Stephen Jackson

Seussical at Collingswood Community Theatre

When evaluating the most imaginative directors in South Jersey, Mary Baldwin’s name always makes the short list. It seemed fitting that Ms. Baldwin would select a show inspired by “the thinks you can think” for her next project. She and the Collingswood Community Theatre presented a piece drawn from the creative mind of Dr. Seuss: Seussical: The Musical. I attended the opening night performance on Thursday, July 11th.

Seussical presented a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ beloved works. It included story elements from Horton Hears a Who!, Horton Hatches the Egg, Green Eggs and Ham and others. The show incorporated iconic characters such as Horton the Elephant (played by Stephen Jackson), the Grinch (Sean Coyle) and, the sine qua non of the Seuss universe: the Cat in the Hat (Jeff McGrail).

The Collingswood Community Theatre presented this show in the Main Ballroom of the Scottish Rite building. The room well suited the extensive cast and elaborate staging. The size accommodated my personal preference for musical performances: a live band. Brian Kain directed the orchestra located in the balcony.

Ms. Baldwin opted to forego the “theatre in the round” format CCT has used for its summer shows in recent years. She chose instead the traditional “picture frame” format for Seussical. I liked the artistic decision. With so many performers and multiple interactions between characters occurring during the scenes, it kept all the action within the audience’s rage of vision.

The characters still walked through the aisles and interacted with the spectators. I nearly got splashed by the Cat’s (Jeff McGrail) “tears” as he lamented a sad point in the story. While searching for the Whos, Horton (Stephen Jackson) inspected one of the clover patches held by the audience member sitting next to me. One of the Wickersham Brothers jumped out from behind a curtain a few rows from where I sat. His monkeyshines startled me.

As with every summer performance at the Collingswood Community Theatre, this one contained a spectacular visual spectacle. All audience members received complimentary bracelets upon entering the theatre. Perhaps owing to the magic of Seuss, the devices would light up in different colors during certain scenes. Looking out at the audience and witnessing a series of hues lighting the dark theatre created a wonderful ambiance.

Jeff McGrail took on the iconic role of The Cat in the Hat. Mr. McGrail captured the character’s energy, humor and mischievousness. He also performed outstanding vocal numbers. The high powered opening, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think”, set the tone for the show.

I liked how Mr. McGrail added a bit of improvisation to the role. He provided an unexpected segue to the ironically titled “How Lucky You Are.” He tripped over the last step on his way to the stage. After a brief smile he broke into song.

Later when The Cat conducted an auction with the audience, Mr. McGrail informed one bidder: “Not you. You laughed at me when I fell.”

On his Facebook page Stephen Jackson commented on how thrilled he felt to be cast as Horton the Elephant. Mr. Jackson showed how much the role meant to him on opening night.

Mr. Jackson showcased the tender side of his vocal prowess in Seussical. He performed a moving duet with JoJo (played by Rory Bernardo) on “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Jackson sang another deeply affecting piece in the form of “Solla Sollew.”

The following line recurred throughout Horton’s lyrics.

A person’s a person

No matter how small.

Mr. Jackson’s soft intonation expressed how much his character believed it.

Cara Davis has played a variety of secondary characters at the Collingswood Community Theatre. Gertrude provided her with some much deserved time in the spotlight. Ms. Davis delivered wonderfully funny renditions of “The One Feather Tale of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “Amazing Gertrude.” She sang an emotional version of “Notice Me Horton” accompanied by Mr. Jackson.

John Dunn played the role of General Genghis Khan Schmitz. The character led a war against people who eat their toast butter side down. That’s not the type of figure an audience would take seriously. Mr. Dunn found ways to make the general even more comical. His choice of voice, repeated twitching of his mustache and cowardly way he explained Jojo’s disappearance to Mr. and Mrs. Mayor made the role even funnier.

