South Jersey

The Lion in Winter at the Ritz Theatre Company

The Ritz Theatre Company selected an appropriate play for the second show of its 35th season. The production combined the viciousness and devious nature of COVID-19, the blood sport of the Democratic Presidential primaries and the perils associated with the Ides of March. That’s quite a trifecta for a story that took place in 1183. Dr. Elisabeth Hostetter directed James Goldman’s take on courtly manipulations and machinations: The Lion in Winter. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, March 7th performance.

While approaching the Ritz Theatre, your correspondent became nostalgic for the elaborate Holiday display that decorated the building in December. The company managed to keep the spirit of the season alive with the set. As the action in Lion in Winter occurred between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the trappings of a Medieval Holiday celebration filled the stage. The festivities during this Yuletide celebration, however, would not be merry ones, however.

Fifty-year old King Henry II (played by John Jackowski) Plantagenet realized he no longer possessed the energy of a young man: as he explained to his 23-year old mistress Alais Capet (played by Elizabeth Darrell). He needed to select a successor from among his three surviving sons to maintain his kingdom. The oldest, Richard (Michael J. Pliskin) had a strong disposition. Geoffrey (Jack Sharkey) possessed keen intelligence. John was a fatuous lad of 16 with a fondness for drink.

To add to the complications, Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Judy Morris) sought vengeance against her husband. Their marriage had suffered since he imprisoned her for the previous decade. Showing that he had some heart, the king allowed his estranged queen to visit the family for Christmas. Through a series of reindeer games involving each of her sons, she conspired to destroy Henry’s aspirations.

The Plantagenet family’s Holiday guest, King Phillip II (Robert Repici) compounded the intrigue. In a bit of a twist on Napoleon Bonaparte’s maxim that, “When your enemy is destroying himself, don’t do anything to distract him,” this monarch created many more diversions.

The Lion in Winter would show Machiavelli that even his ideas could get taken to extremes. Every character had his/her own personal agenda that he/she pursued without impunity. All of them showed an uncanny ability to agree with the last person with whom he/she spoke. With all these similar personalities, the performers still gave their characters their own unique personalities.

John Jackowski brought both Henry’s strengths and weaknesses to the stage. While dragging his leg as he walked, he still carried a commanding presence. Mr. Jackowski balanced the demands of appointing a successor to rule an empire with the challenges of being a father. After imprisoning his wife, he still showed Henry’s respect for her. As ruthless as Henry conducted himself, Mr. Jackowski displayed his human side. His discussion with Ms. Darrell about staring a family of their own served as the most poignant example of this quality.

Judy Morris’ stage presence reflected both the queen’s dignity and her drive for retribution against her husband. She expressed her lines with the elocution of royalty. Yet, her tone contained palpable vitriol. Ms. Morris also showed Eleanor’s frustration when her plans failed. A desire to “win” motivated her character. She even sought to enlist her husband’s mistress in her machinations. Only a love of her family tempered her determination to punish her husband.

Ms. Morris performed an outstanding scene with Jack Sharkey. The two performers showed that issues beyond power politics plagued the family. As Geoffrey, Mr. Sharkey confronted Ms. Morris about his childhood. He explained that she and the king treated him with indifference during his upbringing. This scene provided some much-needed humanization for the Plantagenet family.

Robert Repici played King Phillip II as a cunning conniver. In a brilliant scene opposite Michael J. Pliskin, Mr. Repici showed just how calculating Philip could be. Mr. Pliskin expressed his character’s tender feelings towards Philip. The clever way he and Mr. Repici slowed down their conversation enhanced the scene’s impact. Mr. Repici later explained to Henry that he behaved as he did with Richard in order to annoy the king.

When each of the king’s sons asked for Philip’s assistance, he agreed to aid their efforts to secure the crown. When they realized that all of them approached Philip with the same request, Mr. Repici sat back in his chair sporting an impish grin. He seemed as entertained as the audience watching Henry and his sons attack one another for their scheming.

Mr. Repici performed another excellent display of Philip’s ruthlessness. Ms. Darrel implored him to stop her wedding to one of Henry’s sons. “I’m your sister,” she yelled. Mr. Repici gently stroked her face and then thrust her towards the altar.

Elizabeth Darrell’s character served as a pawn in the Plantagenet’s family’s myriad manipulations. By the end of the story Alais Capet transitioned into an uncouth political practitioner herself. Ms. Darrel made her character’s change credible.

Joseph Colasante showed the essence of the crown’s heir apparent: John. Adopting the diction of a spoiled child, he whined about his right to ascend to the throne. After developing an intense passion for brandy wine, he stumbled about the stage like a drunkard.

Jackie Spence designed stellar costuming for this production. The purple shirt with the fleur-de-lis Mr. Repici wore befitted a French monarch. Mr. Jackowski’s red robe enhanced his royal persona. Their crowns also appeared authentic. Ms. Morris’ green blouse with golden embroidery aided in transforming her into a Medieval monarch.

