2014 Reviews

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: ‘Tilt the Unlit Candle’ off-beat Christmas tale at Luna Stage Company



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The ​world premiere play that opened at West Orange's Luna Stage the weekend of December 5-7 is Tilt the Unlit Candle by Ben Clawson.
This is Clawson's third play to be introduced at the Luna Stage (The Dangers of Electric Lighting and The High Water Mark). We gave the other two plays high marks for fascinating scripts, excellent production/direction and impressive performers. Tilt the Unlit Candle scores high marks on two of the three. Where it fails, at least when compared to the other two plays, is the over-long ​unsatisfying ​script.
It is a very contemporary Christmas story far from the world of Ebenezer Scrooge or even George Bailey*. It is the story of eight very different people, mostly society's strays, who have come together at a sad little church in a sad little town for a sad Christmas Eve service.  No characters have an epiphany. Their lives are not forever altered by their Christmas Eve visit. But, in a small way they each proceed with a better, kinder understanding of where they are and where they hope to go. However, it is unlikely you would invite anyone home for a holiday eggnog.

The ad for the play states "It's time for the annual Christmas Eve service in a small town at an even smaller church. Last year didn't go well, and this year isn't shaping up much better. The congregation is too old, the pastor is too young, and the choir is badly out of tune. Plus, there's a drunk who refuses to get off the church steps. Join these wacky revelers as they attempt to celebrate the holiday season and figure out just what the heck it is that they all seem to be searching for.​"
Tilt Liz Knotts
To say the characters are "wacky" is a bit of a stretch....this is not "The Marx Brothers go to church." The play does have some very funny moments, mostly early in the first act between the young minister Thad (Tony Knotts-photo above) who is attempting to hang garland on the church porch and the leader of the Fellowship committee Ms. Martha (Liz Zazzi-photo above). She is critical of not only his garland hanging skills...not "looping enough," but every other aspect of his ministerial performance. In her eyes he falls extremely short of his predecessor, Pastor Ron. Ron evidently was able to walk on water.
Tony Knotts​ is ​fine​ as the sincere, slightly naive, minister​. The success of this scene is due in large part to the skill of Liz Zazzi (a New Jersey comedy treasure).  ​Zazzi, in a power red jacket, is marvelous. She wallows in her church responsibilities, firm to excess, but underneath she seems to be a lonely, shallow woman.  ​

Another amusing, but poignant segment is the banter between a young pregnant woman, Kathleen (Megan Greener-top photo) who has come to this church simply because it is closest to her home and  the well-meaning but verbally inept Chair of the Welcoming Committee, Fred (Scott Cagney-top photo). Cagney is excellent, properly boobish with a kind, caring manner. Megan Greener impresses as the sensitive young woman facing an uncertain future.

Then there is Sue (Michelle Lupo) who has just quit her retail salesclerk job at the nearby mall wanting something better in life. Michelle Lupo nicely projects the frustration and anger of life on a treadmill.

The weakest scene, in fact it just about stops the play is between a young woman and man who meet at the steps. They are each there because a partner is a choir member. The man, Joel (Jerome R. Schler Jr.) is black, gay and Jewish (adopted). The woman, Trish​ (Kelley Evans), is a free spirit who joins Joel in sharing a pre-service "joint." Both are fine actors caught in an unsatisfactory scene in which the audience has little interest. Maybe, that's it...there is no one to really like, or root for, in Tilt the Unlit Candle. The title comes from a mid-service fire set accidentally by improperly lighting a candle.
Back to the "drunk who refuses to get off the church steps"---- this is Brendan (Tom Artz)  a man on a unique soul cleansing mission. ​Veteran actor Tim Artz is absolutely perfect in this role of the drunk with cash.
                                                                                                                          Tilt The Unlit Candle is nicely directed by Artem Yatsunov​.  He and Ben Clawson are part of the Strangedog Theatre Company​ making its first co-production​ with the Luna Stage​. They founded Strangedog​ after the two graduated from Montclair State​. Several cast member are also from Montclair State; Tony Knotts, Megan Greener, Scott Cagney and Jerome R. Schler Jr.

We give the final word to the director: “It’s a Christmas show for people who are kind of tired of Christmas shows,” Yatsunov said. “It really touches on what it is that people are looking for this time of year. And, though it’s not entirely family friendly, it is affectionate.”​
For more information, visit www.strangedogtheatre.com.
​Production credits: Daniel Viola stage manager; Rachel Budin lighting designer; Deborah Caney costume designer (Greener and Zazzi’s outfits are standouts, as is Cagney’s Christmas sweater); Julian Evans sound designer.
Tilt the Unlit Candle runs Thursdays through Sundays through Dec. 21. Get more information at here or at 973-395-5551. The Luna Stage is located at 555 Valley Road in West Orange just off 280. Ample street parking.
The theatre is handicapped accessible and offers assistive listening devices.
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Tim Artz and Tony Knotts

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: Unique Version of Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ with Alan Semok as Scrooge at Chatham Playhouse


Scrooge - Moneyrzcrp
This past weekend, we had the opportunity to review the Chatham Community Players'  unique (and wonderful) musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. The adaptation is by Philip William McKinley and Suzanne Buhrer and is directed by Jeffrey Fiorello with Jack Bender the musical director and Megan Ferentinos the choreographer.
This marks the 17th time that the Chatham Players has produced this show.  From 1988-1995, the group produced the show every December, and it now produces the show on a biennial basis. This unique production has become a popular family tradition for many in the area – entertaining more than 32,000 audience members since 1988.

Unlike the standard version of "A Christmas Carol," this version has Ebenezer Scrooge sharing the stage with Charles Dickens. Dickens participates in most scenes in his special role as the narrator....and who better to narrate than the author. We should note that we also reviewed the 2010 and 2012 productions. This year's play is essentially identical to 2012 except for minor set and dialogue changes, modified choreography and the addition of one song ..."Marley's Lament" not heard since the musical was workshopped in the early 80’s in Las Vegas.

The script follows the original story of the re-birth of Scrooge rather faithfully, plus material the writers incorporated from letters Dickens wrote to family and friends for his commentary as he travels with Scrooge on his life-changing journey.
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Front Row L-R:  Joelle Bochner, Chip Prestera, Alan Semok, Pierson Salvador, Scott Baird, Samatha Kaplan.
Playing Scrooge for the eleventh time (since 1988!) is the veteran actor Alan Semok (photo above). Semok, who has a long list of professional credits from both stage and television, His performance this year, as it the past editions, deserves a rave review. He is outstanding as Ebenezer making the transformation from the "cold-hearted, tight-fisted and greedy man, who despises Christmas and all things which give people happiness." His "Only A Fool" song brought tears to the eyes of more than a few in the full audience.
Other standout actors include: Charles Dickens played in this edition by Chip Prestera. Prestera, CCP's top comedy performer, and the 2012's nephew Fred, nicely steps into the more dramatic role of Charles Dickens. He surprises with not only his dramatic talent but also his more than adequate singing and dancing skills. Scrooge's nephew Fred in this edition is played nicely by Adrian Rifat. Scott Baird makes a fine Bob Cratchit (also fine voice displayed in the number "Not Tomorrow") Samatha Kaplan as Mrs. Cratchit scores with the heart-tugging "If I Could Hold You In My Arms,"
Steven Nitka, another popular community theatre veteran, excels as Jacob Marley as do the three ghosts past, present and future-- Adunni Rae Charles, Will Carey and Graham Helfrick. Will Carey also doubles very effectively as Mr. Fezziwig. Playing the second best known role is young Pierson Salvador as Tiny Tim. He is a charmer, specially with the sweet song "Tiny Tim's Dream."
The remainder of the large and talented cast includes:  Andrea Thibodeau, Sarah Rappoport (lovely sweet voice), Brielle Raddi, Maryann and Randy Post, Joelle Bochner, Eila Francis, Jody and Parker Ebert, Alyssa Franck, Dash Green, Sasha Jacobs, Ryan Graziano and Meghan Sabin.

Since this is a musical, we applaud the excellent musicians under the leadership of Jack Bender (doubles on keyboard). They are: Jarred Leekeyboard 2; Paul Robertson percussion; and Jeff Little bass.

Director Fiorello nicely uses the entire space available in this semi theatre-in-the-round facility (The audience sits on three sides). The rear space is used impressively for several scenes including Scrooge's home with several set pieces on turntables. Also, impressive is the entrance and exit of Marley's ghost in chains (no spoiler here). Much of the action involving the speaking members of the juniors in the cast is wisely staged in the floor area closest to the audience. The sets, props, lighting and sound are all top level as are the attractive Victorian costumes. Just what we have come to expect again from Jeffrey Fiorello and his team ( and the Chatham Players).

​​Fiorello's creative staff, mostly repeating their 2012 positions- from choreographer Megan Ferentinos who again has the large cast moving smoothly-even the children. Ferentinos has revised and added to the earlier production;  Bill Motyka set design; Fran Harrison costume design; Joe DeVico sound design; Richard Hennessy lighting design; Andrea Sickler scenic artist; Brian James Grace wigs; Tish Lum props and furniture; Pamela Wilczynski production coordinator; Debby Hennessy stage manager; Beth Vetter assistant stage manager; and the producers Bob Denmark and Chris Furlong.

Yes, there are many other versions of Dicken's tale currently playing, of course, but this is a unique take of the "Carol" providing truly fine family entertainment...we urge you to call for tickets now. The Saturday performance we attended was 'sold-out' and only four performances remain.
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio   December 13, 2014

The remaining performance dates are December 19 and 20 at 8 PM,  and December 20 and 21 at 3 PM. All performances are at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 North Passaic Avenue, in Chatham. Tickets are $25 for adults and $23 for youth/senior. For more information, call the box office at (973) 635-7363 or go to www.chathamplayers.org.

Note: The Chatham Community Players theater; there isn't a bad seat in the house. The audience is seated on three sides, in this not quite, theater-in-the-round. Parking is free and plentiful. The theater is blessed with a good number of truly excellent restaurants within easy walking of the theater, as is the Chatham train station with express service to NYC.
Additional photos (all by Howard Fisher)
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Pierson Salvador and Scott Baird
xmas 14 Chris Present
Will Carey and Alan Semok
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Dash Green and Sarah Rappoport

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: Centenary Stage Company is flying high with Lea Antolini–Lid in ‘Peter Pan-the Musical’


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It is 'fairy-dust' time at the Centenary Stage Company where they premiered this past weekend a full blown, major production of one of the most beloved family favorites of all time...Peter Pan. The holiday production with more than 70 actors, musicians and crew delights on all levels......it has a marvelous cast led by the Centenary Stage's multi-talented Lea Antolini–Lid as Peter Pan and Broadway veteran Osborn Focht as Captain Hook.

It has a supporting cast including youngsters from Centenary's Young Performers Workshop who impressively sing and dance along with professional actors, Centenary Theatre students, and area performers. It has excellent, colorful costumes. It has elaborate, attractive sets.It has the wonderful music from the original Broadway production starring Mary Martin. 

This highly entertaining production directed by Michael Blevins, also a Broadway veteran, is not just for the young, but the young at heart who will find much to enjoy. Peter Pan is based on J.M. Barrie’s classic tale and features a score by Morris “Moose” Charlap and Jule Styne with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.   The songs include I've Gotta Crow, Never Never Land, I'm Flying, I Won't Grow Up and Tender Shepherd.
Director Blevins has assembled a cast as talented as any we have seen on the Sitnik stage. Osborn Focht is perfectly cast in the dual role of  Captain Hook and Mr. George Darling. His father Darling is properly charming, caring and amusing. However, he excels in the fun role of the villain Captain Hook.
leaPPNow, here is where a barrage of superlatives are in order to describe the performance of  Lea Antolini–Lid (photo right). Her Peter Pan is extraordinary. She is a pure joy to watch (yes, worth the price of  admission!). Clearly she is having the time of her (stage) life in this role. Her dancing and singing abilities have possibly never been more perfectly showcased. She charms from the dramatic first arrival in the Darling nursery in search of her shadow....flying of course, to the touching reunion with Wendy, a mother herself in the final scene.

The fine secondary leads are Nikki Miller as Wendy, Mitchell Michaliszyn as John and Chris Nuez as Michael (he may be the smallest cast member, but he's the equal of the other dancers)...the Darling children. Cynthia Livingstone nicely handles the warm, mother role (Mrs. Darling). Both Nikki Miller and Cynthia Livingstone have impressive voices. They, plus Mitchell Michaliszyn (John) and Chris Nuez (Michael) combine for the touching nursery song Tender Shepherd.  Nikki Miller's Distant Melody duet with Lea Antolini–Lid is a second act highlight. Another standout is lead dancer Megan McGill as Tiger Lily, leader of the Indians. Brandon Wiener also provides several fun moments as Hook's right-hand man, Smee.

The remaining cast: Nana the dog- Victoria Pulido; Liza the Darling's maid-Lisa Kosak; Crocodile- Ernest Scarborough; Adult Wendy-Tyler Milazzo; Jane- Sydney Lewis ; Lost Boys; Teddy Walsh, Zack Clark,  Andrew Nussbaum, Tyler Donovan, Andrew Wire and Izac Donovan Cruz; Pirate crew; Tom Farber, James Nester, Andy Calderone, Ameer Copper, Chris Kolwicz, Cary Lawson, Dominick Garatino and Cody Riker.  Indian dancers; Lauren Santerelli, Jennine Hamblin, Raegan Davis, Jenna Black, Quinn O’Hara,  Suzanna Nussbaum, Elaine Belenguer,  Sarah Farber, and Christiane Darensbourg.
Peter Pan Hook
Director Michael Blevins also excels as the choreographer. Peter Pan features a surprisingly large number of excellent dances with the highlight Ugg-a-Wuggwith Peter Pan, Tiger Lily, the Lost Boys, Darling Children and the Indians in the second act. Jenna Black assists as the Dance Captain. The music is provided by a fine nine member orchestra led by David Maglione. The other members are: Gabe Valle, Aimee Nishimura, Connor Koch, Brian Dacey, Rich Dispenziere, Joe Christianson, Barbara Garrison and Andres Vahos. The orchestra is positioned on the audience floor in front of the stage (on the right). Since the cast are "miked" there is no apparent sound problem.

