Shannon Forbes

Disaster! at Burlington County Footlighters

Take a spoof of 1970s disaster movies, include a soundtrack that sounds like a best of K-Tell Records compilation add a cast of South Jersey community theatre legends and you’ve got Disaster! A 70s Disaster Movie…Musical! (To save readers the time of going back and re-reading that title: I know. I never thought I’d see those words written in that combination, either.) So theatre fans grab your roller skates, your pet rocks and hook up your CB radios. This September 20th my “20” was Burlington Country Footlighters.

Scott Angehr and Tracey Hawthorne directed this rib-tickling tale of terror. Drawing on the suspense of films such as The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and Jaws with the farcical wit of Airplane!, Disaster! told an old story with new twist.

Unscrupulous business man and Lothario wannabe Tony Delvecchio (played by John Romano, Jr.) came up with a clever scheme to avoid New York’s gambling laws. He owned a floating casino. As this was the 1970s, the establishment included a discotheque. Mr. Delvecchio’s ethical lapses also caused him to avoid spending money on the necessary safety measures.

To add to the potential for misfortune, scientist and disaster maven Ted Scheider (played by Evan Hairston) informed Mr. Delvecchio that a fault line lay underneath his casino. Mr. Delvecchio addressed this matter with same diligence that he managed the casino’s other safety concerns.

The late 1970s television series The Love Boat may have provided inspiration for the show’s characters. They were both quirky and the types of figures one would like to see the victims of misfortune.

The passenger list for this ship included a gambling addicted nun (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), a washed-up disco diva (Mikayla Nelson), the sappily married Summers pair (Alan Krier and Lisa Croce) and a wealthy couple (played by Antonio Flores and Kelly Scott) that made Thurston and Lovie Howell look like the Clampetts before Jed found “Texas tea” on his homestead.

The casino’s employees were even more idiosyncratic than its passengers. They included lounge singer Jackie Noelle (Alex Davis), waiter and malapropism prone pick-up artist Scott (Aaron Wachs) and a flamboyant chef (DJ Hedgepath).

Disaster! writers Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick infused their script with the philosophical wit of comedian Bill Hicks. The latter observed: “It’s only funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.” And Disaster! was hilarious.

Dramatis personae this eccentric, a wacky script and a soundtrack that featured radio staples of a decade, required performers with the right skills to execute these unique challenges. Directors Scott Angher and Tracey Hawthorne made strong casting choices: many of whom are Footlighters’ legends.

John Romano, Jr. made the reprehensible Tony Delvecchio a pleasure to watch. He performed the most comical near-death scene I’ve ever watched. While crooning a melodramatic version of “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, Mr. Romano battled rising waters and a school of sharks. He made the scene and the outcome hilarious.

Ally Masson played investigative reporter Miss…Excuse me, that’s Ms. Wilson. Ms. Masson played a stellar straight performer opposite Mr. Romano’s comical concupiscence. She displayed perfect chemistry with the character’s love interest played by Vinnie DiFilippo. The two delivered a fantastic duet with “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” Ms. Masson also performed a memorable version of “I Am Woman/That’s the Way It Always Should Be” accompanied by BCF Mainstage newcomer Makenna Renbjor.

What Jim Frazer is to set-design, Vinnie DiFilippo is on his way to becoming as a theatrical performer. Mr. DiFilippo turned in another strong performance through the role of lovelorn Chad Rubik. The performer reciprocated the chemistry Ms. Masson displayed while working with him. While Mr. DiFilippo enacted all facets of the role perfectly, I especially enjoyed the soul he added to his vocals on “Without You.” He shifted the mood at the song’s conclusion by curling into the fetal position. This touch of comedy made the track even more memorable.

Evan Hairston played the deceptively complex character, Ted Scheider. Mr. Hairston delivered the sine qua non of this character type’s usual modus operandi. He ran around the casino and warned everyone who wouldn’t listen about a pending “disaster.” He executed this maneuver like the character’s namesake (the actor Roy Scheider) did in the movie Jaws.

Mr. Hairston added the requisite comedy to the role. His actions recalled those of another disaster spoof hero: Ted Striker, the protagonist of the film Airplane!

