South Jersey Community Theatre

Scrooge: The Musical “Revitalized and Reimagined” at the Ritz Theatre Company

The “Weil”d December continues for South Jersey community theatre fans.

Under Matthew Weil’s direction, the Ritz Theatre Company premiered the “revitalized and reimagined” version of Scrooge: The Musical this week. This perennial Holiday classic took the stage sans Bruce A. Curless in the lead role. It’s also the second Holiday show that Mr. Weil is directing this month: and it’s one extraordinary Christmas tour-de-force. Your correspondent attended the Saturday evening show on December 14th.

While approaching the Ritz, a series of illuminated Christmas wreaths adorning the Ritz building captured your correspondent’s attention. As did the evergreen strands descending from the roof onto the marquee. The red and green colors of the iconic R-I-T-Z letters distinguished this historic South Jersey institution from the other edifices along the White Horse Pike.

As much as those features established the Holiday mood, the Ritz staff made the interior even more festive. Scrooge purists will be delighted that the production team retained the familiar wreath, evergreen garland and Christmas trees that framed the stage.

The “Weil”d December turned into one “Weil”d Winter Wonderland.

The wrapped gifts underneath the Christmas tree seemed superfluous, however. The real present was the one the performers delivered to the audience.

Alan Krier demonstrates courage when selecting theatrical projects. He played dual roles in Bruce Norris’ exploration of housing discrimination: Clybourne Park. For his first directorial endeavor he chose David Lindsey-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole: a Pulitzer Prize winning play centered on a family coping with the death of their child. Mr. Krier’s decision to play the role of everyone’s favorite Christmas curmudgeon may be his bravest choice yet.

As South Jersey community theatre fans know, 2019 marks the first time the Ritz is presenting Scrooge without Bruce A. Curless in the lead role. He is, in essence, the Tom Brady of Scrooge performers. He’s played that role every December for over twenty years. Unlike actors such as George C. Scott, Winfred Owen and Seymour Hicks, Mr. Curless is a veritable institution as Scrooge. When the Ritz’s production team decided to return this South Jersey “Holiday tradition” to the stage, they only thought of one performer to take the mantle of Scrooge from him: Alan Krier.

Mr. Krier pulled off a theatrical Jimmy Garoppolo, as it were. When stepping out of a master’s shadow, he took a franchise with an uncertain future to another level. The witty delivery he employed for the “I Hate People” number drew laughs from the audience. As did his riposte to Marley’s (played by John Nicodemo) announcement that Scrooge would be visited by three ghosts. The nervous, “I’d rather not,” added to the legacy of vintage Krier comedy.

Director Weil made this incarnation of Scrooge much more dramatic than last year’s performance. He discarded the fluff and pageantry (and thankfully, the platforms in the middle of the room) to focus on the story. By removing those layers, he allowed the depth of Charles Dickens’ original tale to surface. A fable of greed, poverty and redemption played out on stage.

Mr. Krier enacted the dramatic scenes with extraordinary skill. His interactions with John Nicodemo (in the roles of Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future) equalled the strongest performances he’s delivered on stage. His somber pining when watching his younger self (played by Robert Repici) and his lost love Isabelle (Lindsey Krier) moved this reviewer. The sorrow on his face when Lindsey Krier performed “Isabelle’s Dance” to end the first act concretized Scrooge’s heart shattering.

The Ritz team understood that the comparisons between Mr. Krier and Mr. Curless would occur. Director Weil didn’t burden Mr. Krier with carrying the show on his own. Mr. Weil surrounded him with a cast of monumentally talented performers. They gave the “revitalized and reimagined” Scrooge its own identity.

Robert Repici and Lindsey Krier delivered a gripping version of “Happiness.” The cool baritone of Mr. Repici’s voice accentuated the song’s bittersweet lyrics. Ms. Krier applied palpable passion and enthusiasm to this number. The addition of the dark background, lighting and snow made the scene a visual spectacle for the ages.

The Cratchit kids (Adalyn Crow, Anna Bizhko, Jeffrey Smith and Lillian Low) delivered the “cute factor” for the “Good Times” number. Kaitlyn Healey’s vocals and Steve Stonis’ operatic syllables made this another unforgettable number.

Mr. Weil ensured that each of Scrooge’s spectral visitors possessed their own distinct personalities.

John Nicodemo’s anguished delivery as Jacob Marley captured the character’s torment. His slouching under the weight of the chains showed it. Mr. Nicodemo’s silence and slow movements made the Ghost of Christmas Future even more minatory.

Daio Fumilayo delivered a haunting performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present. The lighting and white gown gave her character an ethereal ambiance. Ms. Fumilayo’s calm delivery (with just a touch of reverb added) and blank stares at Scrooge reflected the character’s otherworldly nature.