Other key credits include: Julia Sharp costumes, Paige Murray stage manager,  Jeff Chase technical director, Paul Gregorio production manager, Sarah Riffle lighting, Dani Pietrowski props; Kyle Parham fly captain; Stephen Davis fight choreography, and Melanie Miles wigs.  Carl Wallnau (CSC Artistic director) and Catherine Rust (CSC General manager) are co-producers.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio   November 30, 2014

The high-flying Peter Pan started on November 28th  and will run through December 14th at the Centenary Stage Company's very comfortable Sitnik theatre in the Lackland Performing Arts Center on the campus of Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey. The play runs about two hours with one intermission. Parking is free and ample.

Tickets prices for Peter Pan are $27.50 for adults on Matinees and Fridays with discounts for seniors, students and children.  Saturday performance prices are $29.50 with discounts for seniors, students and children under 12. Thursday evening tickets are $27.50 for all seats with a two-for-one Family Night discount when purchased at the door.  CSC’s production of Peter Pan is sponsored in part by The Holiday Inn of Budd Lake and the Fulton Bank of New Jersey.

CSC is also offering a special “Scout Troop Night” on Friday, December 5th and Friday December 12th at 8pm.  Scout Troop Night is a group sales discount of $15 per ticket only applicable to the troop members, its leader and co-leaders.  Regular ticket price applies to parents or siblings.  To be eligible for “Scout Troop Night”, scouts must attend with troop and appropriate scout attire must be worn, i.e. uniform shirt or vests (or sashes) with patches.  Reservations are required and the offer may not be combined with any other discount or promotions.

For a comprehensive performance schedule and to purchase tickets visit  online at centenarystageco.org.  Tickets may also be purchased at the CSC Box Office in The Lackland Center at 715 Grand Ave in Hackettstown, or by calling 908-979-0900. The Box Office is open Monday through Friday 1-5 p.m., and 2 hours prior to performance times. CSC also operates a second Box Office during the season at 217 Main Street in Hackettstown open Monday through Friday 3-6 p.m.

 Monday, December 8, 2014

REVIEW: “MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING” A SHINY CHRISTMAS BAUBLE AT SHAKESPEARE THEATRE OF NEW JERSEY-by Ruth Ross 

Reviewed by guest contributor Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)
STNJ_MuchAdo_6502The productions I've seen of Much Ado About Nothing are too numerous to count. They've been set in 16th century Italy, Jacobean England, the 18th century, 1900s America, somewhere in the 1930s, the New Jersey Shore during the 1950s, and even California in 2013! This time out, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has transposed Shakespeare's rollicking comedy to 1940s wartime America at Christmastime in a superb production that not only captures the sentiment of the holiday but is a testament to the dialogue's sounding contemporary and fresh, almost 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it!

This often-produced, much beloved, sophisticated comedy has at its center the attractive Beatrice and Benedick, who engage in a “merry war” of sharp wits, determined to convince themselves, and each other, that they’re not in love. In contrast are the two young lovers Hero and Claudio, who are visibly smitten from the moment we first see them. Despite the foul deeds and desperate measures of a rather dopey subplot—which Shakespeare cribbed from an Italian story—the two couples are ultimately joined in holy matrimony and all ends well. [Top L-R: Claudio (Charles Pasternak), Hero (Susan Maris), Don Pedro (John Hickok), and Leonato (Raphael Nash Thompson) revel in their merry plot to trick Beatrice and Benedick into admitting their true feelings. Photo: © Jerry Dalia]

STNJ_MuchAdo_6911What makes this production of Much Ado About Nothing so different is director Scott Wentworth's casting of himself and his real-life wife Marion Adler as the two lovers. A bit longer in the tooth than the actors usually playing these roles, these two bring a world weariness to the play that lifts the love story from one of two high-spirited young folks engaged in a romantic battle to one of two very wary, much-disappointed people approaching middle age without having found a soul mate. Without detracting from the silliness onstage, their verbal sparring has a more poignant, sadder edge to it. (Above: Marion Adler as Beatrice and Scott Wentworth as Benedick confess their love to each other.)

Every character, except for Hero and her waiting women, is played by an older actor. This suits Raphael Nash Thompson as a dignified, avuncular Leonato, count of Messina, father to Hero and uncle to Beatrice; and John Hickock as Don Pedro, mentor to Claudio and commanding officer of the troops returning from war to layover in Messina before embarking for home. Michael Steward Allen is a taciturn, wily Don John, Pedro's bastard brother, eager to make mischief for his brother and the men who follow him. My one complaint is that his villainy is a bit muted in relation to the mayhem it causes. And Charles Pasternak’s Claudio, while a bit old to be a young lover, convincingly plays a man so inexperienced around women who is thus easily duped into believing the worst about his bride-to-be, played with a wholesome winsomeness by a lovely Susan Maris.

Wentworth is a superb Benedick, with his sonorous voice and hound-dog face that wears his emotions for all to see. He is hilarious as he proclaims his desire to be a bachelor all his life, only to be caught unaware by Cupid's arrow when he learns that Beatrice loves him! That this occurs after he has eavesdropped from behind a Christmas tree that he moves to follow Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio's "conversation" only adds to the merriment. Marion Adler's Beatrice has been wounded by Benedick on his way to war, so she goes out after him verbally before he can get under her skin. She may have been hurt, but Adler's Beatrice is not brittle; she is a warm-blooded, intelligent woman deserving of a man worthy of her! But even when she and Benedick have proclaimed their mutual love, Adler lets us know that even a married Beatrice will be a force to be reckoned with.

STNJ_MuchAdo_6724Jeffrey M. Bender returns as STNJ's premier clown in the role of Dogberry, the leader of the Count's Watch. Dressed as an Air Raid warden, Bender mangles the English language (uttering malapropisms more than 125 years before there was a Mrs. Malaprop), misconstrues others' judgments of him (he preens when Leonato calls him tedious) and stumbles on the plot set in motion by the villain Don John to besmirch Hero's moral character and hurt Don Pedro's protegé Claudio. He's abetted in this lunacy by Conrad McCarty as his fusty sidekick Verges and the Watch as played by James Costello, Rachael Fox and Victoria Nassif. [Above: No mischief gets past The Watch, led by Dogberry (center left, Jeffrey M. Bender) and Verges (center right, Conan McCarty)]

In supporting roles, Andy Paterson is a calm, collected Father Francis who saves the Hero-Claudio relationship with ingenuity and sympathy. Austin Blunk as a callow, stupid Borachio, and Travis Johnson as an easily convinced Conrad carry out to Don John's plot. And Rachael Fox and Victoria Nassif do double duty as Hero's servants Margaret and Ursula, respectively, lending some youthful fun to the Christmas festivities.

Michael Ganio's spare set and Candida Nichols' costumes beautifully evoke the time period with a nod to 1940s films, most notably White Christmas. Peter West's lighting and Steven L. Beckel's sound add to the effect. Especially amusing is Shakespeare's "Hey nonny, nonny" performed as a Christmas carol!

By the way, the company's dramaturg remarks in the program that the play was called, in Shakespeare's time, Much Ado About Noting—a play on pronunciation—pointing out that there are many ways that the ado is caused by noting, meaning "to observe, to watch." It is also notable to mention that an ingenious framing device (no spoiler) enriches the decision to set the play in 1940s wartime.

Scott Wentworth and the STNJ team have given us a remarkable Christmas present in their iteration of Much Ado About Nothing. This play never gets old for me, so even if you've already seen it, take your spouse, significant other, parents, teenagers and/or friends to see it this holiday season. Give the gift of theater. Here, on the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre stage there is a great ado about something!
Much Ado About Nothing will be performed through December 28 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue (on the campus of Drew University) in Madison. For information and tickets, call 973.408.5600 or visitwww.ShakespeareNJ.org  online.

Monday, December 8, 2014 
Review: ‘Ruthless! the musical’ a killer comedy at Chester Theatre GroupRuthless_CTG_1​                    Maria Brodeur as Judy and Molly Farrell as Tina                                                                    

This is the story of the play that almost wasn't. ​The Chester Theatre Group set out to produce the award-winning musical, but rarely produced in our area anyway,  Ruthless! The Musical  (book and lyrics by Joel Paley and music by Marvin Laird) starting November 21st for three weeks. However, what might have been a fatal blow for mere mortals (i.e. casting change of a lead one week before opening!) a band of absolutely marvelous community theater performers, musicians and crew, clearly not in any way mere mortals have pulled off a remarkable resurrection, (you know, the phoenix rising from the ashes). They miraculously recast the part (Tina) added extra rehearsal and wow they triumphed big-time. I wish I could urge you to see this laugh riot with six, yes six, standout performances from each member of the cast.. But, it is not to be, due to prior commitments the run lasted just two weeks instead of the planned, and budgeted three weeks. The final performance was Sunday  afternoon​.


Ruthless! the musical is an outrageously campy delight. It is a parody of Broadway musicals and iconic Hollywood movies such as The Bad Seed,Gypsy, and All About Eve.

​The plot centers on a​n​ untalented mother, Judy Denmark (Maria Brodeur), with a remarkably talented daughter, Tina (Molly Farrell), who is desperate to perform. Sleazy agent Sylvia St. Croix (Michael Foley) provides encouragement as Tina auditions for THE LEAD in her school play, Pippi in Tahiti. Unfortunately, the third grade teacher, Miss Thorn (Beth Amiano Gleason), chooses the untalented daughter of a local merchant, Louise Lerman (Raven Alexandra Dunbar) for the lead, making Tina the very ​reluctant ​understudy.  Tina, handles the rejection in a less than normal​, but unique​ manner....she murders Louise and goes on as Pippi. She also goes on to the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingénues.

Meanwhile, Judy, who was adopted at an early age by theatre critic Lita Encore (Lisa Deane), finds that her real mother was actually a Broadway star, Ruth Del Marco. The news means that she ​may ​actually ha​ve  inherited talent! As could only happen in fiction, Judy turns into the gifted Tony-Award winning Broadway star Ginger Del Marco. The star's assistant is an aspiring actress Eve (Raven Alexandra Dunbar-doubles) who becomes Judy/Ginger's deadly understudy.

Also, in the mix is a reporter Emily Block (Beth Amiano Gleason​-doubles​) who is set on revealing Ginger's past, including Tina's ​special method of career building.
Ruthless_CTG_2_Molly_as_TinaRarely have we seen a play with stand-out performances from all cast members, but each member had a showstopping star-turn. 

Molly Farrell (photo right) was truly remarkable as the evil singing and tap dancing Tina. She particularly delighted in the Born to Entertain, To Play This Part and There's More To Life numbers.
Maria Ludwig Brodeur (photo below) was terrific as wimpy Judy Denmark and the​n the confident, arrogant Ginger Del Marco. Her big solo was Tina's Mother.
ruthless44Michael Foley (left) was sensational as Sylvia St. Croix. He delivered a spot-on performance as a manipulating ​(female) agent. He also made a great fashion statement in heels and hats. His big song was Talent.

Beth Amiano Gleason wowed with both her Miss Thorn, the third grade teacher, and the black leather dressed reporter Ms.Block. Her big showstopper turn was Teaching Third Grade. Lisa Deane as the critic Lita Encore scored with the best song of the show I Hate Musicals,  Raven Alexandra Dunbar as Lousie Lerman/Eve had fun with A Penthouse Apartment.
Director Cindy Alexander, musical director Clifford Parrish, choreographer Megan Ferentinos, producer Ellen Fraker-Glasscock ​ and assistant director Bob Longstreet deserve their own ovations for the impressive effort in overcoming a tough situation and our admiration for the outstanding production they produced. The phoenix did not just rise it soared!​

​​Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  December 6, 2014

​Musical director Clifford Parrish (piano) led a fine trio of musicians: Tom Rodgers piano 2; Michael Aberback percussion; and Tim Metz bass.
Production credits: Steve Cantron & Kevern Cameron set design/construction; Diane Butler stage manager; Peg Hill, Ellen Fraker-Glasscock​, Scaramouche costumes (the elaborate costumes were perfect, adding much to the comedy); ​Bob Longstreet sound designer; Ellen Fraker-Glasscock ​ lighting; Cindy Alexander props;​ Dave Villepique crew.
Photos by Tom Glasscock
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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: Wonderful Holiday Gift for All Ages-‘ELF’ at Paper Mill Playhouse

ruth head shot_thumb[2]Reviewed By Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)