The performer still inspired empathy for Sheider. With his lamentations on the fate of the character’s deceased wife he showed Sheider’s personality deeper than that of a dispassionate scientist. He best did so through his interactions with his character’s love interest: nightclub singer Jackie Noelle (Alex Davis).

Alex Davis selected the perfect voice for the role. Ms. Davis spoke in a sultry high-pitched tone. It well suited the lounge singer’s vocal style on “Muskrat Love,” “Mockingbird” (accompanied by Mr. Hairston) and the “When Will I Be Loved” duet with Makenna Renbjor. Ms. Davis added her own brand of comedy to Jackie Noelle through the shuffle she used for her character’s walk.

Makenna Renbjor made her BCF Main Stage debut in the dual roles of Jackie Noelle’s children, Ben and Lisa. She selected a challenging show with which to do so. Ms. Renbjor managed the quick wig changes without flaw. The performer also showed strong vocal prowess as mentioned earlier. One has to credit her for the courage to perform along such outstanding performers as Ally Masson and Alex Davis during her first foray onto the Main Stage. Ms. Renbjor’s wonderful performance proved that she earned the right to share the stage with them and her real life mom, Jillian Starr-Renbjor.

Yet another Footlighters legend, Jillian Starr-Renbjor added her talents to this extraordinary cast. Ms. Starr-Renbjor played Sister Mary Downy, erstwhile gambling addict turned moral crusader turned gambling addict again. In a departure from the nun’s usual deadpan delivery, the performer expressed her character’s passion for one-armed bandits through her emotional rendition of “Torn between Two Lovers.”

A production consisting of this much talent and entertainment makes it difficult to select a most memorable moment. For me the casting of the Summers couple provided highlight of Disaster! Two of the best comic performers in South Jersey community theatre took on these roles: the extraordinary Alan Krier and the incomparable Lisa Croce.

Alan Krier provided his usual comedic genius for the production. He performed a perfect imitation of Ms. Davis’ shuffle. In perhaps an even more impressive feat: he did so without wearing heels.

Mr. Krier also returned to his roots in musical theatre for this role. He served as part of the group that performed “Ben.” He also delivered a fun duet with Lisa Croce on “Still the One.”

Lisa Croce’s fans will be ecstatic with her performance in Disaster! This show is an absolute “must see” for them. Ms. Croce treated them with her usual proficiency at comedy. Her portrayal of her character’s unusual medical condition, including Tourette’s like symptoms, delighted the audience. She sang a duet with Mr. Krier that was both comical and, in its own way, poignant.

Ms. Croce impressed most with her dancing ability; a skill that’s a bit out of her comfort zone. When I interviewed her on June 22, 2016, I asked about the most difficult role she played. Ms. Croce replied:

I feel much more confidence in my acting than my singing or dancing these days (age will do this!). Therefore, playing Rosie in Wedding Singer where I had to sing solo and dance was difficult for me. I needed to get out of my own head and just do it! I lean more towards plays or non-singing and dancing roles in musicals when I can.

Fans wouldn’t have suspected that for her performance in Disaster! She proved the old cliché that we’re our own harshest critics.

In this show, Ms. Croce performed a tap dance number. Part of the way through, Ms. Davis and Mr. Hairston accompanied her. Ms. Croce still occupied center stage while leading the ensemble. She executed the routine beautifully.

Set designer extraordinaire Jim Frazer worked his usual magic with the Footlighters’ stage. For Disaster! he turned it upside down: literally. Mr. Frazer transformed it into a dock, a lounge and a host of other settings one would find in a casino.

The show featured a live band under the direction of bassist Peg Petti-Smith. Ms. Smith led the Diablo Sandwich Band & Friends through the pop music of the seventies. The group performed tunes written in a range of styles. The songs included the contemplative “The Lord’s Prayer,” the upbeat “Saturday Night” and the disco masterpiece (now there’s an oxymoron) “I Will Survive.”