Matthew Gallagher managed the sound design. Matthew Weil served as the Lighting Designer. Alyssa DeLuca stage managed. Nathan Kunst worked as the show’s Technical Director. Melissa Harnois managed the properties. Bruce A. Curless served as the Producing Artistic Director.

With all the intrigue, family issues, and relentless ambition, The Lion in Winter will appeal to fans of films such as The Godfather and Goodfellas. Those with an interest in Dr. Henry Kissinger’s tomes on realpolitik will find it enjoyable, as well. The show runs through March 22nd. With the amount of conflict in this story, it’s doubtful this lion will go out like a lamb.

The Hotspurs!: Spur of the Moment at the Ritz Theatre Company

Your correspondent experienced literal chills as he stood outside the Ritz Theatre on Friday night. Inside, South Jersey’s premiere improv troupe, the Hotspurs!, were about to end their three month hiatus from the stage. In retrospect, the brisk winds, frigid temperatures and alcohol withdraw may have had something to do with those shakes, too. At any rate, John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley Brendan Rucci and Andrew Snellen returned to perform a Valentine’s Day comedy extravaganza on February 7th. Love and laugher from the audience resulted.

Mr. Rucci opened the show by singing a lugubrious love song while playing the piano. In the backdrop, hearts and red streamers adorned the Ritz stage. The rest of the group then made an obstreperous entrance as music blared over the loudspeakers.

The members expressed their confusion as to whether they were performing a Valentine’s Day or President’s Day show. Mr. Harris needled Mr. O’Malley by making a reference to President Taft. The latter, of course, is the only American President to also serve as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. This abstract allusion to the current President’s reputation for being law abiding in the wake of the impeachment trial was pretty slick. Either that or Mr. O’Malley is the most legal minded of the five. Either way, the addition of topical humor worked.

The members of the 1960s psychedelic rock group Cream said that they rehearsed the beginning and ends of their songs. Everything in the middle they improvised. The Hotspurs! plan out even less of their shows. They script the opening and plan the sequence and participants of the improv games. Everything else that happens on stage is “spur of the moment.”

The show at the Ritz Theatre lasted an hour longer than the other shows they’ve performed. It allowed the group the opportunity to bring more of their classic routines to the stage. They included their standard improv games: “Half Life,” “Pan Left,” “Twists,” “Director,” “Infomercial” as well as others. In all cases they solicited either settings, emotions or character suggestions from the audience. When someone recommended a character they had played before, Mr. Rucci asked for another idea. The original ideas the audience presented gave the traditional routines a fresh edge.

Adding to the originality, the Hotspurs! added some new games to their repertoire. They included: “Best Date / Worst Date,” “Oscar Winning Monolog” and “Start Every Sentence with a Letter of the Alphabet.”

Some Hotspurs! routines include audience participation. “Best Date / Worst Date” featured something unique. The group invited community theatre performer Michael Pliskin and his girlfriend Lauren to come up to the stage. The pair discussed some activities they like to do together. Building off of their stories, the group then performed two sketches. One enacted a perfect date between the couple, the second showed a horrible date between the two.

Your correspondent has written that no one can tell a story like Mr. Pliskin. It appears that no one can inspire a story like he does, either. Mr. Hager played him. Mr. Harris performed as Lauren. The two brought exaggerated caricatures of the couple to the stage. They acted out comical references to alcoholism and the teaching profession. “We’re teachers,” Mr. Harris said with a slur. “People trust us to work with and teach children.”

Local writer Thomas Halper expressed a theory about humor and national tragedies. He told your correspondent that the greater the tragedy the more extreme the jokes are in response to it. (A particularly gruesome one circulated after JFK’s assassination.) This reviewer found that interesting as he’d never heard anyone tell a joke referencing the events of 9/11.

Until now.

The group performed a game called “Oscar Winning Monolog.” The audience provided the “sexy occupation” of firefighter. Mr. Harris and Mr. Snellin delivered an improvised scene. At a crucial point, Mr. Rucci stopped them. He informed Mr. Harris, “Evan, this is your Oscar winning monolog.”

The spotlight shone on Mr. Harris. He improvised a speech about a fireman’s picnic that took place every year on September 11th: “except that one year.” While the group asked the audience “not to take to Twitter,” the way Mr. Newlin made the reference wasn’t offensive or in bad taste. The soliloquy about a firefighter who saves a clown, but not the children at a party however…

Comedian Bill Hicks observed: “It’s only funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.” The Hotspurs! may have blazed a comedy trail regarding that one. They certainly scorched a few throats.

The “Start Every Sentence with A Letter of the Alphabet” routine required Mr. Hager, Mr. Harris, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Snellen to deliver sentences that began with the next letter of the alphabet. In other words, if one person said something that began with the letter d, the next person would start a sentence with the letter e. But, being the Hotspurs!, the group added a twist.

