Rick Williams

Love Letters at Haddonfield Plays and Players

The team at Haddonfield Plays and Players knows how to celebrate the holidays. This past October they presented Murder by Poe for Halloween. In December they staged A Christmas Story. They continued this tradition by bringing a love story to their stage for Valentine’s Day. This February 23rd and 24th they presented A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters. Tami Gordon Brody directed. I attended the Sunday, February 24th performance.

Love Letters told the story of star-crossed lovers Melissa Garner (played by Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams) and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Rick Williams). The two began a correspondence as children that continued throughout their adulthood. A tragic tale of two diverging lives resulted. Andy grew into a prominent lawyer and successful politician. Melissa entered into several failed marriages while fighting battles with both mental illness and substance abuse. Letter writing provided their connection to one another.

Love Letters premiered in 1989. The playwright crafted the drama in epistolary form. It contained only two characters. Each read letters that either he or she wrote to the other. The performers did so while sitting on chairs located at center stage.

This format can become problematical for directors staging it thirty years later. In an era of tweets, texts and big budget action films how can this premise still keep an audience’s attention for an hour-and-a-half?

To meet this challenge, Ms. Brody selected the real life husband and wife team of Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams and Rick Williams. Both performers have appeared in various community theatre productions. Audiences unfamiliar with his theatrical work will recognize Mr. Williams from his “day job” as the anchor of Action News at Noon and Action News at 5:00 PM.

The performers’ presentation methods captured the vicissitudes of life inherent in Mr. Gurney’s prose. Mr. Williams delivered his lines with the suave baritone familiar to his fans. Ms. Mitchell-Williams spoke in the sophisticated tone of a seasoned theatre professional. They managed to hold my interest for the show’s full 90 minutes.

I sat to the far end of stage left. From my vantage point I had a better view of Mr. Williams. I liked his clever use of facial expressions. His smiling, shock and surprised reactions to Ms. Mitchell-Williams’ comments added more depth to the production.

The story’s end contained an emotional catharsis. Ms. Mitchell-Williams played the only scene where one of Gurney’s characters directly spoke to the other. I found her interaction with Mr. Williams absolutely heartbreaking.

Gurney’s text caused an unexpected case of art imitating life. When professing Melissa’s love for Andrew, Ms. Mitchell-Williams delivered the line: “You’ll always be my anchorman.” It added some much needed levity to the story’s context.

The characters corresponded with one another over a fifty year time frame. It lasted from 1937 until 1987. In order to establish when events occurred, a series of images appeared on the backdrop. They included photos of Santa Clause, the picture of Harry Truman holding the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline and a photo of the Challenger crew.

Pat DeFusco performed his usual excellent work designing the sound and visuals. Stage Manager Brennan Diorio and Technical Support Glen Funkhouser rounded out the production staff.

In the course of their letter writing, Ms. Mitchell-Williams’ character suggested that the two use alternate forms of communication; such as the telephone. Mr. Williams’ character disagreed. He championed the power of the written word.

But they gave us an out in the Land of Oz. They made us write. They didn’t make us write particularly well. And they didn’t always give us important things to write about. But they did make us sit down, and organize out thoughts, and convey those thoughts on paper as clearly as we would to another person. Thank God for that. That saved us. Or at least it saved me. So I have to keep writing letters. If I can’t write them to you, I have to write them to someone else. I don’t think I could ever stop writing them completely.

Perhaps, Love Letters has more importance today than when Mr. Gurney wrote it.

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Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at Burlington County Footlighters

With so many focused on upcoming sporting events, it didn’t surprise that Burlington County Footlighters would host theatre’s answer to one. The opponents in their contest featured the “shirts against the skins.” In this case, it was more the “stuffed shirts” in conflict with the “barefoots” through the vehicle of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. To show just how special this event, they brought in the Ho Chi Minh University of the Arts’ most famous graduate, Tim Sagges, to direct this run. I attended the opening night performance on January 26th.

Mr. Sagges displayed his unique brand of creativity even before the show began. In his playbill bio, he described himself as having graduated Hakuna Matada with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Trapeze performance while minoring in Merkin Mastery. This director chose an excellent comedy with which to exercise his talent for wit and inventiveness.