Tom Shaw, Jr. choreographed, Leslie Romanuski stage managed, Amanda Cogdell managed the costuming and Scott Angehr produced. The following performers completed the cast: Mark Henley, Christian Decolla, Shannon Ewing, Shannon Forbes, Mackenzie Smith and Abby Zahn.

Disaster! runs through September 28th at Burlington County Footlighters. As of this writing your correspondent hasn’t confirmed the rumors that FEMA: A New Musical will follow it. Sources do tell me that production is lacking the needed financing.

I found the performance of Disaster! at Burlington County Footlighters as anything but. Theatre fans can only hope we see the members of this talented cast perform again. If we don’t, it wouldn’t be a disaster: it would be a catastrophe for the arts in South Jersey.

 

Spring Awakening at Burlington County Footlighters

South Jersey community theatre fans experienced an historic evening on Friday, September 14th. Both a mother and son directed shows that opened on the same day. Tami Gordon Brody, the matriarch of the Brody acting family, directed a second run of Love, Loss and What I Wore presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. Following his mother’s lead Evan Brody made his directorial debut with Spring Awakening. I attended the latter.

With the waning days of summer upon us, Burlington County Footlighters opted to open their 81st season with Spring Awakening. This show contained elements that would appeal to a wide variety of theatrical fans. It included a unique interpolation of the Aeneid, the music reminiscent of mid-1990s pop along with a whole lot of teenage angst added for dramatic effect. The story combined Nihilistic philosophy with myriad references to onanism. I have to admit: I never would’ve expected someone to fuse that kind of range into any medium; especially a dramatic production. For a show set in the bland days of the late nineteenth century, this musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik sure didn’t lack for diversity.

Several years ago I attended a performance of Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage. At the time I didn’t think it possible to present a show more intense than that one. Well, Footlighters raised that bar again. Imagine something like ‘night Mother put to music with a passionate ill-fated love affair worked into the story. Then add the moral universe of Grimm’s Fairy Tales where children who disobey authority face brutal retribution.

As harsh as all that may seem, Spring Awakening presented a solid exploration regarding the tragedy of the human condition. The music (under the direction of Anthony Sinigaglio) and dancing (choreographed by Tiara Nock) made the heavy themes easier to process. The gifted actors who brought the story to life with such passion required it to balance out the mood.

Spring Awakening told the story of star-crossed lovers Melchoir (Evan Newlin) and Wendla (Jenna German); he an idealistic intellectual driven by reason and she a repressed and isolated young lady with little understanding the world’s ways. They attended unisex schools in Germany during an era when authority figures viewed any nonconformity to society’s mores as anathema. In spite of this bleak background, Melchoir and Wendla developed a friendship that evolved into a deep passionate relationship.

At this point I understood why Footlighters decided to present this show in September. With all the ragweed in the air, people in the South Jersey area have been stocking up on tissues. After processing this set-up I knew they were going to need them. I did not expect the story to end well. The cast and crew’s skill in presenting these characters’ tragic journey allowed me to enjoy the voyage.

Both Mr. Newlin and Ms. German played complex roles to perfection. They exhibited profound capability to bring out the suppressed aspects of their characters’ personalities. These two performers expressed Melchoir’s and Wendla’s inner conflict with holding back their feelings very believably.

Mr. Newlin and Ms. German proved just as adept with their musical numbers. Ms. German delivered a somber rendition of “Mama Who Bore Me” to open the show. It sounded absolutely haunting and established the mood that dwelled over the performance. Mr. Newlin changed tack and showed strong comedic skills, as well. He and the cast added a humorous take on hopeless situations with the “Totally F*cked” number.

Vincent DiFilippo delivered another awesome performance. He nailed the essence of the jittery Moritz. Mr. DiFilppo transitioned from playing the role as a comic character with a nervous disposition to a tragic figure overwhelmed by circumstances. He turned in one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen.

Rachael Grodzielanek and Michael Sheldon played evil authority figures brilliantly. The military style marches they employed when approaching each other added to the characters’ malevolence while adding just a slight touch of the comic.

I liked that the playwright provided opportunities for the supporting characters to perform solos. I’d credit everyone in the ensemble for their contributions to a strong show. Paul Sigall, Evan Hairston, Aaron Wachs, Jerrod Ganesh, Melany Rosa, Alexis Short, Shannon Forbes and Cynthia Reynolds added their talents to a wonderful production.