Before beginning this improv game, Mr. Rucci held up a bottle of hot sauce. The label instructed that it be diluted before use. Being the rebels they are, the Hotspurs! ignored the warning. Each member of the group took a spoonful of scalding seasoning. With each other’s screams in the background, they managed to complete the exercise. The four members crafted the requisite 26 sentences.

As of this writing, one hopes everyone is okay.

Each member of the group had his own stand out moment. People will be talking about Mr. Harris’ “Oscar Winning Monolog.” During the Dating Game, John Hager performed a dramatic rendition of Spider-man’s demise. While playing the director, Mr. O’Malley instructed Mr. Hager to put bleach in his eyes. “It’s my vision,” He said. “You don’t get to have any.” Mr. Snellen crafted the best one liner of the evening. An audience member suggested the question, “What’s something you could say to a hooker and your grandmother?” Mr. Snellen replied, “Take your teeth out.”

This reviewer had one criticism of the show. It began 15 minutes after the scheduled 8:00 PM start time. Some performers like to build dramatic tension by delaying their entry. This was a comedy show. The delay wasn’t necessary.

Obviously, audiences should leave the young children at home before attending a Hotspurs! performance. Of course, if a parent thinks it’s a good idea to take a child to see comedy improv, their kids will grow up with worse problems than seeing a Hotspurs! show.

The Hotspurs! have sold out Burlington County Footlighters multiple times. They sold close to 200 tickets for this gig. They will return to the Ritz Theatre on Friday, March 27th. Those interested in attending that show are strongly encouraged to purchase tickets now. If the group decide to give it an Easter theme, they may all come out dressed as bunnies. The seats in the back will sell fast.

 

The Who’s Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players

No company can celebrate an anniversary like Hadonfield Plays and Players.

A half century ago on this February 14th four lads from Shepherd’s Bush London performed a concert to promote their latest release: a “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb and blind boy with a skill at playing pinball. That Valentine’s Day gig from 1970 has been immortalized by the iconic recording Live at Leeds.

Tommy extended the artistic boundaries of Rock and Roll music upon its release in 1969. Then the record’s “amazing journey” continued. In 1975, The Who decided to “join together” with director Ken Russell to “relay” it to the silver screen. Taking his own advice never to “spend his guitar or pen,” Pete Townshend (and Des McAnuff) adapted Tommy into a musical in 1992.

Adding to the concept’s “success story,” Haddonfield Plays and Players opened their 2020 season with The Who’s Tommy. Your correspondent attended this “welcome” addition to the company’s repertoire on January 31st. HPP didn’t have to “bargain” with him to do so, either.

Bill C. Fikaris proved himself a “sensation” through his direction of this show. Along with Music Director Arlo Ehly, Musical Conductor Alex Ayala and Choreographer Chris McGinnis, the team at HPP injected the spirit of Pete Townshend’s masterpiece into the performance. They presented a high energy show with a lot of movement. Can one imagine anything based on The Who’s music without it?

The Who’s fans can now claim their favorite group capable of producing a high-tech visual spectacle on par with a Pink Floyd show. The design and special effects brought the audience into the world of the story. Chris Miller’s lighting strips positioned at the four corners of the stage added a unique style of illumination to the set. Sound and Projection Designer Pat DeFusco produced stellar visuals. They simulated London flats, an RAF airfield and neon arcade signs. Set designers Ed Ortiz and Glenn Funkhouser painted a Union Jack on the stage floor. The ubiquitous smoke gave the show the aura of a rock concert.

The ambiance was vintage Who. It would have made Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle and Keith Moon proud. Its authenticity made your correspondent wary of getting hit by shrapnel from smashed guitars and exploding drum kits.

In addition to his musical genius, Mr. Townshend showed creativity at crafting memorable characters. Mr. Fikaris selected gifted performers to bring them to the stage.

The show featured three incarnations of Tommy. Wesley Halloway played the four year old version, Nicky Intrieri performed the 10 year old one and Dennis Summerville took on the role of adult Tommy. All three Tommys sang the high-pitched melody from the “See Me, Feel Me” number. Their vocals sounded cleaner and more professional than those on the original 1969 album.

Mr. Fikaris utilized these performers effectively during the mirror scenes. While one Tommy stared into the looking glass, a different one gazed back. It made for one of the show’s most spectacular visuals.

Mr. Summerville played an outstanding Tommy. He enacted all of Tommy’s personality traits with equal skill. The performer stood still with a blank stare while either in front of the mirror or playing pinball. Mr. Summerville became enthusiastic following Tommy’s moment of realization. He accompanied it with a stirring rendition of “Welcome.” His impassioned vocals captured the essence of “I’m Free” after Mrs. Walker (Shaina Egan) smashed the mirror.

