Stef Bucholski

Avenue Q at Collingswood Community Theatre

It’s not often one encounters a musical that so well captures the essence of the generation that inspired it. Avenue Q featured iconic anthems to the new millennium such as “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”, “It Sucks to Be Me” and “The Internet is for Porn.” To those unfamiliar with it, a show like this would seem to possess the life-affirming nature of something out of Ibsen or O’Neill. Instead, Avenue Q’s creators opted to explore this era from a lighter point-of-view. They utilized an unusual technique in that they added puppets as characters; even including an explicit love scene between two of them. The Collingswood Community Theatre’s production even included a cameo by the town’s mayor.

You’d have to see this one to believe it.

I attended the Saturday evening performance on January 12, 2019. It took place at the Scottish Rite Theatre in Collingswood.

Director Mary Baldwin established the ambiance the moment I entered the theatre. The set designer, Chuck Jackson, crafted a set that resembled both the buildings from Sesame Street and the neighborhood from Rent. It provided the perfect background for this story.

As those unfamiliar with the show have guessed, Avenue Q contained a pretty complicated plot. A muppet named Princeton (played by Sean Coyle) needed a place to live. He found apartments from Avenue A through Avenue P too expensive. Arriving at Avenue Q, he met a series of eccentric characters. They included: 32 year old Brian (Ross Shannon), an aspiring stand-up comic ten years out of college; his fiancée, a Japanese woman with two masters degrees, named Christmas Eve (Linda Mozdzen); a closeted homosexual muppet investment banker, Rod (played by John Dunn); his muppet roommate Nicky (CJ Kish), pornography addicted muppet Trekkie Monster (also played by CJ Kish) and the building superintendent, former child star Gary Coleman (Alicia Smartt). Muppet Kate Monster (Lisa Kain Marcelli) developed a romantic interest in Princeton. Through all this he sought his purpose.

There’s an old cliché that a person “can never be too rich or too thin.” Avenue Q’s author (Jeff Witty) along with its lyricists and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx apparently believed that a musical can never be “too original.” To complete the ensemble they included muppet Lucy the Slut (Stef Bucholski) to complicate Princeton’s and Kate’s romance. The Bad Idea Bears (performed by Cara Davis and Kate Scharff) served as Princeton’s and Kate’s demons. Kate’s muppet boss, Mrs. Thistletwat (Kaitlyn Halligan) antagonized Kate.

It amazed me that, even including intermission, all this wrapped up in under 2-1/2 hours.

Since the show contained a cartoonish premise, it required actors with skill for voices. I’d credit them for their abilities to, not only speak in unusual voices, but to sing in them as well. My two favorites were the neurotic whining John Dunn chose for Rod and the gravelly tone CJ Kish provided for Trekkie.

Lisa Kain Marcelli performed an extraordinary rendition of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” to conclude Act One. Last summer I complimented Ms. Marcelli for her rendition of “Tell Me It’s Not True” at the Collingswood Community Theatre production of Blood Brothers. She impressed by being able to cry, sing in an English accent while still remaining in key. In retrospect, it seems that she used that performance to practice for this one.

Ms. Marcelli delivered an impassioned version of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line.” She explored a range of sad and angry emotions during the performance. She used excellent facial expressions to compliment the number’s somber lyrics while singing like someone becoming unhinged. Ms. Marcelli managed to do all this while operating a puppet. Bravo.

2018 was a sad time for Rhythm and Blues fans. After losing Aretha Franklin in August, we commemorated the 12th anniversary of James Brown’s passing this Christmas. On Boxing Day we recognized the 19th anniversary of losing Curtis Mayfield. It’s refreshing to hear the spirit of real R&B living on in performers such as Stef Bucholski.

It takes a certain kind of talent to make a muppet seem seductive. Enter Stef Bucholski. This performer delivered a sultry, soulful version of “Special.” It showed just how special her singing is.

The group worked in something that’s becoming a tradition at the Collingswood Community Theatre’s winter shows. After the curtain call, the cast performed an encore. They returned to the stage and sang the Philadelphia Eagles fight song.

Olivia Marcelli and Emily Jackson completed the ensemble. Brian Kain directed the music and Katie Scharff choreographed.

Avenue Q showed the lives of twenty-somethings struggling to cope with life after college. In effect, it centered on the resulting conflict when a person’s reality falls short of his/her dreams. It made for some pretty interesting theatre. The show premiered in 2003. The so-called “Great Recession”, the explosion of the opioid epidemic, and the rise of populism hadn’t occurred at that time. It would be curious to watch the same characters attempt to deal with these kinds of problems. A sequel would make for even more interesting theatre.

