South Jersey

Lecture Review – “In Flew Enza: The 1918 Flu Epidemic in Philadelphia and New Jersey” by Mikey DiCamillo

2018 marks the hundredth anniversary of one of history’s most horrific years. With the bloodbath of the First World War, it’s easy to forget that 2018 also commemorates the centenary of another catastrophe. This one also caused massive loss of life. Unlike the war, this one affected people well beyond the battlefields. It even made a tremendous impact in our region. This disaster caused eight to 12 thousand deaths in Philadelphia and another 2,600 in Camden County. This malady made no noise, had no smell and couldn’t be detected by the naked eye. Today we know that killer as the influenza virus.

Historian Mickey DiCamillo enhanced my understanding. He presented a lecture on the 1918 flu pandemic this July 11th. It took place in the May Barton Memorial Garden located at the Historical Society of Moorestown.

While a somber topic for a summer lecture, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about it. I have a personal connection to this subject. My great-grand aunt and Philadelphia resident Edith Bishop Clark succumbed during the 1918 flu pandemic on October 13, 1918. Mrs. Cark was only 27 years old. Since her sister, my great-grandmother Violet Bishop Connelly, lived to be 80, I wondered how someone so young could be struck down by something as common as the flu.

Mr. DiCamillo didn’t disappoint. He provided a thorough overview of the outbreak. The historian performed copious research on the topic. It gave him a solid understanding of the subject matter.

The lecture focused on several key areas: the epidemic’s origin, why it spread so quickly and how society responded to it.

I’d often heard the pandemic referred to as the “Spanish Flu.” Mr. DiCamillo explained that this is a misnomer. He explored the historiography of how scholars analyzed the outbreak’s roots.

During the First World War a myth spread that the pandemic originated with German POWs. Interestingly, during the 1940s and 1950s, historians then theorized that it began among Russian POWs. Mr. DiCamillo noted that in both cases, the historians of the day attributed it to America’s main adversary.

Contemporary historians theorize that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas around February of 1918. A physician named Loring Miner observed young, strong people becoming ill and dying. They experienced regular flu like symptoms that quickly developed into pneumonia. Dr. Miner published his findings. He ominously warned: “the public should be alarmed.”

In March of the same year this flu strain affected Camp Fungsten, a military base in the Haskell County area. Within three weeks medics reported 1,100 cases there. Many soldiers from this facility landed in Brest, France. Mr. DiCamillo described that city as “ground zero” for the European’s flu’s outbreak.

The Haskell County origin is a hypothesis, Mr. DiCamillo noted. Modern researchers can document the Kansas outbreak because Dr. Miner published his findings in a Federal Government journal. The epidemic struck all over the world. That makes it very difficult to identify its precise beginning.

The scourge spread to the Northeast beginning in late summer. Soldiers at military bases became its first victims. The close quarters common to barracks allowed for the illness’ easy transmission.

Mr. DiCamillo then focused his remarks on the Camden County and Philadelphia areas. He cited a “voice from the era”, to describe events. A local newspaper, the Camden Daily Courier, reported that the flu had passed the region on 9/20/1918. Then between 9/20 and 9/24, Camp Dix experienced 1,000 cases of it.

The speaker referenced another voice from the era in the person of Alton W. Miller. While stationed at Kentucky’s Camp Taylor, he wrote letters to his sister stating he felt “sick.” He didn’t report his illness at the base because, “Everybody who goes into the hospital doesn’t come out.” His concern proved prescient. When he could no longer hide his symptoms, he was sent there. He passed away shortly afterwards.

Mr. DiCamillo presented his own theory as to how the epidemic spread through the area. On September 28, 1918 a Liberty Loan Rally was scheduled to take place at Willow Grove Park. With flu raging through the Northeast, the organizers debated whether or not to hold the event. Philadelphia’s public health officials adhered to the specious belief that they had a vaccine to combat the illness. They gave permission for the gathering to take place. On that date 200,000 people gathered in Willow Grove Park.

Three days later the number of flu cases in Philadelphia leapt from 100 to 635. Around this time news of the flu appeared on the front page of the Camden Daily Courier for the first time.

So why was this flu so contagious? Mr. DiCamillo provided two explanations. He estimated that 75% of the area’s trained medical personnel went overseas to support the war effort. He added that the conflict “sped everything up.” Factories operated 24 hours a day.

