William Young

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.

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Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.

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.