Renee McCleery

All Shook Up at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Theatre fans grab your bobby socks, hula hoops and put on your 3D glasses. Get ready for a trip back to the 1950s courtesy of Haddonfield Plays and Players. This summer they’re providing an entertaining theatrical journey featuring the music of Elvis Presley. I attended the Saturday, July 13th performance of All Shook Up directed by Ed Doyle and assisted by Rico Santiago.

Playwrights have incorporated Rock and Roll songs into musicals for some time. 1967’s Hair, 1992’s Tommy: The Musical and 1996’s Rent are some popular examples. In 2004 Joe DiPietro crafted a piece of musical theatre for Rock and Roll purists. The soundtrack consisted of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits. Now that’s real Rock and Roll.

I had high expectations for All Shook Up. Shakespeare’s work influenced the story. Elvis Presley provided the songs. That means the greatest playwright inspired the narrative. The King of Rock and Roll supplied the music. How can an audience expect better than this?

The script contained serious conflict; especially for a comedy. Like many comedies, it contained a complex plot. In essence all the main characters fell in love with another character who loved someone else.

The story began as Chad (played by Jake Hufner) entered town on his motorcycle. Combining the personality traits of a rebel, a Rock and Roll crooner and ladies’ man, he longed to liberate the community from its suffocating mores. In response, Mayor Matilda Hyde (Lori Clark) vowed to enforce the Mamie Eisenhower Decency Act. The law banned things such as Rock and Roll and public displays of affection.

Another plot line focused on the circumscribed social world of the 1950s. The Mayor also harbored a special dislike for interracial dating. Following that pronouncement, her son, Dean (Vinnie DiFilippo) began a romance with an African-American woman, Lorraine (Kyra Moon).

All Shook Up contained outstanding dance routines. Choreographer Allison Korn organized some mesmerizing sequences. The show opened with two attention getting performances through “Jailhouse Rock” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Ms. Korn incorporated 50s dance moves as well as some of Elvis’ trademark maneuvers. The cast’s high energy and sophisticated sequences made the choreography the most memorable part of this musical.

It seems redundant to write that the show included fantastic songs. Anyone with the most remote interest in Rock and Roll already knew that. The playwright arranged them for maximum impact on the story.

Somehow, Musical Director Chris Weed and the cast managed to present some of Rock’s greatest cuts in a humorous way. I liked how Natalie (Jenna German), Chad (Jake Hufner), Jim (Jim Dennis), and Miss Sandra (Faith McCleery) all had the opportunity to sing a portion of “One Night with You.” The location of each character’s segment provided excellent comedic effect.

Lori Clark led the show’s funniest scene through her rendition of “Devil in Disguise.” While the ensemble accompanied her, Mr. Hufner played a pitchfork like a guitar. I’d also credit Omaira Parrilla-Dunne for the lighting design and light board operation on this number. The red lights she projected during the choruses made the routine even more humorous.

The playwright applied Elvis’ songs to enhance the drama, as well. Vinnie DiFilippo and Kyra Moon performed a strong duet on “It’s Now or Never.” As Sylvia, April Johnson delivered a soulful rendition of “There’s Always Me.” Wes Hopkins (as Dennis) sang a moving version of “It Hurts Me.”

Jake Hufner played an excellent “roustabout.” Mr. Hufner adopted a bit of an Elvis voice while still making the songs his own. He mimicked the King’s mannerisms very well as evidenced by Courtney Bundens’ repeated fainting spells. He still kept the role funny. He expressed good frustration and persistence over Miss Sandra’s lack of affection. The confusion he displayed over his unexpected interest in “Ed” was classic.

Jenna German performed the role of Natalie/Ed. Ms. German delivered strong vocals throughout the evening. Even when her character didn’t speak, Mr. German made her feelings clear through well executed facial expressions. I also enjoyed the witty way she showed her character’s interest in Chad with “A Little Less Conversation.”

Wes Hopkins played the lovelorn Dennis. Natalie didn’t return his affections. He found himself in the position of helping her gain Chad’s interest while serving as his “sidekick.” Mr. Hopkins convincingly portrayed his character’s turmoil over this unsettling situation.

Ed Doyle designed an excellent set. Mike Snyder constructed it and Courtney Bundens painted the scenic design. They placed platforms in the shape of guitar bodies at stage right and stage left. A road stretching into the horizon adorned the center.