The visual atmospherics gave this show an exceptional ambiance. During the climax, the stage became eerie. Lighting Designers Naomi Burton and Rebekah Macchione (who also assistant directed) crafted flawless illumination for this moment. While providing a sensual atmosphere a sense of doom pervaded during this pivotal scene. The candles held by the cast members made the moment absolutely ominous.

I must caution theatre goers that Spring Awakening is a show for mature audiences. It includes adult themes, language and an explicit love scene: all of which are legitimate artistic means to present a story. With all that material I’m a little surprised they let me in the door. I would strongly advise those offended by any of the above to avoid this show, but to get out of the house more often.

Set in a world devoid of love yet rife with mindless conservatism, Spring Awakening presented an excruciating take on the tribulations of adolescence. Even though the story took place over a century ago and a continent away, the concepts and themes give it a chilling relevance in our own era. That’s what makes it so impactful. To quote Nietzche, “Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.”

Spring Awakening goes into eternal slumber at Footlighters after September 29th.

Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

Not for the first time, Burlington County Footlighters bewildered me. When I heard they’d present a musical about “Carrie”, I cringed. Who would want to see Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie put to music? The answer is apparently no one.* Lucky for theatre fans the show they presented took its inspiration from the Stephen King novel of the same name. I guess I should read the marquee the next time I hear buzz about upcoming Footlighters’ productions.

Now the real question came to mind: would the theatrical production of King’s Carrie terrify me more than a melodic rendition of Dreiser’s prose? I found out when I attended the opening night performance on May 4th.

As the concept originated from the mind of the ‘master of horror’, it wasn’t a typical story of teen angst. Carrie White (played by Cynthia Reynolds) experienced torment from her peers at school. Her home life offered no succor. Her hyper-religious mother (played by Jillian Starr-Renbjor) sheltered her from the outside world. Mrs. White preferred to indoctrinate her daughter with religious thought. In fact she couldn’t utter a sentence unless it contained at least one passage from the Bible.

A repressed socially inept loner subject to incessant bullying: this would not end well, I thought.

And there’s more. Throughout the show Carrie discovered that she possessed telekinetic powers…and a pretty bad temper. I rubbed my hands together and anxiously anticipated a train wreck for the ages.

Connor Twigg both directed and choreographed this tale of teen tragedy. Carrie presented challenges on both accounts. It featured a host of sophisticated dance routines involving multiple performers. It also contained a touching story of an outcast struggling to find her place in the world. Mr. Twigg made an excellent choice in Cynthia Reynolds to take on the lead role.

Ms. Reynolds played the timid, frightened pariah exceptionally. She kept her face pointed down and spoke like someone afraid of letting the words out. Her voice still contained enough volume so the audience could hear her clearly. The mannerisms she chose helped to bring me into the story. She made me very interested to see how her character would behave as the abuse intensified. Ms. Reynolds’s non-verbal cues made me even antsier about the show’s conclusion. I knew it led to a good one.

Michael Gore crafted some unusual melodies for this show. Dean Pitchford’s lyrics didn’t make them any easier to sing. Ms. Reynolds’ character had the most challenging. She handled them like a true theatrical professional. She displayed extraordinary ability sustain notes and navigate the leaps.

One also has to credit Ms. Reynolds for what she’s willing to do for her art. Iggy Pop bled for his. Ms. Reynolds showed a lot of dedication to the craft. She took a bucket of fake blood on the top of her head for her own. From my vantage point, the substance appeared viscous like syrup.

Jillian Starr-Renbjor took on the role of Carrie’s mother, Margaret. Mrs. White possessed two personality traits: an overprotective attitude towards her daughter and religious zealotry. Ms. Starr-Renbjor delivered her lines with a calm, cryptic assuredness. Her performance made Margaret the most terrifying character in the show.

I smiled whenever her character took the stage. This show kept building to a climax my 20 times great-grandchildren would talk about.