John Romano, Jr. made the Ghost of Christmas Present just as jolly as Good Old Saint Nick himself. His Marc Bolan style wig added good comedic effect. The laughter and mannerisms Mr. Romano used while showing Scrooge both the Cratchits’ and Harry’s Christmas festivities gave the impression that he enjoyed the show just as much as the audience. Mr. Romano moderated his character’s frivolity when Scrooge inquired about Tiny Tim’s fate. The tempered anger in his voice while repeating Scrooge’s point about “excess population” gave the point more impact.

Thanks to Mr. Weil’s hospitality, your correspondent attended a rehearsal for Scrooge. During that session Musical Director Nicholas French and Alan Krier teamed up for “Thank You Very Much.” The two brought immense energy to that run through. They displayed even more vitality during the actual show. This reviewer wouldn’t have through that possible.

Steve Stonis, who directed Scrooge last year, and Adalyn Crow performed outstanding acapella numbers, as well.

While this year’s Scrooge didn’t include a ballet company, it did contain a solo dance in that style. Lisa Krier performed a wonderful routine on the “Celebration” number; the latter composed by Bob Cerulli.

In addition to the talent, Mr. Weil added spellbinding visuals to this version of Scrooge. The snow falling from the ceiling along with the strategic use of lighting (designed by Mr. Weil and operated by Stage Manager Melissa Harnois) enhanced the action on the stage. The periodic illuminating and dimming of the wreath above the stage and Christmas trees on stage left and stage right made the show a spectacular Christmas spectacle.

The other performers who provided their talents for this outstanding show included: Charles Bandler, Liz Baldwin, Jay Burton, Sadie McKenna, Audrey Mitros, Dillinger Crow, Beatrice (Bee) Fraga, Gwen Low and Ella Samuel-Seigel.

Assistant Stage Manager Brian Gensel, Costume Designer Briana Bailey and Sound Operators Sam Tait and Natasia Swan rounded out the production team.

Community theatre fans have the opportunity to get the full range of Mr. Weil’s directorial talents this December. Those impressed with the “revitalized and reimagined” Scrooge are encouraged to attend Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka at Haddonfield Plays and Players. Mr. Weil also directed that show; Scrooge’s Stage Manager Melissa Harnois assistant directed. Wonka runs through December 21st.

Mr. Weil’s direction ensured he won’t be visited by any apparitions this Holiday Season. The stage set, the marquee and the overall story would satisfy the Ghost of Christmas Past. Mr. Krier’s interpretation of Scrooge, the performance of the cast and crew as well as the “reimagined and revitalized” franchise would captivate the Ghost of Christmas Present. (He’d probably be happy that the platforms in the middle of the building are gone, too.) All the new faces in the cast would make even the dreadful Ghost of Christmas Future smile. These performers may ensure the Scrooge franchise a home at the Ritz for the next two decades.

This run, however, passes from the domain of the Ghost of Christmas Present to the Ghost of Christmas Past on December 22nd. Fans should see Scrooge: The Musical before the Ghost of Christmas Future haunts them about the prospect of missing it.

 

Arsenic and Old Lace at Burlington County Footlighters

Just when theatre fans thought the horrors of Halloween had passed. Burlington County Footlighters added a touch of terror to the Thanksgiving season this November. After attending this run of Arsenic and Old Lace, no audience members will be able to complain about spending Turkey Day with the family this year. Your correspondent attended the opening night performance on Friday, November 8th.

First time director Matt Dell’Olio (assisted by A. Robert Basile) presented a dark comedy with a disturbing plot. Elaine Harper (played by Alex Davis), a minister’s daughter, became engaged to the most odious creature this planet has produced since humans evolved out of the primordial ooze. She’d planned on marrying the real-life version of H. P. Lovecraft’s the thing that should not be. Her fiancé, Mortimer Brewster (played by Russell Palmieri) worked as a…gasp… theatre critic.

It says something about the Brewster family that a dramatic critic served as its paragon of normalcy. Showing outstating imagination, playwright Joseph Kesselring ensured that one did.

Mortimer’s spinster aunts, Abby Brewster (Susan Dewey) and Martha Brewster (Jeanne Wayman), killed a dozen people. His brother Teddy (Benjamin Couey) believed himself to be Theodore Roosevelt. His other brother Jonathan (Daniel McDevitt) was a serial killer with ambition. He aspired to kill more people than his aunts did.

Mortimer’s realization that no amount of chlorine could cleanse this gene pool caused him to contemplate ending his engagement. At the same time, he attempted to keep his aunts’ macabre hobby from law enforcement. The latter became difficult due to the many visits from police officers (Mark Henley, Tyler Conklin Jeffrey Rife and Nanci Cope). They seemed to spend as much time at the Brewster home as the family did. Mortimer also struggled not to become the latest statistic in Jonathan’s quest.

As one can discern from the plot summary, performer Russell Palmieri had a busy evening playing Mortimer. Mr. Palmieri balanced his facial expressions so they displayed terror, but always with a touch of humor. His best occurred when performer Nanci Cope explained that her character (Officer O’Hara) was a playwright. His reaction to her narrative showed more perturbation than when on the receiving end of Jonathan’s and Dr. Einstein’s (Kori Rife) machinations.

