Ricky Conway

Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox is taking theatregoers back to the beach this autumn. Audiences should pack up their cars and head not to the shore, but to Haddon Heights, NJ. Something more entertaining than sand and surf awaits them there. The company is presenting first volume of Neil Simon’s Eugene trilogy: Brighton Beach Memoirs. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, 11/02/19 performance.

What is it about families that makes them so interesting? Director Steve Allen inquired in the playbill. If one is to use Mr. Simon’s fictitious Morton family as an example that answer is “a lot.” The clan included a mix of both lovable and quirky characters. Their dreams and flaws made for a lot of conflict and confrontations in a show billed as a comedy.

Ostensibly a story following Eugene Morris Jerome’s (played by Ricky Conway) transition from adolescence into manhood, the show really focused on the trials facing the Jerome’s family. Eugene’s Aunt Blanche (Jennifer Wilson) and her two daughters had moved in with his family after her husband’s passing. She’d become withdrawn and emotionally lost following the tragedy. Her youngest daughter Laurie (Sofia DiCostanzo) had a heart condition that limited her physical activity. Nora (Madeline Johnston), the elder, harbored aspirations of quitting high school to become a Broadway dancer.

Eugene’s father Jack (Dave Helgeson) worked several jobs to earn the money needed to support this extended family. The strain impacted his heath. Eugene’s brother Stanley’s (Jonathan Wallace) immaturity caused him to make reckless financial decisions. Eugene’s mother Kate (Amy Bannister) endured the most difficult task of all. She had to hold this unit together: while trying to find Blanche a husband.

Ricky Conaway played Eugene: a challenging role. Eugene served as both the narrator and a character in the story. Mr. Conway brought passion and energy to his performance. He rattled off the myriad zingers in Mr. Simon’s script with ease. The more memorable included:

“I love tense moments! Especially when I’m not the one they’re all tense about.”

“The tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Which is more than I could say for the liver.”

“If only I was born Italian…All the best Yankess are Italian…My mother makes spaghetti with ketchup. What chance do I have?”

Fittingly, Eugene longed to become a writer.

Mr. Conway also showed the same skill when performing dramatic scenes. He and Jonathan Wallace worked very well together. The two performers made it easy to visualize them as brothers. They showed the characters’ love for one another while still fighting like siblings. During their confrontation scene Mr. Conway showed Eugene’s change from the mindset of a child into that of an adult.

Amy Bannister wrote that she was elated to be in her sixth show by her favorite playwright in her cast bio. Her enthusiasm came through in her performance as Kate. Ms. Bannister captured her character’s essence by enacting her diverse traits. She portrayed the wise and stern mother when telling Eugene to put away the cookie he took from the kitchen. She became the empathetic confidant when telling Jack that the family would find a means of managing their financial problems. Mr. Bannister expressed strong feelings during her confrontation scene with Jennifer Wilson.

Ms. Bannister and Ms. Wilson engaged in a heated argument. As Mr. Helgeson said when refereeing this dispute, “You’re having the fight you should have had 25 years ago.” Ms. Bannister became emotional to the point of crying. She and Ms. Wilson made the fight so genuine that it became unnerving to watch.

Steve Allen has a skill for finding the latent nuances within argumentative dialog. He possesses a profound understanding of the underlying emotions the characters are experiencing. Scenes that could turn into shouting matches become much deeper and meaningful through his interpretation of them. His direction of Jennifer Wilson’s confrontation scene with Madeline Johnston served as an excellent example.

Ms. Wilson’s character loved Nora, but didn’t know how to show it. Ms. Johnson’s character wanted Blanche to love her, but didn’t feel like she did. The two performers contrasted one another very well. Ms. Wilson played the low-key character to Ms. Johnston’s more animated one. Ms. Johnson is a very expressive performer in both the way she says her lines and through her non-verbal actions. The two different styles added to the conflict and made the scene much more powerful. Thanks to Mr. Allen they did so without rattling the audiences’ eardrums.

The crew at the Village Playbox always shows remarkable skill at maximizing the space allotted to them. For Brighton Beach Memoirs, set designer/builder Gary Kochey transformed the stage into the Jerome house. It contained two upstairs bedrooms, a living room and a dining room: all with the appropriate furniture. The layout allowed performers not involved in the main action to remain on-stage. It gave the audience a real sense of being in a Brooklyn home circa 1937.

Other members of the production crew included: Producer, Stage Manager and Costumer Anita Rowland; Stage Manager Donna Allen; Set Construction and Lighting/ Sound Effects Gary Kochey and Amy Bannister along with the cast also handled the costuming.

