South Jersey

“Riding the Rails in Moorestown: A Discussion of Railroads in Moorestown and the Surrounding Area” by Hank Cutler and Randy Acorcey

“You don’t know where you are until you know where you came from.” With these words, Randy Acorcey and Dr. Hank Cutler commenced an engaging lecture. The choice of a travel metaphor to explain history well suited the topic. Mr. Acorcey discussed the development of railroads in South Jersey. Dr. Cutler followed by describing how they affected the local Moorestown business community. The speakers shared plenty of fantastic material for both railroad and local history buffs. The Moorestown Library and the Historical Society of Moorestown hosted this event on January 17, 2018.

The Garden State served as the location for some monumental innovations affecting ante-bellum transportation. Mr. Acorcey explained that in 1832 the Camden and Amboy Railroad became the first line in New Jersey. The C & A introduced the steam powered locomotive. The first one to travel on its rails, the John Bull, came over from England in various pieces. Crews in the US reassembled it without the benefit of instructions.

Before that game changing advancement, horses drew railroad cars. The speaker displayed a photo of one such set-up in Gibbsboro. To answer the obvious questions, Mr. Acorcey explained: “It wasn’t fast.” As to the poor condition of the tracks: “Horses learned to step in between things.”

The C & A selected the perfect president in the form of Hoboken native Robert Stevens. Mr. Acorcey described him as a “prolific inventor.” One of his many innovations included the baggage car. Most important for railroads, Mr. Stevens developed all iron rails. Prior to that, engineers used stone or “sleepers” to set down the tracks. Mr. Acorcey added, with perhaps a bit of understatement, this led to “a few accidents.”

While these innovations certainly improved travel by rails, not to mention safety, modern passengers wouldn’t be impressed. A train trip from Burlington to Mount Holly took 30 minutes each way in the 1860s.

At this point in the lecture, audience members needed scorecards. Just after the Civil War an era of railroad consolidations commenced. The mergers accelerated through the twentieth century. In April of 1969, a passenger train embarked from Moorestown for the last time.

The C & A’s spirit of innovation transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad when the two merged in 1872. In 1895 the new organization built the Delair Bridge connecting Philadelphia and Pennsauken. It allowed train travel directly between those two locales for the first time. The structure still stands and railroad companies use it today.

Dr. Cutler then described how the railroad impacted Moorestown. At one time the town contained three different rail way stations named the East Moorestown, the West Moorestown and the Stanwick. The East Moorestown came first at Chester Avenue and East Third Street. People in the western section of town complained about the location. To accommodate them, the railroad added a second one at North Church and West Central. The Stanwick was built to support the Moorestown fairgrounds.

As an interesting side note on stations, Dr. Cutler added that the Pemberton branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad used the same stations from 1868 until 1968. As remarkable as that may seem, an audience member trenchantly observed, “(Railroad) tracks don’t change (their location) easily.”

The prevalence of railroad ‘sidings’ in Moorestown served as the focus of Dr. Cutler’s comments. These offshoots from the main tracks led into various businesses throughout the community. This facilitated freight transport both to and from these companies. The speaker showed photos of two such Moorestown enterprises that utilized sidings. When Hollingshead Fuel went out of business in the early 1990s, its siding was removed. The JS Collins and Son Hardware store still operates today. While no longer used, those interested can view the original siding in the parking lot.

An audience member asked if either the company or the railroad paid to install a siding. The speakers couldn’t comment on Moorestown, but Mr. Acorcey provided information about the sidings in Camden. He explained that if the business generated enough freight to financially satisfy the railroad, the later would install it. If not, then the business provided the funds to do so.

The speakers presented an impressive amount of information. They both possessed a deep understanding of the topics they covered. However, the speech lacked either a unifying theme or a call to action. The lecture left more questions than it answered. Just how did the topics they covered relate to society on a macro level? For instance: what led to the abundance of railroad mergers? Dr. Cutler mentioned numerous Moorestown companies that no longer exist. Did they decline for similar reasons? The River Line has been in operation since 2004. What conditions led to this resurgence in passenger rail transportation? Do they foresee that trend continuing?

Mr. Acorcey and Dr. Cutler delivered an excellent synopsis of the history of South Jersey railroads. The numerous transportation innovations it facilitated not only changed the industry: they improved society. With that observation, it’s sad to note that the last passenger train left town for good almost five decades ago. The Stanwick station is now a concrete pad. The East Moorestown station moved and converted into a dentist’s office. Upon reflecting on all this, one recalls the words of another creative New Jersey son. In the words of Bruce Springsteen:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.

 

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Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.

Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at Burlington County Footlighters

With so many focused on upcoming sporting events, it didn’t surprise that Burlington County Footlighters would host theatre’s answer to one. The opponents in their contest featured the “shirts against the skins.” In this case, it was more the “stuffed shirts” in conflict with the “barefoots” through the vehicle of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. To show just how special this event, they brought in the Ho Chi Minh University of the Arts’ most famous graduate, Tim Sagges, to direct this run. I attended the opening night performance on January 26th.

Mr. Sagges displayed his unique brand of creativity even before the show began. In his playbill bio, he described himself as having graduated Hakuna Matada with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Trapeze performance while minoring in Merkin Mastery. This director chose an excellent comedy with which to exercise his talent for wit and inventiveness.

As the NFL All-Pro game will be played during this show’s run, I thought the casting very appropriate. The performers who took the stage played like South Jersey community theatre’s version of an all-star team. It featured three-time Irene Ryan nominee, Bailey Shaw in the lead as Corie Bratter. The newest member of the royal family of South Jersey community theatre, AJ Krier, played her husband Paul Bratter. One of the most versatile performers ever to grace the stage, Phyllis Josephson, played Corie’s mother. Gifted singer, dancer and actor, Rick Williams took on the role of eccentric free-spirit, Victor Velasco. Footlighters veteran Kevin Pavon returned to the Footlighters’ stage as Harry Pepper.

Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park premiered in 1963; two years before the playwright crafted The Odd Couple. The former contained a similar premise as a nonconformist young woman, Corie (Bailey Shaw), just moved into an apartment with her conservative husband of six days, Paul (AJ Krier). The show began with the two very much in love, but various issues with their new living accommodations began straining the marriage; a flamboyant free-loader living above them, Victor Velasco (Rick Williams) being one of them.

A visit from Corie’s mother, Ethel, (Phyllis Josephson) helped clarify the conflict. Ethel described her daughter’s “impulsive” personality as the opposite of hers and Paul’s. She also reluctantly acknowledged her loneliness. With the introduction of Victor Velasco, Corie came up with a scheme to set her mother up on a blind date. The two couples ended up dining at an establishment featuring Albanian fare. Then the battle between the “stuffed shirts” and “barefoots” kicked off.