Daniel McDevitt played an outstanding villain in the form of Jonathan. His character may not have liked the comparison to Boris Karloff, but his voice reminded this reviewer of Bobby “Boris” Pickett. His addition of a malevolent tone to his deep baritone made listening to him more enjoyable.

Kori Rife played a terrific sidekick to him as Dr. Einstein. She expressed her lines in a German accent that was easy to understand.

Susan Dewey and Jeanne Wyman made the Brewster sisters’ murderous mayhem witty. Both performers used soft voices when calmly discussing the killings. They maintained the same facial expressions one would use when describing something as benign as the weather. Their deliveries and mannerisms enhanced the comedy in Mr. Kesselring’s script brilliantly.

Footlighters legend Alex Davis added her histrionic talents to the ensemble; as did Footlighters newcomers Ron Brining and Benjamin Couey.

The production team included Stage Manager Will Nelson, Producer Dennis Dougherty, Costumers Amanda Cogdell and Leslie Romanuski.

This production of Arsenic and Old Lace was unique in that two of the best set designers in South Jersey were involved in the project. Jeff Rife opted to forgo working on set design in this one, however, instead focusing on his acting. He played the dual roles of Mr. Gibbs and Lieutenant Rooney. Footlighters’ sublime set specialist, Jim Frazer, handled the set design.

For this show, Mr. Frazer placed a window at stage right that led to an opening outside the Brewster home. It appeared realistic and served its functional purpose by allowing for Mr. McDevitt and Ms. Rife to climb through it.

The set included a real staircase that led to a landing. There it turned a full 90 degrees leading to an upper balcony. In addition to the aesthetic appeal it also served a practical use. Multiple performers climbed it during the show. Benjamin Couey utilized it throughout the evening as his character led imaginary troops into combat.

To borrow one of Teddy’s favorite phrases, theatre fans should “chaaaaarrrrge” to Burlington County Footlighters. After watching this killer comedy, audiences won’t feel quite as disturbed by eccentric relatives at Thanksgiving Dinner: unless they happen to be theatre critics. Everyone will still avoid the elderberry wine, though.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through November 23rd at Burlington County Footlighters. After that, it succumbs to community theatre’s version of “yellow fever” and will rest in one of the metaphorical locks at Teddy’s Panama Canal.

When You Wish Upon a Star: Magical Musical Memories at the Village Playbox

Yet again a South Jersey community theatre company transformed the region into the Wonderful World of Disney. The Village Playbox presented a spectacular musical tribute to a land of mermaids, toys that come to life and just plain old good music. Your correspondent attended the October 26 performance directed by John Michael Demchak.

The program took fans on a musical journey that spanned seventy years. The songs included material from 1949’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow through 2019’s Descendants 3. It contained tracks from popular movies such as 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, songs from Broadway versions of those shows (produced in 2008 and 1994 respectively) and even cuts from some lesser known films in the Disney catalog such as The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon; both released in 1977.

The set-list incorporated a variety of musical styles. Ryan Bogie delivered a jazzy rendition of “One Last Hope.” He incorporated some entertaining dance moves to enhance this song from Hercules. Paul Rather followed him with another track in the style of America’s original art form. He performed a toe tapping take on “The Headless Horseman.”

Jazz isn’t the only musical genre songwriters draw upon for Disney tunes. Jennifer Campbell performed the rhythm and bluesy “He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp. Zach Wiseley’s piano playing served as the perfect accompaniment to Ms. Campbell’s singing.

Musical duo Rusty and Jan contributed their musical skills to the show. Flautist Jan accompanied Rusty as he sang played guitar on Toy Story’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” With the guitar capoed at the third fret and the addition of the flute, their sound brought to mind Bob Dylan meets Jethro Tull: quite an achievement with Disney material.

No tribute to the music of Disney would be complete without some heartwarming and heartbreaking numbers. Nancy Bailey delivered a moving rendition of the somber “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins. Rusty and Jan accompanied Katie Beth Burow on an emotional “Someone’s Waiting for You” from The Rescuers. Musical Director John Michael Demchak sang a powerful version of “If I Can’t Love Her” from the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast.

Even Disney songs contain melodies that would impress Robert Fripp. Nikki Zane sang an outstanding version of “My Once Upon a Time.” This track from Decendants 3 contained a melody that seemed more like a medley. “Candle on the Water” from Pete’s Dragon included some intricate musical phrasing, as well. It didn’t inhibit Ariel Golan from performing a beautiful version of it.

The event organizers included a very topical song in the set. William Young performed the macabre “Jack’s Lament” from The Nightmare before Christmas. The tune worked as both a commemoration of Halloween and as a prelude to the upcoming Christmas Season.

As the Village Playbox hosted this event, the show included some theatrical performances. Accompanied by Nikki Zane, Kelsey Brown sang a colorful version of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from the Broadway version of The Little Mermaid. Colin Becker added humor to the evening with his comical performance of “Les Poissons” from the film version of the latter.

