The Village Playbox

Seussical at The Village Playbox

The Village Playbox proved that imagination isn’t just for kids. Using Seussical’s opening number “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” as inspiration, Director Anita Rowland along with the cast and crew used all their powers of creativity to bring this show to the stage. The script required that they transform the set into the worlds of Whoville, the Jungle of Nool and into the realm of everyone’s favorite troublemaking tabby, The Cat in the Hat. I attended the Saturday, May 4th performance at the First Presbyterian Church of Haddon Heights.

To borrow a line from The Cat in the Hat, “Folks, this ain’t Mother Goose.” Upon encountering The Cat in the Hat (Sidney Manfred Maycock III) Young Jojo (Presley Terch) took an amazing journey. The Cat transported him to the miniature world of Whoville. In this place, he became the son of the Mayor (Doug Cohen) and Mrs. Mayor (Debbi Heckman). A teacher chastised Jojo for using his imagination too much. In order to discipline the boy, the Mayor and Mrs. Mayor placed him in the army. General Genghis Khan Schmitz (Christopher Schmalbach) vowed to make him conform.

Horton the Elephant (Shawn Simmons) discovered Whoville on a speck of dust. He placed it on a clover for safety. First the Wickersham Brothers (a group of monkeys) and then Vlad Vladicoff the eagle (Steve Allen) took the clover. The latter dropped it into a clover patch.

Horton’s quest to relocate Whoville became interrupted by Mazie LaBird (Rachel Smith). She asked Horton to sit on her nest for “an afternoon.” After Horton agreed, Mazie abandoned her egg.

A group of hunters captured Horton and placed him in the Circus McGurkus.  Gertrude McFuzz (Haley Schmalback), another bird, struggled to locate Horton’s clover for him. Her desire for his affections served as her motivation.

This plot summary doesn’t adequately explain the level of imagination needed to present Seussical. Much to their credit, the team at The Village Playbox made this fantastical premise very believable.

Director Rowland utilized the entire room for this production. During several numbers, the ensemble left the stage and performed in the rows surrounding the audience. I liked the stereo effect it provided. It also allowed those in the show to interact with the audience. During one number The Cat made eye contact with me as he passed. “Now there’s a man who likes to mambo,” he said to me.

I normally don’t like it when performers break the fourth wall. In this case I felt flattered that someone acknowledged my ruffled shirt. I paid good money for that thing.

Donna Allen, Nikki Zane and Amy Bannister did an excellent job with the elaborate costuming. As someone who’s color blind, even I could appreciate their intricate use of color. The Cat’s bright colored red and white striped hat looked authentic. The different shades of the Bird Girl costumes added a nice visual effect against the varying hues of the backdrop. The yellows worn by the Mayor and his wife enhanced the cartoonish ambiance.

Jan Johnston performed extraordinary work designing the set. Even though based on a fantasy world, I found it very realistic. The stage became the domain of Dr. Seuss. The cartoon trees looked as though they’d been transplanted out of the pages of his books. Mazie’s nest perched several feet above the stage. In front of it was a multi colored clover field. Credit goes to Gary Kochey and Christine Dziczek for constructing this wonderful set.

In addition to transforming the theatre into the world of Dr. Seuss, I also thought musical director John Demchak and choreographer Haley Schmalbach turned Haddon Heights into Motown. The numbers included sophisticated melodies, elaborate background vocals and stellar dance moves. Jessica Shockley delivered soulful vocals on “Biggest Blame Fool” and during “The People Versus Horton the Elephant.” Rachel Smith sang a sultry version of “Amazing Mazie” accompanied by Haley Schmalbach, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Colotti and Madeline Johnson.

Upon seeing Sidney Maycock’s in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels I wrote that he possessed a genius for comedy. With his performance in Seussical, he personified Arthur Schopenhauer’s observation that, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Mr. Maycock took a high-energy approach to a demanding role. He spent most of the show on stage; either pantomiming reactions or leading the action. The entire evening he wore a fur covered cat suit. I attended on a humid night. Mr. Maycock never showed any signs of fatigue. He pranced around the room like a performer impassioned with his role.

When Act Two opened, The Cat impersonated an orchestra conductor. During the scene, the character sat down out of exhaustion, took a drink of water and patted his forehead with a towel. Mr. Maycock put a lot of energy into that maneuver, too.

Mr. Maycock utilized a series of voices for the role. Employing a Texas accent he ran an auction. He mimicked a doctor with a Russian dialect. Using The Cat’s voice he performed excellent renditions of “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” and “It’s Possible” with Presley Terch and “How Lucky You Are.”

Seussical included many outstanding musical numbers. Shawn Simmons and Mr. Terch sang the most beautiful song in the score. They sang a beautiful rendition of  “Alone in the Universe.” Mr. Simmons and Haley Schmalbach delivered an equally poignant version of the track towards the end of Act Two.

I marvel at the barrage of rhyming couplets playwrights Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty included in the script. The most challenging came during Mr. and Mrs. Mayor’s initial interaction with Jojo. Doug Cohen and Debbi Heckman impressed by delivering these tricky tongue twisters clearly and without stumbling over the words.

I found one concept in the show dated. General Genghis Khan Schmitz launched a war against people who buttered the bottom side of their toast. With the current state of American foreign policy, that concept won’t seem as bizarre to American audiences as it did when Seussical first appeared in 2000.

The show contained an extensive cast. I’d like to compliment everyone for their work on this production: Sidney Maycock, Shawn Simmons, Haley Melvin, Nikki Zane, Jayne Collotti, Madeline Johnston, Aaron Wachs, Paul Rather, Gabrielle Allen, Daniel McDevitt, Steve Allen, Lily Allen, Colin Becker, Margo Mullin, Amy Bannister, Jennifer Campbell, Rachel Grodzielanek, Madelyn Grodzalinek, Nicolette Malinowski, Audrey Mitros, Juliette Pacana, Ella Samuel-Siegal and William Young. Steve Allen assistant directed and Ed Frazer designed the lights.