Bailey Shaw treated theatregoers to an effervescent performance. As in the farcical The Fox on the Fairway, Ms. Shaw took on the role of an emotional personality. In Barefoot in the Park, the character contained more realistic traits. The performer deftly brought them to life. She played the bubbly aspects of Corie extraordinarily well while also giving Paul a compelling “silent treatment.” While doing so she managed to keep the role funny.

AJ Krier met the challenge of getting laughs while playing an ostensibly dull character. The son of Al Krier and brother of Lindsey, AJ brought his own distinct comedy style to the role. He displayed great skill bringing out Paul’s humorous metamorphosis into a personality with Corie’s qualities. I’m sure the latest heir to the Krier family acting dynasty made Dad and Sis proud with this performance.

Phyllis Josephson possesses a gift for performing unconventional characters. Some of her most memorable include Grandma in The Addams Family, Kimberly Akimbo and a Rapping Nun. She brought the same skill to the more orthodox Ethel.

I also witnessed Ms. Josephson perform a chilling Mama in ‘night Mother. The mom in this show didn’t possess the same intensity; which I welcomed. Ms. Josephson played a convincing and entertaining Ethel. She executed the most memorable entrance I’ve ever seen. She amused through the witty way she gasped while staggering through the door.

Rick Williams took on the part of smooth-talking gourmet Victor Velasco. For such a character, Mr. Williams showed great taste and delicacy in selecting the perfect voice. His choice of accent perfectly suited both the role and his warm baritone.

I’d also acknowledge the show’s other performers. Kevin Pavon brought an authentic New York accent to the role of Harry Pepper. Valerie Brothers and Torben Christensen played members of the most memorable moving company I’ve seen.

I’d also credit Amanda Cogdell for the authentic 1960s costuming and Jim Frazer for another phenomenal set design.

One action in the play seemed a bit odd. After returning from work while wearing his business suit, Mr. Krier changed ties prior to a dinner party. I could understand Paul being a “stuffed shirt”, but this still struck me as a strange thing to do.

Neil Simon crafted several of his plays so they built towards a crucial confrontation scene. Barefoot in the Park’s consisted of a fight between Ms. Shaw’s and Mr. Krier’s characters. They delivered the conflict I would’ve expected from the two. Mr. Krier expressed his lines with the formality one would expect from a lawyer. In the heat of the disagreement, he went to his briefcase, removed some papers and soullessly outlined the business aspects of a divorce. Ms. Shaw brought out Corie’s emotional personality through her dramatic crying. She impressed with her comical use of sobbing to get laughs from the audience.

Conveniently, Footlighters’ theatre borders Wood Park in Cinnaminson. After listening to Ms. Shaw’s character express the joys of walking barefoot in the park during the winter, I thought that maybe I should give it a try. Then a cold wind blew. I decided that task best left to either theatrical professionals or fictitious characters.

For those interested in watching the “stuffed shirts” take on the “barefoot” crowd, the show runs through February 10th. The outcome of the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics are unknown at the time of this writing. One thing is for certain about the conflict in Barefoot in the Park at Burlington County Footlighters: the audience will always end up the winner.

 

Nunsense A-Men at Burlington County Footlighters

I would’ve lost a bet that nuns would make for the most popular topic in South Jersey community theatre this year. When I read that Burlington County Footlighters planned to present Nunsense A-Men this December, I had to question the wisdom of this decision. Three area companies staged productions of Sister Act over the last several months. How could another theatre company hold my attention regarding the topic of holy sisters? I wondered. I can’t say Footlighters surprised me by figuring a means to do so. They selected a show so unusual it would’ve impressed Samuel Beckett. I attended their opening night performance of Nunsense A-Men on December 8th.

Playwright Dan Goggin crafted a veritable trifecta of distinctiveness. Nunsense contained the most imaginative premise, story and setting I’ve encountered. Here goes my best attempt to explain the tale. The cast consisted of five main characters: all nuns played by male actors. The convent’s cook—the comically named Sister Julia, Child of God—served an improperly prepared helping of vichysoisse to the community’s sisters. As a result 52 perished from food poisoning. The surviving nuns raised enough money for the burials. Thinking they had more cash than needed for the task, the Mother Superior wasted some of the funds on pricey home entertainment amenities. This spending spree left the order with only enough means to bury 48 of the nuns. They placed those remaining in the freezer until they could acquire the funds to finish the task. To raise that capital, they decided to host a variety show at the Mount Saint Helen’s school auditorium. They didn’t change the stage set from the school’s eighth grade production of Grease in the background. Add to this mix a series of eccentric characters. Sister Act this wasn’t.

Director Jillian Starr Renbjor selected an A-level cast for Nunsense A-Men. Her choices gave Musical Director Peg Smith and Choreographer Kaitlyn Delengowski some superb talent with which to work.

Matt Maerten took on the role of erstwhile dancer, Sister Mary Leo. This marked the first occasion I’ve watched a ballet routine performed in a community theatre show. Mr. Maerten executed some impressive turns and jumps throughout the evening. One really has to credit a performer for doing so while wearing a dress. He also delivered some excellent singing on “Benedicte.” He crooned a sensational duet with Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on “The Biggest Ain’t the Best.”

John Romano, Jr. played one bad mother of a Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina. He got the comedy started the moment he took the stage. He delivered his first line by speaking with a high voice. After clearing his throat he reverted to his deeper range. I enjoyed his singing on “Turn Up the Spotlight” as well as his pining for his character’s possible past as a tightrope walker. This performer’s highlight came when he presented a witty take on why nuns should avoid anything stronger than coffee. For the record: I was glad you’re character was okay, Mr. Romano. The remainder of the show wouldn’t have been as entertaining without you.

Connor Twigg played Sister Robert Anne: the wannabe Mother Superior. From the passion he injected into that role, he showed just how badly the character wanted it. His strong singing on “I Just Want to Be a Star” made the title ironic. An actor that talented already is one. He delivered great comedy chops with his Carmen Miranda hat and impressions of the Wicked Witch of the West and Idina Menzel. (Again I emphasize just how original this show’s content.) Reprising his superb tap dancing skills I last saw in The Drowsy Chaperone, Mr. Twigg put on his taps while leading the rest of the cast through a soft shoe dance.

DJ Hedgepath…well, the best compliment I can give him is that he delivered a “DJ Hedgepath kind of performance.” After speaking in a slightly high pitched Southern accent all evening, he crooned his character’s yearning ode to Country stardom: “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.” For this show he added the task of “quiz show host” to his repertoire. Mr. Hedgepath conducted a question period with the audience. It takes a great deal of courage for a performer to interact with live spectators. Mr. Hedgepath handled their unscripted responses perfectly; improvising while remaining in character. To prove once more that there’s no activity he can’t handle on stage: he performed opposite a puppet that he operated. His character, Sister Mary Amnesia, may have struggled with her memory. No one who watched his performance in Nunsense will ever forget it.

Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. rounded out the cast as Sister Mary Hubert, Mistress of Novices. At first I felt disappointed by the musical material the show presented him. Mr. Thompson delivered his usual outstanding singing. His duets with Mr. Romano and Mr. Marteen served as good examples. The songs, however, didn’t challenge his extraordinary vocal prowess. It turned out he was making the audience wait for his big number. I’ve described Mr. Thompson as one of the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. He belted out an extraordinary performance of the gospel based “Holier than Thou” number. He proved that in terms of vocal ability, he sure is.

Jim Frazer designed a set that well suited the show. The entire time I watched the performance, I felt like I was in a middle school auditorium staging a performance of Grease. I thought the “Greased Lighting” insignia on the car a nice touch. The chalkboard menu across from the 1950s style counter made the setting more authentic, as well. He also designed the lighting. Nunsense featured more illumination adjustments than most shows. At times the house lights went up, in some scenes the stage lights dimmed while in others a character performed in the spotlight. It impressed me that no glitches occurred.

The show’s opening didn’t grab my attention as I would have preferred. At first performers walked about the theatre interacting with the audience. Following that, the characters walked around the stage prattling. It seemed disorganized, but understanding the characters and the premise after watching the whole show, it made sense. The scene did bring me into the world of the story. I still thought the beginning could’ve started with more immediacy.

I wouldn’t have thought that five men dressed as nuns playing in yet another show about holy sisters could keep my focus for an entire evening. I’d normally attribute this to an early Christmas Miracle, but I have to credit phenomenal performances from gifted cast members. To illustrate how well they suspended my disbelief, when MacKenzie Smith took the stage as Sister Mary Meredith Taco, I thought it strange to watch a female performer portray a nun. Now that’s skill.

For those who missed opening weekend, Hallelujah! Nunsense A-Men runs through December 17th at Burlington County Footlighters.

 

The Explorer’s Club at Burlington County Footlighters

Explorer's Club SetThat’s got to be the most underrepresented topic in the history of theatre, I thought when Gaby Affleck described her latest project to me. As an award winning director of shows ranging from Dracula to Of Mice and Men, Ms. Affleck could’ve opted to bring any subject to the stage. Just what did she choose this time? She decided to direct her first farce: a play about explorers. While a topic traditionally overlooked by community theatre companies, the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters more than compensated for this history of neglect. I embarked on a voyage of laugher (and TO SCIENCE) during the opening night performance of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorer’s Club this November 3rd.

The story contained a hyper-extreme conflict by the standards of 1879 Victorian society. Explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume (played by Rachel Comenzo) aspired to be the first woman to join The Explorer’s Club. Ms. Spote-Hume encountered resistance from the membership. Not much of a surprise, there. Initially, I thought the whole ‘farce’ premise had to do with men from that less enlightened era even allowing a woman to enter their building. At any rate, the conflict continued to build as the botanist, Lucius Retaway (played by Michael Muller) and the dashing Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) competed for her affections. In addition, a native she named ‘Luigi’ (played by Matt Dell’Olio) caused an international incident by greeting Queen Victoria in his tribe’s traditional manner: he slapped her across the face. With the overall tone of the story, I wondered if the playwright used this detail to add a bit of subtext.

As one would expect from a farce, the show featured a host of eccentric characters. Also, as anticipated, Ms. Affleck selected the perfect performers to play them. Ethan Rundell met the challenge of portraying the effeminate snake lover, Professor Cope. Lou DiPilla’s expressive performance of religion scholar, Dr. Sloane, blessed the audience. Dennis Dougherty depicted Guniea pig aficionado Professor Walling. Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) seemed to lose all the men who followed him on his expeditions; his latest voyage to discover the East Pole proved no exception. It’s some club when the botanist (played by Michael Muller) who named a coma and death inducing plant after the woman he loved came across as the ‘normal’ one.

Mr. Muller and Mr. Petrillo played opposite one another particularly well. Their performances concretized the conflict between the nerdy botanist and the rugged explorer. Ms. Comenzo deftly displayed interest towards their characters at different times. Her warm smiles towards Lucius and extension of her lips toward Percy in various scenes accentuated the conflict.

Theatrical shows always contain some attribute that makes them unique. Speeches served as this one’s main feature. Ricardo Estevez delivered an impassioned oration regarding his insatiable need for vengeance and retribution…while playing a monk. His inclusion of karate chops and kicks while moving about the entire stage enhanced the performance. He selected impeccable gestures to compliment his delivery.

Rachel Comenzo spoke with flawless diction when delivering her character’s opening lecture. One also has to credit her for keeping a straight face. The new society her character discovered looked like a nation of people from the Blue Man Group. This performer impressed by pronouncing place names most people can’t attempt to spell.

I also applaud Ms. Comenzo for her choice of accent. In the playbill she mentioned devoting a great deal of time towards perfecting it. Her efforts paid off handsomely. She played the dual roles of twin sisters in the show. She adjusted her voice to fit each character and make both distinct.

Matt Dell’Olio possesses a genius for delivering soliloquys. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, he presented a monologue about Lobster Bisque soup in a method that made it rival the “to be or not to be” monolog from Hamlet. In this show, he presented a solo speech just as gripping. He did so while speaking in gibberish. With a character talking incomprehensibly, gestures and facial expressions become more crucial. He nailed them. Mr. Dell’Olio also displayed phenomenal dexterity prancing around the stage.

Last year Mr. Dell’Olio earned BCF’s Best Actor Award for his performance in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. His robust portrayal in this one may have netted him another one.

I didn’t believe it possible for Jim Frazer to design a better set than the Christmas Village he created for 2016’s A Christmas Carol. This one came close. It captured the essence of a manly “Old Boys’ Club” while including a touch of comedy. The stage featured enormous tusks arranged like an archway, the ubiquitous deer heads, bearskin rugs hung on the wall and a globe displayed off to stage left. I give Mr. Frazer credit for creativity by including the mounted walrus head made by the show’s makeup artist Jasmine Chalfont.

The bar scenes proved a challenge for the cast. Mr. Dell’Olio’s character would say, “Here’s your drink, sir.” Then he would quickly slide a glass towards the front of the counter. It amazed me that every time he did this, the character he tossed the drink towards caught it the moment it slid off the bar…at least until the very end of the show.