With all the talent prevalent at theatrical performances, costuming tends get overshadowed. Emcee Geri Watson ensured that didn’t happen at Magical Musical Memories. Ms. Watson complimented the “bomb dress” performer Bella Kokotajlo wore. Besides appealing to fashionistas, Ms. Kokotajlo delivered an outstanding version of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid.

The show included exceptional singing from other South Jersey community theatre performers. Presley Terch, Samantha Harner, Madeline Johnston, Katelynn Kokotajlo and Haley Melvin added their stellar vocals to this wonderful tribute to Disney.

Director Demchak included three Disney medleys in the program. All the performers stood on stage and performed them together. Pianist Zach Wiseley provided the sole musical accompaniment. With the elaborate orchestral arrangements common in Disney songs, it’s easy for the beauty of the melodies to get lost in the mix. Mr. Demchak ensured that didn’t happen during these numbers. The choral effect on the melodies and harmonies enhanced the beauty of these magical numbers. Credit goes to the musical director for his arrangement and to the performers for their perfect execution of it.

Other members of the production team included: Gary Kochey managed the technical aspects, Chuck Watson handed props and Anita Rowland produced.

The Magical Musical Memories program created some magical musical memories of its own. Audiences should wish upon a star that this isn’t the last time a South Jersey community theatre company transforms the Garden State into the Wonderful World of Disney.

 

The Crucible at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Boy did I pick the right time to listen to Black Sabbath on the way to the theatre. “Voodoo”, “Lady Evil” and “Black Sabbath” put this reviewer in right frame of mind to experience The Crucible. The cool autumn air along with the full moon weaving through the breaks in the overcast sky added superb ambiance. I attended the opening night performance on October 11th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Director Pat DeFusco selected an excellent show to follow up HPP’s 24 Hour Play Festival. Mr. DeFusco also directed that performance in which a number of writers crafted tales applicable to Twilight Zone episodes. It seemed appropriate that he would select Arthur Miller’s 1953 masterpiece The Crucible for his next endeavor.

In 1960 Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling developed his short story “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Avenue” into one of the series’ most memorable and chilling episodes. A power outage drove the residents of a suburban community into a state of madness, fear and paranoia. Their mania drove them to accuse one another of being the source of the anomaly. The horror in that piece didn’t lie in the supernatural, but in the way ‘normal’ people treated one another in the wake of an unexplainable event. Apply that premise to the seventeenth century and one has the world of The Crucible.

Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible to draw parallels between the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s and the McCarthyism he experienced during the 1950s. While lacking in historical accuracy, the play made for some gripping theatre. It brought audiences uncomfortably close to a world of ambition, greed and selfishness exacerbated by suspicion.

For a settlement predicated upon deep religious convictions, the Massachusetts Bay Colony sure contained a host of unscrupulous characters.

Nick French played an exceptional Reverend Parris. Mr. French performed like a man possessed…with a gift for acting. The method with which he enacted the character’s quick temper brought out the reverend’s demons. Mr. French’s vocal inflections captured Parris’ anxiety over losing his job due to the ‘bewitched’ girl in his household. I also enjoyed the animated way he argued over the wages and firewood the congregation owed him. Mr. French’s portrayal allowed me to understand why so many of Salem’s residents were skipping services on Sundays.

Grace Narducci played 17 year old Abagail Williams. Ms. Narducci made Abigail into the embodiment of evil itself. Ms. Narducci’s facial expressions captured the malice lurking behind her character’s eyes. She also demonstrated Abigail’s duplicity just as believably. The performer entered into a frenzy of trembling and shaking while being attacked by spirits. They always seemed to strike her at the most opportune moments. Ms. Narducci’s convincing performance showed Abagail capable of the horrific things she did. Bravo and a belated Happy Birthday to Ms. Narducci.

The Putnams made for an interesting couple. Gary Werner portrayed landowner Thomas Putnam. The character stood to acquire land from someone he accused of witchcraft. His wife, Ann Putnam (played by Andrea Veneziano), accused a midwife of witchcraft due to several of her children dying in childbirth.

And then there was Judge Danforth (played by Robert Bush). Reverend Hale (played by Taylor Brody) asked him to postpone the executions of seven people convicted of witchcraft. The judge opted not to because, to paraphrase using modern parlance: “We’ve already executed 12 people. If we let these people live it would look bad.” That’s an extreme way to make a decision based on sunk costs.

Even had the witch trials never occurred one suspects 1690s Salem still would have provided ample fodder for playwrights.

To balance this company of the conniving, Mr. Miller included noble characters.

Justin Walsh delivered an outstanding portrayal of John Proctor. The character endured a conflict between the man he was and the man he wanted to be. Mr. Walsh concretized it brilliantly through his interactions with Ms. Narducci and Marissa Wolf.

Taylor Brody portrayed the change in Reverend Hale very well. While first a proponent of the witch trials, his doubt grew as they progressed. Mr. Brody showed the character’s development in a very measured way.

