William Bryant

Big Fish at the Ritz Theatre Company

“Be the hero of your story,” Edward Bloom (played by Chris Monaco) told his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri). Edward had quite a tale to tell. It included a witch (Rachel Klien), a mermaid (Lauren Bristow) and a giant (Jared Paxson) along with some memorable human characters; one of whom suffered from lycanthropy (Anthony Joseph Magnotta). Big Fish followed this fabulous fabulist of a father as his son Will (Frankie Rowles) endeavored to discover the man behind the myths. Director Matt Reher along with the cast and crew at the Ritz Theatre took the audience along this magical journey. I attended the May 8th performance.

At the beginning, playwright John August and songwriter Andrew Lippa gave the audience a sense of the evening they could expect. The “Be the Hero” track included a section where Edward Bloom described his unconventional approach to fishing. Calling it the “Alabama Stomp,” Mr. Monaco led the ensemble through a percussive dance routine. Fish leapt out of the water in response to it.

It’s quite a challenge to dance and sing at the same time. Big Fish added a tricky third element by requiring performers to catch large fish thrown from off stage. The cast executed this task without flaw.

The Ritz provided extraordinary atmospherics for this show. In the prelude to the “I Know What You Want” number, Technical Director Connor Profitt transformed the theatre into an eerie swamp. As Edward and his friends searched for the witch, the cricket sounds, dim lighting and smoke made it easy for me to suspend my disbelief.

Lauren Bristow’s solo dancing contained excellent choreography by Devon Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair also coordinated more elaborate routines that included the cast and ensemble; the best comprised the witch’s “I Know What You Want”, “Little Lamb from Alabama” and “Closer to Her.”

Aside from the fantastical elements, Big Fish contained a very “human” story. Edward (Chris Monaco) liked to relate the events of his life through fictitious tales. He described his and his wife Sandra’s (Megan Ruggles) courtship in hyper-romantic terms; as shown through the “Closer to Her” and “Daffodils” numbers. He entertained his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri) with stories containing a message. An encounter with a witch (Rachel Klein) taught him not to fear death. A mermaid (Lauren Bristow) showed him that love changes a person.

Young Will’s frustration with his father’s tale telling became hostile when he reached adulthood. His wife Josephine (Jamie Talamo) encouraged him to seek the lessons hidden in Edward’s stories. Upon receiving news of his father’s illness, Will (Frankie Rowles) sought to traverse the metaphorical river between them. When Will discovered that his father co-signed a mortgage for his high school sweetheart’s (Jenny Hill played by Colleen Murphy) home, he confronted his father.

Chris Monaco made his Ritz Mainstage debut in the lead role. He captured the upbeat nature of Edward’s personality along with his frustration with Will’s focus on “truth.” Mr. Monaco showed the depth of the character’s affection for Sandra in his scenes with Mrs. Ruggles. And most important: the man could tell a story.

Frankie Rowles played an excellent antagonist to Mr. Monaco. He concretized Will’s own annoyance with his father and his “tall tales.” Mr. Rowles conveyed that sentiment in song through a powerful rendition of “Stranger.” Without giving away spoilers, I will write that the performer enacted his character’s change in a believable fashion.

Big Fish contained beautiful music. Mr. Monaco performed a pining rendition of “Time Stops.” Megan Ruggles and members of the ensemble performed the quick dance moves from “Little Lamb from Alabama” in slow motion. Ms. Ruggles bashful vocals complimented the longing in Mr. Monaco’s.

Act One ended with “Daffodils.” The title referred to Sandra’s favorite flower. Mr. Monaco’s character proceeded to remove one-at-a-time from a bag while serenading Ms. Ruggles. The two performers captured the essence of the following exchange in song.

Sandra: You don’t even know me.

Will: I have the rest of my life to find out.  

Ms. Ruggles delivered a heart rending version of “I Don’t Need a Roof.” To add to the song’s mood, she cradled Mr. Monaco in her lap as she sang. Her performance made this scene the most touching moment of the show. With so many touching moments in Big Fish, this is a noteworthy achievement.

Moira Miller added superb costuming to this production. It enhanced the visual spectacle. From the country folk of Ashton, Alabama to the mystical figures the attire reflected each character’s personality.

Will’s clothing showed the iconoclastic nature of the man underneath it. He wore a jacket and tie to his son’s wedding reception along with a pair of khakis. His son dressed in a traditional suit. The attire displayed the variance in the two characters’ personalities.

The costumes the witch, the mermaid and the giant wore showed remarkable creativity. The witch’s included a pattern that resembled the surface of a cobra’s skin. The gold texture on the ringmaster (Amos Calloway played by Anthony Joseph Magnotta) costume glittered under the lights.

Ritz Big Fish 05

Chris Monaco and Ensemble

In homage to Edward’s fondness for hyperbole, I write that Big Fish contained enough props to fit in a small warehouse. While a bit of an exaggeration, it’s absolute fact that Melissa Harnois did an excellent work managing all these items. As the set (designed by William Bryant) included Edward’s attic, it contained a lot of miscellany.

Malik Muhammad, AJ Love, Chantel Cumberbatch and Meredith Meghan completed the ensemble.