Renee McCleery designed authentic costuming. Cast members wore items such as a leather jacket, blue suede shoes and period eyeglasses.

The cast also included the following performers: Pat DeFusco, Amanda Barrish, Andrew Chaput, Trisha Dennis, Brennan Diorio, Kayla DiSibio, Joe Grosso, Mark Henley, Jr., Johanna Johnston, Gre Jones, Jenn Kopesky, Allison Korn, Renee McCleery, Jacqueline Spence, Aaron Wachs and William Young.

HPP didn’t have to say “don’t be cruel” to me before I wrote this review. After watching this phenomenal performance, “I don’t’ want to” be mean. “It hurts me” if theatre fans missed All Shook Up’s opening weekend. “That’s alright.” You can still “let yourself go” to Haddonfield Plays and Players. Come August 3rd, it will be “now or never”, however. So “c’mon everybody.”

The Man Who Came to Dinner at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Who hasn’t had a guest who overstayed his or her welcome? Playwrights Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman took this premise to a new level with their comic masterpiece The Man Who Came to Dinner. The unwelcome guest in this case overstayed not just a few hours or days. He didn’t leave their house for several weeks; and this extended stay occurred during the Christmas Season. The visitor in this story also happened to be an obnoxious, arrogant journalist, radio personality and worst of all a critic. He also had a penchant for meddling in other people’s affairs. The hosts may not have enjoyed his visit, but the audience at Haddonfield Plays and Players delighted at watching the ensuing mayhem. I attended the opening night performance on May 10th.

The dramatic version of The Man Who Came to Dinner premiered in 1939. The film version followed in 1942. Hart and Kaufman included numerous cultural references from the time period in the play. Because of these outdated examples, some of the references from the 30s and 40s may go over the heads of modern audiences just like the bluebirds flying over the White Cliffs of Dover. (I wrote that example and even I had to look up the reference.)

In the playbill Director Shannon Gingell included a website to consult. It provided a good summary of the era to aid theatregoers in understanding the play. The analysis also included details about the real life people upon whom the playwrights based their characters.

For those who enjoy watching eccentric characters interact on the stage, The Man Who Came to Dinner is a must see. While walking up the steps to Mr. and Mrs.  Stanley’s (Wes Anderson and Phyllis Josephson) Ohio home, Sheridan “Sherry” Whiteside (played by Pat DeFusco) fell on the ice. Dr. Bradley (Tim Sagges) diagnosed that Sherry fractured his hip and couldn’t leave the Stanley’s house for several weeks. While there, Sherry tormented his hosts, his nurse, Miss Preen (Gina Petti Baldasari) and his secretary Maggie Cutler (Sarah Blake).

Local reporter Bert Jefferson (Joe Godley) arrived and talked Sherry into giving him an interview. In the course of their discussion, Bert mentioned he aspired to be a playwright. He gave Sherry a copy of his play to read.

Following that development, Bert and Maggie became romantically involved. Maggie told Sherry that she’d planned on quitting her job to become Bert’s wife.

Good administrative assistants must have been hard to find circa 1940. In order to keep Maggie working for him, Sherry came up with a plan to break up the relationship through Bert’s literary aspirations.

Sheridan Whiteside was not a likable character. To use contemporary references, his personality melded that of a pompous radio host with the mindset of a self-help guru who received an Ivy League education. Director Shannon Gingell selected the legendary Pat DeFusco for the role. Mr. DeFusco captured all these components of Sherry’s personality while keeping the role funny.

Mr. DeFusco introduced the character brilliantly. From his wheelchair, he ordered the Stanleys that he was taking over their home. Later he sarcastically informed them that he would be suing them for his broken hip. When Mr. Stanley (Wes Anderson) complained out the $700 plus phone bill, Mr. DeFusco said he would pay it. With sardonic wit he informed Mr. Stanley he’d deduct the cost from the money he’d win in the lawsuit.

And then there were Sherry’s bad qualities. The Stanley’s daughter June (Taylor Kellar) explained in her uniquely emotional way that she wanted to marry Sandy (Victor E. Martinez). The gentleman worked at Mr. Stanley’s factory. He was also a union organizer. Carl Sandburg once said, “Beware of advice: even this.” Mr. DeFusco’s character proved that statement’s veracity by nonchalantly advising the two to marry.