People of the day used some modern methods to treat the malady. The patient would be isolated. The sick person’s body temperature would be carefully monitored. Cathartics would be used to “rid the patient off poisons.” The patient would be encouraged to breathe fresh air, keep their windows screened and to drink plenty of fluids.

Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing stories as to how people responded to the crisis.

By the first week of October, officials in Camden and Philadelphia took measures to control the illness’ spread. They ordered schools, churches and social clubs closed. Philadelphia even took the added step of shutting down saloons. Camden did not. This led to an influx of people from the City of Brotherly Love into the South Jersey area. Residents described their behavior as failing to give credence to the city’s nickname.

At the time doctors prescribed whiskey to treat the epidemic. Historians doubt that’s what led so many Philadelphians to swarm into South Jersey’s taverns, though.

During the crisis the Philadelphia Inquirer made an editorial decision not to print articles about the flu on the front page. Unlike modern media that thrives on sensationalism the newspaper didn’t want to start a panic.

Remember that “vaccine” Philadelphia public health officials figured would defeat the illness? It was designed to fight a bacterial malady: not a viral one. Even if it had been, it wouldn’t have had much impact. The epidemic passed around the third week of October.

Mr. DiCamillo opened his remarks by saying that talking about the subject, “Makes me nervous to be around people.” After listening to his lecture, I could understand why. If Mr. DiCamillo ever becomes interested in making a career change, he’d make a great salesman for flu shots.

 

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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Friday the 13th theatregoers got lucky. Haddonfield Plays and Players decided to present a witty take on some dirty rotten scoundrels. There may not be honor among thieves, but they sure displayed some pretty good acting, singing and dancing chops. I attended the opening night performance on July 13th.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels told the story of aging con-man Lawrence Jameson (played by Chris Fitting). Accompanied by his assistant, police Inspector Andre Thibault (Kacper Miklus), he took on the guise of a fictitious prince. He travelled the Riviera swindling women. During one con he encountered Freddie Benson (Sidney (Syd) Manfred Maycock III). The latter aspired to a life of chicanery but struggled to get his start. He asked Jameson to teach him the art of the craft.

Initially reluctant, Jameson discovered that one of his marks, the gun toting Jolene Oakes, (Lauren Elisabeth) already arranged their wedding. Facing an exile to the prairies of Oklahoma Jameson reconsidered the novice’s offer. The two teamed up on a comical skit to dissuade her. Then the partnership deteriorated.

The two made a deal. Whoever could swindle the next wealthy woman they met for $50,000 could remain in the area. The loser would leave town. Enter the “soap girl”, Christine Colgate (Kristina Coia). As they utilized some creative hijinks to win the challenge, both men found themselves falling in love with her.

I’ll avoid giving away spoilers. I will note that the script contained outstanding use of foreshadowing. Author Jeffrey Lane and lyricist David Yazbek used it with great subtlety, but it all made sense at the story’s conclusion: and what a conclusion! The ending contained plot twists that rivaled the Saw movies finales.

This show gets my Sienkiewicz Award. This honor comes from a line in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis: “I wish it had been worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (directed by Ryk Lewis) impressed me that much.

Chris Fitting cemented his reputation as the sharpest dressed man in South Jersey community theatre. There’s only performance I’ve seen where Mr. Fitting didn’t wear either a suit or a tuxedo. It’s refreshing that even in the modern era some people still find it appropriate to dress up for a night at the theatre.

The wardrobe aside Mr. Fitting’s style of performing puts him in a unique class. The aristocratic tone with the hint of a British accent suited his character brilliantly. He also displayed exceptional skill in adding an Austrian accent to it when his character played the doctor from Vienna.

Mr. Fitting executed some complex song and dance numbers flawlessly. I enjoyed his somber rendition of the ballad, “Love Sneaks In.” Through this tune he added an unexpected dimension to the con-man’s personality. He performed this adjustment in a believable manner.

Syd Maycock possesses a genius for comedy. His befuddled facial expressions while Ms. Koia sang “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True” were just as superb as her singing. He made it obvious he couldn’t believe the things she said. When she prodded him to continue the song, he stumbled over lyrics like he was hearing them for the first time.

When trying to deceive Ms. Coia’s character into giving him the money Mr. Maycock utilized a tender voice of his own. The way he exaggerated it made the inflection hysterical.