To adults, a human being who thinks he's an elf could get "old" pretty quickly, but Thomas Meehan and Rob Martin (book), Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics) turn what could be dross into pure gold! I am talking about Elf, the charming musical version of the 2003 Will Ferrell film that opened last night at the Paper Mill Playhouse—just in time for Christmas—and what a gift it is for young and old alike!
ELF Photo 6I never thought I would write those last three words, but I ruefully confess that, although I have never seen the film (the thought of Will Ferrell's face 12 feet tall gave me the willies), I was thoroughly bowled over by the tale of Buddy, an orphan mistakenly transported to the North Pole where he has been raised by Santa's elves. Now 30 years old, he undertakes a journey New York City to discover his true identity and reconnect with his biological dad. (Above James Moye with his fellow elves. Photo by Matthew Murphy)
ELF Photo 3What could be a cloyingly sweet children's story is redeemed by clever dialogue, with plenty of physical jokes for the kids and lots of witticisms for the grown-ups, along with sprightly melodies, complex and nimble choreography and colorful costumes. On a fantastic set designed by Matthew Smucker (it's reminiscent of the snow globe Santa gives Buddy, right), Eric Ankrim's firm directorial hand guides the large cast through its dramatic and musical paces, accompanied by the musical direction of Dominick Amendum. (Above: Paul C. Vogt and James Moye with Santa’s Elves. Photo by Matthew Murphy)
ELF Photo 5Best of all, there's talent to spare in this attractive cast comprised of Broadway veterans and Paper Mill Playhouse favorites. Onstage for the entire play, James Moye plays Buddy with an endearing goofiness as he experiences culture shock down on earth, falls in love (and gets his first kiss) and, in general, makes hilarious pronouncements that proclaim his naiveté loud and clear. He sure can sing and dance, and his energy is boundless! You just want to give him a hug. Kate Fahrner plays his new (girl) friend Jovie as a bit of a grouch, but we learn that she's been romantically disappointed since her arrival in New York City, so she's a bit soured on life. That Farhner convincingly conveys Jovie's gradual transformation—under Buddy's infectious warmth—redeems the character.
ELF Photo 4Robert Cuccioli brings his usual flair to what could be the thankless role of curmudgeonly Walter Hobbes, Buddy's workaholic biological father, too busy for Christmas, too busy for his family, too busy for life. He hoofs and sings his way through the action and gives a performance that even makes us feel sympathy for this grump. He's well matched by Heidi Blickenstaff as Walter's wife Emily and Jake Faragalli as their son Michael. Both put across a song with gusto and dance with spirit. Their newly reawakened belief in Santa is life-affirming. (L-R: Heidi Blickenstaff, Robert Cuccioli, Jake Faragalli, James Moye, Kate Fahrner. Photo by Matthew Murphy)
Jessica Sheridan is terrific as Deb, Walter's receptionist/secretary, and Paul C. Vogt is a hilarious Santa Claus who, before the action starts, reminds us to turn off our cell phones and unwrap a candy! His droll delivery of the side-splitting dialogue sure warms up the audience for the hijinks to follow!
ELF Photo 2Josh Rhodes gives us a veritable smorgasbord of dance styles, including several lively tap dance routines (one made up of a coterie of dancing Santas, another by Macy's elves (left with Buddy) and a very agile department manager played by DeMone. Performed by a first-rate ensemble on ice skates (really rollerblades) on the Rockefeller Center ice rink, A Christmas Song is especially delightful. If you didn't believe in Christmas by this time, I guarantee you'll be a convert! Brightly colored costumes by David C. Woolard enhance the holiday atmosphere.

By the time the lights go down on the final scene, Elf will have warmed your heart, no matter what your age may be. This tuneful holiday confection is a worthy addition to the Paper Mill Playhouse's record of outstanding productions of that most American of art forms, the musical comedy. So give the family the gift of theater by calling now for tickets to Elf before they're sold out.
Elf will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through January 4, 2015. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays. Check the website for special holiday week schedules. For information andtickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.papermill.org online.Credit cards are accepted. Groups of 10 or more can receive a 40% discount on tickets by calling 973.315.1680. College student can order $20 rush ticketsover the telephone or in person at the box office on the day of performance.
Reviewed by Ruth Ross

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Review: ‘A Christmas Story the Musical’ at the Barn Theatre is pure joy


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A Christmas Story the Musical had its New Jersey premiere last night at the Barn Theatre in Montville. It is directed by Scott Hart, one of the producers of the Broadway musical (a Tony nominee last year). We are doubtful if anyone not as intimately involved with the New York production as Hart could have pulled-off this amazing large scale production. The sheer size of the cast-- combining some of the most experienced, most talented, area performers with a sprinkling of talented novices, largely of the juvenile variety, has to have been a major challenge. Wow… did he with musical director Charles Santoro, choreographer Megan Ferentinos and producer Nancy Zeidenberg deliver in all areas. This production can best be described with two words...JOY and JOY--one for each act.  
Not familiar with the original Christmas Story? Back in the dark ages...the 1950's....radio station WOR in New York featured a lone late night gentleman Jean Shepherd. Jean was a master story teller who could weave a single fascinating story for the length of the program. Working largely with only notes, no formal script, he enlightened and entertained the late night radio audience (including this writer who was commuting at that hour from his stagehand job at WATV-13 in Newark to, of all places, Montville, New Jersey, home of the Barn Theatre.)
Jean's most popular story, possibly autobiographical,...TheChristmas Story..was made into a film that has since become a tv cult-classic at Christmas time....and now developed into a musical for the stage.   It is the story of Ralphie and his family (Mom, Dad and brother Randy, and his "comic quest for the Holy Grail of Christmas gifts-an Official Red Ryder, carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle."  In that period, many comic books had a display ad on the back cover for the Red Ryder, carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Red Ryder was a comic book hero the equal of the Lone Ranger. (see the ad below)
Please understand that part of the enjoyment of this musical version comes from being familiar with the movie....it is fun knowing what is Dad's special prize from the crossword contest, or what is Ralphie's Christmas gift from his distant aunt, or the Christmas turkey disaster, the tongue and the flagpole, etc.
A XMAS
Bringing this fun tale to life is a wonderful, exuberant cast led by Bob Mackasek (photo above left) as Jean Shepherd. Mackasek is simply terrific. Not hard seeing him in the same role on any stage including NYC. His warm, at-ease style, with a twinkle in his voice, is the glue that holds the show together-a bit of a cliché, but appropriate. Like the narrator in Our Town, he breaks the fourth wall directing his comments to the audience. Ralphie and his family are each a marvelous bit of casting. Ralphie is played by Jeffrey Gallup, a Montville 7th grader with impressive credits. Playing younger brother Randy, reluctant eater, master of hiding under the sink and lack of snowsuit mobility, is Matthew Quirk.
Fine voiced Cheryl Marocco Bookstaver, with 40's style hair and costume nicely projects a loving, caring, self-less mother and wife. Garnering many of the laughs as father, early painted as a "potty-mouthed" buffoon, but later showing his love for family when it counts, is the impressively talented Barn veteran Tom Schopper. Schopper, like his co-leads, is spot-on. They each project great pleasure in having this opportunity to perform in such an audience pleasing show.
That takes us back to the word that best describes the talented full cast of 30....exuberant. Leading the supporting cast is former Perry winner (NJ Community Theatre's Best Actress Award) Lynn Hart. Hart has great fun as Ralphie's school teacher. This multi-talented lady brightens every stage with her triple play of acting, singing and dancing talent. 
 Other standouts in the supporting cast are: Jacob Lesser (Schwartz); Luke Mitchell (Flick); Liam Driscoll (Scut); James Ignacio (Grover Dill); Craig Stevens (Santa); Pearl Hart (Mrs. Schwartz); Katie Weigl (Head Elf); and Jonathan Galvez (Chinese Waiter).
Not to be over looked is the wonderful ensemble of adults and youngsters who sing and dance, including a neat tap number. Ayla Schwartz , Amanda Vogel, Dana Efron, Zachary Petzinger, Megan Bodmer, Anita Freedson-Jackson, Alan Van Antwerp, Roxanna Wagner, Salvatore Bellomo, Michal Efron, Vinnie Plantamura, Nikki Simz, James Lopez, Evie Turner-Salerno, James Russo, and Susan Hagen. The show's fun, bright dance numbers are choreographed by one of our areas leading dance creators Megan Ferentinos. Charles Santoro leads the ten member orchestra that includes Chris Curcio, Joe Mankin, Carol Hamersma, Rick Savage, Federico Perez, Jessica Miller, Melissa Encarnacion, John Ferrariand and Bill Trigg.
Director Scott Hart's creative team includes:  Assistant Director: Lauren Moran Mills, Producer: Nancy Zeidenberg, Stage Manager: Erin Gilgur, Assistant Stage Manager: Regina Novicky, Set Design: Greg Cilmi, Set Construction: Todd Mills, Stage Crew: Jeff Kinkead, Rita La Manno, Ron Mulligan, Daniel Schopper, Thomas Wertheimer, Lighting Design: Nicholas Marmo, Sound Design: Larry Wilbur, Props: William Ward, Props-Crew: Sarah Wertheimer-Lopez, Costumes: Janice Schopper.
The Barn Theatre of Montville, New Jersey will be presenting AChristmas Story the Musical with book by Joseph Robinette, and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, through December 13. Remaining performances are on November 28, 29, December 5, 6, 12, 13 at 8 pm; and on November 22, 23, 30, December 7 at 2 pm. Tickets are $24 (senior/student tickets are $22 on matinees only).
“But please note: we aren't entirely sold out -- we just aren't taking reservations anymore. There still might be additional tickets available for each performance BUT in order to get them, you must come to the theater 1 hour before curtain (i.e. at 7pm for an 8pm evening performance or at 1pm for a 2pm matinee) to get your name on the waiting list. These extra tickets are first come, first served basis. So don't miss out on "A Christmas Story: The Musical" at The Barn Theatre!”  This is four star entertainment. 
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio    November 21, 2014
The Barn Theatre is located on Skyline Drive in Montville, NJ, just minutes off Exit 47 from Route 287. For more reservations, information or directions, call The Barn Theatre Box Office at (973) 334-9320, or visit The Barn Theatre on the web atwww.barntheatre.org.
P.S. I was 45 when I finally got my Red Ryder rifle (legal in Virginia where we lived).
Top photo: (Left to Right): Matthew Quirk (as Randy), Cheryl Marocco Bookstaver (as Mother), Tom Schopper (as The Old Man), and Jeffrey Gallup (as Ralphie) Photo by Anthony Michael Salerno

REVIEW: INNOVATIVE “CAMELOT” PRESENTS ICONIC STORY WITH VERVE, FLAIR AND TALENT

By Ruth Ross
When Two River Theater Company listed Camelot in their offerings for the 2014-2015 season, I was perplexed. How could a small regional theater on what, I assume, is a somewhat limited budget produce such a beloved, blockbuster musical?
Well, I should not have worried. By thinking out of the box, the creative team at Two River has given us a play that is less spectacle and more human. Eschewing the elaborate scenery and costumes of most other productions (e.g., Broadway, the Paper Mill Playhouse), director David Lee and his crackerjack production team provide this classic romantic triangle with more nuance than we usually associate with it. It's all about the people, folks.
Camelot TRTC 11-15-14 035<br />Camelot at Two River Theatre Company<br />November 15, 2014 - December 14, 2014<br />Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner<br />Music by Frederick Loewe<br />Original Production Directed and Staged by Moss Hart<br />Based on The Once and Future King by T.H. White<br />Music Direction and Orchestrations by Steve Orich<br />Choreography by Mark Esposito<br />Directed by David Lee<br />Set Design: Scott Bradley<br />Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam<br />Costume Design: Tilly Grimes
Written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in 1960 and adapted from T.H. White's novel The Once and Future King (also the source for The Sword in the Stone cartoon film), Camelot starred a trio of heavy hitters: Julie Andrews as Guenevere, Richard Burton as King Arthur and Robert Goulet as Lancelot; Roddy McDowell played the villain Mordred, a smaller albeit pivotal role. 
Lush music and clever lyrics told the tale of star-crossed lovers, caught in a web of friendship, politics and passion. The production was a feast for eyes and ears. (Left: Britney Coleman as Guenevere and Oliver Thornton as Arthur)

In Red Bank, Lee and his team have pared down the scenery to a series of platforms, stairs, ladders, metal beams and a catwalk high above the stage, along with some ragged draperies and movable props to recreate a medieval court. As the play begins, the eight actors—all of them young, vital and handsome—stroll onstage casually dressed in contemporary duds. To signify their royal characters, designer Tilly Grimes has them don simple vests, jackets, crowns and garlands, boots and, for Guinevere, a skirt, as the action begins. Sound effects and announcements of various locations make sure we never lose our way as this iconic tale wends its way to its terrible end.

Camelot TRTC 11-15-14 119<br />Camelot at Two River Theatre Company<br />November 15, 2014 - December 14, 2014<br />Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner<br />Music by Frederick Loewe<br />Original Production Directed and Staged by Moss Hart<br />Based on The Once and Future King by T.H. White<br />Music Direction and Orchestrations by Steve Orich<br />Choreography by Mark Esposito<br />Directed by David Lee<br />Set Design: Scott Bradley<br />Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam<br />Costume Design: Tilly GrimesThe legend of King Arthur has a long history. The real Arthur was probably a fifth century Romanized Celtic chieftain who attempted to stem the tide of the Saxon invasion from the east. Stories about him floated about for years, but it took a 12th century Welsh monk, Geoffrey of Monmouth, to turn him into a king. In the 15th century, Sir Thomas Malory gathered the legends into Le Mort d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur) and gave us the Arthur–Guenevere–Lancelot plot, a juicy story subsequently picked up by the poet Tennyson in Idylls of the King and popularized in the 20th century by the Mary Stewart Arthur trilogy and T.H. White’s novel. It is the latter that gives the musical its core impetus: the idea that might does not make right, that a civilized society does not condone violence (especially against the defenseless) and that disputes can be settled by law in courts before a jury, rather than by battles royal. (Above, the Company performs “The Jousts.”)
Camelot TRTC 11-15-14 158<br />Camelot at Two River Theatre Company<br />November 15, 2014 - December 14, 2014<br />Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner<br />Music by Frederick Loewe<br />Original Production Directed and Staged by Moss Hart<br />Based on The Once and Future King by T.H. White<br />Music Direction and Orchestrations by Steve Orich<br />Choreography by Mark Esposito<br />Directed by David Lee<br />Set Design: Scott Bradley<br />Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam<br />Costume Design: Tilly GrimesThe actors chosen to tell this story  may not be household names yet, but there is a bright future for this talented  bunch. As Arthur, Oliver Thornton (left, knighting Nicholas Rodriguez as Lancelot) is mix of uncertainty and resolve—the former from his becoming king in an unusual way (he pulled a sword from a stone), the latter from the eternal optimism of the young. His excitement as he talks about his plans is palpable, which makes the final scene before his ultimate battle with Mordred even more poignant. Too, he has a beautiful voice and a playful manner, as showcased in "I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight" and his vivid explanation of what simple folk do when they're blue. 