But there was more. The Stanley’s son Richard (Zach Martin) longed to become a photographer. Sherry recommended he leave home to follow that pursuit.

Mr. DeFusco and Gina Petti Baldasari played well opposite one another. Mr. DeFusco shouted insults at her every time she (as the nurse Miss Preen) tried attending to him. Ms. Baldasari made Miss Preen more neurotic with every interaction the two had. By the end of the show, she transitioned her character into a bitter, cynic with a hatred of humankind: all thanks to Sherry. Ms. Baldasari also showed tremendous imagination through her enactment of a penguin attack victim.

Wes Anderson and Phyllis Josephson portrayed their characters’ contrasting personalities well. Both harbored different attitudes towards their “guest.” Ms. Josephson exhibited Mrs. Stanley’s star struck attitude towards Sherry. She gushed over the celebrities who called and sent Sherry Christmas presents. Mr. Anderson showed increasing agitation with Sherry’s annoying behavior.

As one can tell by this point, Sherry was not the person one would want stuck in his/her home. In addition to his abrasive personality, he liked to entertain guests.

Sherry received a series of visitors at the Stanley’s home for the Christmas Season. To put it politely, they were not the Three Wise Men. Professor Metz (played by Rob Repici) would be the closest. With his emphatic German accent Mr. Repici raved over the gift he presented. The professor gave Sherry a cockroach village; think an ant farm, only with actual buildings. It included a speaker so Sherry could listen to the bugs.

Other intriguing guests included the hyperactive movie star, Banjo (also played by Rob Repici). The overly histrionic actors Beverly (Jim Bloss) and Lorraine Sheldon (Julia Terruso) wished Sherry a Merry Christmas in person. Prison Guard Baker (Victor E. Martinez) brought along two convicts (Andrew Chaput and Kacper Milkus).

Although she already lived in the home, Mr. Stanley’s sister, Harriet, (Sheila McDonald) proved Sherry’s most intriguing visitor. Ms. McDonald spoke in a quiet voice and talked enigmatically. I’d suggest audience members pay close attention to Ms. McDonald’s eccentric behavior while watching the show.

Sarah Blake made Maggie into the strongest character in the cast. Ms. Blake played the role of someone falling in love during her scenes with Mr. Godley. She made Maggie into a tough counterpart to Mr. DeFusco’s bullying. Ms. Blake portrayed Maggie’s indomitability very believably.

I enjoyed The Man Who Came to Dinner more for the performances than the script. Hart and Kaufman based some of the characters on real people. The playwrights developed them as caricatures for this comedy. The depictions fit the show and made it much more entertaining. The performers conveyed the essences of the roles they brought to the stage.

Taylor Kellar played Sarah as a highly emotional and dramatic teenaged girl. Jim Bloss portrayed Beverly as an actor who put the “drama” into the word dramatic. Julia Terruso presented Lorraine as a self-absorbed stardom addicted actress willing to do anything to remain popular. Rob Repici brought tremendous energy to the stage in his performance as the colorful actor Banjo. Tim Sagges added his comedy skills to the wannabe author Dr. Bradley. All these performers selected excellent voices to suit their roles.

One line from the show grabbed my attention. Mr. DeFusco introduced one of the convicts as a murder named “Stephany.” My great-uncle John Stephany lived in Stockton, California during the 1940s. It’s doubtful he ever encountered either Hart or Kaufman, however. By all accounts my great-uncle was a well behaved gentleman. For these reasons, I suspect my surname didn’t appear in the original script.

In addition, Mr. DeFusco is familiar with my writing. I’m sure he’s well aware that the only thing I’ve ever “butchered” is the English language. I do have to acknowledge that particular slaughter will continue for years to come.

I’d also credit performers Gary Werner (who also worked as Technical Director while designing and building the set), Lisa Croce, dee Stenton-Litchford and Andrea Veneziano for their contributions to the performance. Omi Parrilla-Dunne made her debut as producer. She also stage managed and designed the lighting. Pat DeFusco served as Artistic Director, Renee McCleery designed the costumes, Anna Diaczynsky handled the properties. Sound Engineer Kalman Dunne worked on the set design, as well. Jen Tracy served as the Scenic Artist.