Bernard DiCasimirro (as Sir Bernard Humphreys) dropped a glass before taking his curtain call. This performer made the best recovery I’ve witnessed at a live performance. Burlington County Footlighters legend Dan Brothers sat in the first row. While watching the play I thought Mr. Brothers would’ve been a solid addition to this show. He inadvertently got his chance. In response to Mr. Brothers’ jeer, Mr. DiCasimirro tossed the glass’ contents at him. I credit the performer for this improvised move. It made the miscue much more entertaining than it would have been if he’d executed the scene as written.

Harry Percy discussed following up his discovery of the East Pole with a trip to the West Pole. If he embarks on that voyage of exploration, let’s hope this cast and crew is available to tell the story.

I enjoyed Ms. Affleck’s latest journey as a director. “Farce is nothing to laugh at!” She wrote in the playbill. “It’s hard work.” That work paid off in the form of The Explorer’s Club. Audiences may survey it at Burlington County Footlighters through November 18th.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Ritz Theatre Company

The magic of Disney transformed South Jersey into a mystical wonderland; well, more so than usual. Twenty-first century exurbia altered into the form of a rustic medieval village. A mysterious enchanted castle settled on the outskirts. The Ritz Theatre served as the source of this enchantment. The building became even more bewitching this July 28th. I experienced a supernatural evening in the form of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast directed by Craig Hutchinson.

In the prologue voiceover, Rick Williams delivered a stellar reading of the backstory for this “tale as old as time.” In it, a handsome prince discovered the perils of vanity in the most unpleasant way possible. He turned a homely beggar woman away from his door because of her appearance. Spoiler alert for those who’ve never had contact with the outside world: a witch bore the guise of the old woman. She cursed the good-looking young man, making him into a hideous beast. In the process, his servants experienced their own metamorphoses. They started changing into various items in the household.

Only one thing could end the curse. Spoiler alert for those surprised by the first spoiler alert: it’s the love of a good woman. The beast must find a young lady who can look past his horrifying appearance. But this quest contained an added challenge. The Beast must complete it before all the petals fell off the rose the witch gave him. At the story’s beginning, the rose was almost bare.

The action then turned to the bookish Belle (Annabelle Garcia). Somewhat of an outcast due to her love of literature, she still drew the interest of the most desirable man in town, Gaston (Nicholas French). While spurning his affections, her father, Maurice, (played by Bruce A. Curless), became lost in the woods. In order to avoid a coven of wolves, he took shelter in the Beast’s castle. The latter didn’t take kindly to uninvited guests, so he imprisoned the father. In order to free him, Belle promised the Beast she would stay with him forever. Then as the rose withered, their relationship bloomed.

Annabelle Garcia interpreted her character’s role as “beauty” very broadly. I witnessed no paucity of pulchritude from this performer. Ms. Garcia showcased a beautiful voice, beautiful dance moves and beautiful acting ability. Belle proved quite a demanding role, and this thespian rose to the level it required.

Ms. Garcia turned Belle into the epitome of a Disney heroine. Her selection of voice brought to mind Judy Garland’s from The Wizard of Oz; only more mellifluous. Even when delivering lines, her voice contained a melodic quality to it. This performer treated the audience with impressive singing. Her delivery of “A Change in Me” drew on the character’s feelings and expressed them proficeintly.

Ms. Garcia also wowed theatregoers with her dancing ability. Her most memorable scene occurred when she took part in the fast, high-energy “Be Our Guest” routine along with the ensemble.

A true triple threat, Ms. Garcia also exhibited superb aptitude for non-verbal communication. Even when other action occurred on stage, she remained in character through her perfect use of facial expressions. The way she laughed in her scenes with Maurice (Bruce A. Curliss) showed the character’s genuine affection for her father. It came across as believable and sincere. Bravo.

Bryan M. Pitt put on one beast of a performance as the Beast. I liked the way he brought out the character’s inner turmoil through his vocals. He delivered “If I Can’t Love Her” in a dolorous tone that stirred me. One has to credit him for doing this so well without allowing a burdensome costume to distract him.

Mr. Pitt varied the monster’s emotions very well. Through his character interpretation he showed the Beast possessed much more depth and complexity than what appeared on the surface. When required, he played an angry, frightening creature speaking in a harsh tone that invoked terror. The reverb added to his voice in the first act enhanced this effect.

Like a true stage veteran, he portrayed the character’s change in a measured way that made it credible. Mr. Pitt brought out the Beast’s vulnerability when admitting to Belle he didn’t know how to read. He also got laughs when squealing as Belle bandaged his wounds.

I always enjoy the opportunity to hear Tami Gordon Brody sing. Her rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” didn’t disappoint. It provided the perfect background to Belle’s and the Beast’s solo dance.

This show featured elaborate costuming. To illustrate just how extravagant, it’s difficult to argue the Beast’s as the best. David M. Mooney (as Cogsworth) played a realistic appearing clock. Tami Gordon Brody (Mrs. Potts) took the stage as a tea-kettle. Achilles Inverso (as Luminaire) donned the attire of candelabra. Nicky Intrieri performed as a teacup. Brittany Marie (Babette) played a feather duster. Jane Ericksen wore a dresser most of the evening. The ensemble acted as various pieces of silverware. These players deserve immense respect for not allowing costumes that inhibited movement to affect their performances. That’s true professionalism.

In addition, the “normal” characters wore authentic appearing gowns from the 18th century. They made for quite a visual spectacle.

David M. Mooney and Achilles Inverso displayed outstanding comedic chemistry working together. Their respective costuming added to the humorous effect, but they didn’t allow themselves to become reliant on them for humor. As with Ms. Garcia, they selected the perfect voices to correspond with their characters. I enjoyed Mr. Mooney’s English accent and Mr. Inverso’s French intonation. The inflections enhanced the witty banter between the two.

Nicholas French (Gaston) and Matt Flocco (Lefou) performed well as a comedy team. In addition, I  enjoyed their singing together on the apotheosis of self-admiration the appropriately titled “Gaston.”

Nicholas French may have played a reprehensible character in the form of Gaston, but I still relished they way he performed. It’s quite a trial to play a lothario in an appropriate way to a Disney audience, but Mr. French did so. He teamed up with Ms. Garcia on the outstanding duet: “Me.”

I had one minor issue with the show. I know this is Disney, but dancing wolves? In the story’s context, they were supposed to be threatening creatures. Seeing them dance, made them less so; and Beauty and the Beast isn’t Cats. That’s not to diminish the work of the dancers. More thought out writing would’ve gotten the playwright’s point across better.

Choreographer Jessica Quindlen put together memorable routines. I’d credit dancers Casey Clark, Olivia West, Lindsey Krier, Nicky O’Neal, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Margot Adams, Matthew Janis, Madeline Kendall, Annie Raczko, Kahlil Wyatt, Mike Wemer, Brian Gensel and John Sayles for the technical ability to execute them.

