South Jersey

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Driving Miss Daisy at the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Community theatre completists owe Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage a debt of gratitude. This October they are presenting the first play in Alfred Uhry’s Atlanta Trilogy: the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner Driving Miss Daisy. Three years ago Haddonfield Plays and Players staged the second and third parts of the series: The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Parade, respectively. I wondered when a company would provide South Jersey’s theatrical talent the opportunity to perform in one that opened it. The wait ended this October 4th at Burlington County Footlighters. Your correspondent attended that performance.

Driving Miss Daisy is a deceptively complex show to bring to the stage. It’s quite the antithesis to Parade. The latter featured an extensive cast, a high-tech spectacle and a catalog of musical numbers. Driving Miss Daisy contained no musical numbers, a sparse set and only three actors. The playwright, however, included 27 scene changes. The show did not contain an intermission, either. These unique challenges didn’t deter the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

Director Alice Weber has a history of directing high minded, cerebral works such as Dr. Cook’s Garden (at Bridge Players Theatre) and Coyote on a Fence (also at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage). Mr. Uhry’s exploration of race, poverty and hate crimes is still relevant today. Even with this disturbing background, the playwright infused his script with a belief in the redemptive power of humanity. I didn’t leave the theatre asking myself deep philosophical questions like I usually do after an Alice Weber show.

I asked Ms. Weber why she chose to direct Driving Miss Daisy. She replied that, in addition to liking the play, she believed it would work very well in the intimate setting the 2nd Stage provided.

For those unfamiliar with Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage, the room’s seating capacity is about 30 people. While some companies employ the theatre in the round format, the 2nd Stage uses a theatre in a semi-circle approach. The chairs are arranged in an arc consisting of two rows in front of the stage. This set-up allows the audience to watch just a few feet from the action.

Ms. Weber’s assessment proved correct. Performers Phyllis Josephson, Rick Williams and John Weber worked this close setting wonderfully.

Phyllis Josephson celebrated her birthday this October 1st. Ms. Josephson gave the audience a gift through her performance as Daisy Werthan.

In 2015 Ms. Josephson played the lead role in David Lindsey-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo; a show also presented by Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. In that production, Ms. Josephson convincingly acted the role of a teenager. For Driving Miss Daisy, she portrayed a bitter old woman with just as much realism.

Ms. Josephson executed every facet of the role to perfection. Her expressions captured the character’s inner thoughts, she maintained the accent of a Southern belle, and she showed the protagonist’s change with extraordinary skill. Ms. Josephson combined all three dazzlingly in the scene when she told her son about a missing can of sardines.

Real life anchorman Rick Williams proved he’s just as adept at making news as he is at reporting it. Mr. Williams delivered an outstanding interpretation of Hoke Coleburn.

Mr. Williams chose a very realistic accent for his character. His delivery complimented it. Both enhanced his comic timing. When asking Boolie (played by John Weber) for a raise, his cheery vocal inflection made the scene even wittier. The final line about it “feeling mighty good” to have two employers compete for his services had much more impact.

Mr. Williams’ mannerisms were among the best I’ve witnessed at a live performance. He deserves special credit for his slouching and squinting while behind the wheel. The large glasses he wore added comedic effect. His slower ambling and walking with a cane in the later scenes both appeared lifelike.

Ms. Josephson and Mr. Williams put on an acting clinic. They played the show’s dramatic scenes with the passion and poignancy the script demanded. Their portrayals during the ones where Miss Daisy taught Hoke to read, their reactions to the temple bombing and the pair’s trip to Alabama were spectacular.

Both actors clearly devoted a lot of time to preparing for this show. During the talk back session following the performance, Mr. Williams thanked his wife, Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams for her assistance when he rehearsed the role. As well as he portrayed Hoke, audiences should thank Ms. Mitchell-Williams, too.

John Weber played a terrific supporting role as Boolie Werthan. Mr. Weber served as an excellent straight man during his comedic scenes with Mr. Williams. He also captured the latent humor in Mr. Uhry’s dialog when interacting with Ms. Josephson.

Jim Frazer again treated audiences to his genius for set design. For Driving Miss Daisy, he somehow developed a way to position a portion of a car on the stage. I recalled the car he placed on the set of Footlighters’ 2015 production of Bonnie and Clyde. That vehicle entered and retracted from the center of the company’s much larger main stage. The car for Driving Miss Daisy set upon a rotating platform in the center of a small room. The headlights and gear shift even worked. Mr. Frazer continues to push the envelope for set design with every show he does.

The remainder of the production team included: Shelly Tibbets (Assistant Director), Lindsey Kilchesty (Stage Manager), Angel Ezell (Light and Sound) and Pat Frazer (Gloryboard Design).

Theatre fans will have limited opportunities to witness this masterpiece. The show runs through October 12th at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. Opening weekend sold out. Fans should purchase their tickets for next week ASAP.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans are also reminded that Alice Weber likes to direct thought provoking shows. Theatre aficionados who don’t take advantage of the opportunity to see this run of Driving Miss Daisy could very well end up the subjects of her next project.

Night of 1000 Plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.