Britney Coleman is a fetching Guenevere, a strong young woman who nevertheless longs to have men fight for her honor in the traditional way! She's equally at home with comic numbers ("The Lusty Month of May/Then You May Take Me to the Fair") as she is with ballads projecting her longing for Lancelot. Ah, Lancelot! Nicholas Rodriguez (a Channing Tatum look-alike) is magnificent in the role of the arrogant French knight who crosses the Channel to join the Round Table. His swagger is that of a young narcissist without the oiliness of Goulet. And his rendition of "If Ever I Would Leave You" brings tears to the eyes. Best of all, real chemistry, physical and psychological, is exhibited by this trio. We feel their longing, love and pain very keenly, unobscured by pomp and ceremony.

Camelot TRTC 11-15-14 197<br />Camelot at Two River Theatre Company<br />November 15, 2014 - December 14, 2014<br />Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner<br />Music by Frederick Loewe<br />Original Production Directed and Staged by Moss Hart<br />Based on The Once and Future King by T.H. White<br />Music Direction and Orchestrations by Steve Orich<br />Choreography by Mark Esposito<br />Directed by David Lee<br />Set Design: Scott Bradley<br />Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam<br />Costume Design: Tilly GrimesSuperb support is provided by Ryan G. Dunkin (Sir Sagramore), Kent Overshown (Sir Dinadan), Perry Sook (Sir Lionel) and Parker Slaybaugh (Tom). Talented Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is a malevolent, scheming Mordred, a real contrast to Arthur's new world order; he has great fun decrying "The Seven Deadly Virtues" and proclaiming with the other knights "Fie on Goodness" as they bring Camelot to an end. [Above: Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Mordred), second from right, surrounded by Perry Sook (Sir Lionel), Ryan G. Dunkin (Sir Sagramore), and Kent Overshown (Sir Dinadan) decry goodness.]

Steve Orich and his eight musicians play the familiar melodies without overpowering the singers. Kudos to Michael Gilliam (lighting design), Acme Sound Partners (sound design) and J. Steven White (fight direction). Once again, David Lee shows his versatility as a director; his last gig was helming Can-Can at the Paper Mill Playhouse. He certainly is a director to watch.
Camelot has always been one of my favorite musicals. It hearkens back to the heyday of the form, with musical numbers that grow organically from the action, move it along and enhance it; nimble choreography by Mark Esposito; and a book that actually tells a story, instead of being a pastiche of pop or rap songs. As the archetypal love triangle, the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot tale never gets old. Here, in its latest charming and most intriguing incarnation, the Two River Theater Company has given us a Camelot for our own time—just in time for the holidays. It is a terrific gift, one you will want to share with your relatives and friends, one that will stay with you long after you have left the theater.

Camelot will be performed at the Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, through December 15. An extra performance has been added on Sunday, December 7, at 7:30 PM. 

Tickets are available from the box office 
732.345.1400 or www.tworivertheater.org online. Call for performance times and information. Parking is free in the theater's spacious lot.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: Powerful new play premieres at Luna Stage in West Orange


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"Line in the Dust' is a play is about segregation in NJ Public Schools...at first the topic may be of minor interest or even a turn-off...not quite what you are looking for in an evening's theater entertainment, however would you be wrong!This a beautifully written, powerful, exciting, thought-provoking play impressively directed (Reginald L. Douglas) and performed by three exceptional actors (Erin Cherry, Rick Delaney and Dorcas Sowunmi).
"Line in the Dust" is now having its world premiere at the Luna Stage in West Orange, one of our Garden State theater treasures.

The play that has launched Luna's 22nd Season was commissioned by Luna from Obie-Award winner and Bloomfield NJ resident Nikkole Salter in commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.  This was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The Court's unanimous (9–0) decision stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, de jure racial segregation was ruled a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This ruling paved the way for integration and was a major victory of the civil rights movement.

The title "Line in the Dust" refers to the famous quote about segregation by 1960s Alabama Governor George Wallace, an ardent segregationist. The play focuses on residential districting in New Jersey public schools and examines how this controversial and emotional issue has affected the dream promised through the landmark ruling.
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Ms. Salter uses just three characters to illustrate the issue. A black single mother Denitra Morgan (Erin Cherry) whose teen-age daughter is attending Millburn High School. Morgan is fiercely proud of her daughter's academic success and dreams of an Ivy League education ahead and all that that implies. A black interim Millburn High School principal Dr. Beverly Long (Dorcas Sowunmi) who has great compassion, in particular, for her disadvantaged black students. A racist private investigator Mike DiMaggio (Rick Delaney) working to expose resident fraud for the school system. DiMaggio was raised in Newark and laments the city's decline.

Here is the writer's dilemma-- to go any further in plot description would destroy the impact of this play. As stated earlier, these are three exceptional actors who transform what might in other hands be a very good play into exciting theater. The Luna main stage is an intimate venue where no seat is more than a few feet from the actors. This closeness and the power of these performances added to the relevant emotional material takes the viewer (at least this viewer) beyond a mere theatrical presentation to almost active participation, in short, you forget this is a play and almost experience it as reality.
As in real life, there are no easy answers to the conflict or challenges examined in "Line in the Dust."
If you appreciate theater beyond chuckles and high notes, I urge you to journey to West Orange to see "Lines in the Dust." You will be discussing this play and the subject for far more than the ride home.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  October 19, 2014

Some background: Luna Stage commissioned Ms. Salter to write a play inspired by the life and work of Justice Robert L. Carter, who spent his youth in East Orange and Newark and was one of the architects of the NAACP's legal strategy behind Brown v. Board of Education. This is the second play Luna Stage has commissioned that centers around history or issues specific to New Jersey. Ms Salter chose to look specifically at residential districting in Essex County because "We, as a nation, are losing out." says Ms. Salter. "Collectively, we continue to demonstrate that we believe in our hearts that some people are better than others; some people are inherently more capable than others; some people, based on where they live, are more valuable and more worthy of our investment than others.   Nowhere does this make itself more apparent than in our system of public education."
SONY DSCCheryl Katz, Luna's Artistic Director (photo right), deserves the last word: "Theatre should be entertaining. Theatre should be illuminating. But to me, the most exciting theatre is theatre that is acutely relevant: theatre that holds a mirror up to our society and forces us to confront our history, our triumphs and our failures. And no where is this reflection more important than in regard to how we educate our children."

"Lines In The Dust"  runs Thursdays through Sundays through November 9th. Tickets range from $25-$35.  Individual tickets and Luna Stage 2014-2015 Season Passes can be purchased at lunastage.org, by calling 973-395-5551 or in person Tuesday-Friday 10 am-3 pm.
Luna Stage, a member of Valley Arts, is located at 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ 07052. The theatre is handicapped accessible and offers assistive listening devices.
Top photo: Erin Cherry and Rick Delaney Mid-photo: Erin Cherry and Dorcas Sowunmi Photo Credit:Steven Lawler

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Shakespeare’s rarely produced ‘Henry VIII’ provides great theater



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The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey premiered this past weekend the fifth of its six play main stage schedule for the 2014 season, the rarely produced "Henry VIII." The play is presented in STNJ's always impressive epic style, with sterling casting, dazzling costumes, dramatic setting, perfect mood creating music and lighting.

Why rarely produced? It was one of the Bard's most popular plays a century ago, however the authorship of this tale of the young Henry VIII is in question.  Many Shakespeare scholars are of the opinion that the work is a collaboration between William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, a fellow dramatist.  We should note that the play's notoriety is also partly due to a tragic incident during a performance at the Globe Theatre in 1613. The theatre burned down....a cannon shot employed for special effects ignited the theatre's thatched roof, burning the  building to the ground.  None of these concerns, however, alters the fact that this reworked, streamlined version in the hands of STNJ's veteran  director Paul Mullins is a marvelous, fascinating, entertaining story.

This is not the story of Henry VIII and his six wives, or the split with Rome creating the Church of England. The play instead is centered on Henry's desire to divorce first wife of 20 years, Katherine of Aragon, the daughter of the Spanish King. The replacement, already a member of the court, is Anne Bullen (Boleyn) Katherine's maid of honor. Henry (David Foubert) is successful in his quest for divorce from Katherine and marriage with the young Anne (Kate Wieland). Queen Anne gives birth, not to the desired son who would insure Henry's legacy, but to the girl who is to be England’s future Queen Elizabeth I. The play was written and produced shortly after the death of Elizabeth, who was Shakespeare’s patron and first performed as part of the ceremonies celebrating the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1613 (apparently sucking up to patrons is not a recent development).

In this production, Katherine (Jessica Wortham) does not go quietly. She does great verbal battle (in a losing cause) with both Henry's Royal advisors and one of history's master vile schemers Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor (Philip Goodwin).  Wolsey who, initially is, Henry's chief advisor, commits the fatal error of going against Henry's wishes for the divorce by petitioning the Pope to rule against Henry. This act produces a rare pleased response from the former Queen.

h8 3The cast, consisting of mostly STNJ veterans, is excellent, with the three leads each having a star turn. David Foubert, impresses as the powerful monarch, blind to much of the court intrigue and outright political treachery. Philip Goodwin, a long way from his recent role in 'Our Town', dressed in his red cardinal robes dominates the stage in his every scene. His finest scene comes when Wolsey realizes that Henry has turned on him...stripped him of all his lands and possessions.  Then there is Jessica Wortham...as Katherine. Wortham's performance alone is worth the price of admission, She brilliantly displays the fiery anger of the faithful wife, daughter of a King, who is to be discarded for a younger, more fertile, commoner.

The supporting cast includes:  Clark Scott Carmichael in a stand-out performance as Thomas Cranmer; Thomas Michael Hammond as the Duke of Buckingham and Griffith; Eric Hoffmann as Earl of Surrey, a STNJ treasure; Matthew Simpson as Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Campeius; Matt Sullivan a STNJ favorite as the Duke of Norfolk; Michael Earley also a stand-out as Lord Chamberlain; Damien Baldet as the Duke of Suffolk. Blythe Coons, Joseph Hamel, Alexander Korman, Katie Wieland, and Elisabeth Willis round out the cast.
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Director Paul Mullins' artistic staff also delivered star-turns: scenic designer Charlie Calvert; costume designer Hugh Hanson; sound designer Steven L. Beckel; lighting designer Michael Giannitti; choreography Gerry McIntryre;  and production stage manager Kathy Snyder.
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio      October 18, 2014
Tickets start at $32 for regular performances. Student rush tickets for all performances are $15, available a half-hour before curtain for with a valid student ID.  Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, call the Box Office at 973-408-5600 or visitwww.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Top photo: David Foubert as Henry VIII and Jessica Wortham as Queen Katherine.
2nd photo: left to right: Philip Goodwin as Wolsey, Matthew Simpson as Cardinal Campeius and Jessica Wortham as Queen Katherine.
3rd photo: left to right: Michael Early, Eric Hoffmann- seated, Damien Baldet, Matt Sullivan.
Photos by © Jerry Dalia, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Outstanding Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera at Light Opera Company of New Jersey


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We are constantly amazed by the exceptional quality of the theater talent that resides here in the Garden State. Our proximity to Manhattan the world center for much of the performing arts is, of course, a major factor. This Thursday evening, we had the opportunity to hear and see some of the outstanding classical vocal talent performing in our area. The venue was a church, St. Mark's, in the community of Basking Ridge. St. Mark's is the home of the Light Opera Company of New Jersey. Until several seasons ago it was known as the Ridge Light Opera Company. The company was founded 20 years ago by the husband and wife team of William and Lauran Corson. Bill is the lead producer/director with Lauran serving as the Artistic Director.  Lauran is a soprano with impressive credits having sung professionally throughout the country in both opera and musical theater.

SONY DSC                       The production is Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Gondoliers,or the King of Barataria" noted for not only being the most tuneful but also  having the most dancing of all their works. Unlike many of the plots in opera or operetta, "The Gondoliers" has a surprisingly complex plot that at times seems to be a case for Miss Marple to sort out. Fortunately, a detailed synopsis is provided in the program right down to revealing the 'surprise' resolution. Don't let that concern you, the joy is in the performances of the very impressive leads: John-Andrew Fernandez asGuiseppe Palmieri; Alex Corson as Marco Palmieri (Ben Krumreig alternates with Corson- each doing three performances); William Remmers as The Duke; David Perper as Luiz; Ryan Allen as The Grand Inquisitor; Hanne Dollase asThe Duchess; Lyssandra Stephenson as Casilda (photo right); Kathleen Shelton as Tessa; Elena Bird as Gianetta (Samantha Dango alternates); and Katerina Nowik as Constanza and The Duchess.