I also enjoyed Taylor Brody in the role of the malevolent Monseiur D’Arque. Bruce A. Curless played the eccentric Maurice exceptionally well.

During intermission, the Ritz allowed theatregoers the opportunity to purchase illuminating roses. When the proper scene arose a series of roseate glows dotted the auditorium. Watching a dark theatre light up with red flowers added to the optical display.

Some “tales as old as time” never get old; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among them. A curse may have ignited the main story spark, but it blessed the audience with a truly enchanting evening. Unfortunately for theatre fans, the petals are falling off the rose while you’re reading this. The magical opportunity to see Beauty and the Beast ends this August 6th.

Rock of Ages at Haddonfield Plays and Players

When narrator Lonny described the action in Rock of Ages as taking place during “the Reagan Era” my face scrunched. Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Lonnie? I thought. My entire memory of that period consists of spending the summer watching the Iran-Contra Hearings. I hoped I wouldn’t start wiggin’ out in the theatre. Then I took a chill pill. I realized that I live in a time when people in government “just say no” to engaging in illegal deals with a hostile foreign power. Theatre goers should feel even more stoked that Haddonfield Plays and Players opted to bring back the era’s best attribute fer sure: the gnarly music. They delivered some schweet renditions in Rock of Ages when I attended the mahvelous performance on July 22, 2017.

The show featured a most fresh premise. Author Christopher D’Arienzo re-worked the old small-town girl goes to Hollywood concept. He crafted the musical in a way so that host of hit songs from the 1980s delivered the 411.

The dancers in this show earned my respect fast; and continued to earn it throughout the entire performance. La’Nise Ambrose did monumental work in coordinating the moves. I give immense credit to dudettes Audrey DiEnno, Katharina Munoz, Tiara Nock and Nicolette Palombo. They kept up the same level of intensity the entire evening; and the show required a lot of intensity to maintain.

The high tech production quality impressed me. Rock of Ages featured a live band and a big screen. Combined with the singing and dancing, it made for a complex show. Director Ed Doyle did an extraordinary job coordinating all these facets.

Anyone interested in the popular music of the 1980s MUST see this show. As a fan of the era’s tunes, I got stoked to hear the rock-o-rama presented in this type of forum. The quality of singing enhanced the tracks much more than I’d expected. How much better these songs sounded when performed by the cast surprised me.

Few would dispute Lou Gramm delivered outstanding vocals during Foreigner’s prime. Performers Michael Robert Anderson and Dana Masterman made him sound dag. They sang one of the best duets I’ve ever heard on “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” They combined with Vinnie DiFillipo to deliver a passionate “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Mr. Anderson and Ms. Masterman weren’t the only performers who delivered memorable duets. Ed “Rico” Santiago and Aaron Blake combined their skills for a comical rendition of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feelin’.”I liked the way they managed to sing this tender ballad in their characters’ voices.

Dana Masterman turned in a totally ace performance. While an extremely gifted vocalist, she possesses boss skills for non-verbal communication. This performer’s smiling and upbeat facial expressions reflected those of an idealistic young woman. As the show progressed, Ms. Masterman deftly conveyed disillusion over her character’s romantic problems and career failures. Her shibby inability to quite master pole dancing got laughs, as well.

After hearing Michael Robert Anderson croon these 80s classics, fans would gag on a spoon listening to the originals. Mr. Anderson sang so remarkably well that I had trouble imagining a struggling musician could have such talent. Still, he acted the role of Drew very convincingly. He sustained a high note on “Oh, Sherrie” without vibrato. Singers in 80s cover bands would be well served to study his technique.

The show contained a large cast. No one person could bogart all the accolades. The posse worked very well together and complimented one another’s talents to the max.

Holly Birch Knapp’s performance as the radical Reginia was, well, radical. She displayed exceptional passion leading the “We’re Not Gonna Take It” number.

Vinnie DiFillipo showed fantastic comedy prowess as the randy rock star. Monette Solomon delivered outstanding vocals on “Anyway You Want It” and “Shadows of the Night.” I applaud Bill Zeoli and David Fusco for the ability to sing with authentic German accents. I’d also compliment performers Armando Mendez, Trisha Dennis, Jenn Kopesky-Doyle, Faith McCleery, Jenni Pines, Amanda Frederick, Cara Dickinson, Shannon McClernan and Jeremy Noto for their contributions to the ensemble.

I also enjoyed hearing the live band under Mark Kozachyn’s direction. Eric Madden shred his guitar like a true 80s axe-man.

“So what’s your damage with this production?” You may ask. I found it grody that Antonio Baldasari didn’t have more stage time as Aresenal’s new lead singer. The man possesses a genius for comedy. If Mr. Baldasari stood in front of an audience reading the phone book he’d find a way to make people laugh. In his limited scenes, he still amused the audience.

Rock of Ages reminded me that the 80s contained some choice music. I’m not being bogus when I write that that the cast and crew presented one tubular production. I’ve fallen for this show and I can’t get up. Cowabunga! Grab the Bartles and Jaymes and jet to the theatre. Where’s the beef? It’s totally happening at Haddonfield Plays and Players until August 4th.

Dan Brothers: The Critique Compendium Interview

Dan Brothers Picture

Dan has been involved in theater since 2003 with Burlington County Bridge Players production of The Complete History of America as Assistant Director.  Since then he has appeared in worked on the following productions:

At the Burlington County Bridge Players he assistant directed Arsenic and Old Lace. He acted in A Christmas Carol, Exit Date, and Don’t Dress For Dinner.

He acted in The Champagne Charlie Stakes at the Hanover Street Theater.

He acted in the following shows at Burlington Country Footlighters: The Nerd, Dangerous Liaisons, The Boys Next Door, Assassins, As Bees in Honey Drown, Rumors, Legally Blonde, And The Winner Is, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Foreigner, Rabbit Hole and The Fox on the Fairway.

He also produced Metamorphosis.

Mr. Brothers graciously consented to an interview on 7/7/17. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

 

Critique Compendium: In a recent interview, Al Krier expressed some pretty strong thoughts about you. He said, and I quote, “Dan is the best! I will share a stage with him anytime. He is very generous as an actor.” Do you agree?

Dan Brothers: Vice versa. Al’s a good friend. Playing opposite him is cake. I’m very comfortable working with him.

You have no choice but to raise your game around him. He’s one of that select few that do that. He’s that good. It’s a joy to work with him. Kudos.

In Glengarry Glen Ross we were both funny together. It gelled. Sometimes you know you got it. With that show we both knew we had it.

 

Critique Compendium: What was it like to perform in shows directed by your wife, Valerie Brothers?

Dan Brothers: It’s a good time. It’s fun, but different. She’s allowed to come down on me much more because I’m her husband. She comes down on me anyway. (Laughs.)