His best number occurred when he performed “Great Big Stuff.” Ryk Lewis’ choreography turned it into an awesome song and dance routine with the ensemble. After a performance like this some great big stuff is in store for Mr. Maycock.

Kristina Coia wins the first ever Sienkiewicz Award for Best Actress. Ms. Coia pulled off the most ingenious character transformation I’ve ever seen, heard or read. I won’t give it away as it would ruin the experience for those unfamiliar with the story. Ms. Coia enacted the change in a way that will still surprise audiences.

Aside from revolutionizing the concept of character transformations, Ms. Coia also displayed exceptional vocal capability. She selected the proper voice to sing her character’s songs. Ms. Coia’s soft, tender vocals worked very well on numbers such as “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True.”

These three thespians complimented each other wonderfully. The “Ruffhousin’ Mit Shuffhausen” made for the show’s highpoint. Mr. Fitting attempted to win the bet by forcing Mr. Maycock to admit he could feel below his waist. Mr. Fitting made this effort while singing, dancing and hitting him on the thighs with a cane. Mr. Maycock’s expressions and strained denials were impeccable. Ms. Coia’s concern and naïveté added the perfect enhancement to the scene.

I’m familiar with Gina Petti’s skill as a dancer. Ms. Petti displayed it often in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I’d never heard the performer’s singing skills. The show provided the opportunity. As Muriel Ms. Petti performed lovely renditions of “What Was a Woman to Do” and the “Like Zis/Like Zat” reprise.

Kacper Miklus delivered and sang his lines in a perfect French accent. He joined Ms. Petti for the duet “Like Zis/Like Zat” and crooned the solo “Chimp in a Suit.” He got laughs trying to play the suave suitor to Ms. Petti while struggling to ignite a cigarette with an empty lighter.

Jennifer Gordon choreographed the “Oklahoma?” routine. This one combined elaborate dancing with comedy. Lauren Elizabeth led the ensemble through one rockin’ hoedown.

I would also credit performers Mary Simrin, Julieann Calabrese, Tony Yates, Sarah Blake, Jen Stefan, Rebecca Dilks, Sheila M. Haswell, Andrea Veneziano, Briant Lopez, Ryan Fanelli, and Robert Haggerty for their contributions to the performance.

I had some minor issues with the script. The show broke fourth wall a few times. Most notably when Jolene informed Lawrence that she arranged their wedding, he asked, “Did I miss a scene?”

I also couldn’t tell when the story occurred. The script contained references to Bob Guccione, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump; the latter because of his wealth. As the movie of the same name released in 1988, I figured it took place during the 1980s. Then Lawrence made a joke alluding to George W. Bush. I found this inconsistent.

In the “Give Them What They Want” number, Lawrence added, “then you leave them wanting more.” The cast and crew of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels did just that. The same song borrowed a line from John Keats’ Endymion:  “Truth is beauty.” It may be, but it’s not as beautiful as this performance. If you don’t believe me you have until August 3rd to determine for yourself.

 

The Fantasticks at the Ritz Theatre Company

When I read the title of the Ritz Theatre Company’s latest production, The Fantasticks, I figured it referred to the cast.  The show featured South Jersey community theatre legends Alan Krier, Bruce A. Curless and Michael Pliskin among other notables. While the show didn’t focus on their personal stories, it sure lived up to the title. I attended the opening night performance on June 1st.

To add to the billing, Matthew Weil (with the assistance of Siarra Ingram) directed this musical. Mr. Weil has a history of organizing the stage very creatively. For The Fantasticks, he utilized a similar set-up to the one he used for Brighton Beach Memoirs. In this show, however, the audience didn’t sit around the stage: they sat on the stage. This allowed the actors to mingle a bit with the spectators while taking their places for the opening scene.

The set-up also gave the thespians the opportunity to make eye contact with the audience while performing. I didn’t just feel like the players spoke to me: they did speak to me. It made the theatrical experience much more personal.

The Fantasticks told the story of teenage beaus Luisa (played by Kristy Joe Slough) and Matt (AJ Klein). The two lived next door to one another, but their feuding fathers Hucklebee (Alan Krier) and Bellamy (Charles J. Gill) kept them apart. The dads did so both figuratively and literally. They erected a wall (played by Brian Gensel) between their properties to keep the two separated…or so they wanted their kids to believe.