On the weekend South Jersey residents turned the clocks back, the Village Playbox turned back time to the late 1930s. The cast and crew showed that what may seem like a simpler time was anything but. To borrow one of Mr. Allen’s observations, it did show that family can be so many things. One is a wonderful evening of entertainment when described by talented playwright and a portrayed by an outstanding cast.

Brighton Beach Memoirs runs through November 16th at the Village Playbox. After that audiences can add this production to their memoirs.

 

Night of 1000 Plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players

The play’s the thing, William Shakespeare wrote. This June 7th and 8th, plays were about a lot of things. Haddonfield Plays and Players hosted their annual Night of 1000 Plays special program. The company presented 24 short pieces submitted by local playwrights. I attended the Saturday, June 8th performance.

HPP Artistic Director Pat DeFusco directed the program. Mr. DeFusco selected a variety of dramatic styles for this endeavor. They ranged from the comical (such as David Lewinson’s Crazy), to the topical (Allie Costa’s Failure to Communicate) to the absurd (Absurdity by Jim Moss). They even included a philosophical piece contrasting the ancients’ views of gender roles with the modern one. (RA Pauli’s Man & Woman) Drama containing powerful soliloquys made the bill, as well. (Scot Walker’s Whole and Lily’s Fine by John O’Hara.)

The program’s sequence reminded me of Pink Floyd’s Echoes. On that best of compilation, producers mixed various songs from the band’s catalog into a sequence. The arrangement made them flow together naturally. Some have said the mix makes the album sound like one song.

The same could be said of Mr. DeFusco’s arrangement for this program. Somehow all these diverse plays flowed well with one another. That’s a testament to Mr. DeFusco’s creativity.

The Haddonfield Plays and Players stage became a busy place on Friday and Saturday nights. They still managed to present all 24 plays in less than two hours. Your correspondent has a rule about writing: the running time of anything I review should be greater than the time it takes to read my assessment of it. To adhere to that philosophy, I’m going to borrow an idea from another show I attended at HPP. High Fidelity’s protagonist, Rob, had a “top five” list for everything. For this post, I’m going to present my “top six” plays performed.

Two shows impressed through their imaginative use of language. Ron Baruch’s Love (directed by Pat DeFusco) took a minimalist approach. The playwright selected a difficult setting in which to do so. Amber Kusching played a director instructing two actors on how to play a scene. Performers Maddox Morfit-Tighe and Cassidy Scherz enacted a heartwarming result.

Jack Helbig crafted creative language in Thinking of Her Made Him Think of Her (directed by Bill Fikaris). The dialog included repetition a bit reminiscent of some passages in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Performers Zach Martin and Amanda Barrish played a couple expressing their inner feelings towards one another. Repeating the same words in different context can become comparable to speaking in tongue twisters. Both performers handled this challenge flawlessly.

George Sapio also used language ingeniously in his The One-Minute Mamet (directed by Pat DeFusco). Anecdotally it’s said that the average person uses only 23 different English words during a 24 hour period. Based on Mr. Sapio’s dialog, it seems Mr. Mamet gets by with two. Performers Lisa Croce, Pat DeFusco, Andrea Veneziano, Victor A. Martinez and Steve Kreal expressed the delicate nuances of the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright’s prose.

Playwright John O’Hara drew on the subject of theatre for his work. Cast (directed by Omi Parrilla-Dunne) envisioned what happens to actors after they die. Performers Steve Kreal, Lisa Croce, Connor Twigg and Lili Myers took the audience on a journey through the theatrical equivalent of the afterlife.

Mr. O’Hara’s Fan-Tastic (directed by Pat DeFusco) presented a twist on the traditional sports bar. The playwright envisioned the concept of a “theatre bar”: a place where supporters of the arts could pound a few brewskies with like-minded people. Performers Steve Kreal, Bonnie Kapenstein, Victor A. Martinez and Pat DeFusco brought this world to life.

Patti Perry both wrote and directed the evening’s concluding piece, Young Miss Sissy Fanning. This parody of Inside the Actors’ Studio contemplated the extremes aging actresses will pursue in order to remain relevant. It featured performers Pat DeFusco, Bonnie Kapenstein, Ricky Conway, Lili Myers, Brynne Gaffney, Andrea Veneziano and Cassidy Scherz.

