Robert Stoop

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 Fantasticks at the Ritz Theatre Company

When I read the title of the Ritz Theatre Company’s latest production, The Fantasticks, I figured it referred to the cast.  The show featured South Jersey community theatre legends Alan Krier, Bruce A. Curless and Michael Pliskin among other notables. While the show didn’t focus on their personal stories, it sure lived up to the title. I attended the opening night performance on June 1st.

To add to the billing, Matthew Weil (with the assistance of Siarra Ingram) directed this musical. Mr. Weil has a history of organizing the stage very creatively. For The Fantasticks, he utilized a similar set-up to the one he used for Brighton Beach Memoirs. In this show, however, the audience didn’t sit around the stage: they sat on the stage. This allowed the actors to mingle a bit with the spectators while taking their places for the opening scene.

The set-up also gave the thespians the opportunity to make eye contact with the audience while performing. I didn’t just feel like the players spoke to me: they did speak to me. It made the theatrical experience much more personal.

The Fantasticks told the story of teenage beaus Luisa (played by Kristy Joe Slough) and Matt (AJ Klein). The two lived next door to one another, but their feuding fathers Hucklebee (Alan Krier) and Bellamy (Charles J. Gill) kept them apart. The dads did so both figuratively and literally. They erected a wall (played by Brian Gensel) between their properties to keep the two separated…or so they wanted their kids to believe.

In the witty duet “Never Say No” the fathers explained that kids always do the opposite of what they’re told. The audience learned these men wanted their children to marry.

Realizing that a physical boundary and a fake quarrel wouldn’t suffice to bring their scheme to fruition, the dads enlisted the aid of a professional. A man who called himself El Gallo (Michael Pliskin) offered to enact an abduction. After recruiting one time Shakespearean actor Henry (Bruce A. Curless) and his sidekick Mortimer (John Nicodemo) the gang feigned an attempt to kidnap Luisa. Following a brief sword fight, Matt ‘saved’ her and emerged the hero.

At this point in the play, I became confused. The act’s final number “Happy Ending” befuddled me even more. Matthew Weil has directed such innovative dramas as The Pillowman and The Heiress. Those plays featured some mind bending plot twists experienced by complex characters. This story concluded much more neatly than I expected.

Then Mr. Pliskin announced the show included a second act. After intermission, then it turned into what I expected from a Matthew Weil directed show. The story arcs in The Fantastics rivaled the other two shows’ I cited. I’ll spare theatregoers spoilers. They deserve the opportunity to experience Mr. Weil’s theatrical journey for themselves. As a teaser, I will note that Act II began with Ms. Slough, Mr. Klein, Mr. Krier and Mr. Gill arguing in song about a plumb being “too ripe.”

The lighting (operated by Stage Manager Sara Viniar) fashioned a spectacular ambiance. The blue shade created a perfect simulation of moonlight. The yellows illuminated the stage just like sunshine. The colors accentuated the tinsel Mr. Gensel dropped on Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough to simulate rain and the paper he fluttered to mimic snow. The lighting also made me feel like the scenes occurred during the time of year indicated by the narrator.

Here we go with ‘the narrator’ thing again. I’ve often ranted about how much I loathe when a playwright makes ‘the narrator’ a character. That was until I experienced Michael Pliskin’s performance in this show. Mr. Pliskin possesses a gift for storytelling. While the show featured excellent dance routines (choreographed by Angela Longo), stellar singing (vocally directed by Robert Stoop) and outstanding acting, Mr. Pliskin’s narration impressed me the most. No one can tell a story like Michael Pliskin. If he’d like to expand his artistic horizons, I’d suggest he consider narrating audio books.

In addition to that role, Mr. Pliskin also played the villain, the deceptively intricate El Gallo. (Phonetically that’s gah-yo, as the character would tell you.) He delivered his lines with a Spanish accent embellished just enough for comic effect. The performer also delivered the most humorous death scene ever portrayed on stage. To balance out his evening, he also sang a moving “Try to Remember” that those who heard will never forget.