Others in the large supporting cast are Mike Baruffi; Josh Berg; Jack Broderick; Daveda Browne; Luke Chiafullo; Laura DeFelice; Donna Lee Donelan; Tom Donelan;Sophia Donelan; Beth Gleason; Chang-Kuo Hsieh; Emma Peterson; C. Paige Porter; Frank Skokan; Susanna Su and John Lamb as the understudy for The Grand Inquisitor;
William Remmers and Ryan Allen (photo right) are delights in their character roles, with the ladies: Hanne Dollase; Lyssandra Stephenson ; Kathleen Shelton; Elena Bird and Katerina Nowik all possessing marvelous voices. Kathleen Shelton and Elena Bird were particularly effective as the wives of the gondoliers in the amusingly choreographed  "In A Contemplative Fashion." John-Andrew Fernandez and Alex Corson are well paired as the brothers. Both fine actors, first class voices, and not bad on their feet (dancing). Other standout moments were provided by  David Perper as Luiz (the drummer); Frank Skokan's humorous gondolier; and Susanna Su as a leader of the peasant girls.

A very fine six piece orchestra is lead by music director  Lois Buesser (piano). The others are: Serena Huang, flute; Ginny Johnston and Jenny Branch, clarinet; Andrew Pecota, bassoon; and William Remmers, percussion.

The creative staff members are: Lauran Corson, artistic director; William Corson, co-director and producer; William Remmers, co-director; Joanna Hoty Russell, assistant director.

You have only two chances to see this outstanding production of one of Gilbert and Sullivan's musical masterpieces...tonight and Saturday night.
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  October 16, 2014

Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Gondoliers, or the King of Barataria” is presented in two acts with a total of 22 musical numbers. It is presented over 2 weekends in October: evenings at 8 p.m. The remaining dates are October 17 and 18.Tickets are available online at www.lonj.org or by calling 908-903-0702.

A special 20th Anniversary celebration of Light Opera of New Jersey, with Dinner will be held on Saturday evening the 18th. Tickets for the dinner are $25. Location: St Mark’s Church, 140 S. Finley Ave., Basking Ridge, NJ 07920.

Some background: LONJ performs works from composers such as Gilbert & Sullivan, Mozart, Offenbach and Romberg. Musical Theater favorites such as My Fair Lady and Carousel and a wide variety of musical concerts and cabarets round out the repertoire. The company includes professional singers as well as highly skilled amateur performers and an outstanding ensemble known for its “wall of sound”! LONJ is a registered, non-profit performing arts ensemble based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
Top Photo: L-R  Elena Bird, Alex Corson, John-Andrew Fernandez and Kathleen Shelton (LONJ)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: Broadway worthy ‘Clybourne Park at Chatham Players

cly gather


Reviewed by guest contributor Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)

When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, many Americans believed that the United States had entered a post-racial period. Well, anyone going to the Chatham Playhouse to see their breath-taking production of Bruce Norris's 2010 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama, Clybourne Park, will soon be disabused of that sentiment—post-haste!

Under John A.C. Kennedy's splendid direction, a cast of seven actors showcases the caliber of community theater that is the Chatham Community Players' hallmark. Moving away from what used to be community theater's bland fare, the troupe has consistently tackled what would be termed "touchy" subjects, much to the delight of audiences who continue to fill the little black box theater's seats no matter how cutting edge the play may be.
Written in response to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the SunClybourne Park portrays events set before and after the source play and is loosely based on historical events that occurred in the city of Chicago. As described by Kennedy in his Director's Notes, Norris' play is actually two one-act plays that could stand alone. But when performed in tandem, they "take us on an arduous, fascinating and slightly haunted historic journey" that happens to take place in the same living room. Knowledge of the Hansberry play is not necessary to enjoy and understand Clybourne Park.

Both plays take place in Chicago and involve the sale of the same house in a middle class neighborhood. In the first act, which takes place in 1959, a white family (Bev and Russ) has sold to a black buyer, much to the vociferous consternation of their white neighbors. In the second act, which takes place in 2009, the black sellers (Lena and Kevin), who have sold her aunt's house to a white yuppie couple, discover much to their dismay that the buyers plan to "renovate" the house and thus destroy the historic character of this newly gentrified neighborhood.
Kennedy's talented cast does double duty in multiple roles; one even plays three. Once again, Gloria Lamoureaux shows us why she should be called "The First Lady of Community Theater." As Bev, the rather ditzy housewife in the first act, she struggles to be taken seriously by her husband, while she grapples with unexpressed grief. In Act II, Lamoureaux plays the well-traveled albeit ignorant lawyer Kathy. In the former role, her vulnerability is evident; in the latter, she is the quintessential know-it all. Gordon Wiener is equally as fine as Bev's husband Russ, an intelligent man angry that his community has abandoned him after his son's suicide. He smolders until he erupts, taking us aback with his outpouring of grief. In Act II, Wiener plays the loud-mouthed worker Dan who is digging a trench for the koi pond planned for the new house to be erected once the current building has been torn down. (Above L-R: Gloria Lamoureaux, Tasha R. Williams, Brandon A. Wright, Gordon Wiener)

IMG_2138_(2)Tasha Williams is transformed from the timid maid Francine (right) into averyoutspoken Lena in Act II, mirroring the sea change that has come over black women in the half century between acts. When she wrests control of Act II from the squabbling white characters, she is a force to behold! As Francine's husband Albert, Brandon A. Wright (left) shows spunk by talking back to white people in the first act; he is more reticent in Act II as Kevin, a young man who has clearly "made it" and is comfortable with his success. Peter Horn (below) is outstandingly obnoxious as Karl, in a rage because the buyers of Russ and Bev's house are black; he delivers cringe-inducing dialogue as though he believes every word. In the second act, as the real estate agent Tom (the son of the agent who sold the house in the first act), he's more concerned about wrapping up the sale by 4 PM so he can make his next appointment.

But it is a Scott Tyler (right l) whose startling performance really sets the play (and everyone's teeth) on edge is. In the first act, he is terrific as a sanctimonious Rev. Jim, who has come to counsel Russ but who soon finds himself in the middle of a vociferous discussion of race, revealing his own bigotry as he unwittingly chimes in. In the second act, Tyler portrays Steve, the house's tightly wound white buyer, with energy and flair. Enraged, he jumps up and down to make a point; he talks over everyone else and tells a stupid racial joke without regard for how it will be received by the others. He is the epitome of crass intolerance, although he tries to pass himself off as an enlightened liberal. Portraying a pregnant wife in both acts, Christine Laydon is believable as Betsy, deaf to her husband Karl's bigotry, and later as a more sympathetic Lindsay, trying to hush her husband but finally revealing her own narrow-mindedness once the liberal curtain has been lifted. All the actors are to be commended for delivering the dialogue in a natural and convincing manner; one never feels that they are "reciting" lines Norris has written for them.

The first-class production values for Clybourne Park enhance what is already a powerful play. Roy Pancirov has designed a set that does double-duty: first as the modest abode of a middle class couple living in the 50s and next as a pretty run-down house being sold by the black couple (it was owned by Lena's aunt). Beverly Wand's unfussy costumes fit the eras perfectly, and they tell us something about the characters wearing them. Joe DeVico is to be commended for his sound design with music from a radio that helps set the time period very well. It is worth staying in the auditorium during intermission to view the video portraying the events related to the Civil Rights era projected on back wall of the stage and to witness the complete transformation of the set.That is a show in itself!

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by police and the subsequent demonstrations, along with the racial vitriol constantly directed at President Obama, unfortunately makes Clybourne Park relevant in this supposedly post-racial era. Whether we face our prejudices or deny them, the Chatham Community Players' production of this important play will get you thinking and talking about the relationship between races in the United States. If the play makes you feel uncomfortable, then great: It is the purpose of art is to challenge the status quo, rather than rubber stamp it. Drama's transformative power is to be found onstage at the Chatham Playhouse. They are to be commended for a production worthy of Broadway!

Reviewed by Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)

Clybourne Park will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, for one more weekend through October 18. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. For information, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit the theater’s online ticketing service, simply gotoccp.ticketleap.com. The service is available 24 hours a day, and tickets can be purchased online up until three hours prior to curtain on the day of a performance. For information regarding box office hours, please call the box office number listed above.
Photos by Howard Fischer.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: ‘Red Hot Mama’ comes alive in Bickford one-woman show

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By guest contributor Sheila Abrams

There was nothing small about Sophie Tucker. From her waistline to her personality, The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas, as she was dubbed, was big enough to dominate a stage all by herself.
In a near-magical feat, Gwendolyn Jones uses her own dynamic personality and stage presence to bring that legendary performer to life on the stage of the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, now through Oct. 19.
Tucker’s career spanned the whole first half of the 20th century and a little more, ending with her death in 1966 at the age of 79. Having begun as a child, singing for the customers in her parents’ Connecticut restaurant, she performed in vaudeville and burlesque, Broadway, radio and movies. In her later years, she even did some television, with appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show.
The show at the Bickford, written by Richard Hopkins, Kathy Halenda and Jack Fournier, is a one-woman show with a little help. The irrepressible Jones dominates the stage, but, as Tucker was throughout much of her career, she is accompanied by an on-stage pianist. Music director Nick DeGregorio plays the role of Ted Shapiro, Tucker’s longtime accompanist.
It’s hard to say whether the story or the music takes center stage. Tucker’s personal story is an American legend: the immigrant girl, not pretty in any conventional sense, almost the definition of chutzpah, with a talent that made her a virtual force of nature, overcoming the odds and becoming a star. It was a long road and on that road there were plenty of tears and a few laughs. Jones shares those moments with us.
Changes Made 2There are 21 musical numbers, starting with such ancient chestnuts as The Darktown Strutters’ BallandA Good Man Is Hard to Find, and including classics by Rodgers and Hart (The Lady Is A Tramp) and the Gershwins (The Man I Love).
For one hilarious number, Hula Lou, Jones as Sophie went down into the audience and enlisted two mildly reluctant men to dance a hula with her, dressed in grass skirts. It was interesting to watch how quickly the volunteers took to their moment in the spotlight.
Some of the songs were apparently written for Tucker and not necessarily familiar to the audience, but interesting for how they fit into Tucker’s story. But Jones’s rendition of one of Tucker’s most famous songs,Yiddishe Mama, brought cheers—and a few tears as well.
Sophie chaisseJones, with apparently boundless energy and infectious good humor, brought the show to a conclusion on a very high note. She closed with Sophie Tucker’s signature song, Some of These Days.
It was a joy for me to meet Sophie Tucker. She was a gifted woman and a pioneer, and Gwendolyn Jones brought her back to life brilliantly.
Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas will be performed at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, now through Oct. 19. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.971.3706 or visitwww.morrismuseum.org/bickford online.
Reviewed by guest contributor Sheila Abrams

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: ‘100 YEARS’ a worthy comedy at Dreamcatcher Rep in Summit

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By Guest Contributor Ruth Ross

In September, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chief architect of Obamacare, wrote an article in the Atlantic magazine in which he said he did not want to live past the age of 75 because living too long deprives us of all things we value. His thesis is that increases in our length of years has resulted in increases in disability. As he so succinctly put it, “I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive.”

Our 21st century quest for longer lives comes under the dramatic microscope of Richard Dresser in his new dark comedy, 100 Years, now receiving its world premiere at Dreamcatcher Rep in Summit. Along the way, he skewers master-planned communities like Celebration, Florida, developed by The Walt Disney Company (and located near Disneyworld); the impact of genetic engineering on wildlife; and the allure of Florida as a place to regain our lost youth.

Set in the not-too-distant future in a planned community in Florida, the plot of 100 Yearsrevolves around two couples, both of whom have sold everything and relocated in hope of a new start. Joan and Steve (right) have come after he has lost his job; once he gets on his feet, they will start a family. Helen and Raymond, the very strange couple living in the adjoining unit, have come to transform their lives by going through something never fully explained called the Process. As the four wait to be called for Intake to see whether they will be accepted for the Process, secrets are spilled, violence ensues and disappointment looms.

I am not a fan of futuristic tales, but Dresser uses sarcasm and ridicule to satirize our present-day obsessions, much in the way Jonathan Swift did in A Modest Proposal, wherein he suggested that a burgeoning Irish population could be managed by using their infants for food!

The unnamed community is almost a character in 100 Years. No alcohol is allowed, although residents are required to drink nine foul-tasting shakes a day. Already-prepared meals magically appear in each unit's refrigerator; every beautiful day is the boringly the same; and every inhabitant wears the exact same track suit, sneakers and even socks! There doesn't seem to be much to do to keep people involved; they are mandated to be happy in this cold, sterile environment.
Director Laura Ekstrand helms the production without turning it into a cartoon of the future. The five actors deliver the ridiculous dialogue as though it is the most natural speech. This rather deadpan delivery makes their utterances sound (and seem) even more outrageous...and scary. Eli Ganias (top photo) as the passive, reticent Steve is maddening; you want to pinch him to elicit an active response. Even Stacie Lents (above, right) as his effervescent wife Joan cannot get a rise out of her husband! She's the spunkiest of the quartet; voicing doubts about this life-changing move, she gains our sympathy and our respect for her wanting to support her husband.

As Raymond, John Pietrowski (above, left) is both obnoxious and sympathetic. In the first act, he gets into a physical altercation with Joan, who used to be a bartender and isn't above punching this jackass in the mouth. When, in Act II, his hopes of being taken into the Process are in doubt, Pietrowski shows amore vulnerable side to the man. As his wife Helen, Harriett Trangucci is pitch-perfect as a browbeaten spouse, a woman who once held a prestigious job that she gave up to supporther man. Julian Gordon (right, center) is delightful as the lollipop-sucking attendant Brett, who comes to fetch Helen and then Raymond with a matter-of-factness that runs directly counter to what could be in store for them Although we don't really know what that is, it doesn't sound good.

Zach Pizza's set telegraphs the cookie-cutter look of this planned community very well; Jeff Knapp's sound fits the arrival and departure of Brett's vehicle (complete with a bell reminiscent of the ice cream truck of summer). Nicole Callender has choreographed the fight so the violence is convincing. And Laura Ekstrand has outfitted the actors in identical track suits that further communicate the sameness of it all.