Marissa Wolf played an outstanding Elizabeth Proctor. Ms. Wolf demonstrated the torment her character experienced over both a troubled marriage and the fear she’d be accused of witchery. The performer selected exceptional facial expressions and modulated her voice with extraordinary skill all evening. Her enactment of her character’s inner strength during the show’s final moments was without peer.

This summer I watched Marissa Wolf deliver a powerful soliloquy during a production of The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council. With the final scene in The Crucible, Ms. Wolf showed she can express thoughts just as compellingly without words.

Mr. DeFusco has a reputation for producing work of the highest quality. Even by that standard, The Crucible featured fantastic direction.

The opening captured the audience’s attention. While Tituba (Salina Nicole Miller) and the girls of Salem danced in the woods, a fog machine generated a ghostly mist that enveloped the stage. The background projection of a forest at dusk with a small fire in the foreground added to the eerie ambiance. Mr. DeFusco’s decision to have Reverend Parris enter the through the aisle aided in bringing the spectators into the story.

The trial scene burned like white heat. Mr. DeFusco still enhanced the intensity. Mr. Walsh and Ms. Narducci gave each other looks of unvarnished hostility while walking past one another. This brief incident was both well-conceived and well-performed. It made this pivotal scene even more dramatic.

The distress in the story required performers to cry on stage. Sarah Dolhansky’s character (Mary Warren) played the majority of these emotional incidents. Ms. Dolahnsky’s performance brought out the fear and torment tearing at her character.

Mr. Miller wrote late-seventeenth century verbiage and syntax into the script. The entire cast deserves credit for navigating this challenging dialog. The performers also managed to deliver it in ways so that I could understand its meaning.

Justin Mead designed authentic period costuming for this show. He demonstrated solid attention to historical detail with the buckles the reverends and judges wore on their shoes.

I’d also acknowledge Tami Funkhouser for her portrayal of Rebecca Nurse. Ms. Funkhouser’s make-up was marvelous. When she first appeared on stage I didn’t recognize her.

The Crucible contained an extensive cast. Other members included: Emma Scherz, Salina Nicole Miller, Sophia Frances, Rachel Aspen, Cassidy Scherz, Sera Scherz, Sabrina Gipple, Rebecca Kaserkie, Penelope Incollingo, Joe Sweeney, Kristine Bonaventura, Sheila McDonald, Doug Cohen, Julieann Calabrese, Tina Currado, Melynda Morrone, Tony Killian, Peter Tancini, Kacper Miklus, Ben Morris, Jeremy Noto, Dennis Dougherty, and Olivia Bee Sposa.

The following individuals completed the production team: Artistic Coordinator Nicole DeRosa Lukatis, Producer Sue C. Stein, Stage Manager and Light Board Operator Omi Parrilla-Dunne, Lighting Design Chris Miller, Properties Anna Diaczynski and Donna Scherz, Set Construction Mike Snyder. In addition to directing, Pat DeFusco served as Artistic Director, Set Designer, Sound Designer and Engineer.

When first performed The Crucible provided disturbing commentary on the Salem Witch Trials with latent parallels to McCarthyism. Is it still relevant sixty-six years later?

Last October your correspondent attended a three part lecture series on the Salem Witch Trials. Mickey DiCamillo, the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, delivered them. Mr. DiCamillo explored the socio-political dimensions of this disturbing episode in American history. He explained that three elements led to the trials: Puritan society was divided into many factions, a rampant belief that the government lacked the capability to govern and what he termed an internal “fear factor.”

During The Crucible Judge Danforth asked those accused: “Have you seen Satan?” This reviewer saw him in most of the characters portrayed on stage. To quote a Black Sabbath lyric:

When you listen to fools

The mob rules.

 The Crucible runs through October 26th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

The Music Man at The Ritz Theatre Company

The Music Man at The Ritz Theatre Company experienced an opening night that has entered into annals of South Jersey theatrical lore.

On June 11th torrential rain and mass flooding plagued the South Jersey area. The Ritz’s building even lost a portion of its power. In response to the audience’s chants of “the show must go on”, the company continued the show.

The audience still went “batty” over the performance; one spectator did so literally. A winged creature of the order chiroptera entered the theatre. After it settled into a comfortable location to enjoy the show the performance continued.

Shortly afterwards all the power went out. The Ritz crew aided the audience in evacuating the building. That bat must have been one rabid theatre fan. It refused to leave.

The distinguished critic and theatrical maven Amber Kushing attended this performance. Ms. Kushing wrote: If the show was that good with less than half the production elements and a bat trying to steal the spotlight, I can’t wait to see the show in its full glory.

I had the opportunity to witness The Music Man “in its full glory” on Saturday, July 20th. Fans, let me tell you: that bat had some good theatre on its radar.

Katie Knoblock directed Meredith Wilson’s musical depiction of Professor Harold Hill’s (played by Matthew Weil) machinations. The “professor” worked as a con man. Set in 1912, he travelled to small towns throughout the country scamming residents. His scheme entailed selling musical instruments and band uniforms to boys for a concert he would conduct. (Bandleaders are known by the title “professor.”) Before the scheduled show date he would leave town with the money. It turned out the “professor” didn’t know how to play, read or conduct music.