Kristy Joe Slough showcased extraordinary operatic vocals throughout the evening. She performed a wonderful solo number “Much More.” Ms. Slough sang duets beautifully with both Mr. Pliskin and Mr. Klein. While doing so, she chose the perfect facial expressions to enhance the lyrics. This performer displayed great dexterity with the ballet moves she performed, as well.

AJ Klein animated Matt’s love for Luisa through both his singing and his mannerisms. He displayed great energy in utilizing the entire stage for one of his dance numbers. Mr. Klein portrayed his character’s growth very credibly. One also has to respect a performer willing to wear both a sweater and a leather jacket on a muggy evening.

The highpoint of the evening occurred when Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough sang “They Were You” together. Both performers sat in front of me while doing so. With the passion in their voices and the yearning in their eyes, they made me feel the love between the two characters.

Alan Krier and Charles J. Gill teamed up for some solid duets of their own. While doing so, they made an exceptional comedy team. Mr. Pliskin even joined them to provide a musical answer on the cost of staging a fake kidnapping. In the “It Depends on What You Pay” number, the trio brought out some pretty hearty laughter from the audience.

Bruce A. Curless and John Nicodemo played two of the funniest henchmen in the history of theatre. Brian Gensel made the most memorable surprise entrance I’ve ever witnessed. (I won’t spoil it for future theatregoers.) I’d compliment Steve Weber for providing wonderful accompaniment in the form of his piano playing. I’d also commend Brennan Diorio for the costuming and Melissa Harnois for her work as assistant stage manager.

I encountered a gentleman in the audience who’d seen The Fantasticks numerous times. As Mr. Pliskin sang the final note of the “Try to Remember” reprise, he moved this fan. One could hear this gentleman’s simple observation: “beautiful” resounding through the theatre as the lights faded. After the show I asked this theatregoer what he thought of this performance compared to the others he’d attended. Without hesitation he told me, “This is New York.” Is there any better theatrical compliment?

Perhaps, there is. With the superlative nature of this performance, it’s possible that someday Broadway audiences will say, “This is The Fantasticks at the Ritz.” That would truly be a “Happy Ending” for this run.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans can watch The Fantasticks live up to its name through June 16th.

Theatre Review – Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I’m not in the habit of reviewing musicals like Sister Act. Nevertheless, I had faith that Haddonfield Plays and Players with the aid of director/choreographer Chris McGinnis, musical director Robert Stoop and the rest of the cast and crew would put on a good show. Hallelujah! Now I have to testify that when it comes to musicals: there’s ‘nun’ like it. I rejoiced after watching the February 4, 2017 performance.

Sister Act told the story of aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier. (Paige Smallwood) On Christmas Eve of 1977 she witnessed her gangster boyfriend murder someone. Fearing for her safety, she sought help from the Philadelphia PD. The officer with whom she spoke, a man with the clammy nickname “Sweaty Eddie”, (Terrance Hart) happened to be someone from her past. In fact, he had a crush on her in high school. In order to hide Deloris before the court date, he opted to place her in the one location the thugs would never suspect: a convent. In addition to worrying about the criminals, Deloris now contended with an austere Mother Superior (Tami Gordon Brody) and living a lifestyle antithetical to her usual one. The nuns had a choir, but that didn’t ameliorate the situation. To be as polite as possible: it didn’t perform at Deloris’ musical level. Think Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz without the musicians playing in the same key.

Paige Smallwood delivered a spectacular performance; and it started the moment she took the stage. The “Take Me to Heaven” number fused funk, soul and disco. She, (accompanied by performers Amanda Barrish and Dana Masterman), delivered a high energy rendition that drew me into the show. After getting my attention, she did an outstanding job keeping it. The stellar moments kept coming; culminating with her emotional singing of “Sister Act.” When not taking soul singing to another level, she got laughs through her perfect comedic timing. One also has to credit the great tap number she performed with the ensemble, as well.

