Vitaliy Kin

Sister Act at the Maple Shade Arts Council

Many South Jersey community theatre fans have attended at least one Sister Act production staged this year. When the Maple Shade Arts Council announced that they’d be producing it this July, I’m sure some asked, “Do we really need another Sister Act show..again?” Well, theatre legend Michael Melvin directed this one. So don’t think of it as “just another Sister Act” show. Think of it as the New Testament. I attended the showing at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium on July 15, 2017.

Since Sister Act has been such a popular show this season, I’ll spare readers the usual plot summary. However, to paraphrase director Michael Melvin, I will report that the cast and crew “put together one hell of a heavenly show.”

Watching Phyllis Josephson take the stage again was a true pleasure. I’ve seen her perform in numerous shows; in fact most recently in Sister Act at Haddonfield Plays and Players. She delivered a rap number in that one, but this is the first time I experienced her ethereal vocal style. I found her emotional rendition of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” very moving.

Ms. Josephson turned in a supreme performance as Mother Superior. She balanced the character’s austere nature while still getting laughs at the proper times. After her passionate rendition of the number mentioned above, she followed it up with a stellar on-liner. She also shared great chemistry with her nemesis, Dolores, played by Danielle Harley-Scott.

Ms. Harley-Scott played a wild free spirit and aspiring disco diva forced to masquerade as a nun. This required some range and she executed the challenge very well. She crooned the upbeat numbers “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous Baby!” with spirit. Later in the show she adjusted and delivered a passionate rendition of “Sister Act.” Maintaining her focus while the lights reflected off her sequined blouse was an achievement in itself. Her comedic attempt to lead the nuns in grace made one of the funniest moments of the show.

In a bit of ironic casting, Darryl Thompson, Jr. played “Sweaty” Eddie. I wrote ironic, because I didn’t notice him sweat all evening. The challenging number “I Could Be That Guy” would’ve given most performers a reason to perspire. Mr. Thompson already earned a reputation as a phenomenal vocalist through his previous work. With that acknowledgement, he sang a version of the song that would’ve impressed Berry Gordy.

Casey Grouser (as Sister Mary Robert) displayed extraordinary talent in this production. This performer possesses the strongest voice I’ve ever heard. The brilliant way she modulated it all evening impressed me. Unlike many singers, Ms. Grouser managed to hit high notes without her voice sounding piping. Ms. Grouser shone in her passionate rendition of “The Life I Never Led.”

In other scenes, Ms. Grouser captured her character’s initial timidity by hugging a book, looking down or quickly shuffling off stage. She believably enacted the character’s transformation into a self-confident person. Her overall performance deftly brought out Sister Mary Robert’s inner feelings.

I called Antonio Flores “brilliantly comical” when he played a gangster in City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters. I delighted in watching him step up into the role of crime lord, Curtis. The witty flair he added to “When I Find My Baby” enhanced the tune’s unusual lyrics.

Lori A. Howard and Vitaliy Kin demonstrated great comedic collaboration. Mr. Kin possesses a unique ability to stand out no matter what role he’s playing. Ask anyone who heard him sing Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish during The Wedding Singer. Listening to him shout in Spanish while Ms. Howard translated became my favorite moment in the show.

Erica Pallucci choreographed some extraordinary high-energy dancing. Casey Grouser, Gina Petti and MacKenzie Smith put on a clinic. There’s no question the choreographer deserves some credit for the routines. I’m just thinking these dancers found a lot of inspiration from the funky moves Mr. Melvin showcased when he played TJ this January.

The way Sister Act combined comedy, singing and dancing in the same scenes made it distinct. Matt Maerten, Evan Hairston and Vitaliy Kin combined their talents for the “Lady in the Long Black Dress” number. It made for an unforgettable scene.

I’d also credit performers Jillian Starr-Renbjor, Brian Blanks, Debra Heckmann, Andrea Veneziano William Smith and the ensemble for their comedic and vocal contributions to this stellar production.

The live band made the show even more special. Cameron Stringham did an excellent job coordinating the music. It sounded spectacular without overshadowing the vocals.

One of the advantages we community theatre critics enjoy is the opportunity to interact with influential people. I’ve had the privilege to sit next to famous performers, directors and producers at various shows I’ve attended. The Maple Shade Arts Council took this perk to a whole new level. Michael Melvin occupied the next seat over from me when he played Pius VI. (I give him credit for staying in character while doing so.) So this time, I got to sit next to the director, the organization’s president and a Pope. Now I’ve made it as a writer!

So do we really need another version of Sister Act in South Jersey? After watching the Maple Shade Arts Council’s production, an emphatic YES answers that question. This performance contained phenomenal singing, dancing and acting. Just perhaps, a series of Sister Act Two shows may be a welcome addition to the 2017 – 2018 theatrical season. For now, fans can see the original at the Maple Shade High School Auditorium through July 22.

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City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters

I spent a long evening of being mesmerized this May 5th. The excessive amount of talent on stage nearly overwhelmed me when I attended the opening of Burlington County Footlighters presentation of City of Angels. This Daryl S. Thompson, Jr. directed piece contained superb acting, great dancing and extraordinary singing. It also featured performances by several South Jersey Community Theatre legends. DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor all returned to the Footlighters stage. To add to the show’s appeal, Jim Frazer designed the set and Cameron Stringham served as musical director. Mallory Beach and Erica Paloucci handled the choreography.