Professor Hill’s latest mark (River City, Iowa) presented some unusual challenges. An anvil salesman named Charlie Cowell (played by Robert Repici) vowed to find and expose Hill as a fraud. The professor also developed a romantic interest in the town’s librarian, Marian Paroo (Jessica Ball). The latter added an additional complication as she also worked as the community piano teacher. To further obstruct Hill’s plan, Mayor Shinn (Alan Krier) and the school board harassed him for his credentials. They threatened to jail him if he didn’t produce them.

All these conflicts made for a riveting story. The Music Man included much more than just an entertaining premise, however.

The show featured brilliant choreography. Erica Paolucci coordinated superb dance routines. The Music Man included numerous complex ones involving the ensemble. Joe Kinnon (as Marcellus) led the group through a wonderfully upbeat “Shipoopi.” “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” added the challenge of singing 16th notes while dancing. Performers Bonnie Leigh Renner, Casey Clark, Patricia Kelly, Kathleen Corvino and Brianna Borouchoff executed this difficult routine flawlessly. “Seventy-Six Trombones” included an outstanding tap dance performed by the ensemble. Lindsey Krier impressed through the multiple splits she performed during the evening.

The Music Man added an element I’d never encountered during a theatrical production. The show contained a barber shop quartet. Crooners Steven Zellers, Marty Israel, Guy Kirk and David Epstein mesmerized the audience with their vocal skills. Their renditions of “Ice Cream/Sincere”, “It’s You” and “Lida Rose” made an enjoyable evening of theatre much more entertaining. Jessica Ball’s addition of her vocals to the quartet’s rendition of “Will I Ever Tell You” was phenomenal.

Credit also goes to vocal director Anthony Vitalo, sound designer Matthew Gallagher and sound board operator Sam Tait. The audio on the quartet’s performances sounded like an MP3 playing.

Fans of South Jersey community theatre productions know Matthew Weil as an extraordinary director. For The Music Man, Mr. Weil exchanged his director’s chair for the spotlight. He played the lead role of Professor Harold Hill.

Mr. Weil adopted the cocky, yet confident voice of an unscrupulous huckster. It complimented his singing on “Ya Got Trouble.” He also brought out his character’s sensitive side as the show progressed. Mr. Weil expressed it through an excellent duet with Ms. Ball on “Till There Was You.” The performer also showed off solid dance moves when performing with the ensemble.

Jessica Ball proved herself a strong triple threat. She showed Marian’s development from someone who spurned love into someone willing to open herself up to it. Ms. Ball performed exceptional dance moves even taking center stage during the “Seventy-Six Trombones” tap number.

As multi-talented as Ms. Ball demonstrated herself, I enjoyed her singing the most. In addition to her wonderful performances with the quartet and duets with Mr. Weil, Katy Gentry Hutchings, Nicky Intrieri and Emma Scherz, she displayed outstanding vocals when singing solo. Ms. Ball delivered a moving rendition of “My White Knight.”

This production of The Music Man included a few additional treats for theatre fans. The cast included two generations of the Krier Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre: Alan and his daughter Lindsey. One of South Jersey community theatre’s power couples also shared the same stage: Robert Repici and Lindsey Krier. Folks, this was an historic performance.

Alan Krier met your correspondent’s stratospheric expectations of him…again. He showed once again his extraordinary ability to become whatever character he plays. Mayor Shinn had a penchant for malapropisms. Mr. Krier spoke the lines so naturally that I thought he flubbed them at first. As the evening progressed, I realized that his character talked that way. That’s exceptional acting.

The following performers completed the ensemble: Quinn Wood, Lexie Chiasson, Aren Duffy, Mary McCabe, David A. Schwartz, Mabelle Davison, Isabelle Negrete, Zachary Moore, Darrin Murphy, Kyle Ronkin, Joseph Marney and Kendall DeVecchis.

On the evening I attended The Music Man performers didn’t receive a respite from extreme weather. At show time the thermometer read 95 degrees. Perhaps for the first time, a critic sweated more than the actors before a performance. Even in these conditions, the cast didn’t allow environmental factors beyond their control to affect them. They gave the audience an outstanding show conducted like the professionals they are.

Put The Music Man on your radar while you can. It’s difficult to imagine a community theatre production this good; but to quote Batman: “Everything’s impossible until someone does it.” Barring a series of blizzards, typhoons and earthquakes, the show will run through August 4th at The Ritz Theatre Company.

 

All Shook Up at Haddonfield Plays and Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seussical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When evaluating the most imaginative directors in South Jersey, Mary Baldwin’s name always makes the short list. It seemed fitting that Ms. Baldwin would select a show inspired by “the thinks you can think” for her next project. She and the Collingswood Community Theatre presented a piece drawn from the creative mind of Dr. Seuss: Seussical: The Musical. I attended the opening night performance on Thursday, July 11th.