The show’s soundtrack contained more than the sentimental numbers mentioned above. The tunes “Monkey Around” and “Chasing the Whos” put the “fun” in Funk. Kaitlyn Woolford’s vocals injected serious soul into “Biggest Blame Fool.” Jessica Hale added her sultry singing style to “Amazing Mayzie.” Compliments go to Brian Kain and his orchestra for their proficient accompaniment.

Seussical also included Kate Schraff’s elaborate choreography. The Bird Girls (Emily Jackson, Kate Thomas Arter, Jen Laksh, Maria Leonen, and Kara Hasings) and the Wickersham Brothers (Hannah Morris, Jack Hastings. Sean Coyle, Ross Shannon, Cassidy Scherz, Ian McGowan, Dylan McGowan, Charlie Temple and Mallory Beach) performed stellar routines. The combination of dance, singing and lighting worked very well together on the “Havin’ a Hunch” number.

This production involved a lot of people. Between the cast and the near sold out audience, I thought we’d need to elect our own congressman before the show started. The following performers completed the ensemble: Matt Griffin, Emily Oleaga Talley, Joey Liberson, Olivia Bee Spinosa, Henry Kain, Ross Shannon, Ava Leacock, Millie Griffin, Caelan Gaines, Sera Scherz, Lydia Ncely, Charlie Temple, Susie Cook, Grace Janco, Cailyn Talley, Griffin Maylath, Buddy Neal, Millie Griffin, Alicia Smartt, Ava Leacock and Clark Griffin.

Several South Jersey community theatre companies have presented Seussical over the last few years. “How lucky you are” if you’ve seen it. The high-tech production at the Collingswood Community Theatre makes it well worth watching again. For those who feel “alone in the universe” for not having seen it yet: the show runs through July 13th at the Scottish Rite. Get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.” After Saturday, to quote Dr. Seuss: “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

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The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters

“Is it better to hope or to know?” Jimmy Ray (played by DJ Hedgepath) asked.

When Burlington County Footlighters announced their 2018 – 2019 season, Darryl Thompson, Jr. issued a statement via Facebook. Mr. Thompson lamented that he had to wait a year to bring Bright Star to the stage. With over 12 months to plan, organize and prepare this show, was he better off “hoping” audiences would remember it as a spectacular piece or is he now better for “knowing” the answer? I discovered for myself when I attended the opening night performance on May 3rd.

Legendary performer Steve Martin wrote the book and Edie Brickell composed Bright Star’s music. Critics heralded this show. It received myriad award nominations including one for a Grammy. It won the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score and the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Musical. To bring a show of this caliber to the Footlighters stage, Mr. Thompson utilized that year of preparation very effectively.

Bright Star contained a very rare combination of theatrical elements. It featured excellent choreography, catchy Bluegrass musical numbers and an extraordinary story. As Alice (played by Caitlin Alvarez) sang in the opening number:

If you knew my story

You’d have a good story to tell.

The show contained two alternating plot lines. One followed the star crossed love affair between Alice (Caitlyn Alvarez) and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (DJ Hedgepath). The second showed aspiring writer Billy Cane (Robert Stoop) in his pursuit of Margo (Rachel Comenzo) while trying to get published in the Ashville Southern Journal. The latter became the harder challenge. The journal’s editor read new writers with fastidious discernment. This portion of the story occurred twenty years after the first. An older Alice worked as the journal’s editor.

It shows Steve Martin’s brilliance in that he managed to make the life of a writer sound interesting.

Mr. Thompson selected many Footlighters legends as cast members. However, he selected a newcomer to the company’s stage for the lead role. Caitlyn Alvarez earned her place among performers such as DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Star-Renbjor.

Ms. Alvarez’s character appeared in two different incarnations. In one story line, Alice was both the “black sheep” of her family and a love struck teenager. In the other her character became an unemotional, jaded professional more comfortable with texts than with people. Ms. Alvarez animated both aspects of Alice’s personality with equal dexterity.

Ms. Alvarez also possesses a beautiful voice. She opened the show with a wonderful performance of “If You Knew My Story.” Her duets with Mr. Hedgepath on “Whoa, Mama”, “What Could Be Better” and “I Can’t Wait” expressed the hopeful optimism of youth beautifully.