Well, what else is there to say?  Oh, DJ Hedgepath and Rachel Comenzo once again showed us mortals why we all need to keep our day jobs. This is the easiest review I’ve ever written. Enjoy the rest of your day.

For the benefit of those people who like details, I’ll continue.

The show applied the “story-within-a-story” approach to a musical. It told the tale of screenwriter Stine’s (DJ Hedgepath) quest to write the script for a movie called City of Angels. In the course of doing so, he battled Hollywood producer and director Buddy Fidler’s (Steve Rogina) incessant meddling, he struggled to keep his marriage to Gabby (Rachel Comenzo) together; a feat complicated by his infidelity with Donna (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), and the voice of his protagonist, Stone (John Romano), tussled with him in his head.

In a manner reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, characters from real life ended up in the imagined story. One has to credit the performers who played dual roles during the same evening.

Kaitlyn Delengowski stood out as portraying the two most diverse characters. I really enjoyed the high-pitched squealy voice she selected for the Carla character; quite a departure from that of the haughty, Alaura Kingsley.

As to where the story went after that: your guess is as good as mine. With the Hollywood characters becoming the movie characters, the plot twists in the detective’s quest and Stine’s re-writes, I found it far too complicated to follow. It didn’t matter, though. The fantastic singing and superb performances made for a very enjoyable evening.

The story didn’t possess the same complexity as some of the melodies, however. David Zippel’s lyrics didn’t quite compliment Cy Coleman’s odd musical phrasing, either. They gave the singers a challenge.

Rachel Comenzo delivered a transcendent performance on the intricate “It Needs Work”. Perhaps inspired by her skill, DJ Hedgepath followed it up several tunes later with his stellar rendition of the equally difficult “Funny”.

The musical began with an unconventional and difficult opening to perform. It started as scat singing that transitioned into a barber shop quartet. Performers Stephen Jackson, Matthew Maerten, Emily Huddell and Kori Rife accepted the challenge of hooking the audience with this unusual material. They executed this task brilliantly.

Not many players would volunteer for the opportunity to sing a duet containing sixteenth notes. Fans familiar with them already know that Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor possess exceptional vocal prowess. They showed it with their rendition of “What You Don’t Know about Women.”

DJ Hedgepath and John Romano shared their own dual moment in the spotlight, as well. They delivered an outstanding performance on the “You’re Nothing without Me” number.

The cast delivered outstanding presentations. Mr. Romano tuned in a solid performance as the hard-boiled detective. I enjoyed his interactions with his edgy secretary (Jillian Star-Renbjor), the wealthy wife (Kaitlyn Delengowski) and the gangsters (Wayne Renbjor and the brilliantly comical Tony Flores). Noel McLeer played the missing girl very well, too. This group made me feel like I watched a musical interpretation of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Steve Rogina’s portrayal of the arrogant Hollywood director added a nice element to the story, as well.

Unlike many directors, Darryl Thompson, Jr. chose not to spend the night in the control booth. Instead, he opted to add his own superior vocal talents to the show. I’ve heard him sing bluesy and soulful material in the past. In this production, he showcased his ability to croon jazzy tracks with “Ya Gotta Look Out for Yourself” and the tender ballad “Stay with Me.”

I’d also like to credit Vitaliy Kin’s performance in the roles of Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz. I still remember several years ago hearing him perform Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish in The Wedding Singer. As comical as it was, he sang the tune very well. In this show, he delivered an awesome “All Ya Have to Do is Wait” number featuring a salsa and conga dance.

It thrilled me to hear Rachel Comenzo showcase her vocal talents once again. I watched her perform several non-singing roles last year. Ms. Comenzo’s rendition of “With Every Breath I Take” as nightclub singer, Bobbi, made up for the long wait. Her voice delivered great vibrato, soft inflection and outstanding modulation. I thought the band a little too loud on this number. Without a microphone, she still found a way to deliver soft notes in a manner so the audience could still hear her clearly. I’m still trying to figure out how that was even possible.

While crooning this moving number she also used extraordinary facial expressions toward Mr. Romano’s character. As difficult as this may be to believe, she conveyed Bobbi’s emotions non-verbally so well, that the scene would’ve been just as effective had she been silent.

With the possible exception of Mr. Hedgepath, I’ve never watched a performer get into character as well as Ms. Comenzo. Somehow, she manages this so flawlessly, that one sometimes loses sight of just how proficient she is at doing so. That’s talent.

It’s always difficult to select a ‘best’ DJ Hedgepath moment. His duets with Mr. Romano and monumental solo rendition of “Funny” would be good contenders. I also liked when he stepped out of the spotlight to put on the trench coat, glasses and hat and become one of the background dancers. In addition to his superior skill as a performer, you have to respect actors who are willing to accept any role to remain on the stage.

The City of Angels title aptly fit the show. The cast took the audience to heaven. The production impressed so much that “you can always count on me” to tout its praises “with every breath I take.” It’s true that “ya gotta look out for yourself.” There’s nothing “funny” about that, but “eve’rybody’s gotta be somewhere.” So why not use “the buddy system” and take a friend to go see it? “All ya have to do is wait” until the next performance.

 

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.