The following shows rounded out the program: Complete Stranger or Completely Strange written by Carol M. Rice and directed by Lisa Croce, Air Rage written by Shirley King and directed by Omi Parrilla-Dunne, Balls written by Emily Hageman and directed by Alex Hawthorne, Remove Your Belt and Shoes written by Shirley King and directed by Bill Fikaris, It’s All in the Breast written by Robin Rice and directed by Bill Fikaris, The Down-Low Dating Show written by Steven G. Martin and directed by Pat DeFusco, Pseudo-Human Resources written by Rex McGregor and directed by Randy Hendler, In the Heist written by Allie Costa and directed by Nicole DeRosa Lukatis, Diagnosis: Improv written by Peter Dakutis and directed by Amanda Frederick, Proverbs written by Donna Latham and directed by Lisa Croce, Post-Apocalyptic Romance written by JJ Steinfeld and directed by Amanda Frederick, and Suit Yourself written by Chip Bolick and directed by Alex Hawthorne.

This elaborate show contained an extensive cast and crew. The following actors performed in various skits: Amanda Barrish, Amber Kushing, Andrea Veneziano, Bobby Kramer, Bonnie Kapenstein, Brynne Gaffney, Cassidy Scherz, Connor Twigg, Debbie Tighe, Isabella Capelli, Lana Croce, Lili Myers, Lisa Croce, Liza Chesebro, Maddox Morfit-Tighe, Melynda Morrone, Pat DeFusco, Ricky Conway, Sarah Pardys, Sera Scherz, Steve Kreal, Victor A. Martinez, and Zach Martin.

Pat DeFusco produced the show and handled the sound and projection design, Omi Parilla Dunne stage managed and designed the lighting, and Kalman Dunne worked as the sound engineer. Lana Croce and Emma Scherz assisted the Stage Manager.

Night of 1000 Plays treated audiences to an entertaining evening of theatre. For those who missed it, Haddonfield Plays and Players has more opportunities for budding playwrights on their calendar. This August 24th, they will present a 24 Hour Play Festival. On September 13th and 14th, they will host a Teen One Act Play Showcase.

Haddonfield Plays and Players received an “overwhelming” number of submissions for Night of 1000 Plays. They presented 24 of them. Playwrights have crafted plays since the fifth century BC. In a world where sources of entertainment change regularly, theatre still retains its popularity. To paraphrase Shakespeare: the play will always be the thing.

 

Lost in Yonkers at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox selected the perfect venue to present Neil Simon’s masterpiece, Lost in Yonkers. With the adoration performers show for the late playwright, it seemed fitting to present the show at a location well suited for veneration. The performance occurred at a church. This cast delivered an apotheosis of this Pulitzer Prize winning play through some inspired performances. I attended the November 1oth performance in Haddon Heights.

Steve Allen and Jenn Edwards co-directed this story of an atypical Jewish family living in 1942 New York. In order to afford his late wife’s medical treatment, Eddie (played by Doug Cohen) borrowed a large sum of money from a loan shark. Fortunately, he received a job offer that would allow him to repay the gangster in 10 months. The position required travel throughout the South. In order to accept it, he needed his semi-estranged mother (played by Phyllis Josephson) to allow his sons, 15-1/2 year-old Jay (Ricky Conway) and 13-1/2 year-old Artie (Colin Becker), to move in with her.

Grandma was an austere disciplinarian. Adding to Jay’s and Artie’s adventure, their quirky Aunt Bella (played by Lori Alexio Howard) also lived with her. Their gangster Uncle Louie (Chuck Klotz) and idiosyncratic Aunt Gertie visited.

One has to credit Mr. Simon for his creativity. It’s difficult to imagine characters this unusual coming together. It’s even more remarkable to put them all together at the apartment above a candy story in the early 1940s. He did so while still crafting a coherent, comical and at times heartbreaking story. It’s not surprising Lost in Yonkers receives the myriad accolades it does.

The cast rose to the level of this extraordinary show. Ricky Conway (as Jay) and Colin Becker (as Arty) performed well as a comic team. Mr. Conway played the more emotional of the two; often moving around and gesticulating. Mr. Becker would remain still and deliver his lines in a laconic deadpan fashion. The two roles made for a nice contrast on stage.

Mr. Conway spoke his lines with a perfect New York accent. He still allowed Jay’s excitable nature to come through in his mannerisms and dialog. Mr. Conway showed great professionalism through the subtle way he displayed the character’s personality. Even in scenes where Jay sat still, he tapped his foot.