Even allowing for the high standards audiences have for Mr. Hedgepath’s work, he still managed to exceed them. One has to credit him and Ms. Alvarez for their chemistry. That’s quite an achievement for two people working together for the first time.

Several years ago DJ Hedgepath’s mother commented on one of my reviews. She expressed her pride in her son. The way I praised his abilities in my article made her cry. I replied that Mr. Hedgepath is an immensely talented actor. I suggested she start stockpiling boxes of tissues.

I’m not sure whether or not Mrs. Hedgepath accepted my advice. If she did, I’d ask that she donate some of those boxes to Burlington County Footlighters for this run of Bright Star.

Mr. Hedgepath delivered his strongest vocal performance to date in the form of “Heartbreaker.” Through his emotive signing he made an affecting scene even more intense. He and Ms. Alvarez performed a duet on “I Had a Vision” that was even more moving. Mr. Hedgepath’s performance made the audience experience the same emotions as his character. That’s genius.

In the role of Billy, Robert Stoop delivered a stellar version of the show’s title track. In addition, Mr. Stoop had a witty interaction with Ms. Alvarez. He handed her a letter claiming that author Thomas Wolfe wrote a letter praising his writing. Using a monotone voice, Ms. Alvarez informed him that Mr. Wolfe passed away several years prior.

Mr. Stoop also performed an excellent number with Nicholas French (as Daddy Cane). The two sang a banjo accompanied funeral dirge for Billy’s mother with the somber “She’s Gone.”

In the playbill, Rachel Comenzo thanked Mr. Thompson for “the opportunity to sing again.” Audiences should express their appreciation to the director, as well. Ms. Comenzo proved herself quite the country crooner with her rendition of “Asheville.” She accompanied Mr. Stoop on a wonderful duet of “Always Will.”

Ms. Comenzo has that rare gift where she truly becomes the characters she plays. In her performance as Margo she always found the proper facial expressions to accentuate the scene. Her subtle wincing whenever Max (Christian DeCola) expressed his interest made their interaction more engaging.

Fans know Burlington County Footlighters for the comedy team of Al Krier and Dan Brothers. Performers Stephen Jackson and Alex Davis showed they may be the next great comedy team to originate from that company. The two provided a much needed catharsis to the intense drama that occurred in the show. In addition to their humorous interactions, they performed a catchy song and dance number with Mr. Stoop on “Another Round.”

Audrey DiEnno-Lacroce coordinated spectacular choreography. Several numbers involved the ensemble. The cast executed the intricate maneuvers well. Their skill made an entertaining performance into an awesome one.

Thomas Stone played the villain, Mayor Dobbs. He personified Larouchefoucault’s admonition that: “the evil wouldn’t be so dangerous if it weren’t for the good in them.” Mr. Stone’s character wanted his son, Jimmy Ray, to live a rewarding life. He erred by pursuing that end with unrestrained cruelty. Mr. Stone expressed that sentiment through his excellent rendition of the “A Man’s Gotta Do” reprise. His baritone repetition of the line “a man must protect his family” made it ominous. This brings me to my one criticism of the show.

When Mr. Stone took his curtain call I heard hissing from the audience. Folks: MR. STONE IS A GIFTED ACTOR. HE PLAYED THE ROLE AS WRITTEN BY THE PLAYWRIGHT. HE DID A SUPERB JOB OF IT.

Please do not confuse performers with the characters they play. In that sense, Mr. Stone should take pride in the fact audience members found his performance as Mayor Stone so authentic.

The following performers rounded out the cast: John Romano, Jillian Star-Renbjor, Matt Maerten, Tony Flores, Becky Crunk, Ally Masson, Rachel Ricci, Audrey DiEnno, Lena Dougherty, Shaina Eagan, Gabrielle Hansson, Mark Henley, Riley Rancani, Mackenzie Smith, and Luke Szyskiewicz. Michelle Foster served as Musical Director and Chuck Jackson designed the set.