All this sounds like a bit of a downer, but Dresser's clever dialogue is quite droll, and there seems to be a ray of hope at the end (no spoilers here). Although we are not too sure what really lies ahead for Helen and Raymond, Joan and Steve seem to settle on a plan to move ahead with their lives—even in a world that seems to be increasingly inhospitable. Kind of like what most folks continue to do, even as Ebola, ISIS and other disasters loom.
100 Years is a play that will make you laugh and think about your place on this planet, in your community, in your family. It is a worthy addition to Richard Dresser's body of work.

100 Years will be performed at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Ave., Summit, through October 19. For information and tickets, call the box office at 800.838.3006 or visit www.DreamcatcherRep.org online.
       Reviewed by guest contributor Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: 'Can-Can' at Paper Mill Playhouse 'C’est Magnifique!'


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Wow! The Paper Mill Playhouse has opened its 2014-2015 season with a world-class production of Broadway-bound Can-Can.  The show has all the original Cole Porter music intact and a fine re-crafted book that retains all of the original characters and intent. This Can-Can, directed by David Lee, delivers big time that special excitement unique to live theater via the glorious combination of...great music, exuberant dancing, marvelous cast, stunning costumes, and wonderful sets....a feast for the eye and ear.

Can_Can Photo 7bTwo of the best reasons to see this theater event, however are the outstanding stars, Tony nominee Kate Baldwin and Broadway veteran Jason Danieley.  As in the original, this version centers on the romance between the strict judge Aristide (Jason Danieley) and Pistache (Kate Baldwin), the Parisian nightclub owner notorious for presenting the much too revealing version of the dance Can-Can. Kate Baldwin (photo right) gives a star-turn performance. Her Pistache is spot-on as the attractive owner and master charmer of the Bal du Paradis nightclub. She charms customers, staff and even the police (plus the audience).

Jason Danieley, blessed with a fine voice, is very impressive as the 'by-the-book' judge who professes his love for Pistache while threatening to close the club and arrest her and the girls if Pistache continues to present the scandalous version of the Can-Can. His showstopper solo outside the club is the standard It's All Right With Me (photo below left).

Can_Can Photo 8

The other excellent featured cast members are: Michael Berresse (Hilaire Jussac, the newspaper art critic and villian of the piece), Greg Hildreth (Boris Adzinidzinadze, the struggling sculptor who loves Claudine), Megan Sikora(Claudine, she must choose between penniless Boris and the powerful Jussac), Michael Kostroff (Jean-Louis, Pistache's faithful club manager), Mark Price (Hercule, a club habitué and poet friend of Boris), and Justin Robertson (Étienne, also friend to Boris and a club habitué). Greg Hildreth and Michael Kostroff provide many of the play's funniest moments. Even music director Steve Orich makes a funny contribution.

The supporting cast includes: Mike Baerga, Chloe Sian Campbell, Jace Coronado, Desireé Davar, Sarah DeBiase, Taurean Everett, Sarah Marie Jenkins, Evan Kasprzak, Jenny Laroche, Kate Marilley, Michael McArthur, Sarah Meahl, Peter Nelson, Justin Patterson, Molly Tynes and Ryan Worsing.

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The musical highlights are many (after all this is a Cole Porter score!)....starting with the high-kicking opening Can-Can and the Pistache's advice to the girlsNever Give Anything Away. Baldwin and Danieley each and together sing the now American classics C'est Magnifique, I Love Paris, and Allez-Vous En. Danieley’s version of I Love Paris while standing not too securely on the Pont Neuf rail is an Act Two highlight.

The all star high-kicking production team for Can-Can: director David Lee (Frasier, Cheers); choreography Patti Colombo (Paper Mill’s Peter Pan, On the Town, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers); Music Director/Conductor Steve Orich (Tony Award nomination for Best Orchestrations for Jersey Boys);Scenic Design Rob Bissinger; Costume Design Ann Hould-Ward (Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Beauty and the Beast); Lighting Design Michael Gilliam (Broadway productions of Bonnie and ClydeBrooklyn and Big River); Sound Design Randy Hansen;  Wig & Makeup Design Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas; Fight director Tim Weske and production stage manager Gary Mickelson.

The show features the book by Abe Burrows (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and a re-crafted script by Joel Fields (Ugly Betty, The Americans) and David Lee. “Joel and I started collaborating onCan-Can at the Pasadena Playhouse over seven years ago,” David Lee explains. “­With full permission of the Burrows and Porter estates the book has been updated without being modernized—Can-Can is still set in 1893—and although 90% rewritten it retains all of Abe Burrows' original characters and intent.”

If your only exposure to Can Can was from the now infamous 1960 film adaptation that starred Shirley MacLaine, Frank Sinatra, Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan have no fear. Where the film failed in spades, this Can Cansucceeds in spades. Next stop Broadway. This will be a hot ticket between now and the closing on the 26th of October. Oh, by the way...the girls are all very wholesome. This is a 1950's creation remember--no message, no nudity, no foul language, just pure first rate entertainment. Enjoy -  we did.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio    October 5, 2014

Paper Mill Playhouse is presenting Can-Can eight times a week, Wednesday through Sunday. Performance schedule: Wednesday at 7:30 pm, Thursday at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm, Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 1:30 pm and 8:00 pm and Sunday at 1:30 pm and 7:00 pm. Tickets from $28 to $99. Tickets may be purchased by calling 973.376.4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.PaperMill.org.
PHOTO 1:Megan Sikora (Claudine) and the girls of Can-Can. by Matthew Murphy;
PHOTO 2: Kate Baldwin (La Mome Pistache). by Matthew Murphy; 
PHOTO 3: From left to right: Jason Danieley (Aristide Forestier), Greg Hildreth (Boris Adzinidzinadze), Justin Robertson (Etienne) and Mark Price (Hercule): by Matthew Murphy; 
PHOTO 4:  The company of Can-Can. by Jerry Dalia;Saturday, October 4, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ Opens the 33rd Season of The Growing Stage

The Growing Stage, The Children’s Theatre of New Jersey, has opened its 2014 - 2015 season with a 'splashy' production of Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID (pun intended)The musical- about a mermaid who dreams of the world above the sea and gives up her beautiful voice to find love- is based on the 1837 Hans Christian Anderson story and the 1989 Disney film.  The production, directed by Stephen L. Fredericks, The Growing Stage’s Executive Director, beautifully presents the magical kingdom under the sea with all the familiar characters from the award winning film...Ariel, King Triton, the evil Ursala, handsome Prince Eric, Sebastian the crab, etc. plus, gorgeous costumes, the Growing Stage's signature, highly inventive, sets and, of course, 28 well-staged and choreographed musical numbers performed by an enthusiastic cast of 25.

Leading the cast are eight fine professional equity performers:  Emily Cara Portune  as Ariel ( Princess Fiona in Shrek the Musical); Anthony Crouchelli as the handsome Prince Eric;  Maggie Graham as Ursula; Wayne Hu as King Triton; Jenna Morris as Allana; Lyndsey Brown as Aquata; PJ Schweizer as Scuttle the Sea Gull; and Nikole Rizzo as Arista. Other key roles are covered by Equity candidates and local community talent.
This group includes standout performances by Steven Etienne as Sebastian a red Jamaican crab and a servant of King Triton, young Nicholas Profito as Flounder and Robert Scarpone as Chef Louis. The list of all the cast members is below.

mermaid_ed-1Emily Cara Portune, a popular Growing Stage lead (Princess Fiona in Shrek the Musical and Peter in Peter Pan), is an excellent Ariel with her fine voice and "leading lady" appearance. Maggie Graham has fun as the wicked Ursula.  All the costumes are beautifully designed mostly in brilliant colors, with the Ursula costume, tentacles and all, a special standout. Wayne Hu makes a fine, firm King Triton (marvelous voice).
The comedy highlight is a frantic Marx Brothers type scene in the palace kitchen and the banquet hall with Chef Louis (Robert Scarpone) chasing Sebastian with a meat clever. His goal, naturally, is to serve crab for dinner not knowing of Ariel’s watery background.
The score features the classic songs Part of Your World, Kiss the Girl and the Academy Award-winning Best Original Song, Under the Sea composed by eight-time Academy Award winner Alan Menken and his longtime collaborator, the late Howard Ashman, as well as new songs by Mr. Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. The book for the musical is by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Doug Wright.
mermaid22Under The Sea is a calypso gem clearly the highlight of the musical. It features Steven Etienne as the crab Sebastian.  Small point: His terrific head-to-toe red costume with large claw arms more closely resembles a boiled lobster.
Director Fredericks’ production team includes Jillian PetrieChoreography, Laura Petrie Musical direction, Perry Arthur Kroeger Set, props and puppet design and construction, Steve Graham Stage Manager.
As with all of the Growing Stage productions, this is very well produced family entertainment suitable from age 4, presented at a professional level that will also satisfy the grown-ups.  The play runs about 90 minutes plus a 15 minute intermission.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio      October 4, 2014

Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID runs through the 26th of October with performances Friday evenings at 7:30 PM, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 4:00 PM.  The Growing Stage continues FUN-tastic Fridays with all tickets $15! Saturday and Sunday tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for children and seniors.  To place your reservation, please visit www.growingstage.com or call (973) 347-4946.  Group rates and Birthday Party packages are available.

The Growing Stage is located in the Palace Theater at 7 Ledgewood Ave, Netcong, NJ 07857.

Review: Centenary Stage Company’s Season Opener ‘Harvey’ is a Charmer


Harvey Pic byBob Eberle
​The ​Centenary ​Stage ​Company in Hackettstown opened the 2015-15 season with the classic 1940's comedy Harvey. The play​, a  Pulitzer Prize winn​er  by Mary Chase, is the charming tale of one of the best known characters in American theat​er....Elwood ​P. Dowd. Yes, the play may ​show its age​ a bit, ​a fugitive from the sterile world of Turner Classic Movies, ​but ​it is pure fun, safe for all eyes and ears. Perfect all-family entertainment.​
Director Carl Wallnau has beautifully brought to life this tale of a man whose best friend and constant companion is a six foot and one inch tall rabbit… that only he, of course, can see.

The success of the comedy belongs in large part to the performance of Steven L. Barron, a veteran ​of tv, films and stage ​including HBO's Boardwalk Empire and 12 ​Centenary Stage productions, however his first since the ​Lackland Center ​opened in 201​0. Barron is excellent. His Elwood has the perfect gentle, honest, naive qualities and gentlemanly demeanor so necessary to the success of the play. The fact that ​Elwood ​is a regular at all of the town's ​many alcohol emporiums ​might explain his ​unique choice of companion ​(is he the ​leading ​town drunk​?). This pastime is only alluded to in the play. ​He is never seen inebriated. Besides ​Jimmy Stewart's now iconic movie Elwood, ​Barron'sElwood reminds us of the marvelous French comedian and film maker of the post war period, Jacques Tati. His character ​Monsieur Hulot had the same gentle quality.

Elwood lives a comfortable life, having inherited the family's substantial home, and sufficient ​wealth from his mother. He shares the home with his sister Vata Louise Simmons (Colleen Smith​ Wallnau) and niece Myrtle Mae (Tyler Milazzo). ​Naturally, both mother and daughter​ are more than chagrined, perhaps mortified is a better word, by the social limitations Harvey and Elwoodhave inflicted on them. ​​Colleen​ ​Smith Wallnau, with extensive national and regional credits in​cluding the original 1992 Broadway production of Crazy for You, delivers a very impressive performance as the frantic sister Vata. Never over the top, she is a wonderful "hoot" .....responsible for many of the play’s laughs. Tyler Milazzo ​, also a​ ​Centenary College Theatre Department student) nicely plays the also frantic, niece ​Myrtle Mae whose marital prospects are severely limited by her uncle's bizarre behavior.​...after all, how do you explainHarvey. ​Minor note: she might be better served by reducing the pace of her delivery in several scenes. The need for the audience​’s full​ compr​e​hension should trump the ​accurate but frantic pace called for in the script.

​The fine cast of Harvey is surprisingly large...12, including five Equity members. Standout performances are by ​John Little, as the lead psychiatrist,Willliam Chumley, the well-matched junior psychiatrist Lyman Sandersonplayed by Christopher Young and the nurse Ruth​ Kelly played by Erica Knight. Knight's chair ballet with Steven Barron is a particular joy. ​Plus, Chris Kolwicz, also a Centenary College Theatre Department student, ​has several very funny bits as the sanatorium orderly, Duane Wilson.
The supporting cast includes: Angela Della Ventura is Betty Chumley, Dr Chumley’s endearing wife, David Scheffler as Judge Omar Gaffney, Deborah Guarino as Mrs. Ethel Chauvinet, the society matron, Ernest Scarborough asE.J Lofgren and Lisa Kosak as Miss Johnson.​

​Before we go any further, an acknowledgement of the superior sets by the nationally recognized set designer Bob Phillips is in order. The sets perfectly evoke the 1940 period nicely enhancing the ​overall ​enjoyment of Harvey.​
​Other key production contributors are: Julia Sharp​ (costumes), Lee Kinney (sound), Ed Matthews (lighting). The stage manager is Danielle Constance.
The CSC's production of Harvey is a charmer, pure fun, a treat for both the eye and ear. You have until October 19th to see Carl Wallnau's latest theater treat. This is fine professional theater with family friendly pricing just minutes from home....with the bonus of free parking.

We give director Wallnau the last word: " I think people who are familiar with the play and the movie will be delighted to see it again. Harvey the play is like Harvey the character, a good friend to have around and someone you delight in spending time with. For those who don't know the play, just sit back, relax and enjoy."

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio    October 3, 2014

​Tickets for Harvey range from $25 to $27.50 with discounts for students and seniors. Every Thursday night is “Family Night,” which offers a 2-for-1 rush ticket price when purchased at the door. Performance times are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. There are 2 p.m. matinées on Wednesdays October 8th and October 15th.