Mr. Becker would’ve played a great ‘straight-man’; except that the playwright gave his character some funny lines. The performer’s dispassionate means of expressing them made them much more humorous than they appeared on the printed page. I enjoyed his imitation of Uncle Louie’s explanation of “moxie” the best.

Lori Alexio Howard is a Neil Simon fan. It showed. Ms. Howard portrayed Bella. The respect she has for Mr. Simon is the kind of esteem audiences will show her for this performance.

Bella is one of the more complex characters in the Simon catalogue. Ms. Howard played the character with such enthusiasm she may have elevated Bella into the category of a Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois. She captured the funny side of Bella’s personality, the sadder aspects and the heartbreaking ones all with equal skill. Ms. Howard expressed Bella’s dreams and aspirations in a deeply moving fashion. The longing look in her eye as she did so showed just how seriously she prepared for this role.

It’s difficult to select the appropriate words to express Phyllis Josephson’s skill as a performer. She turned in a terrific portrayal of Grandma. She brought out the character’s change very believably. In the opening scene, she captured the character’s stern nature without even speaking. Ms. Josephson walked in a slow gait before sitting down, maintaining perfect posture and remaining silent. When she did talk, she adopted an authentic German accent; at one point, lecturing Eddie on how she never cried.

Following the confrontation scene, she played Grandma as a mellower character. Even while allowing Eddie and the boys to kiss her and permitting music in the apartment, Mr. Josephson still retained a bit of Grandma’s tougher edge. She did so in a measured way that made the character’s transformation seem even more credible.

Ms. Howard and Ms. Josephson made the confrontation scene in Lost in Yonkers much more intense than I anticipated. The emotional turmoil generated by the argument became difficult to watch very quickly. The entire audience even gasped when Ms. Josephson dumped a cup of hot tea on Ms. Howard. All of that is a credit to how genuine the performers made the fight.

Doug Cohen played Eddie. He conveyed the character’s nervousness by dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. Mr. Cohen showed Eddie’s plight by speaking his monologs with a tint of somberness in his voice. He also delivered the most comical line in the show with perfect style. When Grandma announced that a bag of pistachios disappeared from the candy story, he exclaimed, “That’s still a problem after 35 years!”

I’d also credit Chuck Klotz and Amy Bannister for their performances. Mr. Klotz played an entertaining Uncle Louie. The cocky voice he adopted made the character an amusing presence on stage. Ms. Bannister animated Aunt Gert’s unusual tic brilliantly. Half way through her dialog she would speak while inhaling. She managed this challenging task extremely well.

Lost in Yonkers contained aspects that would give it appeal to a wide range of theatregoers. It included hysterical comic yuks along with intense drama. A person can imagine the eccentric characters as part of one’s own family. Even more important it included a compelling story. Perhaps that explains why performers have such admiration for Mr. Simon’s work. Audiences who’ve had the pleasure of seeing the show at the Village Playbox will no doubt share it.

Lost in Yonkers  runs through November 17th at the Village Playbox. After that it pulls an Uncle Louie-like disappearance.

 

 

Night of 1000 Plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Last night I discovered one of the lesser known verities about South Jersey. The Garden State serves as home to a host of creative dramatists. Fortunately for theatrical fans, Haddonfield Plays and Players provided these budding Ibsens, Ephrons and Simons with a forum to exhibit their art. With their Night of 1000 Plays, the company turned over their stage to these newcomers. I attended the second annual installment of this program on June 8th.

The stylistic range impressed me. The evening included a host of comedies, some solid dramas as well as a topical tragedy. A cautionary tale regarding the perils of not knowing The Rules to Save a Princess framed the program.

Relationships served as the most popular muse for South Jersey’s playwrights. The excerpt from Lili Myers’ The Gentle Indifference of the World (directed by Jennie Pines) explored the dynamics between four friends played by Ms. Myers, Ricky Conway, Moses Ali and Isabella Capelli. The piece contained an impressive amount of conflict and drama. Amber Kushing’s He Loves Me Not (directed by Eilis Skamarakis) allowed performers Jessi Meisel, Jeff Skomsky, and Kahil A. Wyatt to explore one woman’s struggle through an abusive relationship. Mr. Wyatt also played a witty “bad boy” as the title character in Patti Perry’s Nephew Nemesis (directed by Jeannine James). Rebecca Dilks, San Safeer and Gina Lerario rounded out the cast in this oblivious and dysfunctional family. John Cassidy’s The Teenage Boys Society (directed by Tony Yates) focused on social as well as romantic relationships. It surveyed the trials of adolescence through performers Kahlil A. Wyatt, Ricky Conway, Tony Yates, Jennie Pines and Jeff Skomsky.

