pale face with a blank look the role became the actress. As usual, she showed off her exceptional vocal prowess. She showcased her abilities best in “Just around the Corner”. The song contained a homonym. The lyric went: death is just around the corner. Ms. Comenzo explained to the audience that, “death is just around the coroner. Get it?” It’s usually a bad sign when a performer needs to explain a joke to an audience. Ms. Comenzo did so very naturally and with such charm that she still got laughs.

I also have to give Ms. Comenzo credit for her skill as a dancer. Most of the choreography required her to dance in a long dress while wearing heels. She managed this difficult task flawlessly.

The real highlight of The Addams Family came during the “Tango de Amor” number with Gomez, Morticia and the Addams family ancestors. The ensemble performed a complex tango with Gomez and Morticia in the spotlight. I applaud choreographer Sarah Dugan for putting this together. Watching Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo tango together brought to mind the legendary drum battle between Ginger Baker and Art Blakey. The level of talent displayed on stage is difficult to put into words. These two triple threats executed an intricate dance sequence brilliantly. It was a pleasure to see this much aptitude in one musical. Not that the two actors competed with one another, but if they had, like in the famous drum battle, the audience would’ve been the true winner.

Many memorable musical performances took place in The Addams Family. Casey Grouser (Wednesday), Lori Alexio Howard (Alice Beineke), Brian Padla (Uncle Fester) and Jacob Long (Pugsley Addams) all turned in very strong vocal performances. Mr. Hedgepath delivered a moving rendition of the somber ballad “Happy/Sad”.

I did feel a bit let down at one point with the song selection. When the second act began I thought ZZ Top were about to play. It turned out it was just Nicholas Olszewski in the guise of Cousin It.

I’d also like to give special acknowledgement to Phyllis Josephson as Grandma. She didn’t get a lot of stage time in this show, but she proved the old adage, “There are no small roles: only small actors.” Every time she had the spotlight, the audience became hysterical. I enjoyed her tone of voice. It sounded similar to the “Cat Lady” on the television show The Simpsons. Unlike that character, I could still understand her clearly, though.

My only criticism of the show concerned the technical issues. Several times a loud humming noise broadcast over the loudspeakers. Hearing the actors became challenging. Much to their credit, they remained focused and didn’t let it interrupt their performance. At the beginning of the show the acoustics were poor, as well. Both the orchestra and the dialog sounded muddled. Mr. Hedgepath and Ms. Comenzo both project their voices very well. I know my difficulty hearing had nothing to do with the actors.

At a key moment in the performance, the cast played a game called “Full Disclosure”. They passed a chalice around the dinner table. The person drinking from it would have to reveal a secret. One wouldn’t have to give it to members of the audience for them to disclose how well the cast and crew presented The Addams Family. That’s no secret. The show runs through July 18th  at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium.

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.