Listening to theatrical vocalists sing Rock and Roll songs is always entertaining. Mr. Summerville made it more of a pleasure than usual. He belted out powerful vocals on the heavier songs such as “Pinball Wizard” and “Sensation.” His soft falsetto on “See Me, Feel Me” articulated the character’s sensitive side.

Justin Walsh played Tommy’s father, Captain Walker. Mr. Walsh’s face held the look of a concerned parent all evening. During the “Acid Queen” and “Hawker” numbers, he showed the nuance between an expression of anxiety and one of repulsion. Mr. Walsh modulated the character’s outlook by singing “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found” with an optimistic tone. He also showed professional acting ability during the altercation between the Lover (played by Keian Hagstrom) and he.

Shaina Egan performed a superior Mrs. Walker. Ms. Egan adopted a very natural sounding British accent for the role. Her expressive facial movements showed the character’s inner turmoil regarding her son’s condition. Her vocals captured the upbeat sentiments of “Twenty-One” and “It’s a Boy” with sincerity. Ms. Egan expressed Mrs. Walker’s frustration through her rendition of “Smash the Mirror.” Her Townshendesqe swinging motion of the chair added a nice touch.

Gary Werner played the lovable lush Uncle Ernie. Mr. Werner added humor to the show during his “Fiddle About” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” numbers. The performer added a slight slur to his voice. Mr. Werner did so in a clever way. One could understand his character drank. He still expressed the lyrics so that the audience could understand them.

“Acid Queen” would make the list of Tommy’s best numbers. Legends Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle even sang it with The Who. While an intimidating song to attempt, Joyel Crawford met the challenge. Ms. Crawford gave the song the sultry, soulful treatment it warranted.

Jerrod Ganesh performed the role of the sadistic Cousin Kevin. Mr. Ganesh’s vicious vocals and quick movements demonstrated he character’s malicious nature. He applied the cigarette prop for maximum effect.

Courtney Bundens portrayed Sally Simpson. With a pining look from “behind blue eyes” Ms. Bundens showed her character’s infatuation with Tommy. The performer’s vocals on “Sally Simpson” and “Sally’s Question” made the character even more likable.

Tommy even included a number written by a legendary bluesman. As the huckster Hawker, Keian Hagstrom sang Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Eyesight to the Blind.” In this sequence, performer Faith McCleery portrayed the harmonica player. Ms. McCleery made her character even more interesting than the Marilyn Monroe icon in the movie version of Tommy.

Tommy contained mesmerizing dance sequences. “Pinball Wizard”, “Acid Queen” and “Miracle Cure” featured spectacular routines. Dance Captain Nicole Lukaitis set a stellar example for the ensemble. The Lads and Lasses executed elaborate moves all evening.

In addition to some different lyrics and arrangements, Mr. Townshend added a “new song” to the musical version of Tommy. This refreshing inclusion of something different made the musical more appealing. Justin Walsh and Shaina Egan delivered a beautiful duet on “I Believe My Own Eyes.”

Other members of the Production Team included: Producer Tami Funkhouser, Stage Manager Omi Parrilla-Dunne, Set Builder Glen Funkhouser, Set Construction/Sound Engineer Kalman Dunne, Costume Designer Renee McCleery, Costume Assistant Brennan Diorio, and Properties Nicole DeRosa Lukaitis and Tami Funkhouser.

The following performers completed the cast: Audrey DiEnno, Jaime Weingard, Jonathan Greenstein, Jake Van Horn, Jake Hufner, Gia Lukatis and Gianna Leonen.

Who fans who would go “anyway, anyhow, anywhere” to experience the band’s music would be well served to go to Haddonfield Plays and Players this February. The opportunity is also a “bargain” for fans of community theatre in South Jersey. Hop in your “magic bus” and head over to the playhouse. “The song is over” this February 15th. So is this run of Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

 

Holmes and Watson at Burlington County Footlighters

Theatre fans won’t have to do a lot of sleuthing to find good theatre this winter. Burlington County Footlighters is presenting Holmes and Watson. The game was afoot on Friday, January 17th. Your correspondent attended the opening night performance that evening.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher put Sherlock Holmes’ observation that “what one man can invent, another can discover” into crafting this play. He also disproved the fictional sleuth’s musing that, “There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.” Mr. Hatcher expanded on the “whodunit” premise and added a “whoisit” element to the tale. Holmes and Watson explored a mystery in which the famous detective served as the source.

Three years following Holmes’ death, Dr. John Watson (played by Ed Marcinkiewicz) received a strange memo. A man named Dr. Evans (played by Kevin Esmond) summoned him to an asylum off the coast of Scotland. Three men had arrived each claiming to be Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Evans invited Watson to identify the correct one. In a set-up that seemed a bit like a Victorian version of the game show To Tell the Truth, Watson went to this island and then interviewed each alleged Holmes.

Each supposed Holmes had an eclectic personality. Three outstanding actors portrayed the alleged sleuth.