She’s a perfectionist. I’ve known her for 11 years. When she does a project she’s all in.

We have different ways of preparing. The clash can be fun and challenging at the same time.

She really takes care of a script. She does extensive preparation. Eight to 12 months out, she has something laid out.

The Nerd was the first show I auditioned for at Footlighters. I got the lead and at the first read through with the cast I learned that there’s a surprise ending regarding my character. That’s the first time I knew about the ending because I didn’t read the entire script before auditioning.  Pretty sad isn’t it.

I’m the very opposite of Valerie.

 

Critique Compendium: Your character in The Fox on the Fairway had quite an infatuation with Elizabeth Deal’s character. Did having your wife as the director influence your performance in any way?

Dan Brothers: Not in the slightest. Liz and I became good friends over the last few years. We got to know each other quite well during Rumors.

That’s one of the unseen things that happens in community theatre. Meeting people and making friends is the best part. It’s the best reward.

There was no uncomfortableness during that show.

 

Critique Compendium: You’ve worked as an assistant director in the past. Have you ever considered directing yourself?

Dan Brothers: I’ve daydreamed about it. I don’t know when it’s going to happen. It could be a couple of years from now.

 

Critique Compendium: You’ve also performed on stage with your wife, Valerie, most recently in Rumors. The two of you also played a married couple in Exit Date. What’s it like sharing the stage with your spouse?

Dan Brothers: That’s a good time. We met during The Nerd and would laugh and flirt quite a bit…we still do that.

 

Critique Compendium: In the scene where yours and Al Krier’s character made the bet in The Fox on the Fairway, how did you keep a straight face? Between his silly sweater and the tone of voice he used, that must’ve been difficult.

Dan Brothers: Good question. There’ve been so many moments like that. What happens for me is I get the laughs out of the way during rehearsal.

When it’s “game time” you’re conscious of the fact people paid to see the show. People should see us performing to the best of our abilities.

On stage, I’m more focused on staying in character. I find that more difficult that not laughing or giggling.

I’m actually more nervous about misspeaking a line or stuttering than laughing.

 

Critique Compendium: You’ve performed with Mr. Krier regularly. You also played the male lead in his directorial debut, Rabbit Hole. Was it any different working with him as a director?

Dan Brothers: Yes. That show was extremely rewarding. Al’s a very laid-back individual and that was exactly how he directed. I was very grateful to be cast in that show.

People are familiar with me playing funny roles. I remember a compliment Brenda Kelly Bacon gave me after seeing Rabbit Hole, she said something to the effect: “When you first came out I expected to laugh but as the show went on I forgot I was watching you.” Those are the compliments that really hit home.

I love getting laughs, but if I can move people it’s that much more rewarding because it’s not something I normally do. I’ll always cherish the role for that reason.

 

Critique Compendium: In Rabbit Hole, you played a father struggling to cope with the loss of his four-year-old son. The scene of you watching the videos of him really moved me.  How did you condition yourself to get through that a show that emotionally demanding every night?

Dan Brothers: I take personal experiences. Not all our days are happy. Many years ago I lost someone very close to me. I resort to what it was like to lose her.

It’s got to be unbelievably devastating to lose a child. I’m not a parent, but I do know what loss is.

When you’re on stage you want to do the best you can. I drew on my personal experiences to drive it home.

In The Boys Next Door I played a boy abused by his father. My mother said there were a couple of times during the show there was silence instead of applause after a scene I was in and that in itself is the audience’s reaction to what they just witnessed. I learned in that show that silent audience is actually high praise.

It’s quite something to get that reaction.

 

Critique Compendium: Rumors featured an abundance of slapstick humor. You played a physically demanding role in that show. In fact, the character you played got hit by a door and even broke his nose. How did you prepare for it?

Dan Brothers: I drank lattes and sat on the couch.

To the kids who want to get into theatre: don’t prepare like Dan. I really don’t prepare. That should prove helpful for any future directors who might consider casting me.

You’ve got to listen to your director. Scott (Angehr) casts you because you earned it. Now you’ve got to prove it to him. You’ve got to prove him right.

Take the vase toss and “one more time” in the Fox on the Fairway. In “one more time” we reenacted the show in three minutes. It comes down to rehearsals.

I can be a real bitch when I’m rehearsing. During “one more time” there was a lot of bumping and dropping things. You just keep going even if there’s a mistake.

As far as the vase toss goes the vase never dropped. Liz (Deal) made a catch like Odell Beckham, Jr. one night, but the vase never dropped.

You rehearse the hell out of it and get it right.

 

Critique Compendium: You and Rachel Comenzo played a married couple in Rumors. What was it like playing opposite her?

Dan Brothers: She’s a delightful young woman. She’s great to work with. Rachel and I would actually find time alone to run lines and ideas about our characters together which really made our first scene together very strong and enjoyable. She’s great to play against.

With that show our characters didn’t go on stage until 45 minutes in. Backstage, we’d play games. Liz’s (Deal’s) character didn’t enter until late into the second act. We all had a blast. The show was a great time.

Critique Compendium: One of your strongest traits is your voice. You can do soothing baritone. You can also broadcast very well. Is that something you were born with or did you develop it?

Dan Brothers: My parents gave me my voice. I use it a lot. Some might say too much. It’s cool to have compliments on my voice.

 

Critique Compendium: What first interested you in the performing arts?

Dan Brothers: Chicks. (Laughs)

Kevin Esmond and I went to high school together. The guy’s amazing. Holy Cross was doing a show of Anything Goes. Kevin rattled names of girls involved in the theatre. I decided to try out and got cast. It was amazing. There was tap and singing in the show. I never thought I’d do it.

I returned to South Jersey from Florida in 2006 and once again Kevin reached out to me to asst. direct Burlington County Bridge Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace. I’ve been involved in community theatre since.

 

Critique Compendium: What types of things interest you in playing a role?

Dan Brothers: Quite a bit. My roles have been very diverse. Howie (in Rabbit Hole) and Bingham (in The Fox on the Fairway) were very different. I’d have to say it has to be someone I can relate to in a pretty good way.

In Rabbit Hole, for instance, while I’m not a parent, I do know how to be a good husband. The character had a desire to seek affection elsewhere. That’s very foreign to me because of Valerie. Ultimately, he wanted to be with his wife. I know how to be a good man.

Valerie is greatest thing that happened to me. I’m crazy about this woman. I like bringing that into a character.

Rabbit Hole was very real and needed to be performed as such. I didn’t want to make fun of this character.

Rebekah (Masters) and I had a scene where we really laid into one another. We worked very hard with Al and Val to make sure we got it right. It really worked. That was my favorite scene in the show.

Quite frankly it’s hard to specify what turns me on to a particular role.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

Dan Brothers: I’d have to pick more than one.

