Steve Stonis

Scrooge: The Musical at The Ritz Theatre Company

What better way to commemorate the Holiday Season than with a high-tech Christmas spectacle? I’ve commented before about how The Ritz Theatre Company has transformed the South Jersey area into the Wonderful World of Disney. This time the company converted it into a Winter Wonderland. I attended their presentation of Scrooge: The Musical on December 21st.

Upon approaching the theatre I noticed the Ritz lettering colored in red and green. Inside the building lit Christmas trees surrounded by gifts adorned the left and right of the stage. A lighted wreath hung over its center flanked by two others on both sides.

It’s not beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, I thought. This is Christmas.

Director Steve Stonis selected an excellent team to coordinate this elaborate production. Kate Orlando choreographed, Marley Boone designed the costumes and Nicholas French served as Musical Director. The show even included a local ballet troupe: the Cooper River Ballet. Ann Moser Trenka choreographed that group’s routines.

Mr. Stonis brought the audience into the show. Two small platforms were placed in the middle of the theatre on both the left and right of the audience. Actors performed several scenes from them. Performers utilized the aisles for both the action and the dance routines, as well.

During the scene where a man requested a charitable donation from Ebenezer Scrooge, performers Michael Arigot and Bruce A. Curless delivered part of the exchange right in front of me. I got an up-close view of two stellar performers perfecting the craft of acting.

While a delightful Holiday experience, the show included a tint of sadness. This run will serve as Bruce A. Curless’ swan song as Scrooge. This production marks the last time he’ll take on the role of everyone’s favorite Christmas curmudgeon. Mr. Curless made it a memorable one.

When directors chose to utilize the entire room, it gives performers opportunities to interact with the audience. Mr. Curless used the opportunity brilliantly. I enjoyed his disgruntled murmurs while looking at audience members.

Scrooge is a pretty complex character. In the Dickens tale, he transformed from a misanthrope into a philanthropist within a few hours. He even transitioned from Isabel’s adoring suitor into an avaricious miser in the same scene. Scrooge: The Musical added another element to the role: humor. Mr. Curless’ performance captured all these facets of Scrooge’s personality while keeping the role entertaining.  

Mr. Curless performed a comical take on “I Hate People.” Scrooge may not have cared for others, but the audience sure loved Mr. Curless’ musical description of it.

Michael Arigot performed various male roles throughout the evening; some rather diverse. Mr. Arigot chose exceptional voices for them. The horrifying one he used for Jacob Marley enhanced his minatory presence; as did the addition of reverb to it. The comical cockney tone of Mr. Fezziwig made that figure quite amusing. The performer’s ebullient Ghost of Christmas Present brought out the character’s essence. His upbeat rendition of “I Like Life” with Mr. Curless enhanced it.

Hannah Keeley played various female characters. They included Mrs. Cratchit, Mrs. Fezziwig, Isabelle and the Ghost of Christmas Past. I enjoyed her shocked reaction in the first role when Mr. Cratchit (played by Steve Stonis) proposed a toast to Ebenezer Scrooge. These characters provided Ms. Keely with various opportunities to showcase her lovely voice. The most enjoyable occurred when she performed the fitting “Somewhere in My Memory” as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The show included a remarkable duet between Mr. Arigot and Ms. Keeley. While playing the roles of Young Scrooge and Isabele, they performed a somber rendition of “Happiness.” The tune’s minor key melody showed it to be ironically titled. These two performers—accompanied by Mr. Curless—captured the song’s dreary spirit in a way that made it haunting.

Scrooge’s songwriter Leslie Bricusse provided other performers with opportunities to perform vocal numbers. As Tiny Tim, Addie Crow sang a wonderful rendition of “Beautiful Day.” Urchins Megan Lex and Lily Bunting exhibited their vocal prowess on the tunes “Where is Love?” and “Believe” respectively.