The Collingswood Community Theatre will perform Avenue Q through January 20th at the Scottish Rite Theatre.

Advertisements

Blood Brothers at Collingswood Community Theatre

There’s an old superstition that people who miss the Collingswood Community Theatre’s summer show will experience a dull theatrical season. Perhaps playing to that myth the company staged a show that gave it credence.

Those who’ve ever put their shoes on the table will reconsider after seeing Blood Brothers. Those contemplating handing over a newborn twin to a bitter psychopathic woman and then reneging on a promise not to tell the children they are brothers will rethink that decision; to the extent that’s something anyone is actually considering doing. After making sure I avoided black cats in my path, being careful not to walk under any ladders and brushing my teeth to avoid so-called ‘cavities,’ I entered the theatre for the closing performance. It occurred in the Grand Ballroom at the Scottish Rite Theatre on June 29th. Kerry Mahoney directed.

Blood Brothers presented an unusual story line for depicting class divisions in modern Britain. Mrs. Johnstone (played by Lisa Kain Marcelli) and Mrs. Lyons (Faith Charlton) each experienced child bearing issues. The latter couldn’t conceive and her husband (Matt Griffin) refused to adopt. The former was on pace to produce enough progeny to rival the descendants of Abraham.

Mrs. Johnstone struggled with finances and found herself working as housekeeper for the affluent Mrs. Lyons. A doctor informed Mrs. Johnstone that she carried twins. While financially prepared for another child, she couldn’t handle two. The women came up with a solution for both their troubles.

They made a pact that Mrs. Lyons would raise one of the children as her own. As part of this agreement, they would never inform the children they were twins. Mrs. Lyons told of a superstition that separated twins would die if they discovered the truth. To persuade Mrs. Johnstone to agree with the arrangement, Mrs. Lyons explained that since she employed the mom-to-be, she’d get to see her child every day. What a great idea! Everyone wins, right?

No so. It turned out that Mrs. Lyons possessed a malicious and unstable personality. She believed Mrs. Johnstone too fawning over “her” son and decided to fire her. Problem solved. Not for long.

Years later Mrs. Johnstone’s seven year old son Mickey (Brian Kain) made a new friend at the park. Upon discovering that he and Eddie (Ryan Adams) shared the same birthday, they connected. They cemented the friendship by becoming “blood brothers.” Both mothers ended the relationship when they discovered that Eddie and Mickey were the Johnstone twins.

This time Mrs. Lyons opted for a more permanent solution. She talked her husband into moving the family to “the country.” This worked as well as her previous remedy. Seven years later the Lyons family moved into the same area as part of a British government housing program. Mikey and Eddie reconnected. With the passage of time, Mikey’s working class financial struggles and Eddie’s affluent background strained their friendship. Then both fell in love with the same woman, Linda. (Stef Bucholski)

Tears flowed both on and off the stage at the show’s conclusion.

It’s difficult to find the right superlatives to describe Lisa Kain Marcelli’s performance. She played the role to perfection. The performer sang an incredible rendition of the catchy “Marilyn Monroe” trilogy. I wished someone recorded it. Ms. Marcelli and the orchestra, led by Zach Wisely, played the song much better than the London cast’s version. With all the reverb on that one, it sounded like they performed it in the Grand Canyon.

Ms. Marcelli always displayed the proper facial expressions to convey her character’s emotions; and Mrs. Johnstone experienced a range of them. The performer showed despair when she gave up one of her children. She played the scene where she gave Eddie a locket with great tenderness. I also enjoyed her transition from nostalgia to sadness during the “Marilyn Monroe” numbers.

Ms. Marcelli impressed the most at the end of the show. She managed to croon “Tell Me It’s Not True” while crying, singing in an English accent and staying in key. That performance will stay with me.

Chris Fitting played the Narrator. Readers of this blog are familiar with my objection to making “The Narrator” a character in a live performance. After all I’m watching it. I don’t feel the need for someone to tell me what I already know I’m seeing. This time I will credit playwright Willy Russell for his creativity with the role. He made his Narrator a tuxedo clad Rod Serling figure who spoke in the syntax of Dr. Seuss. What a combination!

Mr. Fitting expressed the rhyming couplets perfectly. He spoke clearly using the right rhythm and without stumbling over the words. I also enjoyed the minatory delivery method he employed. Through sheer skill Mr. Fitting shaped “The Narrator” into the most unique character I’ve watched performed on stage.