In the witty duet “Never Say No” the fathers explained that kids always do the opposite of what they’re told. The audience learned these men wanted their children to marry.

Realizing that a physical boundary and a fake quarrel wouldn’t suffice to bring their scheme to fruition, the dads enlisted the aid of a professional. A man who called himself El Gallo (Michael Pliskin) offered to enact an abduction. After recruiting one time Shakespearean actor Henry (Bruce A. Curless) and his sidekick Mortimer (John Nicodemo) the gang feigned an attempt to kidnap Luisa. Following a brief sword fight, Matt ‘saved’ her and emerged the hero.

At this point in the play, I became confused. The act’s final number “Happy Ending” befuddled me even more. Matthew Weil has directed such innovative dramas as The Pillowman and The Heiress. Those plays featured some mind bending plot twists experienced by complex characters. This story concluded much more neatly than I expected.

Then Mr. Pliskin announced the show included a second act. After intermission, then it turned into what I expected from a Matthew Weil directed show. The story arcs in The Fantastics rivaled the other two shows’ I cited. I’ll spare theatregoers spoilers. They deserve the opportunity to experience Mr. Weil’s theatrical journey for themselves. As a teaser, I will note that Act II began with Ms. Slough, Mr. Klein, Mr. Krier and Mr. Gill arguing in song about a plumb being “too ripe.”

The lighting (operated by Stage Manager Sara Viniar) fashioned a spectacular ambiance. The blue shade created a perfect simulation of moonlight. The yellows illuminated the stage just like sunshine. The colors accentuated the tinsel Mr. Gensel dropped on Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough to simulate rain and the paper he fluttered to mimic snow. The lighting also made me feel like the scenes occurred during the time of year indicated by the narrator.

Here we go with ‘the narrator’ thing again. I’ve often ranted about how much I loathe when a playwright makes ‘the narrator’ a character. That was until I experienced Michael Pliskin’s performance in this show. Mr. Pliskin possesses a gift for storytelling. While the show featured excellent dance routines (choreographed by Angela Longo), stellar singing (vocally directed by Robert Stoop) and outstanding acting, Mr. Pliskin’s narration impressed me the most. No one can tell a story like Michael Pliskin. If he’d like to expand his artistic horizons, I’d suggest he consider narrating audio books.

In addition to that role, Mr. Pliskin also played the villain, the deceptively intricate El Gallo. (Phonetically that’s gah-yo, as the character would tell you.) He delivered his lines with a Spanish accent embellished just enough for comic effect. The performer also delivered the most humorous death scene ever portrayed on stage. To balance out his evening, he also sang a moving “Try to Remember” that those who heard will never forget.

Kristy Joe Slough showcased extraordinary operatic vocals throughout the evening. She performed a wonderful solo number “Much More.” Ms. Slough sang duets beautifully with both Mr. Pliskin and Mr. Klein. While doing so, she chose the perfect facial expressions to enhance the lyrics. This performer displayed great dexterity with the ballet moves she performed, as well.

AJ Klein animated Matt’s love for Luisa through both his singing and his mannerisms. He displayed great energy in utilizing the entire stage for one of his dance numbers. Mr. Klein portrayed his character’s growth very credibly. One also has to respect a performer willing to wear both a sweater and a leather jacket on a muggy evening.

The highpoint of the evening occurred when Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough sang “They Were You” together. Both performers sat in front of me while doing so. With the passion in their voices and the yearning in their eyes, they made me feel the love between the two characters.

Alan Krier and Charles J. Gill teamed up for some solid duets of their own. While doing so, they made an exceptional comedy team. Mr. Pliskin even joined them to provide a musical answer on the cost of staging a fake kidnapping. In the “It Depends on What You Pay” number, the trio brought out some pretty hearty laughter from the audience.

Bruce A. Curless and John Nicodemo played two of the funniest henchmen in the history of theatre. Brian Gensel made the most memorable surprise entrance I’ve ever witnessed. (I won’t spoil it for future theatregoers.) I’d compliment Steve Weber for providing wonderful accompaniment in the form of his piano playing. I’d also commend Brennan Diorio for the costuming and Melissa Harnois for her work as assistant stage manager.

I encountered a gentleman in the audience who’d seen The Fantasticks numerous times. As Mr. Pliskin sang the final note of the “Try to Remember” reprise, he moved this fan. One could hear this gentleman’s simple observation: “beautiful” resounding through the theatre as the lights faded. After the show I asked this theatregoer what he thought of this performance compared to the others he’d attended. Without hesitation he told me, “This is New York.” Is there any better theatrical compliment?