Seussical presented a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ beloved works. It included story elements from Horton Hears a Who!, Horton Hatches the Egg, Green Eggs and Ham and others. The show incorporated iconic characters such as Horton the Elephant (played by Stephen Jackson), the Grinch (Sean Coyle) and, the sine qua non of the Seuss universe: the Cat in the Hat (Jeff McGrail).

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented this show in the Main Ballroom of the Scottish Rite building. The room well suited the extensive cast and elaborate staging. The size accommodated my personal preference for musical performances: a live band. Brian Kain directed the orchestra located in the balcony.

Ms. Baldwin opted to forego the “theatre in the round” format CCT has used for its summer shows in recent years. She chose instead the traditional “picture frame” format for Seussical. I liked the artistic decision. With so many performers and multiple interactions between characters occurring during the scenes, it kept all the action within the audience’s rage of vision.

The characters still walked through the aisles and interacted with the spectators. I nearly got splashed by the Cat’s (Jeff McGrail) “tears” as he lamented a sad point in the story. While searching for the Whos, Horton (Stephen Jackson) inspected one of the clover patches held by the audience member sitting next to me. One of the Wickersham Brothers jumped out from behind a curtain a few rows from where I sat. His monkeyshines startled me.

As with every summer performance at the Collingswood Community Theatre, this one contained a spectacular visual spectacle. All audience members received complimentary bracelets upon entering the theatre. Perhaps owing to the magic of Seuss, the devices would light up in different colors during certain scenes. Looking out at the audience and witnessing a series of hues lighting the dark theatre created a wonderful ambiance.

Jeff McGrail took on the iconic role of The Cat in the Hat. Mr. McGrail captured the character’s energy, humor and mischievousness. He also performed outstanding vocal numbers. The high powered opening, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think”, set the tone for the show.

I liked how Mr. McGrail added a bit of improvisation to the role. He provided an unexpected segue to the ironically titled “How Lucky You Are.” He tripped over the last step on his way to the stage. After a brief smile he broke into song.

Later when The Cat conducted an auction with the audience, Mr. McGrail informed one bidder: “Not you. You laughed at me when I fell.”

On his Facebook page Stephen Jackson commented on how thrilled he felt to be cast as Horton the Elephant. Mr. Jackson showed how much the role meant to him on opening night.

Mr. Jackson showcased the tender side of his vocal prowess in Seussical. He performed a moving duet with JoJo (played by Rory Bernardo) on “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Jackson sang another deeply affecting piece in the form of “Solla Sollew.”

The following line recurred throughout Horton’s lyrics.

A person’s a person

No matter how small.

Mr. Jackson’s soft intonation expressed how much his character believed it.

Cara Davis has played a variety of secondary characters at the Collingswood Community Theatre. Gertrude provided her with some much deserved time in the spotlight. Ms. Davis delivered wonderfully funny renditions of “The One Feather Tale of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “Amazing Gertrude.” She sang an emotional version of “Notice Me Horton” accompanied by Mr. Jackson.

John Dunn played the role of General Genghis Khan Schmitz. The character led a war against people who eat their toast butter side down. That’s not the type of figure an audience would take seriously. Mr. Dunn found ways to make the general even more comical. His choice of voice, repeated twitching of his mustache and cowardly way he explained Jojo’s disappearance to Mr. and Mrs. Mayor made the role even funnier.

The show’s soundtrack contained more than the sentimental numbers mentioned above. The tunes “Monkey Around” and “Chasing the Whos” put the “fun” in Funk. Kaitlyn Woolford’s vocals injected serious soul into “Biggest Blame Fool.” Jessica Hale added her sultry singing style to “Amazing Mayzie.” Compliments go to Brian Kain and his orchestra for their proficient accompaniment.

Seussical also included Kate Schraff’s elaborate choreography. The Bird Girls (Emily Jackson, Kate Thomas Arter, Jen Laksh, Maria Leonen, and Kara Hasings) and the Wickersham Brothers (Hannah Morris, Jack Hastings. Sean Coyle, Ross Shannon, Cassidy Scherz, Ian McGowan, Dylan McGowan, Charlie Temple and Mallory Beach) performed stellar routines. The combination of dance, singing and lighting worked very well together on the “Havin’ a Hunch” number.

This production involved a lot of people. Between the cast and the near sold out audience, I thought we’d need to elect our own congressman before the show started. The following performers completed the ensemble: Matt Griffin, Emily Oleaga Talley, Joey Liberson, Olivia Bee Spinosa, Henry Kain, Ross Shannon, Ava Leacock, Millie Griffin, Caelan Gaines, Sera Scherz, Lydia Ncely, Charlie Temple, Susie Cook, Grace Janco, Cailyn Talley, Griffin Maylath, Buddy Neal, Millie Griffin, Alicia Smartt, Ava Leacock and Clark Griffin.

Several South Jersey community theatre companies have presented Seussical over the last few years. “How lucky you are” if you’ve seen it. The high-tech production at the Collingswood Community Theatre makes it well worth watching again. For those who feel “alone in the universe” for not having seen it yet: the show runs through July 13th at the Scottish Rite. Get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.” After Saturday, to quote Dr. Seuss: “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.