As the NFL All-Pro game will be played during this show’s run, I thought the casting very appropriate. The performers who took the stage played like South Jersey community theatre’s version of an all-star team. It featured three-time Irene Ryan nominee, Bailey Shaw in the lead as Corie Bratter. The newest member of the royal family of South Jersey community theatre, AJ Krier, played her husband Paul Bratter. One of the most versatile performers ever to grace the stage, Phyllis Josephson, played Corie’s mother. Gifted singer, dancer and actor, Rick Williams took on the role of eccentric free-spirit, Victor Velasco. Footlighters veteran Kevin Pavon returned to the Footlighters’ stage as Harry Pepper.

Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park premiered in 1963; two years before the playwright crafted The Odd Couple. The former contained a similar premise as a nonconformist young woman, Corie (Bailey Shaw), just moved into an apartment with her conservative husband of six days, Paul (AJ Krier). The show began with the two very much in love, but various issues with their new living accommodations began straining the marriage; a flamboyant free-loader living above them, Victor Velasco (Rick Williams) being one of them.

A visit from Corie’s mother, Ethel, (Phyllis Josephson) helped clarify the conflict. Ethel described her daughter’s “impulsive” personality as the opposite of hers and Paul’s. She also reluctantly acknowledged her loneliness. With the introduction of Victor Velasco, Corie came up with a scheme to set her mother up on a blind date. The two couples ended up dining at an establishment featuring Albanian fare. Then the battle between the “stuffed shirts” and “barefoots” kicked off.

Bailey Shaw treated theatregoers to an effervescent performance. As in the farcical The Fox on the Fairway, Ms. Shaw took on the role of an emotional personality. In Barefoot in the Park, the character contained more realistic traits. The performer deftly brought them to life. She played the bubbly aspects of Corie extraordinarily well while also giving Paul a compelling “silent treatment.” While doing so she managed to keep the role funny.

AJ Krier met the challenge of getting laughs while playing an ostensibly dull character. The son of Al Krier and brother of Lindsey, AJ brought his own distinct comedy style to the role. He displayed great skill bringing out Paul’s humorous metamorphosis into a personality with Corie’s qualities. I’m sure the latest heir to the Krier family acting dynasty made Dad and Sis proud with this performance.

Phyllis Josephson possesses a gift for performing unconventional characters. Some of her most memorable include Grandma in The Addams Family, Kimberly Akimbo and a Rapping Nun. She brought the same skill to the more orthodox Ethel.

I also witnessed Ms. Josephson perform a chilling Mama in ‘night Mother. The mom in this show didn’t possess the same intensity; which I welcomed. Ms. Josephson played a convincing and entertaining Ethel. She executed the most memorable entrance I’ve ever seen. She amused through the witty way she gasped while staggering through the door.

Rick Williams took on the part of smooth-talking gourmet Victor Velasco. For such a character, Mr. Williams showed great taste and delicacy in selecting the perfect voice. His choice of accent perfectly suited both the role and his warm baritone.

I’d also acknowledge the show’s other performers. Kevin Pavon brought an authentic New York accent to the role of Harry Pepper. Valerie Brothers and Torben Christensen played members of the most memorable moving company I’ve seen.

I’d also credit Amanda Cogdell for the authentic 1960s costuming and Jim Frazer for another phenomenal set design.

One action in the play seemed a bit odd. After returning from work while wearing his business suit, Mr. Krier changed ties prior to a dinner party. I could understand Paul being a “stuffed shirt”, but this still struck me as a strange thing to do.

Neil Simon crafted several of his plays so they built towards a crucial confrontation scene. Barefoot in the Park’s consisted of a fight between Ms. Shaw’s and Mr. Krier’s characters. They delivered the conflict I would’ve expected from the two. Mr. Krier expressed his lines with the formality one would expect from a lawyer. In the heat of the disagreement, he went to his briefcase, removed some papers and soullessly outlined the business aspects of a divorce. Ms. Shaw brought out Corie’s emotional personality through her dramatic crying. She impressed with her comical use of sobbing to get laughs from the audience.

Conveniently, Footlighters’ theatre borders Wood Park in Cinnaminson. After listening to Ms. Shaw’s character express the joys of walking barefoot in the park during the winter, I thought that maybe I should give it a try. Then a cold wind blew. I decided that task best left to either theatrical professionals or fictitious characters.

For those interested in watching the “stuffed shirts” take on the “barefoot” crowd, the show runs through February 10th. The outcome of the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics are unknown at the time of this writing. One thing is for certain about the conflict in Barefoot in the Park at Burlington County Footlighters: the audience will always end up the winner.

 

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.