Perhaps, there is. With the superlative nature of this performance, it’s possible that someday Broadway audiences will say, “This is The Fantasticks at the Ritz.” That would truly be a “Happy Ending” for this run.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans can watch The Fantasticks live up to its name through June 16th.

Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Crossing Delancey at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Vas mir. I thought I’d go meshuga when I read the glossary in the playbill. Crossing Delancey contained a host of Yiddish expressions. I felt like a schmendrik after spending my gelt to listen to dialog containing words I wouldn’t understand. Then the show started. As I heard the machers and yentas tzimis about a shadkhin the story’s zees keit moved me. Curiously, it also happened to contain the most comprehensible language I’d heard all day. F’shtast? Well, you would if you’d witnessed the show at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage.

Torben Christiansen made his directorial debut March 23rd with this romantic comedy. He explained to me that he “saw the show” a couple of years ago and “loved it.” The next day he contacted Footlighters. He asked for the chance to bring this Susan Sandler piece to their stage.

A full house attended the opening night performance. Both the audience and the company were delighted with what Mr. Christiansen did with the opportunity.

Crossing Delancey presented the story of an unconventional love triangle. Isabelle (or Izzy, played by Erin Bell) developed a crush on her favorite author, Tyler Moss (Ricardo Esteves). The latter frequented the bookstore where she worked. As she found the courage to pursue him, a complication ensued.

Her Bubbie (or grandmother, played by Susan Dewey) contacted a shadkhn (a marriage broker) named Hannah (performed by Jeanne Wayman). She tried to set Izzy up with a pickle salesman named Sam (Buddy Deal). Izzy found her affections torn between the sophisticated author and the traditional Jewish boy. A series of comical and moving scenes resulted.

Erin Bell portrayed the different aspects of Izzy’s personality with equal skill. She played a bookworm overcome by infatuation in her scenes with Mr. Esteves. When performing with Ms. Dewey, she became the dutiful granddaughter. Through her interactions with Mr. Deal she developed Izzy into a mature woman.

Ms. Bell presented her lines in a genuine New York accent. Her facial expressions enhanced her dialog very well.

Susan Dewey turned in stellar performance as the grandmother, or Bubby. She also spoke in a credible accent, sounding like a true New Yorker. She conveyed the character’s love for Izzy and genuine interest in her happiness. The way she feigned not recognizing Sam at the end of the play brought the right amount of humor to a tender moment.

The playwright gave Ms. Dewey’s character the play’s best lines. I liked the conviction with which she delivered: “loneliness is a disease.”

Buddy Deal brought immense depth to the role of Sam. He delivered his lines in a soft spoken manner allowing the power of Ms. Sandler’s words their full impact. A steady stream of “awwwww”s from the house followed his attempts to woo Izzy. I’ve never witnessed a performer draw that kind of reaction from a crowd. The women in the audience swooned over his performance.

The same audience remained silent when Sam’s romantic rival performed one scene wearing nothing but a bath towel. I guess that proves it really is all in the delivery, guys.

Ricardo Esteves played a superb villain. Through both his manner of speech and gestures, he captured the essence of the character’s arrogance and egotism. I applaud his portraying the base aspects of Tyler’s personality while still keeping the role funny.

Mr. Esteves and Ms. Bell performed the most comical love scene in the history of theatre. In enacting one of Izzy’s fantasies, they expressed their feelings for one another in the book store. They did so in an exaggerated way that made it hysterical. It impressed me that they could enact the scene without laughing or even smiling.

Jeanne Wayman really got into the role of Hannah, the marriage arranger. When she made her entrance she handed out cards to the ladies in the audience. Ms. Wayman brought a lot of passion to the role. I enjoyed her first attempt to interest Izzy in Sam.

Mr. Christiansen explained that he wanted to get the best people for this show. This cast displayed great chemistry working together. They also stood out as individuals. It’s tough to find a better combination than that.

Footlighters utilizes the 2nd Stage theatre for smaller scale productions. Crossing Delancey developed into a more high tech spectacle than I expected at that venue. I credit Jim Frazer and Mr. Christiansen for their work on the set. They designed both the kitchen and the book store sections very well. Tim Sagges and Valerie Brothers managed the lights and sound flawlessly.