​Tickets may be purchased online at www.centenarystageco.org, at the CSC Box Office located in the David and Carol Lackland Center at 715 Grand Ave in Hackettstown, or by calling 908-979-0900.   The Box Office is open 1-5 PM Monday through Friday, and 2 hours prior to performance times. CSC also operates a second Box Office during the season at 217 Main Street in Hackettstown open Monday through Friday 3-6 p.m.​​
Top photo: Steven Barron by Bob Eberle

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’ hilarious at The Barn Theatre in Montville


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Do you love the tv series "The Office" with the fun interaction between the coworkers?  Well, their office repartee is bush league compared to the goings-on in Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."  If you have  opened your windows this past weekend to enjoy the cooler weather and live within 30 miles of the Barn Theatre in Montville, you may have heard the raucous laughter emanating from the theatre. "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is loosely based Neil Simon's time as a young writer on  Sid Caesar's 1950's "The Show of Shows" The 90 minute live comedy show aired on NBC Saturday nights...many moons before the birth of "Saturday Night Live." Several writers, disguised slightly in the play, went on to be major contributors to television and film comedy for the next 40 years. The legends include Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, etc., Larry Gelbart (MASH),and Carl Reiner (Dick Van Dyke Show, etc.).

The plot maybe a bit thin since the focus is almost totally on the antics of the staff writers trying to put-out a weekly TV variety show. Max Prince (Jonathan Rudolph) is the star of The Max Prince Show, a popular comedy-variety series with ratings that have begun to slip; Prince's show is still a major hit on the East Coast, but the network insists that it's too sophisticated for the Midwest, and urges Prince to "dumb down his act." He begins to unravel as the stress of producing a weekly show and dealing with negative contributions from NBC take its toll. He is further stressed by his opposition to Senator Joe McCarthy and McCarthy's Un-American campaign targeting writers and performers suspected of being card carrying communists with the result he turns to punching holes in the office walls in a major fit of anger.  Observing this meltdown has the staff writers in various panic modes as the possibility of  the series ending becomes more likely.

"Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is directed by Craig S. Zimmermann. This is his directing debut at The Barn. Zimmermann delivers big time with a marvelous production that wins on many counts...great impressive, set, lighting, sound , smart costumes AND a spot-on perfect cast, This may be community theater where all talent are volunteers and perform for the sheer pleasure, but the level of this performance is certainly close, if not, on a par, with professionals.
Laughter23rdFloor-01webThe fine cast includes  Rudy Basso (Lucas Brickman), Vanessa Bellardini (Helen, Max' secretary), Frank Blaeuer (Kenny Franks), Eric Heiberg (Milt Fields), Chip Prestera (Ira Stone), Jonathan Rudolph (Max Prince), Sam Salter (Brian Doyle), Les Stolarz (Val Skolsky), and Elissa Strell Kachtan (Carol Wyman). Each cast member makes terrific contributions to the laughter (heard, of course, on the 23rd Floor!).

Rudy Basso, in particular, is a stand-out as the narrator/novice writer, Lucas Brickman a/k/a Neil Simon, Jonathan Rudolph displays major comedy talent as he convincingly presents Max with all his eccentricities. Playing the hypochondriac Ira Stone, a/k/a Mel Brooks, is one of the top comedy actors in the region, Chip Prestera. Long a favorite at both the Chatham and Summit Playhouse Presteria is making a stand-out Barn debut.

The remaining performances of  "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" are September  19, 20, 26, 27, October 3 and 4 at 8pm; and on September   21, and 28 at 2pm. Tickets are $18 (senior/student tickets are $16 on matinees only).
The Barn Theatre is located on Skyline Drive in Montville, NJ, just minutes off Exit 47 from Route 287. For more reservations, information or directions, call The Barn Theatre Box Office at (973) 334-9320, or visit The Barn Theatre on the web at www.barntheatre.org

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio

Photo: (Left to Right): Chip Prestera (of Stirling, NJ), Vanessa Bellardini (of Montclair NJ), Frank Blaeuer (of Hewitt NJ), Jonathan Rudolph (of Parsippany NJ), Rudy Basso (of Garfield NJ), Les Stolarz (of Boonton NJ), Sam Salter (of West Milford NJ), and Elissa Strell (of Bedminster NJ)  [Photo by Tom Schopper]

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: 'Wittenberg' stunning at STNJ




By Ruth Ross. Njartsmaven.com

If you have ever wondered what a critic meant when he or she described a production as a tour de force, I suggest you run, do not walk, over to the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison to see one in the flesh. There, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has mounted the dazzling New Jersey premiere of a wickedly clever play about the Protestant Reformation (yes, theReformation, really) called Wittenberg, penned by David Davalos, and it is a production you won't want to miss. 

Davalos has likened the University of Wittenberg as akin to Berkeley in the 1960s, "a center for intellectual ferment" and "a certain amount of invention"—a perfect setting for the exhilarating verbal pyrotechnics and war of ideas that play out before our eyes.
STNJ_Wittenberg_8334Over the course of two and a half hours, Davalos manipulates time and space to provocatively debate fate, existence, doubt and belief...and tennis. 

In this contemporary riff on the "big" questions that have eternally plagued mankind, we find Hamlet, after an eye-opening summer of studying abroad, beginning his senior year at the University of Wittenberg, where he studies with Dr. John Faustus and Martin Luther, indecisively contemplates which major to declare, and plays varsity tennis. That the action occurs just weeks before Luther nails his 95 Theses to the doors of a Wittenberg church, thus rupturing the Catholic Church forever, makes the debate even more hilarious and delicious. Never mind that the philosopher Faustus is a fictional character (as is Hamlet), for the three are fully drawn characters with a great deal to say, all of it witty and much of it familiar. (Above, Anthony Marble as Dr. Faustus regales Jason Coughtry’s Hamlet with his ideas.)

In his 24th season with STNJ, Joe Discher has directed this fast-moving, shape-shifting play with fluidity and style. The characters' words swirl around the auditorium in a mad, madcap assault on one's ears and brain; just as you get one allusion to Hamlet (among other works), you're off chasing another. Far from being confusing, however, the dialogue has a certain familiarity while it plays with meaning.

STNJ_Wittenberg_8322The brilliant cast Discher has assembled delivers these lines with wry humor. Jordan Coughtry's Hamlet (right) is the quintessential collegian, caught up in the intellectual foment around him while worried about an upcoming tennis match with a player named Laertes from the University of Paris. Torn between the theology of Luther and the philosophical pronouncements of Faustus, he has wild nightmares about a bottomless abyss upon whose edge he teeters; Coughtry's recital of his dream is a wonder to behold!

But it is the two actors playing Faustus and Luther who carry the brunt of the action as they struggle for the young man's attention. Anthony Marble (below, left) is excellent as a very contemporary Faustus (he STNJ_Wittenberg_8870plays guitar in a coffeehouse called The Bunghole), a lawyer and physician who dispenses coffee and special candies that contain a drug suspiciously like marijuana as antidotes to Luther's constipation and Hamlet's emotional turmoil. He cavorts around the stage, jumping on benches and tables, a veritable whirlwind of ideas and knowledge. As Luther, Mark H. Dold (right, with Coughtry center) wrestles mightily with his bowels and his faith, while dueling with Faustus over Hamlet's fate. He despairs over the Church's sale of Indulgences, get-out-of-Purgatory passes for sins, to raise money for cathedrals, a protest that eventually got him excommunicated.

STNJ_Wittenberg_8603Rounding out this quartet of talent is Erin Partin (left, with Marble and Coughtry) as the Eternal Feminine. As Helen of Troy, she rejects Faustus' marriage proposal, but allows him to make love to her in a wild scene that accompanies a lecture given by Luther on a Biblical text. She also appears in other female incarnations, all of them different, and all of them comical. The four actors exhibit spot-on comedic timing that keep the quips coming quickly and hilariously.

Brittany Vasta's set smoothly transforms itself from exterior to interior scenes by opening and closing halves that also revolve when pushed by stagehands dressed to match the time and place. Matthew E. Adelson's lighting, Steven L. Beckel's sound (especially appropriate during the uproarious tennis match) and Hugh Hanson's witty costumes are equally superb.

I had the good fortune to attend a reading of Wittenberg last year, followed by a discussion about whether STNJ should consider producing it. That they did is a tribute to their great ability, for the staged production is even better than I could have imagined it! Shape-shifting, time-bending Wittenberg is a true intellectual and artistic tour de force—a stunning success that will keep you talking after you've left the theater. You won't want to miss it.

Wittenberg will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison through September 28. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visitwww.ShakespeareNJ.org  online.
Photos © Jerry Dalia.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: ‘The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife’ great fun at the Chester Theatre Group


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Question: Can a play about a woman suffering deep depression, convinced she will never be more than mediocre, be fun? The answer is a big yes. The Chester Theatre Group has kicked off its 2014-15 season with the award-winning Broadway comedy The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife written by Charles Busch and directed by Roseann Ruggiero.

This VERY funny play, loaded with hilarious one line zingers, is about a middle-aged upper class (West Side) matron, Marjorie Taub (Lauri MacMillan), whose mid-life crisis centers on her passionate desire to move up the intellectual ladder.  Even though she lives comfortably with her recently retired doctor (allergist) husband, Ira (Steven Nitka), she is in constant pursuit of culture at museums, lectures, films and theatre (many in the same day!). Enhancing her feelings of inferiority is her own elderly mother, Frieda (Sharon Moran).  Frieda,yes... the mother from hell, is a master at highlighting her daughter's shortcomings while lamenting her own bowel difficulties.

CTG_Allergist_1Meanwhile husband Ira's efforts to provide the needed emotional support falls miserably short. Ira's primary concerns in life are aiding the allergic homeless and speaking engagements. Marjorie's condition takes a major positive turn with the unexpected arrival of a somewhat mysterious childhood friend, Lee Green (Maryann Galife Post).  The flamboyant Lee Green is apparently everything Marjorie aspires to be, i.e. a globetrotter, skilled in the arts, confidant of the rich and famous...in short, she is high on the social "A" list. Here is where we have to halt with any further plot details...no spoilers permitted. Suffice it to say the play has many laughs sprinkled with a few dark unexpected turns.
Director Ruggiero earns high marks for both over-all direction and cast selection.  Lauri MacMillan, who impressed us in the Barn Theatre's 'God of Carnage' two seasons ago, and again last season in CTG’s ‘Moon Over The Brewery,’ beautifully handles the emotional roller coaster demands of the complex role of Marjorie. Steven Nitka, a CTG and Growing Stage favorite, is fine as the good intentioned, loving husband Ira.  Sharon Moran as Marjorie's elderly mother is beyond perfect. She has many of the best and funniest lines. Maryann Galife Post is excellent as the outrageous old friend. Also, in the cast is Rahul Sachdeva, charming as Mohammed the doorman and family friend, helpful even with odd household jobs.

A round of applause is in order for not only director Roseann Ruggiero and producer Penny Hoadley, but the production staff including; Richard Vetter (stage manager), Barbara Henderson and Bob Sackstein (stage crew), Alex Luchovich (set design), Ellen Fraker Glasscock and Jeff Knapp (sound design), Jerry Lane (sound operation), Steve Catron (set painting and decor, and Greg Smith (set construction). The handsome, well-dressed set deserves its own round of applause, as does the very appropriate, attractive costumes.

This play opened at the Barrymore Theatre on October 12, 2000 and ran for 777 performances, closing on Sept 15, 2002. Winner of the 2001 Tony Award for Best Play, Linda Lavin won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, and Michele Lee won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress. Other awards include the 2000 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, and the 2000 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actress (Linda Lavin).
You have until September 27th to join the fun at the Black River Playhouse.

The show’s run began Friday, September 12th and continues on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm through September 27th. There will be two Sunday matinee performances on September 21st and 28th at 2 pm.
Chester Theatre Group’s Black River Playhouse is located at 54 Grove Street in downtown Chester, NJ at the corner of Grove Street and Maple Avenue. There is free parking at the theater and in the surrounding area. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for Seniors (65+) and Students (under 18 with ID). For reservations call 908-879-7304 or visit www.chestertheatregroup.org


Reviewed by Rick Busciglio
Photo: Front L-R Sharon Moran and Lauri MacMillan, Rear- Maryann Galife Post.  Photo by Tom Glasscock.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: ‘Dinner With The Boys’ by Dan Lauria at NJ Rep in Long Branch


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Guest Reviewer: Michael T. Mooney                   Sept. 13, 2014, at 8:00pm

Ever wonder what TV's “The Wonder Years” might have been like if Kevin's Dad were secretly in the Mob? Well, wonder no more.
Eight years ago “The Sopranos” was in its final season and actor Dan Lauria suddenly realized that he was one of the few Italian-American actors not to have appeared on the show. To remedy this he turned from performer to playwright and penned “Dinner With the Boys.” The play had a reading in Hollywood starring Lauria's famous friends Charles Durning, Dom DeLuise, Peter Falk, and Jack Klugman, all of whom have since passed on. Now Lauria has resurrected the comedy at NJ Rep, and taken Durning's role for himself.

In “Dinner With the Boys” we find two ex-mobsters, Charlie and Dominic, holed-up in suburban bliss somewhere in 'the wilds of New Jersey' (not exactly sure what exit that would be). The two have been declared officially dead to their syndicate brethren and have settled into a life of gardening, cooking, and pleasant nattering about their greatest hits (the non-musical sort). Lauria's contemplative Charlie is teamed with Richard Zavaglia's more domestic Dom, who takes as much pleasure in his pasta and meatballs as his past murders. Like Lauria, Zavaglia never appeared on “The Sopranos.” He did, however, play a wiseguy in the 1997 film “Donnie Brasco.” The well-honed rapport between these two pros is the play's delicious main course. Whether they are bickering (“Wake up and smell the zucchini!”) or strolling down a blood-strewn memory lane, the two are reminiscent of a gun-toting “Golden Girls.”