Performer Matt Becker played the most conventional of the three. Mr. Becker captured the attributes of the confident, analytical Holmes. He spoke in a quick fashion, reminiscent of Jeremy Brett, and exhibited the detective’s self-assurance. He best portrayed these features during his first meeting with Watson. Mr. Becker illustrated the sleuth’s powers of deduction by interpreting the scent of the tobacco on his clothes and evaluating the cut of his suit.

Joe Chialastri portrayed the neurotic version of Holmes. Mr. Chialstri showed superb delivery with his narration of Holmes’ final encounter with his nemesis Professor Moriarty. He deftly varied his character’s lines by talking in both American and convincing British accents. His hurried speaking expressed the character’s anxieties. His nervous demeanor added humor to the show; as did the straight jacket he wore throughout the entire performance.

Dave Pallas enacted the deaf, mute and blind incarnation of Holmes. These personality traits didn’t provide Mr. Pallas many opportunities to flex his histrionic muscle. C’est dommage. The performer, however, exploited the opportunities the script presented him. When hypnotized by Dr. Evans he delivered a gripping description of Holmes’ last confrontation with Moriarty.

Like many detective stories, this one became more complex as the story developed. To add to the mystery, Dr. Evans revealed that an inspector (played by Bernard DiCasimirro) arrived before Watson. Someone murdered this investigator. His final words were, “Sherlock Holmes.”

The plot then became even more involved. A missing document and the arrival of a woman (played by Kristin Curley) who claimed to be “murdered” became part of the story. Dr. Evans and Dr. Watson each struggled to solve these mysteries while attempting to identify the true Holmes.

“It has been a long axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important,” Holmes said in A Case of Identity. The same premise applies to directing.

A story featuring a legendary character requires a renowned director to present it. Burlington County Footlighters chose theatrical maven Gabrielle Affleck to lead this project. Ms. Affleck has directed several shows at Footlighters including Kimberly Akimbo (on BCF’s 2nd Stage) and the award winning productions Dracula and The Explorers’ Club. For the latter, Ms. Affleck received the Best Director honor for Footlighters’ 2017 – 2018 season.

Ms. Affleck may have found inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Perhaps recalling Sherlock Holmes’ observation that he couldn’t “make bricks without clay,” Ms. Affleck selected excellent performers to bring Holmes and Watson to the stage.

Mr. Marcinkiewicz applied Holmes powers’ of deduction into Watson’s character. The performer displayed calmness and cunning reasoning ability. He also delivered the quick reasoning more often identified with Holmes’ character. His slow walk as he explained his analysis showed an underlying arrogance.

Kevin Esmond played the guarded Dr. Evans as an enigmatic figure. His laconic responses showed that he knew much more than he was willing to tell. His character gave Watson incomplete information; in many cases telling him that he couldn’t share the details. The only ideas he expressed openly were those on Watson’s writings. His character harbored a belief that he understood them better than Watson himself. Mr. Esmond’s critiques made his character even more intriguing.

The two characters’ personalities allowed Mr. Marcinkiewicz and Mr. Esmond to perform gripping exchanges opposite one another. These two thespians’ performances made them much more engaging than the dialog suggested.

Mr. Hatcher added elements of literary criticism to the script. Mr. Esmond accused Watson of writing exaggerated “stories” about Holmes. He argued they enhanced the Holmes mystique at the expense of facts. Mr. Marcinkiewicz countered that he wrote accurate “accounts” of Holmes’ deeds. A tense, yet witty conversation resulted.

Kristin Curley played all the female roles in the show. They required a range of acting skills. Ms. Curley expressed the different accents and character traits believably. Her characters included the traumatized “woman”, the unemotional Irish orderly and the ebullient woman in red.

Bernard DiCasimirro added his monumental talents to the show. Even while in the background, Mr. DiCasimirro’s presence hovered over the scenes. His funny accent, shuffle and bushy beard allowed the Orderly to provide excellent comic relief.

Mr. DiCasimirro played another very notable role in the show. He took on the role of the detective genre’s most famous villain in the form of Professor Moriarty. The dark hat and cape he wore gave him a Snidely Whiplash aura sans the handlebar mustache. Mr. DiCasimirro brought out the character’s malicious persona without degenerating into melodrama.

This portrayal of Moriarty once more showed Mr. DiCasimirro rather adept at playing “bad guys.” In October of 2018, Mr. DiCasimirro played an outstanding Richard Nixon in Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage production of Frost/Nixon. After his mastery of portraying antagonists, it would be interesting to watch Mr. DiCasimirro play a likable protagonist. The strength of his recent performances shows that he has the ability. Perhaps Mr. DiCasimirro should consider trying the role of someone like Sherlock Holmes. If his performance in this show is any indication, he could do so without audiences even knowing that he’s acting.

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” Holmes said in A Scandal in Bohemia. Judging from the gasps of surprise your correspondent heard during the show, this audience did much more of the former than the latter. The script contained more plot twists and surprises than the last two minutes of a Saw film. While mind-bending at times, the shifts made the suspension of disbelief more interesting.