Some audiences may not be familiar with the Yiddish expressions, but all theatregoers will recognize Crossing Delancey’s themes. Who can’t empathize with a character torn between infatuation and a sweet person with a good heart? Not to mention receiving pressure from family to get married. We can all understand those situations. Zie ge zunt. The show runs through March 31st.

Lecture Review – “The Garden State or Cancer Alley?” by Thomas Belton

Thomas Belton took a pretty eclectic career path on his way to becoming an environmental historian. After receiving a degree in classical languages he ended up working on telephone poles. Following that endeavor, he returned to school with the intent of becoming a doctor. At the time he took an elective class in ornithology. The choice proved rather adventitious as it inspired his interest in the ecology. Once he received his degree in marine biology he made environmental studies his full time pursuit. He landed a job with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection working in their Science and Research division. 2010 marked the time when he could add the task of environmental historian to his resume. At that time Rivergate Books published his tome Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the Garden State. Mr. Belton added lecturer to his list of careers when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown this March 14th. At the Moorestown Library he delivered an address called “The Garden State of Cancer Alley?” based on his book.

Mr. Belton shared a number of vignettes from his career as an environmental scientist. He discussed his participation in a veritable “detective story” that entailed “using science in a Sherlock Holmes sort of way.” He participated in a study to answer why large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were entering Camden’s water supply. Using tools such as Graphic Information Studies he and his team managed to identify them coming from one location in the city.

The speaker explained the significance of PCBs in non-scientific jargon. These chemicals are a known carcinogen. Even the US government recognized their danger. He noted in his book they became the first chemical ever banned by Congress. (Page 38) Mr. Belton spent a good part of his lecture describing his efforts to identify their presence in bluefish off the New Jersey coast then tracing their source. Following that he participated in issuing Fish Public Health Advisories. From this experience, he learned how to explain scientific concepts to lay people through his work with the department’s public relations office.

Because of the study, within five years a ban was placed on offshore dumping. Prior to that, this sort of “dilution is the solution” mentality justified the common practice of dumping sewage and sludge in the ocean.

The provenance of the book’s subtitle comprised part of his remarks. A study showed a large number of people with cancer along the Route One corridor; a stretch of highway extending roughly from Philadelphia to New York City. The finding gave rise to the term “cancer cluster.” The search for an explanation to this phenomenon led to the speaker’s analysis of PCBs in bluefish.

An unintended consequence resulted from one of one of his research projects. Out of curiosity, he investigated whether air pollution in Philadelphia affected the pinelands. Working with an expert in fungi, he determined that it did result in acid rain that fell in the region. These results led to his being called as an expert witness in a lawsuit against businesses in the Ohio River Valley.

The Historical Society really should have scheduled this speaker closer to Halloween. I found many of his remarks absolutely horrifying. He described chromium waste sites in Jersey City while discussing the Brownfield Regulations. For those unfamiliar with the chemical, an oozing green slime indicates its presence. In his discussion of Superfund sites, he explained that many received “temporary” clean-ups over a decade ago. They still require permanent detoxification. The funds are not forthcoming. The “Arsenic and Old Lakes” conclusion of his lecture centered on a topic not covered in his book. It described the environmental repercussions from a pesticide factory that began operation in South Jersey back in 1949. As of 2015, $100 million had been spent to clean up the site. The work still needs to be completed.

I did take some solace in Mr. Belton’s explanation of New Jersey’s environmental reputation. When Superfund became law, states such as New Jersey, Vermont and California took advantage of the opportunity it presented. They cataloged their hazardous sites. In essence, the Garden State earned an unfair reputation for pollution because it made a serious effort to rectify this problem.

Mr. Belton certainly pursued many careers during his time. In fact, he recently added that of award winning author when the New Jersey Council of Humanities named Protecting New Jersey’s Environment an Honor Book in 2010.While I haven’t observed him in his other capacities, I compliment him for his stellar work as an environmental historian and lecturer. Because of his performance, he can add another job to his repertoire. His remarks piqued my curiosity about our environment so much, that I purchased his book. Mr. Belton makes a pretty good salesman, too.