Seussical played to a sold out house during its opening weekend. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll bet you feel “alone in the universe.” I’m “havin’ a hunch” you’d like to watch it. Before saying, “how lucky you are” to those who have, get your tickets now. Don’t “monkey around.”

So don’t you lament and come to grief.

See Seussical at the Village Playbox no later than May 18th.

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Lost in Yonkers at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox selected the perfect venue to present Neil Simon’s masterpiece, Lost in Yonkers. With the adoration performers show for the late playwright, it seemed fitting to present the show at a location well suited for veneration. The performance occurred at a church. This cast delivered an apotheosis of this Pulitzer Prize winning play through some inspired performances. I attended the November 1oth performance in Haddon Heights.

Steve Allen and Jenn Edwards co-directed this story of an atypical Jewish family living in 1942 New York. In order to afford his late wife’s medical treatment, Eddie (played by Doug Cohen) borrowed a large sum of money from a loan shark. Fortunately, he received a job offer that would allow him to repay the gangster in 10 months. The position required travel throughout the South. In order to accept it, he needed his semi-estranged mother (played by Phyllis Josephson) to allow his sons, 15-1/2 year-old Jay (Ricky Conway) and 13-1/2 year-old Artie (Colin Becker), to move in with her.

Grandma was an austere disciplinarian. Adding to Jay’s and Artie’s adventure, their quirky Aunt Bella (played by Lori Alexio Howard) also lived with her. Their gangster Uncle Louie (Chuck Klotz) and idiosyncratic Aunt Gertie visited.

One has to credit Mr. Simon for his creativity. It’s difficult to imagine characters this unusual coming together. It’s even more remarkable to put them all together at the apartment above a candy story in the early 1940s. He did so while still crafting a coherent, comical and at times heartbreaking story. It’s not surprising Lost in Yonkers receives the myriad accolades it does.

The cast rose to the level of this extraordinary show. Ricky Conway (as Jay) and Colin Becker (as Arty) performed well as a comic team. Mr. Conway played the more emotional of the two; often moving around and gesticulating. Mr. Becker would remain still and deliver his lines in a laconic deadpan fashion. The two roles made for a nice contrast on stage.

Mr. Conway spoke his lines with a perfect New York accent. He still allowed Jay’s excitable nature to come through in his mannerisms and dialog. Mr. Conway showed great professionalism through the subtle way he displayed the character’s personality. Even in scenes where Jay sat still, he tapped his foot.

Mr. Becker would’ve played a great ‘straight-man’; except that the playwright gave his character some funny lines. The performer’s dispassionate means of expressing them made them much more humorous than they appeared on the printed page. I enjoyed his imitation of Uncle Louie’s explanation of “moxie” the best.

Lori Alexio Howard is a Neil Simon fan. It showed. Ms. Howard portrayed Bella. The respect she has for Mr. Simon is the kind of esteem audiences will show her for this performance.

Bella is one of the more complex characters in the Simon catalogue. Ms. Howard played the character with such enthusiasm she may have elevated Bella into the category of a Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois. She captured the funny side of Bella’s personality, the sadder aspects and the heartbreaking ones all with equal skill. Ms. Howard expressed Bella’s dreams and aspirations in a deeply moving fashion. The longing look in her eye as she did so showed just how seriously she prepared for this role.

It’s difficult to select the appropriate words to express Phyllis Josephson’s skill as a performer. She turned in a terrific portrayal of Grandma. She brought out the character’s change very believably. In the opening scene, she captured the character’s stern nature without even speaking. Ms. Josephson walked in a slow gait before sitting down, maintaining perfect posture and remaining silent. When she did talk, she adopted an authentic German accent; at one point, lecturing Eddie on how she never cried.

Following the confrontation scene, she played Grandma as a mellower character. Even while allowing Eddie and the boys to kiss her and permitting music in the apartment, Mr. Josephson still retained a bit of Grandma’s tougher edge. She did so in a measured way that made the character’s transformation seem even more credible.

Ms. Howard and Ms. Josephson made the confrontation scene in Lost in Yonkers much more intense than I anticipated. The emotional turmoil generated by the argument became difficult to watch very quickly. The entire audience even gasped when Ms. Josephson dumped a cup of hot tea on Ms. Howard. All of that is a credit to how genuine the performers made the fight.

Doug Cohen played Eddie. He conveyed the character’s nervousness by dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. Mr. Cohen showed Eddie’s plight by speaking his monologs with a tint of somberness in his voice. He also delivered the most comical line in the show with perfect style. When Grandma announced that a bag of pistachios disappeared from the candy story, he exclaimed, “That’s still a problem after 35 years!”

I’d also credit Chuck Klotz and Amy Bannister for their performances. Mr. Klotz played an entertaining Uncle Louie. The cocky voice he adopted made the character an amusing presence on stage. Ms. Bannister animated Aunt Gert’s unusual tic brilliantly. Half way through her dialog she would speak while inhaling. She managed this challenging task extremely well.

Lost in Yonkers contained aspects that would give it appeal to a wide range of theatregoers. It included hysterical comic yuks along with intense drama. A person can imagine the eccentric characters as part of one’s own family. Even more important it included a compelling story. Perhaps that explains why performers have such admiration for Mr. Simon’s work. Audiences who’ve had the pleasure of seeing the show at the Village Playbox will no doubt share it.

Lost in Yonkers  runs through November 17th at the Village Playbox. After that it pulls an Uncle Louie-like disappearance.