The Man Who Came to Dinner affected me on a personal level. After the curtain call I didn’t want to leave the theatre. It wasn’t just because of the hospitality I received from Phyllis Josephson, Lisa Croce, Rob Repici and Omi Parrilla-Dunne, either. Theatre fans have until May 25th to see this show at Haddonfield Plays and Players. After that HPP will do to Sherry what the Stanleys couldn’t.

Kiss Me Kate at Haddonfield Plays and Players

On the surface, the opening number “Another Opn’in, Another Show” would work as an appropriate introduction to a musical. At the opening night performance of Haddonfield Plays and Players’ Kiss Me Kate, it didn’t fit. As the show progressed, I couldn’t describe it as just “another” opening night at “another” show. I found this October 6th performance absolutely spectacular.

This Chris McGinnis directed and choreographed musical featured a “play within a play” format. That seemed a fitting approach for a piece that referenced Shakespeare. This Cole Porter classic told the story of a theatre company’s travails in staging the Bard’s The Taming of The Shrew. The events on the stage bore an uncanny resemblance to the lives of the 1940s actors in the play. Comedic hijinks coupled with superb singing and dancing resulted.

Arielle Egan took on the dual roles of Katherine and the actress who played her, Lilli Vanessi. I enjoyed the clever approach this thespian utilized to transform the latter into the former. One also has to acknowledge her skill in bringing out the humorous aspects of a bad temper. She animated the concept that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” with great wit. While she treated the audience to extraordinary acting, Ms. Egan impressed even more with her vocal capabilities.

This performer manages her voice as though it’s a distinct musical instrument. Ms. Egan executed outstanding trills and vibrato while singing the comedic “I Hate Men.” Her character very well may have, but this reviewer sure loved her singing. It proved a challenging song to perform. The track contained rests and accents in unusual places. She impressed by performing the song flawlessly while emphasizing the funnier aspects of the words.

Anthony Vitalo’s stellar vocal prowess also captivated the audience. In addition to a voice that broadcasts well, his style reminds one of Greg Lake’s; only with an American accent. I felt like a “lucky man” given the opportunity to hear his renditions of “Where Thine Thy Special Face” and the witty ode to ribaldry “Where is the Life that Late I Led.” It’s an achievement to speak those titles without tripping over the alliteration. Mr. Vitalo sang with confidence and achieved terrific interpretations.

Mr. Vitalo also exhibited proficiency for facial expressions. Whether his character connived, wooed or angered, he displayed the best mannerisms to express the emotions. From my seat at stage right, I had a clear view of him during Ms. Egan’s superb solo performance on “So in Love.” His somber pining for his lost love gave the song much more impact. That’s a remarkable achievement for a performer sitting silently on stage during the number.

The cast gave Musical Director Justin Adams a lot of talent with which to work. One of the evening’s highlights took place when Mr. Vitalo and Ms. Egan joined together for the “Wunderbar” tune. The song’s title proved an adept description of its delivery from both performers.

Colleen Murphy (as Lois Lane/Bianca) added her remarkable vocals to the show. Many of the lyrics she sang contained dual meanings and she varied her tone to express these changes. Ms. Murphy delivered a striking rendition of the archly titled “Always True to You in My Own Way.” I also enjoyed her duet with Dennis Summerville (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio) on “Why Can’t You Behave?”

Perhaps, serving as an inspiration to Sister Act, Kiss Me Kate utilized gangsters as a source of comedy. Curt Shoyer and Steve Ciapanna provided that comedy through their accents, dialog and costumes. They added singing and dancing to their repertoire with the hilarious “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” number.

Act II opened with the show’s most memorable moment. Kahil A. Wyatt (as Paul) led the company through an intricate song and dance number entitled “It’s Too Darn Hot.” One has to credit Chris McGinnis for coordinating the elaborate choreography. The cast deserve recognition for the flawless performance of such a multifarious routine.

Kiss Me Kate featured a rotating set to accommodate the musical’s 16 different scenes. It transported the audience from Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore to Elizabethan England. Rennee McCleery’s costuming enhanced this effect.

Jordan Gulick, Faith McCleery, Tony Yates, Charles L. Bandler, Alex Chupik, Brian Gensel, Felicia Capece, Nicole Lukaitis, Jennie Pines, Gia Lukatis and Krista Reinhardt added their talents to an outstanding cast.

To borrow from Shakespeare, “all’s well that ends well.” Sadly, the show will end on October 21. Following that, audiences can kiss Kiss Me Kate goodbye at Haddonfield Plays and Players.