Ms. Davis’ character described the task of a writer as: “to drink alcohol and feel sorry for yourself.” After watching Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters, theatre critics will struggle to follow that follow that advice; at least the second part of it. Mr. Thompson and his team receive this critic’s praise for giving this phenomenal show the presentation it deserved. We can all drink to that.

Bright Star will shine at Burlington County Footlighters until May 18th.

 

The Boys Next Door at Bridge Players Theatre Company

“I can’t tell if this is the saddest place I’ve ever been or the happiest,” social worker Jack observed. That’s a good summation of The Boys Next Door. It contained both a heart-rending and heart-warming story. I attending this opening night performance at the Bridge Players Theatre Company on February 1st. Edwin Howard directed.

The Boys Next Door related the stories of several men living at a group home. Arnold Wiggins (played by Stephen Jackson) possessed a compulsive and nervous disposition. Mentally retarded middle aged man Lucien P. Smith (Jay Scott Burton) had a fascination with books. Norman Bulanski (Matthew Brent) fixated on donuts and locks. Schizophrenic Barry Klemper (Jeff Skomsky) believed himself a golf instructor.

Case worker Jack Palmer (Thomas Everett) attended to these clients. The continuous struggles of helping these men fit into society strained him. He confessed to feeling burned out. “Either they deserve better or I deserve better,” he mused. Maintaining his composure proved a challenge.

Bridge Players’ production featured some powerful performances. Stephen Jackson played a convincing compulsive obsessive personality. His repeated counting, quick pacing and even faster talking captured Arnold’s essence. It’s difficult to speak clearly when delivering a machine-gun like barrage of words. I credit Mr. Jackson as he spoke in a way that I could still understand him.

Jay Scott Burton delivered the most powerful speech in the show. After his genuine portrayal of a man with mental deficiencies, he stood upon a soap box. Mr. Burton delivered a disquisition on the plight of the mentally retarded. He animated playwright Tom Griffin’s dialog with authority.

Matthew Brent played the lovable donut aficionado, Norman Bulanski. Perhaps, because of that, his character was the only one with a love interest. His scenes with Lisa Croce (as Sheila, the resident of a different group home) made for the show’s most sentimental. I give Mr. Howard and the performers credit for not allowing this relationship to deteriorate into melodrama. Their portrayal of the conflict that resulted when Ms. Croce innocently asked for Mr. Brent’s keyes aided in that regard.

The most moving scene occurred at the end of Act One. Mr. Bulanski and Ms. Croce danced together. They performed a well-choreographed routine. They showed each character’s affection for each other by smiling the entire time. So did the audience.

Jeff Skomsky played an exceptional Barry. Through the serious way he discussed “business” and conducted his golf lessons, I had difficulty telling why the character was even in the group home. Then Barry found out that the father he hadn’t seen in nine years was coming to visit him. At this point, Mr. Skomsky brought out the character’s inner turmoil.

Mr. Skomsky kept a blank look on his face while staring straight ahead. In an eerie monotone he told unbelievable stories about Barry’s father. He described “Kipper” Klemper as a third base coach for the Yankees, a defensive coach for the 49ers and Ted Williams’ fishing buddy. The performer’s interpretation of Barry’s mental state showed that the two men’s reunion would not end happily.

This segued into the show’s most memorable scene. Russ Walsh played Mr. Klemper as socially inept and crass. When he asked Jack to leave the two alone, Mr. Everett paused and gave him an uncomfortable look. Mr. Walsh then showed the dark side of “Kipper” Klemper’s personality. He and Mr. Skomsky played a very unsettling scene together. The emotions involved and the quality of the acting made it very difficult to watch.

With characters of this nature, humor becomes a challenge. The cast and director conveyed it respectfully. One of the most comical moments occurred when a neighbor (played by Andrea Veneziano) visited. While sitting on the couch sandwiched between Mr. Brent and Mr. Skomsky she asked if they’d seen her son’s hamster. I’ll avoid giving away spoilers, but the startled looks on their faces showed that they had.