Once again, Jim Frazer proved himself a set designer beyond comparison. In the past, he’s turned the Footlighters stage into a Christmas village, a Victorian explorers’ club and the Bonnie and Clyde death car among many other locations. This time he transformed it into both Switzerland and a late-Victorian asylum.

Holmes and Watson contained flashbacks to the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty. This scene occurred at the Reichenbach Falls in the Bernese Oberland. The rocks combined with creative lighting (also designed by Mr. Frazer) to simulate moving water made Mr. Frazer’s set appear even more uncannily authentic than usual.

Mr. Frazer displayed excellent attention to detail with the asylum. Exposed brick showed through sections of the gray concrete walls. The archways leading off-stage added to the dreary ambiance.

This set provided the director with opportunities for some mesmerizing visual spectacles. Ms. Affleck used them brilliantly. The scene at the falls where the silhouette of Holmes played his violin looked more like a movie scene than live action theatre.

Ms. Affleck used lighting ingeniously for another key scene. When Kristin Curley (as “the woman”) explained the events that led to her situation, Ms. Affleck had her move to center stage. A spotlight provided the only illumination. This staging gave the scene more impact.

Mr. Frazer and Sound Designer Bob Beaucheane combined their talents to create realistic thunder and lighting. The crashes and flashes enhanced the tension on stage at the appropriate times.

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” He (Sherlock Holmes) remarked with a smile. “It is a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”

The same premise applies to theatrical performances. The cast and crew at Footlighters sure showed their own brand of genius for Holmes and Watson.

Other members of the production team included: Assistant Director Pat Frazer, Producer Torben Christiansen, Stage Manager Chrissy Wick and Props/Special Effects Coordinator Jasmine Chalfont. Amanda Cogdell, Ty Chalfont, Jen Scache Bloomberg managed costumes. Valerie Brothers performed hair and make-up.

The real mystery is why theatrical fans would miss the opportunity to see Holmes and Watson. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work will enjoy the show; as will anyone interested in detective stories. Its plot twists will also appeal to fans of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. South Jersey’s community theatre fans don’t need someone as smart as Mycroft Holmes to tell them to see it. The decision to watch this show is “elementary.” It runs through February 1st at Burlington County Footlighters.

 

Sweet Charity at the Ritz Theatre Company

Valentine’s Day comes early this year compliments of the Ritz Theatre Company. The production team replaced all the theatre’s Holiday decorations with hearts, red streamers and a musical about the joys and sorrows of looking for love. The fickle finger of fate led your correspondent to attend Sweet Charity on Saturday, January 11th.

Charity Hope Valentine (played by Lauren Bristow) endeavored upon a quest for love. A series of unfortunate choices caused some navigational problems along her voyage. One boyfriend threw her into a lake. Another used her as his personal ATM machine. The third time seemed more promising.

An encounter with Oscar Lindquist (played by Matthew Weil) led to a blossoming romance. Unfortunately, quirks riddled Mr. Lundquist’s personality. His pathological obsession with purity functioned as the most glaring. Charity feared her job as a ‘dancehall hostess’ would cause him to terminate their relationship. It caused Lundquist to wonder if his taste in women could be as flawed as Charity’s taste in men.

That’s pretty heavy material for a book written by Neil Simon based on a concept by Bob Fosse. While witty at first, the story contained the potential of becoming a 1960s answer to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Fortunately for theatre fans, directors Bruce A. Curless and Roberta Curless kept the performance lighthearted and entertaining.

Sweet Charity featured a host of impressive dance routines choreographed by Co-Director Roberta Curless. Most of them highlighted Charity. Lauren Bristow proved herself the perfect performer to play the part. Ms. Bristow opened the show with a wonderful solo dance that contained no vocal accompaniment. She deftly incorporated a hat and a cane into the “If My Friends Could See Me Now” number while singing Dorothy Fields’ lyrics. (Cy Coleman wrote the music.) Later in the show, Ms. Bristow executed a series of quick twirls while performing “Where Am I Going.”

The other cast members performed a memorable sequence themselves. The instrumental “Rich Man’s Shrug” included an eclectic mix of music. It allowed the choreographer and ensemble to explore their creativity. During the number’s first part, this reviewer thought: if Mike Myers wrote Austin Powers as a musical, this song would be in it. The piece’s second section hearkened back to the sound of the Roaring Twenties. The routines Ms. Curless crafted well suited both these unique musical styles.

Charity may have struggled to find love, but audiences will find it easy to love Lauren Bristow as Charity. Ms. Bristow turned in a superlative performance. Because of the strength of her solo dance routines, her dancing ability impressed the most. She also showcased stellar vocals all evening on songs such as “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “Ciao Baby” and “Where Am I Going” as well as on the ensemble tracks.