Rick Stedman in The Nerd. I don’t toot my own horn very often, but there are times when you know you’ve got a character locked in and this was certainly one of those times.

Howie Corbett in Rabbit Hole is another one, for reasons I mentioned earlier.

Barry Klemper in Boys Next Door. He’s a great character. It wasn’t even the one I wanted in the show. But getting cast as Barry was wonderful learning experience. That’s where I learned drama can be as rewarding as making someone laugh. It was a good lesson.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

Dan Brothers: I had a hard time with Henry Bingham (The Fox on the Fairway), but I wouldn’t say it’s the most difficult. I find comedies easier than dramas.

I had to sing two lines in Legally Blonde which was actually quite nerve-wracking since I’m not musically gifted.

I would probably say Barry. It took me a while to learn. I didn’t get the part I auditioned for but I needed to get over it. The show dealt with some pretty tough issues in a direct way and also a lighthearted approach. It’s a beautifully written show and will always be grateful for being a part of it.

 

Critique Compendium: What actors have influenced you?

Dan Brothers: Jack Nicholson. He was in my favorite movie, The Shining. Talk about natural ability! The guy just knows how to do it. He can convey so much without ever saying a word.

 

Critique Compendium: If you had the opportunity to work with any other actor either living or dead, who would it be?

Dan Brothers: Nicholson. I would love to work with him. It would be very intimidating but very cool as well.

 

Critique Compendium: What do you do when you’re not on stage? What are your hobbies?

Dan Brothers: Golf. Val loves it. She has cats. I have golf. It works beautifully.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you balance a career, family and other activities with the demands of performing in community theater productions?

Dan Brothers: It’s pretty easy for me. I’ll separate work from theatre. I get in game mode for theatre.

These days I’m getting my lines down quicker. If you have lines down faster, it gives you more time to work on the role. I like playing with the role. When you’re in a show your wife is directing, you have to get your lines down quicker.

 

Critique Compendium: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

Dan Brothers: Rewarding. It’s all been rewarding.

 

Clybourne Park at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

My most memorable moment as a theatre critic occurred several months ago at Burlington County Footlighters. During a production of The Fox on the Fairway, they used my name during the show. I’m sure glad my name didn’t come up during their 2nd Stage presentation of Clybourne Park. I much rather prefer having my golfing ability questioned in a public forum than getting associated with the themes in this story. In addition to a sense of relief, Footlighters treated me to a thought provoking and entertaining performance on June 16th.

Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning drama also received the 2012 Tony Award for best play. The story addressed the topic of racism in America. The first act occurred in 1959 and the second fifty years later in 2009. With housing as the background, it explored the state of race relations in American society during two different time periods.

The playwright used an interesting technique. The same actors played different characters in acts one and two. All had a personal connection to either the neighborhood or the home that served as the play’s lone setting. It led to some unsettling discussions involving race. In the first act, white people fought the perceived encroachment by African Americans into the community. Over time the neighborhood demographic shifted becoming predominantly African American. Mr. Norris then added an interesting twist. In the second act, the African Americans fought to preserve the neighborhood’s historical heritage from white people’s interference.

Sensitive theatregoers should be forewarned: Mr. Norris’ show featured raw dialog. It made me feel uncomfortable during the second act when the characters discussed racial matters. During the first act I found the conversation just painful. The characters seemed very timid as though they struggled to understand one another, but just couldn’t find the right way to communicate their thoughts.  The discussion in the 2009 act deteriorated into anger and resentment. The racist jokes from both sides compounded the animosity.

Shows that require actors to play multiple characters challenge thespians. Most times that’s because their roles possess antithetical traits to one another. Clybourne Park took an original approach to this technique. Even though the cast played different characters, the roles they performed possessed the same values and beliefs. The difference showed in how they chose to express them.

Performers Sheldon Jackson and Nina Law played the African American couple in both scenes. In the first act, Ms. Law took on the role of an ostensibly obedient domestic servant. She always seemed hesitant or uncomfortable when speaking to her employer Bev (Kathy Harmer). Her open expressions of frustration and defiance towards her husband showed her true character. I credit Ms. Law for executing this challenging balancing act so well.

Mr. Jackson removed his hat and recited a series of “yes, ma’am”s when addressing his wife’s employer. While overtly polite, his mannerisms and speech reflected an underlying tension.

In the second act, they transitioned into more assertive people. Mr. Jackson physically confronted Steve (Fred Ezell) in response to his insulting his wife. Ms. Law crossed her arms and legs, pursed her lips while attending the meeting, thus expressing contempt through her mannerisms. Then she confronted Steve when he intimated his views on race.

Both Mr. Jackson and Ms. Law animated these challenging emotions brilliantly. Their counterparts as the white couple, Fred Ezell and Stevie Neale, did the same.

In the first act, Mr. Ezell looked and sounded the role of someone fighting to preserve his “progressive community.” He struggled when explaining how “different” people were, well, “different.” He held his hat in front of him as if metaphorically trying to conceal the character’s true inner feelings.

Stevie Neale turned in an extraordinary performance as a deaf woman; someone incapable of hearing the goings on around her. Ms. Neale’s manner of speaking demonstrated that she took the time to research and comprehend the role.

In the second act, the hat was gone and Mr. Ezell’s character let loose. While managing to repress and feign his feelings he eventually expressed his views with abandon; even telling a bigoted joke.

During this portion of the show Ms. Neale’s character couldn’t avoid hearing her husband’s views. While reserved at first, she also became enraged at the course of the conversation. As with the African American wife in the first act, she directed it at her husband.

In the first act, Kathy Harmer played an outstanding 1950s wife. She expressively pranced about the room discussing trite matters with her husband. Even with the stresses of an uncertain future following a horrible family tragedy, she exhibited a sense of optimism. In the second she became a dull lawyer.

Jonathan Edmonson ran the emotional gamut in Clybourne Park. This performer transitioned from a priest in the first act to an attorney in the second. (It’s hard to imagine any two roles more oppositional than these.) His calm reserve in response to Russ’ (Al Krier) insults gave way to impatience and aggravation in act two.  Later in the show he returned in the role of a somber, distraught man.

Al Krier always makes himself unique in his performances. Usually he does so through his costuming. While the bandana he wore in act two did present a rather unique look for him, he distinguished himself in the first act. In yet another example of why I’m glad my name didn’t come up the show, he instructed a priest (Jonathan Edmonson) to go “f–k himself.”

Mr. Krier turned in an extraordinary performance even by the standard of excellence I expect from him. In the first act, he played a father with anger issues over a family tragedy. He convincingly played someone trying to repress his emotions; especially, by the calm way he delivered the line in the preceding paragraph. Later in the scene he vented his rage at the community itself. In the second act, he refocused and became the show’s comic relief.