Terrance Hart sang one of the most challenging numbers in the show. The melody on “I Could Be that Guy” stretched from bass to alto. (And I thought Motown songs challenged vocal ranges.) But this “Sweaty Eddie” didn’t sweat it. Mr. Hart hit Larry Grahm territory with the lower registers and would’ve impressed Smokey Robinson the way he nailed the higher notes.

Then Mr. Hart took the Motown adage: “the rhythm needs to move your feet and the lyrics need to stir your soul” literally. He and the ensemble accompanied this soulful ballad with a superb dance number. I credit him for not getting distracted by the numerous costume changes while performing.

I’ve watched Tami Gordon Brody display her acting talents in several shows at Haddonfield Plays and Players. In Sister Act I finally had the opportunity to hear her vocal prowess. The Mother Superior character possessed an unemotional disposition. The “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” number served as a catharsis for her inner turmoil. Ms. Gordon Brody channeled the character’s feelings exceptionally well through her delivery.

Both Ms. Gordon Brody and Ms. Smallwood played off each other extraordinarily well. The former served as the passionless character; always speaking and moving in a measured fashion. The latter behaved as a free spirit lacking inhibitions. Their scenes together made for some amusing personality clashes.

I also enjoyed Kelsey Hogan’s performance as Sister Mary Robert. Among this exceptionally talented group of performers, she displayed the best acting ability. In the show’s early phases, she spoke in a soft voice reflecting the character’s timid nature. I could still understand her words, so I credit her for still talking loud enough to hear. During “The Life I Never Led” she belted out a high note that nearly made the building rattle. Ms. Hogan projected the tune with confidence and authority. The delivery concretized the character’s development through the course of the evening.

Billed as a musical comedy, the show contained some humorous numbers, as well. Phyllis Josephson drew laughs by adorning a pair of sunglasses and becoming a rapping nun. I also found the “It’s Good to Be a Nun” track (performed by Karen Henry, Mary Corradino, Lori Clark and the ensemble) quite witty. The bass line made it sound like a country song. It really stood out in a musical comprised of soulful tunes.

The funniest moments of the show occurred when the hoodlums played by Eric Acierto, Michael Melvin, and Carlos Diaz (also the Dance Captain) took the stage. In essence, they applied the Keystone Cops premise to bad guys. These players accompanied Curtis on the “When I Find My Baby” number. Mr. Melvin took the lead on the sultry “Lady in the Long Black Dress” track. Listening to these performers sing and watching them dance more than justified the cost of admission.

I have to give Mr. Melvin credit. About a year-and-a-half ago I heard him sing gospel and soulful style music in Bonnie and Clyde. I already knew he had a talent for Rhythm and Blues. I never would’ve suspected he had such funky dance chops in his repertoire, too.

As the character of Monsignor O’Hara, Charles L. Bandler played the one role in the show that lacked any rhythm whatsoever. He used this to fantastic humorous effect. His high pitched giggling made the character even more comical.

I also credit Taylor Brody, Kristine Bonaventura, Breyona Coleman and Brooke McCarthy for their work in the ensemble. They rounded out the cast very well.

I had two issues with Sister Act. The first entailed a reference to the Smurfs. The action took place between 1977 and 1978. While the Smurfs debuted in Europe during the late 1950s, the popular animated series didn’t premiere in the US until 1981. I thought the reference historically inaccurate.

Also, who was the performer who played Curtis? I found him very funny. His use of a lollypop added great comedic effect for a street tough. His vocals on “When I Find My Baby” brought out a lot of laughs, too.

I didn’t see his head shot on the board. The character of “Curtis” wasn’t listed in either the playbill or on the company’s web site. I wondered if, like the protagonist in the show, he wasn’t hiding out from someone.

Seriously though, the gentleman played a great role. He deserves to be acknowledged.

I had a revelation this weekend. It’s gospel truth that the audience experienced a heavenly evening watching Sister Act. Fortunately for theatregoers, I didn’t attend the ‘soul’ performance. For those who would like the opportunity to see it at Haddonfield Plays and Players, their prayers will be answered. Barring some kind of divine intervention, the show will run through February 18th. Can I get an “Amen” to that?