The production also included some spectacular lighting. It figured. Bob Beaucheane is one of the best lighting designers in South Jersey community theatre. The Boys Next Door showed why. The multi-colored lights that simulated the dance hall looked very authentic. It complimented the music very well. (Mr. Beaucheane also handled the sound design.) The full moon projected on the backdrop created a superb ambiance for the outdoor night scenes.

Bridge Players Theatre Company President Timothy Kirk rounded out the ensemble.

Director Edwin Howard wrote in the playbill:

In today’s world of tolerance and acceptance, sometimes we forget that everyone has wants and needs. Just because simple things are harder to do for some people, doesn’t mean they are any less human and deserve any less care and love.

The Boys Next Door is a solid commentary on these sentiments. The show runs through February 16th at the Bridge Players Theatre Company.

The Winter Warmer at Burlington County Footlighters

In the movie The Return of Spinal Tap, Paul Schaffer’s character observed: “It’s funny how the business does a thing.” I still recall DJ Hedgepath’s breathtaking rendition of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Collingswood Community Theatre. I also remember Cynthia Reynolds’ superb performance as the lead in Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters this past May. This December 14th I attended a show in which they both sang Christmas songs. To quote the late Sammy Davis, Jr.: “Only in this business.”

All kidding aside, South Jersey features immense talent that performs at local community theatre shows. With so many gifted performers sharing the stage, the skill of individual players can get overlooked. I’ve wondered what it would be like to listen to some of them just standing in front of a microphone and singing. I found out at the Burlington County Footlighters Winter Warmer.

The program featured local community theatre actors singing Christmas songs. The organizers bracketed the performance with some stellar Jazz performances. The evening opened with music by The Mike Parisi Trio featuring Ryan Smith on piano, Mike Parisi on bass and Evan Smith on saxophone. They warmed up the audience by playing jazz versions of Christmas carols. A supreme performance by Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show concluded the evening’s festivities. John Romano emceed.

The show featured some deeply moving versions of Christmas classics. Jerrod Ganesh delivered emotional renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Mary, Did You Know?” Shaina Egan performed a stirring version of “O, Holy Night” accompanied by Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on harmony vocals. Mother and daughter team Carla and Angel Ezell teamed up for the soulful “Miss You Most at Christmas Time.”

The latter tune affected me personally. For Rhythm and Blues fans, Christmas time always brings a tinge of sadness. We lost two legends of the genre during the Holiday Season. James Brown passed away on Christmas Day on 2006 and Curtis Mayfield left us on Boxing Day 1999. While their talent can never be replaced, the performances turned in by singers such as DJ. Hedgepath, Mr. Thompson and Ms. Ezell showed that the spirit of their music has continued into the next generation.

The show featured a range of styles in the song selection. It included several upbeat numbers. Stephen Jackson applied his charming vocal stylings to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “The Christmas Waltz.” In a radical departure from the dirge-like minor key melodies of Carrie, Cynthia Reynolds delivered the popular Holiday staple “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” just as brilliantly.

What Christmas show would be complete without a little romance to spice up the Holiday Season? Ms. Reynolds performed the affectionate “Merry Christmas, Darling.” Emily Huddell geared up the audience for the next Holiday with the inviting “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

The event included an original take on a seasonal classic. Alex Davis sang a cheery version of “White Christmas.” At the end of the song, Ms. Davis interpolated the somber mood of the original. It rounded out this unique rendition nicely.

You know it’s a good show when even the intermission includes outstanding music. During the break, The Mike Parisi Trio took the stage. They performed an instrumental version of “The Christmas Song” that would’ve impressed both Nat King Cole and Bill Evans.