Other playwrights delivered some unconventional takes on family relationships. John Cassidy’s The Golden Rule  (directed by Jennie Pines) presented to most unusual metaphor for salted butter this reviewer has ever encountered. Performers Nicole Lukaitis, Dan Safeer, Lili Myers, Isabella Capelli and Brenna Dougherty took on the various family roles in this piece.

Playwright Rich Renner crafted two vignettes influenced by observational humor. In Lisa’s Carpet (directed by Eilis Skamarakas), performers Dan Safeer, Kahlil A. Wyatt and Sheila McDonald showed the risks of trying to cover up household accidents. The same playwright also made a spectacle of the absurdity of using too many spectacles. Night Glasses (directed by Amber Kusching) showed performers Robert Bush and Debby Tighe coping with this situation as it kept them up at night.

The three acts of Casey Tingle’s (directed by the playwright and Nicole Lukaitis) The Rules to Saving a Princess occurred at the beginning, the middle and the end of the evening. Performers Jennie Pines, Krista Reinhardt, Tony Yates, Nicole Lukaitis and Ricky Conway brought this tale to the stage.

Susan Goodell’s No History (directed by Amber Kusching) showed how an unusual classified ad can lead to an uncomfortable Holiday dinner. Performers Krista Reinhardt, Sheila McDonald and Robert Bush allowed the audience to sit in on this comical Christmas chronicle.

The comedy continued with pieces such as Patti Perry’s April Fools (directed by Jeannine James).  Performers Rebecca Dilks, Jeff Skomsky, Sheila McDonald, and Kahlil A. Wyatt enacted a macabre series of jokes that led to an unexpected consequence. John Cassidy’s Artistic Architecture (directed by Eilis Skamarakas) allowed Jessi Meisel to instruct Moses Ali, Brenna Dougherty and Ricky Conway on a rather unconventional approach to the subject.

Taylor Blum crafted a dramatic take on the theme of relationships in Shattered Glass (directed by Amber Kushing). Ricky Conaway delivered a powerful monologue to enhance the writing.

The program included two high minded dramas. Both exceeded this reviewer’s expectations.

Sera Scherz crafted an impressive piece in the form of Through My Eyes (directed by Jeannine James and assistant directed by Sera Scherz). It featured performers Brenna Dougherty and Lili Myers alternating lines as they addressed the audience. The play explored the themes of vengeance, bigotry and forgiveness. Debby Tighe, Jeff Skomsky and Ricky Conway rounded out the cast.

Amber Kusching’s haunting When I Fell in Love (directed by Tony Yates) surveyed the themes of devotion and tragic loss. The playwright placed all three characters in different locations while they spoke indirectly to one another. The play also included sophisticated symbolism. Gary Werner, Nicole Lukatis and Isabella Capelli all delivered impassioned performances bringing the script to life.

While advertised as a Night of 1000 Plays, the Haddonfield Plays and Players could have also called the evening the Night of 1000 Roles. The individuals who participated in this endeavor stayed busy. Most of the performers worked in various capacities in multiple plays. Ricky Conway performed in six of them, Kahlil A. Wyatt in five and Jeff Skomsky in four. Nicole Lukaitis performed in three and directed one. Jennie Pines performed in two and directed two. Jeannine James, Isabella Capelli, Eilis Skamarakis and Amber Kusching each directed three. Ms. Kushing also wrote two of the shows presented.

In addition to her multifarious other roles, Nicole Lukaitis served as the overall program producer. I’d compliment her and stage manager Omaira Parrilla-Dune for providing such a professional environment for these playwrights to showcase their creativity. I’d also express gratitude in allowing audiences to enjoy them.

Pat DeFusco did an exceptional job as the stage announcer. His witty asides added to the evening’s entertainment value.

In the 1930s Paris became famous for its American expatriate community. Notables such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein emigrated there to practice their craft. Just shy of a century later, South Jersey is developing into a similar community for aspiring writers and playwrights.

For those who missed the opportunity to experience Night of 1000 Plays during its limited run, don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll have the chance to attend plays written by these playwrights again. Just perhaps, the next time they’ll be featured in a city located slightly north of the South Jersey area.

Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.