Perhaps in homage to The Nutcracker, Scrooged included some stellar ballet routines. They enhanced the show’s entertainment value. The Cooper River Ballet opened the show by accompanying the cast during the “Overture.” During this performance dancers occupied the stage and both platforms in the middle of the theatre. The set-up created a terrific effect. The group also performed during the “Shades”, “Celebration” and “Isabelle” numbers.

Scrooge included an extensive cast. I’d also like to credit performers Holly Guzik, Emily Ferry, Jameson DeMuro, Olivia Bee Sposa, Max Ruggles, Joey Liberson, Dillinger Crow, Olivia Bathurst, Barbara Fraga, Caroline Grexa, Irelyn Wilkinson, and Audrey Mirtos.

The following members of the Cooper River Ballet added their talents as well: Abby Barrett, Taylor Carey, Emily Collins, Madeline Connor, Caroline Filosa, Lucas Filosa, Kim Fiordimondo, Caroline Hanifen, Gemma Miller and Evan Pirouz.

On multiple levels, I found Scrooge The Musical an outstanding show. I did have one criticism. The show began nine minutes late.

This run of Scrooge will probably be best remembered as Mr. Curless’ final performance in the title role. While his fans may wish that’s “humbug,” in the words of Dr. Seuss: Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened. The show I attended certainly gave the audience a lot of reasons to do so.

Scrooge: The Musical runs through December 23rd at the Ritz Theatre Company.

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Theatre Review – Bye Bye Birdie Presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Jeanne Gold engaged in the most creative casting I’ve ever encountered. For Haddonfield Plays and Players’ summer musical, Bye Bye Birdie, she selected a real life husband and wife team to star in this production. How can an actual married couple portray two people who are dating? I thought. It’s going to be a colossal effort to suspend my disbelief during this show. The performance opened with the two in the midst of a heated argument. Rosie (played by Megan Knowlton Balne) threatened to leave Albert (played by Thomas Balne), in essence, unless he took a more stable job and gave her more attention. After that exchange, I completely bought into the casting decision.

Bye Bye Birdie featured a sophisticated story line for a musical. The amount of conflict impressed me. Rosie Alvarez wanted her boyfriend, Albert Peterson, to sell his company and give up his career managing rock and roll sensation Conrad Birdie (played by Steve Stonis). She also needed him to develop a life of his own away from his overbearing mother. Thanks to Lisa Croce’s spectacular portrayal of the latter, I’m still trying to determine which of these tasks the more challenging.

In addition to this thorn tree in this garden, teenaged Kim MacAfee (performed by Ashleigh Neilio) battled her own series of romantic conflicts. As a young woman discovering her own maturity, she decided to give up her membership in Conrad Birdie’s fan club. She opted to abandon her childhood crush and devote herself to her boyfriend, Hugo (played by Jack Rooney). Serendipitously for theatergoers, just as that moment occurred she received unexpected news from Mr. Peterson’s company. She’d been selected as the young lady with the honor of kissing Conrad Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show the day before his entering the army.

As I mentioned the two lead performers in this production are married in real life. Since they spend so much time with one another when they’re not on stage, it’s not surprising that they have similar skill sets. Both are extraordinarily strong singers and dancers. They both possess exceptional acting chops, too. Watching the two of them showcase their craft made for a most entertaining evening.

Thomas Balne turned in an amazing performance. His best moment on stage occurred during the upbeat song and dance number “Put on a Happy Face”. The ensemble and he sure made the audience smile. Under choreographer Jennifer Morris Grasso’s direction, they put on a very impressive dance sequence while he sang impeccably.

I also credit Mr. Balne for his crooning of “Baby Talk to Me.” The high notes at the end of the song sounded a bit of out his natural vocal range. He still nailed the notes correctly…on a balmy ninety degree evening, no less. That’s remarkable singing.

Megan Knowlton Balne also conveyed outstanding vocal prowess. A strong performance on an early number, “An English Teacher”, served as a good warm up for the more challenging “Spanish Rose” towards the end of the show. She sang just as proficiently in a Spanish accent as she did with her regular voice. Once again, that’s remarkable singing.