America’s original art form made its way into the regular program, as well. Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. delivered a high energy rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

During his performance of “This Christmas”, DJ Hedgepath informed the audience: “This is a very special Christmas for me.” It was just as special for his fans. Mr. Hedgepath treated them to the Holiday favorite “Jingle Bells.” He brought the audience into the show with “This Christmas.” When the music started he told them that he expected to hear “foot tapping” and “hand clapping.” A lot of the former occurred while he performed and even more of the latter took place when he concluded.

Following the individual performances, saxophonist Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show took the stage. They opened their set by backing-up Darryl S. Thompson, Jr as he performed a moving rendition of “Christmastime is Here.” They then treated the audience Mr. Mitnaul’s unique blend of jazz, gospel, funk and soul/R&B.

The band’s sound reminded me of Miles Davis’ when he experimented with Jazz Fusion. That seemed appropriate. Mr. Mitnaul’s style contains the soul of Miles Davis with the chops of John Coltrane.

Like Miles Davis, Mr. Mitnaul has an ear for talent. He surrounded himself with a group of stellar musicians. The Smooth Show included Hasan Govan on bass, Jared Alston on keyboards and Clayton Carothers on drums.

Mr. Mitnaul informed the audience that the band didn’t realize they were playing a Christmas show. They didn’t know many Christmas songs, but could try and include a few in the set.

This seemed a little cliché to me. Did I just hear a jazz musician suggest he might be able to improvise? Isn’t ‘the ability to improvise’ the number one task listed on a jazz musician’s job description?

Mr. Mitnaul and the Smooth Show proceeded to prove themselves worthy of the title: jazz musicians. They worked some Holiday tunes into their set; concluding with an awesome rendition of “This Christmas.”

All the musicians demonstrated remarkable soloing ability. Special credit must go to Clayton Carothers. Mr. Carothers played one of the most outstanding drum solos I’ve ever heard: and I’m an Art Blakey fan who’s attended several Rush concerts. Even more remarkable, his kit consisted of just the basics: a snare drum, a floor tom, a tom, a high-hat and some cymbals. All you drummers who need to be air-lifted into your sets please take note.

The band showed that this wasn’t just a job to them. They genuinely enjoyed playing this gig. Its members often smiled at each other throughout the evening. So did their audience.

Christmas only comes once a year. Unfortunately, so does Burlington County Footlighters’ Winter Warmer. During the show Darryl Thompson, Jr. announced that the company planned to make this a regular annual event. Now I know what to ask Santa to bring me next Christmas: a ticket to the 2019 Winter Warmer.

 

 

 

Big Fish at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Big Fish possessed one complicated title. As this is July, I anticipated a musical ode to that age old summer past time. Not so. The protagonist’s son went “fishing” into his dad’s past to discover the truth about him. Well, the title either alluded to that or Edward’s being a figurative “big fish” in a small pond. At any rate, theatergoers should leave their rods and reels at home. Settle in for an odyssey of singing, dancing and stellar entertainment with the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Edward Bloom loved to share stories with his son. Who wouldn’t want a tale-telling fabulous fabulist of a father? Well, not Will. When he discovered himself about to become a dad, he longed to know the real Edward behind the stories. But time became an issue. Edward received news he had terminal cancer. Would Will learn the truth? I found out when I attended the July 14th performance of Big Fish presented by the Maple Shade Arts Council.

Director Michael Melvin engaged in some unexpected casting for this project. Antonio Baldasari is one of the funniest actors on the South Jersey community theatre circuit. His performance as Aldolpho in the Maple Shade Arts Council’s The Drowsy Chaperone was the most comical character I’ve seen brought to the stage. April Lindley has also played memorable comic characters in recent years. I attended a performance of Shrek: The Musical at the Collingswood Community Theatre in which she played the emotionally volatile Princess Fiona. That character changed moods about as often as most people inhale. With those two at the top of the bill I entered the Maple Shade High School Auditorium expecting some side-splitting entertainment.

Well, the creative Mr. Melvin had other plans. He cast these performers in dramatic, sentimental and heart-rending roles. He made a good decision. These players proved just as adept at performing “serious” characters. To the audience’s delight both Mr. Baldasari and Ms. Lindley delivered performances just as memorable as their comedic work.