A Night of Comedy Improv Featuring The Hotspurs! at The 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Back on February 23rd, the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters hosted their 7th annual 24-Hour Play Festival. For that endeavor, teams of actors arrived at the theatre on a Friday evening. They selected genres, props, characters, tasks, lines and delivery styles at random. They then had 24 hours to write and perform a play using these attributes. A comedy trio called the Perfect Nobodies consisting of John Hager, Evan Harris and Andrew Snellen competed. They performed a comical take on a detective noir story called A Sleight of Hand.

Building upon that successful debut, the group added members Andrew Snellen and Brendan Rucci and changed their name to The Hotspurs!  This May 25th the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters hosted an evening with this quintet. Performers John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley, Andrew Snellin and Brendan Rucci teamed up for an hour-and-a-half of improvisational comedy. Their efforts were serious, but the results were hysterical.

It takes tremendous courage to take the stage without knowing what one will be performing. To add to the pressure Footlighters originally scheduled this event to take place in a 35 seat room. Because of the demand for tickets, the company moved the show to the 92 seat Main Stage. Even that forum sold out. At the show’s beginning, Mr. Harris announced that Burlington County Footlighters already booked the group for another show in August. “They haven’t even seen us do this one, yet!” He observed.

The bar was already pretty high before The Hotspurs! took the stage. Would their performance meet expectations?

The group selected an outstanding opening. In addition to performing in sketches, Brendan Rucci provided musical accompaniment on the keyboard. He played a somber piece written in a minor key. Then an upbeat number broadcast through the auditorium as the other performers entered the stage. It set the tone for the festivities to come.

The evening included a series of “improv games” that the performers presented. They solicited ideas from the audience and then they performed a scene based on their suggestions.

They began the show with one called Half Life. The group asked the audience to provide both a relationship and a location. Performers Sean O’Malley and Andrew Snellen enacted an exchange between a father and son at an amusement park: but with a twist. The actors had to play the same scene during five different time intervals. They first had one minute to perform it, then 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then seven seconds and, finally, one second. Their witty banter over whether the son (Mr. Snellen) inherited his beard from his father or mother made for one of the evening’s most hysterical moments.

Mr. Harris and Mr. Hager reprised the detective noir theme from their earlier work. When asked to provide a location for the scene of the crime, the audience selected a basketball court. Mr. Harris played an investigator attempting to locate a basketball stolen from him decades prior. Mr. Hager took on the role of the thief. Mr. Hager provided creative and unanticipated responses to the detective’s inquiries. To Mr. Harris’ credit, he managed to stay in character, not laugh and work with the unusual material Mr. Hager gave him.

After soliciting ideas from the audience, The Hotspurs! added their own improvisational ideas. The audience gave the setting of a dentist’s office in Cuba for the Director game. John Hager, Evan Harris and Sean O’Malley played a group of actors performing the scene. Mr. Snellen entered and performed the role of director. He told them to re-enact the scene as an interpretive dance. Following that rendition he had them play it as an opera. After that one, he had them perform it as a PBS special for children.

New Choice made one of the more challenging games. The audience provided the setting in which Mr. Harris’ character took Mr. Hager’s to a funeral for a first date. As they improvised the scene, the other performers would say, “new choice.” That cued Mr. Harris and Mr. Hager to change their responses. That’s quite a challenge for actors making up lines on the spot while in front of a live audience. The fact that the scene entailed an $18 funeral for a dog didn’t make it any less difficult.

The Hotspurs! added the musical genre to their repertoire, as well. Mr. Hager, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Snellen performed the role of a three headed Broadway star. The audience selected The Cows Are Coming Home as the title of the show. They tasked the performers to sing a song entitled “Milk Me.” Each performer delivered one word that the one who followed would add to.

The group concluded the show with a musical number, as well. The audience picked “having a baby” as the topic. Mr. Rucci accompanied the group on piano as they sang about the miracle of life in the form of an Irish drinking song.

All the performers showed great poise and imagination. My favorite moment occurred during the “scenes from a hat” game. When given the topic of “the world’s worst game show host,” Mr. Harris came up with the following: “One gun. Six chambers. One bullet. One million dollars.”

I had one criticism of the show. It began nine minutes late. This was more due to the audience than either the performers or the company. Long after the 8:00 PM scheduled start-time I noticed audience members still taking their seats. This isn’t an issue endemic to community theatre performances. I would remind everyone of some wise advice someone gave me: “If you can’t be on time, be early.”

Comedy is serious business. It’s always amazed me that farces such as Noises Off! and The Fox on the Fairway are more intricate and involved than anything Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill ever wrote. Improv isn’t much easier. The ability to write material on the spot that’s funny and then be able to perform it without laughing is quite a skill.  It’s a talent at which The Hotspurs! excel. The group will return to the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters on August 24th.

The Man Who Came to Dinner at Haddonfield Plays and Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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