A Christmas Carol at Haddonfield Plays and Players

HPP A Christmas CarolThe originality of A Christmas Carol always impressed me. I never would’ve imagined someone spending Christmas alone while haunted by the ghosts of the past, present and future without the use of alcohol. I also found the dramatic presentation of this tale performed by Haddonfield Plays and Players to be equally distinctive. The cast delivered a stellar rendition of this sine qua non of the Holiday season. I attended the December 1, 2017 performance directed by Mark Karcher.

Michael Hicks delivered a haunting performance of a haunted man. Mr. Hicks is a superb and gifted actor. Several years ago I had the pleasure of watching his exceptional interpretation of Dr. Sloper in the Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress. (Talk about a character that reveled in bitterness and alcohol.) I relished the opportunity to watch his rendition of what began as the most miserable character in literature. This time the role required a transition into a joyous humanitarian. Would Mr. Hicks meet the challenge?

This performer went beyond what many would do in order to get into character. To adopt Scrooge’s appearance he grew mutton chops. He delivered the iconic line “bah, humbug” with suave assurance. Mr. Hicks then craftily brought the audience into the character’s metamorphosis from a self-absorbed miser into a kindly philanthropist. As morose as he portrayed Scrooge at the show’s beginning at the end he became a different character. He demonstrated the laughter and joy of a man impassioned with humanity. Dickens’ character changed dramatically, and Mr. Hicks brought that transformation to life on the Haddonfield Players’ stage.

A Christmas Carol featured an exceptional visual spectacle. I actually heard gasps from the audience when the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Jennie Pines) made her appearance. Ms. Pines wore a white gown similar to a wedding dress. A strand of bright lights wrapped around her. The theatre became dark. As she descended down the aisle, her entrance created the illusion of an apparition floating from the heavens down to the stage. Then the rotating specks of light against the backdrop simulated snowfall. Ms. Pines costume along with the set combined for a beautiful image of a winter wonderland.

I received an early Christmas Present with Alex Levitt playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. I enjoyed watching this veteran of the Haddonfield Players return to the stage. He applied more range to the role than I would’ve expected. The character began as a jolly and merry soul. Before his exit, he delivered a minatory warning to Scrooge. Mr. Levitt selected a raspy voice in which to do so. The long beard combined with the red robe made him look like Santa Clause. The contrast between his appearance and his delivery made for an interesting scene.

George Clark’s sound design enhanced the atmospherics. The echo effect on Ms. Pines’ voice made her character even more ethereal. When used on Tony Killian’s (as the ghost of Jacob Marley) it made him much more horrifying.

While not the musical version of A Christmas Carol, the dramatic performance still showcased some fantastic singing. Nicky Intrieri (as Tiny Tim) delivered an outstanding unaccompanied solo number. The falsetto choir’s rendition of Holiday staples such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night” emanated a superb Yuletide spirit.

I’ve written before that I don’t care for narration in live drama. John Mortimer adapted this rendition of A Christmas Carol for the stage. Instead of one story teller he decided that just about every performer should narrate some section of the tale. While I find this type of exposition annoying, in this show I also found much of it unnecessary. The most egregious offenders included:

“Scrooge sees Marley’s face on the door knocker.” A character delivered this line as I watched Scrooge both look at and comment upon Marley’s face on the door knocker.

“Scrooge hears bells.” A narrator said this line while my ears rang (no pun intended) with the sound of myriad bells going off in the theatre.

“Marley walked down the stairs dragging his chains.” This one requires no further explanation.

To all the budding dramatists out there: show or tell. Make a choice. Don’t do both.

I’d like to credit Edwin Howard for putting his power tools to proficient work on the set design. The London backdrop featuring Big Ben, London Bridge and the full moon made great scenery.

It’s also proper to recognize the other performers who rounded out a stellar cast. Their combined efforts delivered a very entertaining evening: Dan Safeer, Jonathan Greenstein, Jay Burton, Tony Killian, Jennifer Flynn, Maddox Mofit-Tighe, Gracie Sokiloff, Brynne Gaffney, Gianna Cosby, Tess Smith, Ryan McDermott, Jake Hufner, John Williams, Isabella Mulliner, John Bravo, Ricky Conway, Anne Buckwheat, Olivia Williams, Jenn Adams, E’Nubian Beckett, Jessi Gollin, Solaida Santiago, and Nadia Faulk.

It’s hard to imagine the Holiday Season without experiencing A Christmas Carol in some form. For those interested in witnessing it performed live, the Haddonfield Players are presenting a great version. That’s no “humbug.” The show runs through December 16th. After that, the Ghost of Christmas Past may just haunt you for not taking advantage of the opportunity.