Theatre Review – A Christmas Carol at Burlington County Footlighters

Burlington County Footlighters bewildered me. I heard they’d planned to present the musical version of a Charles Dickens story for the Holiday Season. I couldn’t imagine a tale of putrid coke painting London’s skyline, children suffering under horrific child labor practices and business barons brutalizing the working classes coinciding with the festive mood in the air. Fortunately, they opted to stage a musical version of the author’s heart-warming Holiday classic A Christmas Carol; not his harsh critique of nineteenth century industrialization Hard Times. God blessed us everyone. The cast and crew’s wonderful presentation of the former proved Footlighters made the appropriate artistic call.

I attended the opening night showing directed by Scott Angehr and Tracey Hawthorne on December 2nd. While billed as a musical, I thought A Christmas Carol an entertaining spectacle on multiple levels. Of course, it featured a variety of extraordinary voices. The authentic costuming provided the audience with a means of visualizing the social strata of Victorian England. The set design achieved the latter while transforming the theatre into an idealistic image of a Christmas town. While this show possessed many attributes of a big budget New York play, I enjoyed the opportunity to experience it in my home town of Cinnaminson, New Jersey.

I always credit performers courageous enough to perform roles iconized by other actors. It’s much harder to do this while playing a character that’s become a recognizable part of mainstream pop culture. Steve Phillips’ portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge would’ve made Dickens proud while making Reginald Owen and George C. Scott jealous. With his top hat, gray mutton chops and warm bass toned “Bah, Humbug” he made Scrooge his own.

While a talented singer, I enjoyed listening to Mr. Phillips’ speaking voice the most. Just a thought: could an audiobook of A Christmas Carol be in his future?

If I may borrow a song title from the show, I had a “jolly good time” listening to the singing. The return of Footlighters veterans Ryan PJ Mulholland, Colin Becker, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Carla Ezell and Rick Williams made for an early Christmas present. Buddy Deal’s (in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present) upbeat crooning with his ensemble on the “Abundance and Charity” number made “Holly Jolly Christmas” sound like a depressing grunge song by comparison. The dancers accompanied this track with a well-choreographed (by Laci DeLuca) soft shoe tap dance. I thought the women’s matching red and green dresses took the Christmassy feel into overdrive.

The most unforgettable routine occurred during the “Link by Link” number. This song began solo by Vinnie DiFilippo (as Jacob Marley) and evolved into a Riverdance-esque dance number with a male ensemble. It served as a cautionary tale to Scrooge about how he’d spend eternity wearing the chain he built in life. I admired the group’s ability to sing and dance flawlessly while attired with cumbersome props.

Ryan Mulholland and Scott Angehr deserve immense praise for their work on the costuming. It impressed me the most about this show. An award wouldn’t be enough to recognize their efforts. They earned a medal. Mr. Mulholland played Bob Cratchit. The authenticity of his clothes showed superb attention to detail. He wore scuffed shoes. Holes showed on both his pants and jacket. Their condition displayed the level of Mr. Cratchit’s impoverishment. The chains and lock boxes Mr. DiFilipo adorned as Jacob Marley appeared very realistic. The long white gown Ms. Delengowski wore accentuated by the glitter dotting her face and hair animated the sprightly Ghost of Christmas Past. The long green robe and holly hat did the same for Buddy Deal as the mirthful Ghost of Christmas Present.

Jim Frazer’s one of the best set designers on the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit. His skills reached another level in A Christmas Carol. I suspect if Norman Rockwell had painted a romanticized image of a Victorian Christmas village, it would have looked like this set. The small winter lights in the windows added an authentic touch. Mr. Frazer crafted the rotating stage extraordinarily well. The multiple levels and the faux fireplace presented an authentic image of Scrooge’s home. When turned around this set became the front of the residence. While an intricate stage-upon-the-stage, crew members managed to turn it around and move it back-and-forth without difficulty. The set construction crew deserves kudos for building this elaborate spectacle so well.

This Holiday Season you will be visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past will transport you to the first time you read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Your youthful self will say, “What a great story. I wish I could see it performed as a musical.” Then the Ghost of Christmas Present will explain what a phenomenal production of this beloved tale Burlington County Footlighters is presenting this December. Afterwards you’ll receive a harrowing visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Future. This apparition will transport you to January of 2017. You’ll be pining for the past Yuletide season. Then you’ll see a playbill that reads the final performance of this show occurred on 12/11/16. Then the Ghost of Christmas Present will return. He’ll warn you that this is one possible future. You still have the power to change it. And for that, “God bless us everyone.”