 

 

24 Hour Play Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

How’s this for a challenge? You and a group of your fellow performers arrive at the theatre. Someone hands you a hat. From it you select first a genre, then a prop, during the third round a character, after that a task, and finally a style of delivery. Then you’re given a line that must appear in the play. You and your team then have 24 hours to write an original dramatic work based on the criteria you selected. Once the time runs out, you and your team will perform the play to a live audience. Now who would have the courage to attempt this?

Well, on February 23rd, a select group of 14 brave performers accepted this dare. They chose to participate in Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage’s Sixth Annual 24 Hour Theatre Festival on February 24th. The three teams they assembled treated an audience to superb performances. They followed these shows with some outstanding improv.

The teams presented remarkable writing. All the plays included compelling characters, conflict and plot twists; that quite an achievement for works written less than a day before show time.

The one unifying factor in all the plays included the use of the line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” All the teams worked around the difficulty of applying a statement written in the present tense to their stories.

The team called the Space Cadets opened the evening’s festivities. The troupe consisted of performers Kelly Deeny, Pat Frazer, Tim Kirk, Kathy Smith and Chrissy Wick. They presented an interstellar speed dating play called “What Planet Are You From?” The group interpolated characters from some popular space themed films, a lovelorn woman…and a cat. Even with only 24 hours’ notice to put the show together, they still engaged in some creative casting. It seemed appropriate that the gentleman named Kirk took the lead in a sci-fi story.

The Space Cadets were tasked with writing a science fiction play that included the use of an overhead projector, a character who rapped whenever speaking, and the use of “positions.” The players received instructions to deliver their lines “seductively.”

The Sutter Home Girls comprised the next team to take the stage. Its members included Angel Ezell, Carla Ezell, Tasha Holmes, Nina Law and Eylis Skamarakas. Their “Not Going Home for Christmas” show featured a melodramatic take on a group session at a mental health institution. Their assignment included use of a Christmas tree, one character who only spoke in Disney lyrics, a character who used a hula hoop the entire play and a “sweet” delivery.

I liked how they began and ended their show the same way by lighting the Christmas tree. It also impressed me how, in spite of the play’s brevity, Tasha Holmes even managed to work in a couple of costume changes.

The Chun-Kay team rounded out the evening. Members DJ Hedgepath, Stephen Jackson, Matt Maerten and Darryl Thompson presented “The Transfigured Night” in the mystery/detective genre. To craft this whodunit they received direction to use a foot measurer, include a clown as a character, and to deliver five tongue twisters excitedly.

The latter instruction served as a starting point for this group. Almost every line Mr. Thompson spoke included at least one. Even with the limited rehearsal time, he expressed the dialog clearly and without tripping over his words.

Footlighters 2nd Stage put on a much better triple bill than I expected. All the teams wrote strong scripts. Every performer sounded much more prepared than the rehearsal time allowed.

Then the real ‘improv’ portion of the program commenced. At the beginning of the show, the master of ceremonies, Gaby Affleck, asked audience members to give ideas for ‘quirky’ characters. The players then drew these suggestions from a hat.

First, the performers put on a version of a dating game. The bachelorette, Chrissy Wick, asked questions of three actors who took on the ‘quirky’ roles. Ms. Wick received the task of guessing the character’s description.  Eylis Skamarakas took on the role of a Wookie with laryngitis, Angel Ezell played a pilot who hated to fly, and Kelly Deeny performed as doctor with a case of the giggles.

Some performers as well as some daring audience members participated in the hat game. Individuals put on comical hats and then gave a brief talk as though making a dating video.

The ‘improv’ section concluded with a party scene. DJ Hedgepath played the host tasked with identifying the quirky character each guest played. Stephen Jackson performed as an angry bartender, Tim Kirk acted the role of a child learning to count, and Darryl Thompson acted the role of a disgruntled priest.

I’d also give kudos to Gaby Affleck and Jim Frazer for the professional way they ran the evening’s events.

The performers played eclectic roles extremely well and with very little preparation. That demonstrated the level of talent they all possess. While both funny and entertaining, I’d classify the evening as inspiring above all else. They proved that American ingenuity thrives in the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

 

Lecture Review – “Beyond Shipwrecks: Exploring a Sunken Locomotive off the New Jersey Coast” by Dan Leib

The Historical Society of Moorestown treated me to something I’d never experienced in the past. They presented a lecture that included an “opening act.” It delighted me that when I arrived at the Moorestown Library on the evening of February 24th, the organization’s president, Mickey DiCamillo, commenced the evening’s festivities with a preview of the Society’s “Moorestown and the Great War” exhibit. After that, another president, Dan Lieb of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association, discussed two sunken locomotives off the coast of Long Branch. The duo combined for one spectacular double bill. It made for one of “historical” proportions.