Through her acting ability, Ms. Bristow captured the character’s inner hopefulness. In spite of Charity’s romantic turmoil, Ms. Bristow’s smile expressed her indomitable optimism. Her curious yet amused facial expressions during the Rhythm of Life church scene, showed how the character could find amusement in even the most awkward situations. In addition, Ms. Bristow delivered her many comic lines with both seriousness and the proper timing.

Ms. Bristow also captured the serious side of the character’s personality. For a story written in 1966, Charity evolved into a model of female empowerment. Ms. Bristow portrayed this change with believability; in large due to her skillful display of Charity’s inner optimism.

After the completion of his latest directorial project, Willy Wonka, Matt Weil returned to the stage for another show about sweetness. Mr. Weil pulled his own version of a ‘Nicholas French at the Ritz’ performance.* Mr. Weil played all three of Charity’s boyfriends. He played the first two as humorous characters. He wore a pompadour wig and dark sunglasses for Charlie. Mr. Weil adopted a silly voice while wearing a shaggy wig for the second beau.

Well known for his directing prowess, Mr. Weil showed himself just as adept a performer while on stage. In the role of Oscar Lundquist, Mr. Weil sang an impassioned rendition of “Sweet Charity.” He displayed a comical, yet believable case of nerves when trapped on the elevator with Ms. Bristow. His vocals on “I’m the Bravest Individual” expressed his anxiety.

Ms. Bristow and Mr. Weil complimented one another very well. When Ms. Bristow confessed Charity’s real profession, Mr. Weil exhibited empathy and understanding. Later, Mr. Weil did an excellent enactment of Oscar’s inner conflict. He modulated his character’s attitude making the confrontation scene much more moving. Ms. Bristow’s response gave the resolution added impact.

Vocal Director Tim Brown conducted wonderful arrangements. “Big Spender” featured performers Lauren Bristow, Lindsey Krier, Kelly Govak, Kristin Hegel and Melanie Ervin singing together. Mr. Brown split the vocal sections between the performers. The organization allowed the melody to create a unique audio effect.

Other memorable tunes populated the set list. Ms. Krier and Ms. Govak turned in a strong performance of “Baby Dream Your Dream.” Craig Bazan led a terrific rendition of “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Terrance T. Hart delivered an operatic sounding “Too Many Tomorrows.”

Sweet Charity’s ambiance gave the performance an excellent 60s vibe. The set (designed by William Bryant) contained a mix of bright and semi-dark colors. The choices reminded this reviewer of the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears album.

Costume Designer Tina Greene-Heinze used the same patterns in her work. She placed Ms. Govak in a bright yellow dress. The sequins on Ms. Krier’s blue dress sparkled and enhance the brilliance. The black dress Ms. Bristow wore and the tuxedo on Terrance T. Hart offset the bright colors. The psychedelic patterns on the Rhythm of Life Church members’ clothes fit the time period.

Jim Reed’s wig designs kept the audience rooted in the period as well. They comprised currant buns, long shaggy hair and big Afros. With all the high impact dancing, it surprised this reviewer than none of the performers lost their wigs during the show.

Other members of the Production Team included: Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher, Lighting Designer Chris Miller, Technical Director Nathan Kunst, Stage Manager Brian Gensel, Properties, Meg Iafolla, Assistant Stage Managers Melissa Harnois and Alyssa Sendler, Sound Board Operators Anastasia Swan and Natasha Swann and Spot Operators Gabe Slimm and Jessi Meisel.

The show your correspondent witnessed included a moment for the blooper reel. Since there is no video recording of live theatre, fans will have to be content to read about it. When Matt Weil’s character entered the dancehall, performer Craig Bazan (as the proprietor Herman) called him by his real name, Matt.

Charity observed, “Without love, life has no purpose.” Without shows as fun as Sweet Charity, musical theatre has no purpose. Make a date to see it at the Ritz no later than February 2nd. After that, this run will seem as ephemeral as one of Charity’s relationships.

 

*In the Ritz Theatre’s January 2019 production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, performer Nicholas French played all eight members of the D’Yasquith family.

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 Past. 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.

 

The Doll: A Magical Christmas at the Village Playbox

What do you do when a Broadway producer tells you your show needs “a hook”? Local playwright Rob Kristie received this advice in response to his touching tale The Doll. The show already contained compelling characters and a strong soundtrack. Just what kind of “hook” did it lack? To incorporate the producer’s suggestion, Mr. Kristie transformed the piece into a “magical” Christmas show.

Appropriately, the Village Playbox launched the Holiday Season on Black Friday. This November 29th the company presented Mr. Kristie’s The Doll: A Magical Christmas. Your correspondent attended this opening night performance.