Aside from the great songs, the role called for a very intricate dance number with a group of Shriners. Mrs. Balne’s Rose rose to that challenge, as well. At times I thought the line between dance and gymnastics blurred a bit. It didn’t affect this performer at all.

While Mrs. Balne displayed many strong traits on stage, I found her non-verbal skills without peer. This player can express more emotion with an eye roll than most could with an extended soliloquy. Bravo.

Ashleigh Neilio may only be a freshman in high school, but she displayed the skills of a seasoned stage veteran. Her delivery of “How Lovely to Be a Woman” impressed me. It’s incredible how talented she is at this point in her career. Ms. Neilio sang with great vibrato and sustain. She also caroled with perfect intonation on the high notes. While achieving that difficult feat, she performed the number while changing costumes on stage as she faced the audience. (I can’t even put on a pair of loafers without looking at what I’m doing.) She’s got a bright future in theater. Audiences can look forward to watching Ms. Neilio perform for many years to come.

Steve Stonis (as Conrad Birdie) undoubtedly earned the award for best costumes in this show. The gold suit he wore gave off the colorful attire of a rock star and allowed him the flexibility of movement to out-gyrate Elvis Presley. He also drew laughs during his comedic appearance chugging a bottle of beer while sporting a leopard skin robe. Aside from his fifties crooner style singing, he showed his commitment to playing this character by wearing a pink blouse with a head scarf at the end of the show. That’s dedication.

I’d also like to credit Michael Hicks for his portrayal of Kim’s father. I last saw him play the serious dramatic role of Dr. Sloper in Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress. He turned in a fantastic performance in a light hearted musical. I’d never heard him sing before. His frustrated delivery of “Kids” and fitting facial expressions suited his character perfectly. Mr. Hicks brilliantly expressed Mr. MacAfee’s antediluvian values (even for a 1950s dad). I appreciated watching him in this comedic role.

I relished observing my friend Lisa Croce reprise her role as Mae Peterson. Ms. Croce once told me that she’d like audiences to remember her as “funny”.  I’m sure she achieved that goal with this group of theatergoers. Her artistic choice of voice suited this role. It fit well with her repeated (and mostly successful) efforts to lay guilt trips on Albert. Her modulation on the not so veiled attacks on Rose made her the perfect antagonist to Mrs. Balne’s character.

I wished the performance could’ve included a live band. As a “purist” I feel that musicians performing along with the people singing make for a better listening experience. All the music was pre-recorded and broadcast over the public address system. I understand that the facility lacked the space to fit the required orchestra for some of the songs, however.

The show began with an off-stage relationship developing into a fictional one on stage. By the end of the performance the true love affair turned out to be between the audience and the cast. (I still noticed a little friction among Ms. Croce’s and Mrs. Balne’s characters, though.) See this show no later than August 6th. After that it’s bye bye Bye Bye Birdie at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

The Wedding Singer at Haddonfield Plays and Players

These days it may be “All about the Bass”, but in 1985 it was “All about the Green”. The Haddonfield Plays and Players took theatergoers back to an era of big hair, junk bonds and the New Coke through their presentation of The Wedding Singer.  This Connor Twigg directed musical featured upbeat rocking numbers, romantic angst and even a Ronald Reagan impersonator.  This show had something that would appeal to just about any audience member.

The Wedding Singer told the lugubrious tale of lovelorn loser Robbie Hart (played by Steve Stonis). He met waitress Julia (played by Jayne Zubris) at the reception hall where he worked. After the two discussed their pending nuptials (to other people), Julia asked Robbie to sing at her wedding. He agreed.

The next day Robbie’s fiancé, Linda (Tricia Gardner), broke up with him. She did so through a note that he received while waiting for her at the altar. The effects of his ensuing insanity included an inability to continue as a wedding singer. He reneged on his promise to sing at Julia’s wedding. Ever the gentleman, he agreed to help Julia prepare for her wedding. The two fell in love. This presented Julia with the dilemma: should she marry the man she loved or settle for Glen (played by Bobby Hayes): the guy who could provide her with all the material comforts she could ever desire?