Big Fish included sophisticated dance routines choreographed by Erica Paolucci and assistant Mallory Beach, a live orchestra led by Jim Sheffer and vocal direction by Lauren Delfing. All facets combined for an exceptional show. Oh, yes, and DJ Hedgepath played the son. You know it had to be one grand production for me to mention Mr. Hedgepath last.

Mr. Melvin turned Big Fish into a mesmerizing visual spectacle. He coordinated the lighting, as well. The director ensured the different shades of color on the set reflected the mood of the events occurring on-stage. The bright yellow hue combined with the flowers spread around the stage heightened the beauty of the “Daffodils” number. The red, white and blue costumes accentuated the stellar dancing in the “Red, White and True” routine. The dark costumes of the witch ensemble boosted the ominous aura of the “I Know What You Want” scene. The glowing crystal ball the witch (Nicole Perri) held illuminated in various hues.

Antonio Baldasari has done strong supporting work. I relished the opportunity to watch him take the lead as Edward Bloom. He didn’t disappoint. The performer grabbed my attention at the beginning with his solo rendition of “Be the Hero.”

Mr. Baldasari became Edward. He adopted the character’s slow Southern drawl. I liked his calm mannerisms when confronted by the witch and the assassins; but not when confronted by his son. He complimented Ms. Lindley very well in numbers such as “Daffodils” and “Time Stops.” He worked just as proficiently with cast members Tre Deluca on “Fight the Dragons” and DJ Hedgepath on “Showdown.”

Besides the musical numbers, the show contained serious drama. Mr. Baldasari and Mr. Hedgepath played superb opposites. Mr. Baldasari’s laid back and imaginative persona worked well against Mr. Hedgepath’s angry and analytical nature. April Lindley and Jayne Collotti (as Will’s wife Josephine) served as mediators. Even without the songs, this conflict alone would have made for a great story.

DJ Hedgepath’s fans will be delighted, as usual. I enjoyed his renditions of “Stranger”, “What’s Next” and the “Be the Hero” reprise. In addition to the hostility to Mr. Baldasari’s character, he showed great emotion when visiting him in the hospital. He brought out Will’s development very believably.

April Lindley turned in an absolutely awesome performance as Sandra. Ms. Lindley delivered her lines in a perfect Southern accent. She inspired empathy for Sandra through her flawless facial expressions.

Ms. Lindley established a new standard for dramatic vocals. With the dying Edward resting in her lap she sang “I Don’t Need a Roof” while crying. She performed as though every word agonized her character even more. All the time she remained in key. Ms. Lindley brilliantly extended a rest before hitting the final note. It made a deeply emotional moment even more powerful.

The highlight of this show occurred during the “Little Lamb from Alabama/Time Stops” sequence. April Lindley, Shaina Egan and Emma Kelly joined together to perform this song and dance number. They sounded just like the Andrews Sisters playing on an MP3. The “Little Lamb from Alabama” number featured a quick upbeat tempo. It segued into “Time Stops” sung by Ms. Lindley and Mr. Baldasari. For that one the three dancers slowed down and performed the same moves in slow motion. They executed this transition with precision.

I also compliment the other cast members who contributed to the production. Tre Deluca (played Young Will the night I attended), Jane Collotti, stilt walker Stephen Jackson, Nicholas French, Nicole Perri, Allison Abiva, James Gallagher, Ryan Bogie, Matthew Maerten, Mallory Beach, Erin Daly, Laura Foley, Jerrod Ganesh, Evan Hairston, Lori Alexio Howard, Nicole Manning, Jordan Moore, Lisa Palena and William Young.

During the intermission Mr. Melvin told me to “get the tissues ready for Act II.” I’m sure audience members shed tears at its conclusion, but not because of the story. I doubt I’m the only person who felt sad that it ended. Missing out on the experience would’ve made me even more miserable. For theatre fans still in the doldrums you have until July 21st to catch Big Fish.

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.