Blood Brothers marked the first time I’ve heard a real Heavy Metal song in a musical’s soundtrack. Mr. Fitting belted out “The Devil’s Got Your Number” like a man possessed. He nailed the feel of the song while capturing the character’s essence at the same time. Bravo.

Faith Charlton possesses a gift for accents. I enjoyed the one she chose for Mrs. Lyons. It sounded like that of an upper class British woman with a hint of madness to it. It suited the role brilliantly.

Ms. Charlton also has a wonderful singing voice. She delivered a beautiful version of “My Child” along with Ms. Marcelli.

As extraordinary as her vocal skills are Ms. Charlton can communicate even more effectively with a look. During one scene she walked to the front row and sat with the audience. She glared at Ms. Marcelli with a blank look that expressed seething rage. She horrified me. Ms. Charlton made it clear that something bad was about to happen to the person on the other end of that stare.

Brian Kain, Ryan Adams and Stef Bucholski played very challenging roles. During the course of the show, their characters took the stage as seven, 14 and 18 year olds. Their renditions of the seven year olds impressed me the most. All three performers jumped about the stage and spoke in higher pitched voices just like children.

The three characters changed as they grew up. Mr. Kain became angry, drug addicted and desperate. Ms. Bucholski transitioned from a care-free young lady into a pregnant woman struggling through a failing marriage. Mr. Adams turned into a well-adjusted, successful professional.

These performers showed excellent chemistry working together. They brought out how the characters’ childhood friendships developed into a devastating love triangle. They made that progression credible.

Mr. Kain and Mr. Adams teamed up for some terrific duets with the numbers “Long Sunday Afternoon/My Friend” and “That Guy.” As the project’s vocal director Mr. Kain led by example with some excellent singing of his own. While I’ve called him “the King of the F Clef” for his superb bass vocals Mr. Adams continues to impress with his skill in the higher registers, too.

I have to admit it disappointed me that Ms. Bucholski didn’t get to sing any solo numbers in this show. With the way the story developed I figured a song about her character’s travails would’ve been perfect for her soulful singing style. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to hear her sing in a near future production.

The performance featured a remarkable ensemble. I’d also like to compliment Matt Griffin, Ryan Piccone, Olivia Marcelli, Adam Nicely, Ian McGowan, Caitlin Halligan, Ryann Burke, Kara Hastings, Emily Jackson, Neil Wettstein, Lindsay Wettstein and Tom Geigel for their work in the show.

I did have one issue with the sound. The drums sounded too loud on occasion. While many purists prefer real drums to the electronic variety, it’s much easier to control the volume of the latter. At times I thought the performers struggled to broadcast over them.

I’d praise Mary Baldwin for the light design, Sarah Baldwin for her work on the light board, and Leah Marcelli and Katie Cotter for their use of the spotlights. They enhanced the story by adding a chilling effect.

The Collingswood Community Theatre troupe presented an ode to superstition that would’ve made both Stevie Wonder and Jeff Beck proud. I have to admit that I was among those who shed tears at the show’s conclusion. It wasn’t because of the story, though. I realized it’s going to be another year until we get to experience a stellar production from them in the Grand Ballroom at the Scottish Rite. Based on the group’s history I know theatregoers won’t have to rub their lucky rabbits’ feet for that to happen.

Shrek the Musical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When I found out the NFL scheduled the first Eagles playoff game during the late afternoon of January 13th I knew I had a decision to make. Did I want to witness a serious tragedy or light-hearted musical comedy on that evening? I opted for the latter. I’m sure glad that I did. The Collingswood Community Theatre treated me to a fantastic performance of Shrek the Musical.

When I read the program I discovered David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the book and lyrics. After attending a performance of Rabbit Hole, his play regarding a family struggling to cope with the death of their four year old son, I thought I may be attending yet another serious tragedy. Fortunately, the playwright changed tack while Director Mary Baldwin and Musical Director Brian Kain kept it lighthearted.

Over the years I’ve watched Ryan Adams play a variety of supporting roles at Collingswood Community Theatre. I’ve been a long-time fan of this King of the F Clef’s baritone vocals. Mr. Adams showed he’s just as adept with tenor based material through his performance in the title role. It thrilled me to hear him sing some fantastic duets with his co-stars. He complimented Jeff McGrail on “Travel Song” and April Lindley on “I Think I Got You Beat.”

Mr. Adams delivered a moving rendition of the ballad “When Words Fail.” His delivery captured both the awkwardness and emotional challenge of expressing one’s feelings to a love interest. He brought profound pathos into this performance.