A year-and-a-half ago the Historical Society left an audience with a pretty good cliffhanger. When Mr. Lieb last addressed the group on November 16, 2016, he provided an historical overview called “Shipwrecks off NJ Coast.” During that lecture he told of two locomotives his group found underneath the Atlantic Ocean. He said that he’d return and provide the group with more information on them. When I read that Mr. Lieb planned his update this February, I looked forward to hearing him review his findings. When the scheduled date arrived, like a good showman, Mr. Lieb built up even more anticipation. Due to traffic and scheduling conflicts, the keynote speaker arrived 40 minutes late.

Mr. Camillo took advantage of the opportunity by expatiating upon his opening remarks. After introducing the Society’s upcoming “Moorestown and the Great War” exhibit, which will premiere this April, he shared a story with the audience. He described the little known role a Boy Scout troop from Moorestown played in raising money for the war effort.

In order to finance the First World War, the government issued bonds. At first the public delivered a tepid response. The cost of these bonds varied. Buyers could purchase them at different levels. Even with this incentive, the wealthy displayed little interest in procuring them. The government then tried a different tack: it issued a more affordable alternative in the form of war stamps. It enlisted the aid of the Boy Scouts to help sell them.

But, as with many ideas that germinate in Washington, this one came with a bit of a twist. The government stipulated that the stamps could only be sold in areas where the public had already been offered the opportunity to buy bonds. In other words, it only allowed the stamps to be sold to consumers who had already declined to purchase war bonds.

The Boy Scouts went door-to-door offering stamps which, like the bonds, had differing price points. These young men achieved a remarkable record of success. 21 of the 28 scouts in the Moorestown troop received merit badges for selling to more than ten people each. With a goal of $40K in sales, the Moorestown group raised $96K in 1919.

Mr. DiCamillo then displayed the banner of commendation awarded to the scouts. It read:

V

The Victory

Liberty and Loan

Industrial Honor Emblem

Awarded by the

United States Treasury

Department.

*

Following a brief intermission, Mr. Lieb presented the main lecture: “Beyond Shipwrecks: Exploring a Sunken Locomotive off the New Jersey Coast.” The speaker provided more details regarding the two locomotives discovered off the coast of Long Branch. The topic may be familiar to some readers. Mr. Leib originally discussed the subject on an episode of the History Channel program Deep Sea Detectives in September of 2004.

Each locomotive stands right-side-up and reaches eight feet high off the seabed. They were located in 1984 through the aid of a device called a magnetometer. It identified a big disturbance that covered a small area.

The locomotives are 2-2-2 class. That designation relates to the wheel arrangement on steam locomotives. It meant (according to Wikipedia) that the vehicle contained two leading, two driving and two trailing wheels. Each set fastened on to its own respective axle. Due to this configuration, Mr. Lieb surmised the locomotives were designed for commuter transport.

Mr. Leib described some of the objects he and his crew pulled from the wreckage. They included two bells, two whistles and tallow cups. He described the one bell as “well made.” The whistles contained the engraving of the manufacturer’s name: “H. M. Hooper 3.” The tallow cups measured roughly the same size as small tea cups. Engineers used them to pour lubricant into the locomotive’s gears. Mr. Leib added that these artifacts all contained unique thread patterns.

The speaker educated the group regarding the maritime “arrest” procedure. His organization claimed the locomotives under salvage law. The process is called an “arrest.” The judge granted them custodianship of the site and artifacts. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article notifying the public on 9/19/04. No one came forward to claim ownership. On 1/31/06, the judge granted Mr. Lieb’s group title to the find.

In spite of the amount of information his group uncovered as well as the publicity generated, the source of the locomotives remains unknown. Going forward, Mr. Leib plans to “raise, conserve and interpret” the site’s items.

In keeping with his earlier visit, Mr. Leib once again left the Historical Society of Moorestown with a cliffhanger. Hopefully, he’ll identify the locomotives’ source and return with a definitive answer as to their provenance. This is just a thought, but that topic would make a pretty strong opening act for another one of Mr. DiCamillo’s lectures.

“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.

 

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.