I enjoyed how Ms. Starr-Renbjor brought an aspect of her own behavior to the role. She delivered some awesome vocal numbers. Her duets with Ms. Reynolds on “Stay Here Instead” and the minatory “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance” made the show much more enjoyable. Ms. Starr-Renbjor’s solo number “When There’s No One” made the production remarkable.

Alix Vitarelli played the closest thing Carrie had to a friend as Sue Snell. Aside from her outstanding singing on tracks such as “Once You See” and superb chemistry with her love interest (played by Evan Brody) she played the most challenging role in the show to perfection.

Throughout Carrie, a spotlight (worked by community theatre legend DJ Hedgepath) would shine on Ms. Vitarelli. A voice would question her on the events leading up to prom night. The performer would tremble and nervously explain what occurred.

One scene transitioned from Ms. Vitarelli speaking in the spotlight to interacting with Mr. Stephens (played by John Romano Jr.) and Miss Gardner (played by Mackenzie Smith). She adjusted from playing an uneasy persona to someone having a normal conversation. That’s not an easy achievement with so little time to alter focus.

Ms. Vitarelli’s character also underwent the most internal change during the show. She started out as one of Carrie’s harassers and developed into an unselfish person with compassion. She portrayed this change very believably.

Danielle Janco played an exceptional villain in the role of Chris Hargenson. She also served as dance captain and co-choreographed the “You Shine” number with Mr. Twigg. As the choreography featured a lot of vitality, she did a marvelous job keeping up the dancers’ intensity until the final curtain.

Some time ago I described the Krier family as “the Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre.” Now, unlike a certain monarchy that’s been in the news lately, South Jersey community theatre has two royal families. Joining Tami and Taylor among the Brody family acting dynasty enter Evan.

Mr. Brody played Ms. Vitarelli’s love interest, Tommy Ross. The character also served as the object of Carrie’s affections. This development enhanced the build-up to the story’s end. I felt so glad I brushed my teeth before going to the theatre. My smile kept getting wider as the conflict built. I kept anticipating a nastier and nastier conclusion.

Mr. Brody delivered an emotional musical rendition of the character’s poem “Dreamer in Disguise.” He also interacted with a variety of types of characters. He played the dutiful boyfriend in his scenes with Ms. Vitarelli. He played ‘one of the guys’ when on-stage with his classmates. He became the empathetic friend when he performed with Ms. Reynolds. Like Ms. Vitarelli’s character, the one Mr. Brody played also experienced a change in his view of Carrie. He portrayed that transition convincingly.

Jim Frazer designed both the set and the lighting; the latter with the aid of Rebekah Macchione.  He combined the two for an eerie effect even before the show started. The illumination made the school gymnasium’s walls appear the color of blood. Yet again, I anticipated a show ending climax for the ages.

Then came the ending. The show contained a literal “blood bath” at the end. I preferred a figurative type. While reminiscent of Hamlet I found the conclusion a colossal disappointment. With all the conflict in the story combined with the themes of anger, cruelty and revenge I anticipated serious retribution at the end. The confrontation ended in mere seconds. I believed that Carrie’s enemies got off pretty easy. She allowed them to suffer exponentially less than the torture they inflicted on her would have warranted.

Aside from that one shortcoming, I found the show outstanding. To the cast I say: “you shine.” I’d also like to credit performers Joey Adams, Mackenzie Smith, John Romano, Jr., Brittany Petti, Shannon Forbes, Dannie Romanuski, Evan Hairston, Gavin Petersen and Luke Szyszkiewicz for their contributions to the production. I’d compliment Musical Director, Deborah Bergen and the live band, as well.

In my final assessment of Carrie: The Musical, I’d tell theatregoers “once you see it” at Burlington County Footlighters, you’ll have “a night we’ll never forget.” “The destruction” of this run occurs soon. You can add it to your “evening prayers”, but there’s no guarantee there will be an “epilogue” to the show’s schedule. So “when there’s no one” to go with you, “do me a favor” and go anyway. You may hope it would “stay here instead”, but you only have until May 19th to see it.

 

*Sister Carrie has been adapted into both a musical (1978) and an opera (2016). For the record neither received the same acclaim that Hamilton did.