I credit his voice selection for the Shrek character. He used an accent that sounded Scottish with a tinge of Swedish. I didn’t hear an instance of him wavering from it the entire evening. That’s quite impressive with the amount of dialog and quantity of musical numbers he performed. That shows how hard he prepared for the role.

Jeff McGrail complimented Mr. Adams as his wise-cracking sidekick, the Donkey. There aren’t many ‘sassy donkey’ roles in musical theatre, or in any medium, for that matter. Mr. McGrail displayed immense imagination in bringing this role to the stage. I found his character very entertaining and enjoyable to watch. He also displayed fabulous vocals on tracks such as his solo number “Don’t Let Me Go.”

April Lindley did masterful work in her role as Princess Fiona. She delivered operatic vocals, danced and played each of the character’s (many) mood changes with equal skill while still getting laughs from the audience. Somehow, she fused all three of these traits together to open Act Two in her performance of “Morning Person.”

Ms. Lindley excelled at non-verbal communication. Her facial expressions always reflected the dialog and lyrics. I should add that I sat in the ‘nose bleed’ section of the Scottish Rite Theatre. I’m also nearsighted, but I did wear my glasses. (I was so far away from everyone else in the building that my vanity didn’t inhibit me from doing so.) Even under those conditions, I could still read Ms. Lindley’s expressions perfectly.

There’s an old saw that, “there are no small roles, just small actors.” Patrick Waldron gave a whole new interpretation of that expression in his performance as the diminutive Lord Farquaad. The role presented an interesting physical challenge. Mr. Waldron spent the evening on his knees. His appearance on stage first reminded me a bit of characters Tim Conway used to play. Mr. Conway didn’t possess Mr. Waldron’s dexterity, however. Mr. Waldron danced during one of the numbers while kneeling.

One of the most challenging roles for an actor is what I call that of the ‘comic relief in a comedy.’ In Shrek, the villain, Lord Farquaad, served as that character. Mr. Waldron performed spectacularly. Even though he played an unlikable and hyper-sarcastic personality, he managed his delivery to make his dialog sound funny. Through his skill as a performer, he found ways to make what could’ve been an annoying role into a most amusing one.

Many refer to Aretha Franklin as the undisputed “The Queen of Soul.” I’m a fan of Ms. Franklin’s, as well. But I have to admit that Stefanie Bucholski’s rendition of “Forever” made Ms. Franklin into a distant cousin of the royal family. Ms. Bucholski turned in some astounding soulful vocals in her role as the Dragon. She didn’t have to ask me to “respect” her talent: she earned it with that singing.

Choreographer Kate Scharff and Assistant Choreographer Kate Thomas Arter coordinated some extraordinary dance sequences. I found the ones featuring the Duloc Performers, the Three Blind Mice and the Pied Piper’s mice the most memorable. The superb costuming by Ellen Geigel enhanced the visual spectacle.

I’ve attended summer performances of Jesus Christ Superstar and Sweeney Todd presented by the Collingswood Community Theatre. They enacted those shows in the Main Ballroom at the Scottish Rite building. The sets combined with the lighting made for a mesmerizing theatrical experience. I didn’t think it possible that they’d be able to do anything comparable in the actual Scottish Rite Theatre.

Shrek proved me wrong. The show featured a very professional set. The performance’s high-tech nature included images projected on a movie screen. I especially liked the starlit backdrop they used for the night scenes.

I’d also like to compliment the other performers who made Shrek the Musical such a fun show: Caelan Gaines, Millie Griffin, Suzi Cook, Kate Schell, Caitlin Halligan, Emily Jackson, Ryann Burke, Karen McShane, Tom Geigel, Henry Kain, Jenni Maienza, Matt Griffin, Maria Leonen, Marcy Smith, Julia Maia, Anne Marie Dunn, John Dunn, Patty Nigro, Grace Janco, Cara Davis, Mike Smith, Pauli Bucholsky, Tracy Levy, Patty Walsh, Jen Laksh, Dave Routzahn, Kaitlyn Woolford, Dylan McGowan, Chris Geigel, Ernest Neal, Matt Griffin, Dylan McGowan, Kara Hastings, Emily Jackson, Erica Paolucci, Shannon Ewing, Alicia Smartt, Erin Daly, and Mallory Beach.