Hillary Kurtz executed Chris Miller’s lighting design without flaw. Matthew Gallagher managed the sound design. Brian Bacon served as Musical Director.

With a great message, fantastical characters and superb musical numbers, Big Fish made for one entertaining evening of theatre going. Director Matt Reher wrote: Truth is not the same as fact. Regarding my assessment of Big Fish, they are.

Big Fish runs through May 19th at the Ritz Theatre Company.

 

Disney’s Mary Poppins at the Ritz Theatre Company

Yet again the Ritz Theatre Company is bringing the magic of Disney to the South Jersey Area. This summer they’re mesmerizing audiences with Mary Poppins. This piece, directed and choreographed by Brian Rivell, contains something that would appeal to just about anyone. It features elaborate special effects, unbelievable dance sequences and some stellar performances. I witnessed the spectacle for myself on July 20th.

The Banks family had problems. An emotionally distant man George (played by Paul McElwee) devoted himself to making money. Winifred (Jenna Lubis) harbored doubts about sacrificing her acting career to marry him. Their two children (played by Cassidy Scherz and Colin Rivell) behaved unruly. To show the extent of their issues, they’d been through more nannies than the Trump Administration has been through National Security Advisers….and Communications Directors…and Secretaries of State. Enter Mary Poppins (played by Martha Marie Wasser) to fix this mess.

This show contained extraordinary special effects. Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish floated through the air. An overturned table moved right-side up after Ms. Wasser waved her hand. Broken shelves fixed themselves following the same motion. The Ritz Theatre presented one enchanted production. Well-earned kudos goes out to Technical Director William Bryant.

The lighting made the performance a visual delight. The panels on both sides of the stage illuminated. The London backdrop took on different hues throughout the evening. Stars projected on the backs of the seats prior to the “Anything Goes” number. The display brought the audience into the show. Light Board Operator Casey Clark also gets well deserved praise for the spectacle.

Mary Poppins contained sophisticated and intricate dance routines. Brian Rivell coordinated awesome choreography. The cast did a superb job executing it. How to pick a favorite? I would suggest “Step in Time”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Anything Can Happen” as the strongest contenders for that title. However, if I wrote down all the routines on separate pieces of paper, placed them in a hat and drew one at random it wouldn’t be difficult to make an argument for that one being the best.

CJ Kish (as Bert) always performs with great passion and energy. At times it seems like he’s flying around the stage. In Mary Poppins he did so literally. Mr. Kish performed one sequence in which he executed flips in mid-air and hopped about as though dancing atop chimney brushes.

This show is a “must see” for Mr. Kish’s fans. I found the title of one of his musical number “Twists and Turns” very appropriate. He performed the best dance routines I’ve seen him do. He’s such a talented actor and vocalist (as evidenced by “Chim Chim Cher-eee”) that I hadn’t realized the extent of his dancing ability.

Martha Marie Wasser’s performance wasn’t “practically perfect”: Ms. Wasser turned in a flawless rendition of everyone’s favorite nanny. I always credit performers who can dance in heels. Ms. Wasser had some tricky numbers in which to do so. In “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” the tempo changed several times. She and cast executed the routine seamlessly and while singing.

Ms. Wasser adopted all the mannerisms of the title character. From the way she held her umbrella, to her calm manner of speech and through the posture she adopted while floating through the air Ms. Wasser transformed herself into the real Mary Poppins.

I’d also compliment Ms. Wasser on her singing ability. The show contained a number of Disney classics. Ms. Wasser made them her own. “Practically Perfect” and “A Spoonful of Sugar” stood out as the most beautiful.

The Banks family sure had its problems. They didn’t prevent the performers playing them from displaying their own vocal prowess. The four performed well together as a group on “Cherry Tree Lane” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Paul McElwee (as George) delivered a moving rendition of “Good for Nothing.” Jenna Lubas (as Winifred) sang an incredible version of “Being Mrs. Banks.”

In addition to their scenes with Mr. McElwee and Ms. Lubas, Cassidy Scherz (Jane) Colin Rivell (Michael) got to share the stage with Ms. Wasser and Mr. Kish. They displayed great chemistry working together on numbers such as “Step in Time” and “Practically Perfect.”

My favorite scene occurred during the smackdown between the dueling nannies. Mary Poppins and Miss Andrew (played by Kendra Cancellieri Hecker) confronted one another by using their signature method as a weapon. The former utilized “a spoonful of sugar” and the latter opted for “brimstone and treacle.” It made for a stellar clash enacted by Ms. Wasser and Ms. Hecker. The musical number itself made the audience the real winners of this conflict.

Credit also goes to performers Anne Buckwheat, Darrin Murphy, Kendra Cancelleri Hecker, Kaitlyn Delengowski, Olivia West, Jamie Talamo, Ryann Ferrara, Caleb Tracy, Kyle Ronkin, Darrel Wood, Lindsey Krier, Kelsey Hodgkiss and Leah Senseney. They each contributed to an outstanding ensemble.

Mary Poppins stays on as long as she’s “needed.” The Ritz Theatre Company anticipates that will be until August 5th. Take advantage of that opportunity. The Ritz is being generous. With the superb quality of entertainment I’ve experienced at that company, community theatre fans should feel grateful she’s “needed” there at all. Mary Poppins is another reason why.