Samantha Flannery (played by Amanda Rose Kipila) felt alone and isolated due to her blindness. Samantha’s mother, Ann (played by Mary Simrin) provided her only companionship. After the grand opening of his new store, also called Grand Opening!, Adam Barter (Doug Cohen) presented Samantha with a doll that she named Flopsy (Gracie Sokoloff). The latter came to life and encouraged Samantha to experience life. Adam found himself interested in Ann, a widow.

Mr. Kristie and John Blackwell co-directed this outstanding Christmas spectacle. The directors employed a unique means of drawing the spectators into the show at the beginning. Cast members threw “snowballs” into the audience. Those fortunate enough to catch one received a complimentary Christmas ornament. Without giving away spoilers, they crafted an even more spectacular finale.

Vocal Director Mark Kozachyn worked with a host of diverse styles presented by Mr. Kristie’s songwriting. The cast provided him with a lot of talent to guide.

The Neighborhood Children performed as a wonderful acapella chorus on “Children’s Carol.” Doug Cohen and Mary Simrin sang a bossa nova tinged duet on “Completed Day.” Ms. Simrin performed an acapella track on “Any Completed Day.” Mr. Cohen sang a passionate reflection on the true meaning of the Holiday with “Just Like Christmas.”

Because of the range of genres the soundtrack contains, The Doll will appeal to a wide variety of musical tastes. Mary Simrin executed the complexities of “Don’t Take My Time” brilliantly. This majestic song featured a melody in 12/8 time with a bass line that would please both Bootsy Collins and George Clinton. The “2-4” duet performed by Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sokoloff included flamenco style muted guitar strumming a la Jimi Hendrix performed on a 12- string acoustic.  Ms. Sokoloff sang the synthesizer driven “If You Can Imagine.” The performer’s vocals captured the song’s 1980s vibe. Ms. Kipila navigated the disco portions of “Why Can’t I” like an authentic 70s diva.

Perhaps for the first time in the history of musical theatre, a songwriter was influenced by the music of the Drifters. This reviewer heard references to the bass line for “Under the Boardwalk” in “I Really Don’t Care” and “Completed Day.”

Amanda Rose Kipila played an outstanding Samantha. Ms. Kipila possesses a beautiful voice. It complimented Mr. Kristie’s lyrics and melodies on tracks such as “I Really Don’t Care” and “I Don’t Know.” The performer also showed exceptional acting prowess. Ms. Kipila captured Samantha feelings towards a range of experiences such as her loneliness and her surprise upon discovering that Flopsy talked. Ms. Kipila made her character’s change appear realistic.

Gracie Sokoloff applied a lot of energy to her performance as Flopsy. She made the character very likable. Ms. Sololoff “broke the fourth wall” to introduce Scene 3 of Act 2. The performer engaged the audience with great charm, wit and enthusiasm. She maintained that engaging persona throughout the entire show.

Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sololoff complimented one another very well. The former played the character timid about experiencing life. The latter performed as an upbeat free spirit with a zeal for life. The two enacted the conflict very credibly.

Stevie Rose Gerhart coordinated outstanding choreography. The opening number featured the neighborhood children singing while performing an intricate dance routine on “Christmas Time.” Ms. Sokoloff’s effort at showing Ms. Kipila how to dance on “I’ll Lead the Way” became one of the show’s most enjoyable scenes.

Production Teams at the Village Playbox optimize the space allotted to them. When performing at the First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights, they transformed the stage into the world of Dr. Seuss for Seussical. The quick set-changes they executed during the intermissions for Noises Off! will go down in the annals of South Jersey theatrical lore. They proved they could show the same creativity when performing at the Fellowship Methodist Church a few blocks from that venue.

The set created fantastic ambiance. Set designers Paul Becker and Gary Kochey (and the cast members who helped construct it) converted a small stage into the front of the Flannery home, both the inside and outside of Grand Opening!, the exterior of candy store South Street Sweets, a hospital room and a bedroom. They also allowed for Ms. Kipila and Ms. Sokoloff to perform a scene in silhouette from behind a shade.

The sparse use of Christmas lights on the stage worked very well. They allowed the audience to understand that the story occurred during the Holiday Season. They weren’t so prominent that they distracted the audience from the action on stage. The intermittent lighting of the Christmas tree to house right enhanced the mood perfectly. Compliments to Jack Bozzuffi for his work on the sound and lights and Gary Kochey as the light operator.

Other members of the cast included: Mia Grace, Karen Smith, Lisa Aliquo, Chrissy Luther, Gregory Furman, Colin Becker, Michael Mellor, Emily Joyce Kipila, Sophia Izabella Vaughn and Lily Allen.

The Production Crew comprised of: Producer Steve Allen, Costumer, Props and spot light operator Leslie Romanuski, Denise Lallier and Rob Kristie handled props, Stage Manager Paul Becker, and Stage Crew Angela Becker.

The Doll: A Magical Christmas will hook audiences. This performance can be summarized in one word: smileicious. The show runs through December 8th at the Village Playbox.

 

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.

Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Village Playbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fittingly, Eugene longed to become a writer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.