As things turned out on January 13th, the Eagles game didn’t become the tragedy I expected. They won and will advance to the NFC Championship game. I thought it clever how the Collingswood Community Theatre cleverly interpolated the Birds’ fight song into the finale. I have to say I found the performance of Shrek more entertaining than any of their games this season. Anyone familiar with the team knows: that’s saying something. The show runs through January 21st.

Theatre Review – Jesus Christ Superstar at Collingswood Theatre Company

As a Catholic school graduate I’ve heard my share of takes on Jesus’ last days. By far the Collingswood Theatre Company presented the funkiest; thanks to the aid of the Superstar Band. On July 21st I had the pleasure of watching (and listening to) director CJ Kish’s interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s 1971 masterpiece Jesus Christ Superstar.

The show utilized the best atmospherics I’ve experienced at a theatrical performance. This one included a fog machine, strobe lights and an extraordinary setting. The spectacle took place in the main ballroom at the Scottish Rite building in Collingswood. A large staircase leading to the balcony descended onto the stage itself. At times the chorus spread out among the upper sections surrounding the seating area. This created an eerie effect with the nature of some of the show’s music. Due to the elaborate choreography by Kate Scharff the cast meandered down the aisles in some of the scenes. Plus, the Superstar Band under Brian Kain’s direction played phenomenal music. Forget the performance: any of these elements alone more than justified the cost of admission.

But one can’t forget the performances. This show included the some outstanding ones along with exceptional singing; and it showcased a lot of the latter. Jesus Christ Superstar began its life as a rock opera before transitioning to the stage. It contained no speaking. The cast sang all the dialogue. After hearing the stellar vocals in this show, it made me glad they did.

DJ Hedgepath turned in the best performance I’ve watched him deliver. That’s quite a statement. I’ve written about him so often that readers have wondered if I’m stalking him. Mr. Hedgepath is one of the more active members of the South Jersey community theatre circuit these days. He’s played a diverse array of roles over the past few years. Make that over the last month. Several weeks ago he played the role of Hal, a PhD candidate in mathematics, in Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of Proof. In this show he played Judas Iscariot. The man has range.

Webber and Rice made the Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar a conflicted man. Their Judas felt that Jesus strayed away from his spiritual message and moved into a political one. He “betrayed” Him in the hopes that authorities would protect Him. In the end, Judas felt betrayed by a divine plan. That’s a pretty complex character for a musical.

Mr. Hedgepath proved himself worthy of the challenge. He gazed at Jesus (played by Mike Reisman) with unvarnished hostility through most of the first act. His ability to maintain the same angry expression that long impressed me. Then he convincingly transitioned into a sobbing, broken man through the second part. Mr. Hedgepath’s aptitude for becoming the character was only exceeded by his vocal prowess.

Mr. Hedgepath possesses a very strong voice. His emphatic delivery of “Heaven on their Minds” drew me into the story from the beginning. He also impressed through singing songs rife with sixteenth notes in such a way I could understand all the lyrics. A tenor he nailed the high notes perfectly, as well.

I may not be able to sympathize with Judas, but I could sure empathize with Mr. Hedgepath. The character proved a very difficult one to play, but this performer met the challenge.

On the subject of challenging roles, Mike Reisman played Jesus. This character also experienced his share of conflicts. The human trait of frustration over the state of his ministry plagued him; as did anxiety over his own death.

Mr. Reisman did a wonderful job getting into character. His shoulder length long hair along with his beard and mustache allowed me to visualize him as Him. Through his stage presence I could identify him as a calm peaceful figure. Just as easily he adjusted his temperament and angrily chasing the merchants out of the Temple. In the most moving scene of the show, he and Mr. Hedgepath touched foreheads and cried together following the betrayal.

Mr. Reisman’s strongest moment occurred during his solo number, “Gethsemane.” He hit a high note that I estimate he held for about ten seconds. While doing so he leaned backwards. Singing’s rough when one uses perfect posture. I give this performer a lot of credit for fulfilling the myriad challenges of this difficult character.

Everyone in this show sang very well. I’d like to specially compliment Stef Bucholski (as Mary Magdalene) for her beautiful voice. I really enjoyed her rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” I also liked Ryan Adams’s (Caiaphas) awesome baritone. Hearing good, strong bass vocals in a theatrical production made my evening.

The show’s short run makes my only criticism of it. The Collingswood Theatre Company’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar only ran for three nights from a Tuesday through a Thursday. Perhaps this is nit-picking on my part, but I would’ve preferred more opportunities to attend.

At the show’s conclusion the woman seated in front of me cried. I doubt that’s because the ending surprised her. It’s a testament to how extraordinary the performance.