The play contained a range of dialog; some of it very tense and other portions rather comical. I didn’t care for the opening of both acts with banal discussions. The conversations droned on far too long for the effect the playwright wanted to achieve. I’d encourage audience members to be patient and endure them. Beyond that one shortcoming, I found the rest of the story well written.

As with a previous visit to Footlighters 2nd Stage, I had the opportunity to sit next to the director. (Blogging about community theatre has its perks.) Carla Ezell laughed heartily during the comedic lines. That impressed me. She’s worked on this show with the cast and crew for months. Familiar dialog still drawing that kind of reaction from her demonstrated her enthusiasm. That passion carried over into the performances.

Clybourne Park brought an uncomfortable part of the American experience to the stage. With that noted, a diverse audience attended the same performance I did. Not one attendee walked out. No one reacted in anger. It led me to believe that just maybe, should Mr. Norris add a third act covering the year 2059, the characters would behave with more civility towards one another. For now, theatre fans can attend the conflict laden version at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd stage through June 24th.

 

City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters

I spent a long evening of being mesmerized this May 5th. The excessive amount of talent on stage nearly overwhelmed me when I attended the opening of Burlington County Footlighters presentation of City of Angels. This Daryl S. Thompson, Jr. directed piece contained superb acting, great dancing and extraordinary singing. It also featured performances by several South Jersey Community Theatre legends. DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor all returned to the Footlighters stage. To add to the show’s appeal, Jim Frazer designed the set and Cameron Stringham served as musical director. Mallory Beach and Erica Paloucci handled the choreography.

Well, what else is there to say?  Oh, DJ Hedgepath and Rachel Comenzo once again showed us mortals why we all need to keep our day jobs. This is the easiest review I’ve ever written. Enjoy the rest of your day.

For the benefit of those people who like details, I’ll continue.

The show applied the “story-within-a-story” approach to a musical. It told the tale of screenwriter Stine’s (DJ Hedgepath) quest to write the script for a movie called City of Angels. In the course of doing so, he battled Hollywood producer and director Buddy Fidler’s (Steve Rogina) incessant meddling, he struggled to keep his marriage to Gabby (Rachel Comenzo) together; a feat complicated by his infidelity with Donna (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), and the voice of his protagonist, Stone (John Romano), tussled with him in his head.

In a manner reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, characters from real life ended up in the imagined story. One has to credit the performers who played dual roles during the same evening.

Kaitlyn Delengowski stood out as portraying the two most diverse characters. I really enjoyed the high-pitched squealy voice she selected for the Carla character; quite a departure from that of the haughty, Alaura Kingsley.

As to where the story went after that: your guess is as good as mine. With the Hollywood characters becoming the movie characters, the plot twists in the detective’s quest and Stine’s re-writes, I found it far too complicated to follow. It didn’t matter, though. The fantastic singing and superb performances made for a very enjoyable evening.

The story didn’t possess the same complexity as some of the melodies, however. David Zippel’s lyrics didn’t quite compliment Cy Coleman’s odd musical phrasing, either. They gave the singers a challenge.

Rachel Comenzo delivered a transcendent performance on the intricate “It Needs Work”. Perhaps inspired by her skill, DJ Hedgepath followed it up several tunes later with his stellar rendition of the equally difficult “Funny”.

The musical began with an unconventional and difficult opening to perform. It started as scat singing that transitioned into a barber shop quartet. Performers Stephen Jackson, Matthew Maerten, Emily Huddell and Kori Rife accepted the challenge of hooking the audience with this unusual material. They executed this task brilliantly.

Not many players would volunteer for the opportunity to sing a duet containing sixteenth notes. Fans familiar with them already know that Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor possess exceptional vocal prowess. They showed it with their rendition of “What You Don’t Know about Women.”

DJ Hedgepath and John Romano shared their own dual moment in the spotlight, as well. They delivered an outstanding performance on the “You’re Nothing without Me” number.

The cast delivered outstanding presentations. Mr. Romano tuned in a solid performance as the hard-boiled detective. I enjoyed his interactions with his edgy secretary (Jillian Star-Renbjor), the wealthy wife (Kaitlyn Delengowski) and the gangsters (Wayne Renbjor and the brilliantly comical Tony Flores). Noel McLeer played the missing girl very well, too. This group made me feel like I watched a musical interpretation of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Steve Rogina’s portrayal of the arrogant Hollywood director added a nice element to the story, as well.

Unlike many directors, Darryl Thompson, Jr. chose not to spend the night in the control booth. Instead, he opted to add his own superior vocal talents to the show. I’ve heard him sing bluesy and soulful material in the past. In this production, he showcased his ability to croon jazzy tracks with “Ya Gotta Look Out for Yourself” and the tender ballad “Stay with Me.”

I’d also like to credit Vitaliy Kin’s performance in the roles of Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz. I still remember several years ago hearing him perform Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish in The Wedding Singer. As comical as it was, he sang the tune very well. In this show, he delivered an awesome “All Ya Have to Do is Wait” number featuring a salsa and conga dance.

It thrilled me to hear Rachel Comenzo showcase her vocal talents once again. I watched her perform several non-singing roles last year. Ms. Comenzo’s rendition of “With Every Breath I Take” as nightclub singer, Bobbi, made up for the long wait. Her voice delivered great vibrato, soft inflection and outstanding modulation. I thought the band a little too loud on this number. Without a microphone, she still found a way to deliver soft notes in a manner so the audience could still hear her clearly. I’m still trying to figure out how that was even possible.

While crooning this moving number she also used extraordinary facial expressions toward Mr. Romano’s character. As difficult as this may be to believe, she conveyed Bobbi’s emotions non-verbally so well, that the scene would’ve been just as effective had she been silent.

With the possible exception of Mr. Hedgepath, I’ve never watched a performer get into character as well as Ms. Comenzo. Somehow, she manages this so flawlessly, that one sometimes loses sight of just how proficient she is at doing so. That’s talent.

It’s always difficult to select a ‘best’ DJ Hedgepath moment. His duets with Mr. Romano and monumental solo rendition of “Funny” would be good contenders. I also liked when he stepped out of the spotlight to put on the trench coat, glasses and hat and become one of the background dancers. In addition to his superior skill as a performer, you have to respect actors who are willing to accept any role to remain on the stage.

The City of Angels title aptly fit the show. The cast took the audience to heaven. The production impressed so much that “you can always count on me” to tout its praises “with every breath I take.” It’s true that “ya gotta look out for yourself.” There’s nothing “funny” about that, but “eve’rybody’s gotta be somewhere.” So why not use “the buddy system” and take a friend to go see it? “All ya have to do is wait” until the next performance.