The romantic twists kept coming. Robbie’s band mate Sammy’s (Evan Brody) ex-girlfriend, Holly (Genna Garofalo) developed an interest in him.

As a Who fan I’ve heard of rock operas. The Wedding Singer just may be the first rock and roll soap opera.

Steve Stonis played an excellent Robbie. I thought he did a great job in the scene where he spoke to Julia from inside a dumpster. The somber tone of voice he used managed to covey sadness while still getting laughs from the audience.

His best stage time occurred when he sat on his bed with his guitar and played “Somebody Kill Me Please”. He performed this number acoustically. In the movie of the same name, Adam Sandler cranked it out of an electric guitar. For my personal tastes, I preferred Mr. Stonis’ unplugged version.

Jayne Zubris displayed great emotion in her role as Julia. At first, her only life goal was to get married. Upon getting to know Robbie, her quest transitioned into a desire for true love. Ms. Zubris best conveyed Julia’s heart-wrenching conflict while singing the “If I Told You” number in a wedding dress. That helped me to understand the internal struggle plaguing the character.

Ms. Zubris also did a great job on the vocal harmonies. No singing is ever easy; especially on a very humid night. Her vocal skills enhanced the tunes “Awesome” and “Grow Old with You”.

In addition to directing this show, Connor Twigg also choreographed. He and the cast did a phenomenal job on “Saturday Night in the City”. It served as a perfect, high-energy ending for Act I.

The highlight of The Wedding Singer occurred when Tricia Gardner performed the “Let Me Come Home” number. In addition to a solid vocal performance, she executed a complex dance number. The latter included a summersault over Robbie. (I give Mr. Stonis credit. It takes a lot of courage and trust in your partner to let her do a summersault over your recumbent body.) The routine then entailed doing splits. Ms. Gardner performed this challenging sequence flawlessly. She impressed me even more by doing all this without getting hurt or injuring Mr. Stonis.

As expected, my friend Lisa Croce played a memorable role as the “Rappin’ Granny”. The Wedding Singer marked the first time I’ve heard her sing on stage. She delivered a beautiful rendition of “A Note from Grandma”. Living up to Grandma Rosie’s nickname, she kicked it out old school just as proficiently as she sang. In addition, she delivered the trademark comedic chops I’m accustomed to hearing from her. She sweated to the oldies in a way that would’ve made even Richard Simmons find humor in them.

Vitaliy Kin (in the role of George) got steady laughs through the evening, as well. Song accompanied his best humor. He joined Ms. Croce on the rap duet. He also sang Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish. As much as I found his performance funny, I still thought he crooned the ballad exceptionally well.

The show did experience a few technical issues. Static broadcast over Mr. Stonis’ microphone during the “Casualty of Love” number. In the next scene while in the dumpster, his mic cut out. The actor had to perform the remainder of the first act without amplification. Much to his credit, he handled the situation like a true professional. He didn’t allow this snafu affect his performance at all. Mr. Stonis delivered his lines loud enough that I could hear from the back of the room.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of the technical glitches affecting Mr. Stonis for the evening. During the pivotal performance of “Grow Old with You”, his acoustic guitar was out of tune. When he played the instrument during the first act it sounded fine. Something must’ve happened to it back stage. Once again, he remained focused on performing the scene.

I saw Mr. Stonis in the lobby following the show. I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with him, but I noticed him smiling. I would suggest all the “temperamental” “artists” out there remember that.

To paraphrase Glen Gulia: the 1980’s may have been “All about the Green”, but I experienced some “green” at the end of this show. I felt a bit jealous of the skill and talent the cast and crew showed in putting on The Wedding Singer. I didn’t have to spend a lot of “green” to watch it, either. The Haddonfield Plays and Players will be performing The Wedding Singer until August 8th.