D1Everything is going along smoothly until Big Anthony, Jr., comes for dinner with the boys. From then on marinara sauce isn't the only red liquid spilled in the cluttered kitchen. As capo Big Anthony, Ray Abruzzo is the very model of a made man. To add veracity to the proceedings, Abruzzo is the only one of the boys to have actually appeared on “The Sopranos” - as Little Carmine Lupertazzi. Without giving too much away, once Big Anthony crosses the threshold, the plot resembles a giddy cross between “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “SweeneyTodd.”

Director Frank Megna nicely balances the violence with the comedy, which is essential to the success of Lauria's play. Perhaps in order to steer away from sitcom banality, Megna occasionally inserts surreal theatrical moments heightened by sound and lighting effects. There's also a “Sleuth”-like surprise in Act Two that never pays off (except in salary savings). While these touches don't entirely work, they are a mere speed bump. The overall enjoyment of this “Dinner” is watching the boisterous banter of goodfellas Charlie and Dominic.

“Dinner With the Boys” is being served at New Jersey Repertory Company through October 5th – but is nearly sold out, so reserve your tickets now -732.229.3166 or online at www.njrep.org. The theater is located at 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey, 07740.
Photo by Suzanne Barabas

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: ‘Janice Underwater’ New Play Opens Season at Premiere Stages


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Premiere Stages at Kean University has opened the 2014-15 season with a challenging new play, Janice Underwater, by Hillside, New Jersey, native Tom Matthew Wolfe. Wolfe's play, ​the winner of Premiere's 2014 Play Festival, is set in his own "backyard," i.e., various interior locations in New Jersey and Manhattan, with references to such "cherished" landmarks as the New Jersey Turnpike,​  Route 22 and the Pulaski Skyway.

The "Janice" of the title (Amy Staats) is an attractive 32 year old visual artist,unmarried, unsuccesful, unhappy, unluckyand a bit unhinged.  Success, in the form of employment as an artist has eluded her in the decade since she left school.  When we first meet her she is a lowly digital imaging clerk in Manhattan and is promptly terminated as the result of a bizarre, unfriendly conversation during an office Halloween party with her manager Gail (Susan Louise O'Connor).  Beyond her career failure, Janice has the additional burden of a long absent schizophrenic mother (the same Susan Louise O'Connor) responsible for having set fire to the family home with young Janice inside. Little wonder that she fears that she may share the same genetic flaw as her mother. Her answer is to undergo genetic testing. The results arrive at the end of the play and, of course, are not revealed here.

Janice's world improves in the most unlikely way. A radiator leak results in a call to the super, Paul, (Eddie Boroevich) that positively changes both their lives. Enter, Janice's brother Jimmy (Ryan Barry) a lonely bachelor policeman who invites his now unemployed sister to return to the family home in Hillside, New Jersey to enjoy the comforts of the refurbished attic and assist with the caring for their father Michael (Daren Kelly) suffering from early dementia. Jimmy nails the suggestion with this: "Hey! C’mon! You’re in trouble! You come here and stay at my house. No shame in that. Plus it’s way more interesting to live in New Jersey. I mean every s...head with an art degree wants to live in New York and just be miserable and broke. It’s pathetic."  Along the way, Janice, has been imagining conversations with both parents that further cause her to question her sanity.


​Janice Underwater is a challenging, yet, fascinating study of a dysfunctional family (Note: An all too popular theme of late) nicely directed by Jade King Carroll and blessed with an impressive group of actors.  Amy Staats is perfect as the intelligent, but confused and somewhat frightened Janice. Eddie Boroevich is nothing short of terrific, as Paul the apartment super and Iraq War veteran who makes the personal journey that allows him to move on with his life (see the play to understand this reference). The veteran actor of the cast, Daren Kelly handsomely displays his first class talent as the fiery, but confused father and ex-Marine.

Ryan Barry is properly sincere and supportive of his sister and father. He is the voice of reason (or sanity?) in this family. Now, possibly no one is enjoying their role(s) more than Susan Louise O'Connor who is spot-on as Janice's "away with the fairies" mother… and manager in the first scene. Not to be overlooked is Daniel Pellicano who nicely handles his two short scenes with Janice. Pellicano is a theatre student at Kean. He impressed last season in the tough starring role of Jacob in Premiere's critically acclaimed production The Beautiful Dark.

Director Jade King Carroll has been assisted by a first class creative team: Caite Hevner Kemp is responsible for the clever moving sets, the scrim for both the actors and the artistic projection; Nadine Charlsen the lighting design; Dori Strober the costume design; Janie Bullard sound design; and Karen Cahill props. Dale Smallwood handled the stage manger chores. Clare Drobot is the dramaturg. Overseeing the production is Premiere Stages’ Artistic Director John Wooten .

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  September 7, 2014

Janice Underwater is running until September 21 in Kean University’s Zella Fry Theatre.

​Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm, with post-show discussions to follow select matinee performances. Tickets are $30 standard, $20 for senior citizens and Kean alumni, and $15 for students and patrons with disabilities. Significantdiscounts for groups of 10 or more apply. To make reservations or order a season brochure, please call the Kean Stage Box Office at 908-737-SHOW (7469) or visit Premiere Stages online at www.kean.edu/premierestages.
Photo: Amy Staats as Janice, Susan Louise O'Connor behind the scrim. (PS)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: LUCKY ME by Robert Caisley at NJ Rep in Long Branch


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Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney, August 9, 2014 at 3:00pm

As the curtain goes up on LUCKY ME, Sara Fine maneuvers through her darkened apartment on crutches after returning from the hospital. We quickly learn that she fell off the roof in her bathrobe while fixing a leak during a rainstorm. When her helpful neighbor Tom asks why the lights don't work he is told that all the bulbs have burned out. “It's always happening,” Sara says unfazed. This is immediately followed by the comic sight of a kitchen cupboard filled to the top with boxes of light bulbs. A bit later, a hockey puck comes zooming through a glass window knocking over a nearby lamp. “It's always happening,” Sara says unfazed. This is immediately followed by the comic sight of a cabinet overflowing with baseballs, tennis balls, and hockey pucks. Surely we are in for a hilarious dark comic farce about those who live under Murphy's Law. Right? Well... not exactly.

LUCKY ME soon hones in on another tact – the budding romantic attraction between stoic Sara and timid Tom, a recent transplant from Alaska working for the TSA in airport security. The only monkey wrench in the ointment of this near-fatal attraction is Sara's live-in father, Leo. Like most of the burdensome things in her life, Sara takes her cantankerous father in her stride. Leo may or may not be blind, and may or may not be in the throes of Alzheimer's, but there's no doubt that he dislikes Tom.

We are told that only one out of every three things Leo says is true. Which one no one is quite sure, including us. Leo's character vagaries combined with Sara's reluctance to discuss her past create a bit of a challenge for the audience, who aren't sure just what is going on (or why) until it is far too late to care. With the help of deliberately belligerent Leo, the mood escalates from quirky to somber rather quickly.

Director SuzAnne Barabas (also NJ Rep's Artistic Director) struggles with the scatter-shot script. The pacing is often far too slow for farce and the play lacks the chemistry necessary for romance. The four performers struggle mightily with the material but Michael Irvin Pollard fares best as Tom. His sad sack demeanor and nervous laugh are just right for a man inescapably caught in the middle of a weird storm. If the audience roots for Tom, it is because Sara is so determinedly discreet.

Wendy Peace gives a very matter-of-fact performance where a bit more comic nuance might help. But Peace stays the course and salvages some bit of character clarity in Sara's final scenes. Dan Grimaldi's Leo is an abrasive old codger with a mean-streak who often unbalances the already out-of-kilter play with cruel and confusing outbursts. Finally, Mark Light-Orr does a second act turn as Yuri, the building's Russian super. He's mainly there to provide some much-needed back story (as they say in Hollywood), although by the time he arrives things have gone from vague to vaguer.

As usual, NJ Rep lavishes LUCKY ME with an excellent physical production. The set is the very picture of a downmarket garden apartment (#13, of course), complete with spill-proof plastic coverings on the miss-matched furniture. There's an amusing sound plot (cue toilet flush) and an array of tricky effects (including some live goldfish) to bring Sara's misfortunes to the stage. All are impressively executed. I wish I could say the same about the play but this is clearly a premiere in need of a second draft. Maybe next time will be lucky?
LUCKY ME continues through August 31 at NJ Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ. For tickets and information call 732.229.3166 or visit www.njrep.org
Cast photo by SuzAnne Barabas
Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: Chatham Community Players' Annual ‘Jersey Voices One-Act Festival’ Program B


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As we stated in our review of Program A last week, a highlight of the summer community theatre season for the past 20 years has been the Chatham Community Players' annual "Jersey Voices One-Act Festival."
This year, the 20th season, they presented 12 one-act plays selected from the 112 original plays they have presented over the past 19 seasons.  This impressive production included ten original short plays written by New Jersey playwrights as well as two original dance pieces. The plays were presented in repertory style in the comfortable black box theater in the Chatham Playhouse.

The schedule the first weekend was Friday Program A, Saturday Program B, and Sunday Program A. The second week (last weekend) it was Friday Program B, Saturday Program A, and Sunday Program B. The themes ran from broad comedy to heart tugging drama to the challenges of love (and marriage!).

As with our two prior "Festival" experiences, the play selection, staging and performances were impressive. The playwrights this year were: Eric Alter, Ian August, Frank Brimonte, Desiree Caro & Anthony Rubolotta, John P. Dowgin, Donald Earle Howes, William C. Kovasik, Amanda Mayer, Henry Meyerson, Margaret Ruvoldt, Mary Jane Walsh and Grace Wessbecher.

The six directors were: Arnold J. Buchiane, Joann Lopresti Scanlon, Stephen Catron, Marybelle Cowan-Lincoln, Donald Earle Howes, and Jon DeAngelis. Each director was responsible for their own casting.

The Jersey Voices One-Act Festival was a delightful, enjoyable evening of theater. The entire event is another example of the marvelous acting, directing, and oh yes...writing talent we have in the Garden State. Congratulations to the Chatham Players and in particular Producer Bob Denmark and Artistic Director  Bob Lukasik.

The six programs were as follows:

​​Ping by Mary Jane Walsh
10513536_10152130751006580_283509448195951428_nA one-woman play that depicts, in a riveting fashion, a mother's unwavering love for her grown child.  This production featured Teri Sturtevant. Directed by Arnold J. Buchiane. Teri Sturtevant won the 2012 ‘Best Actress’ Perry Award for this role. She is not only a marvelous comedy actress, but in Ping wins our hearts with this showstopping dramatic performance. Much credit should also go to director Buchiane, and playwright Mary Jane Walsh. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. The play and Teri can best be described with one word…”WOW.”


Ties by Eric Alter
1907720_10152130749151580_7150455857839374111_nA father and son cannot communicate with or accept each other until forgiveness for either of them weighs too heavily.  This production featured Frederick Gallo, Matthew Cronin and Michael King. Directed by Jon DeAngelis.
Michael King delivered another powerful performance as the dying father who seeks the forgiveness of his gay son Andrew, well played by Matthew Cronin.

Tech Support by Henry Meyerson
10574527_10152125219496580_6374700148000316955_nA tongue-in-cheek look at what we suspect is really happening when we call the Tech Helpdesk. This production featured Liz Royce and Kristin Bennett. Directed by Maybelle Cowan-Lincoln. Very funny skit of extremely frustrated woman who simply wants to have her home phone repaired. Unfortunately, she deals with the support woman from Hell. Liz Royce and Kristin Bennett are both wonderful. Bennett (above right) displays a great talent for accents. She clearly was having a ball with this hilarious part.


Couples Therapy by Amanda Mayer
10569069_10152133437016580_4105927134705545242_nWhat goes on when a wife drags her husband to a marriage counselor?  This production featured the perfectly teamed Colleen Grundfest and Lewis Decker. Directed by Steve Catron. Hilarious is the word that best applies to this piece perfectly directed by Steve Catron.




The Fruppum, Alabama, Chamber of Commerce by John Dowgin
1176105_10152130750591580_5394072324955420644_nTwo old codgers run gas stations across the street from each other since forever. One talks a blue streak, the other mumbles answers. One thinks they are identical copies of each other, the other knows different. When modern life enters the differences begin to show and the quiet one wins the day.  This production featured Jim Clancy, Kevern Cameron and Chip Prestera. Directed nicely byJersey Voices vet Joann Lopresti Scanlon. Funny, funny tale of two gas station owners…Kevern Cameron is Rufus who sees no reason to sell anything other than gas and Jim Clancy as Zeke who quietly has embraced 21st Century marketing even to selling Evian bottled water. A big Chatham favorite, Chip Prestera has fun as three very different motorists. Prestera is the go to guy for comedy at the Chatham Playhouse.


10458318_10152133437441580_6108122508756082049_nExecutive Dreams written by Don Howes
This is what happens when inattention meets imagination in this rocking dance piece.  This production features Rachel Fikslin, Kimberly Jackson, Michael Efron, Melissa Kaplan and Gabriel Malo.  Written, directed and choreographed by Don Howes. Business man has erotic daydream about three attractive women who are making a sales pitch. Includes sensual dance and a gorilla! Pleasant piece that seems a bit out of place in this Jersey Voices arena.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  August 3, 2014

Photos by Howard Fisher

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: Chatham Community Players' Impressive 20th Edition of the ‘Jersey Voices One-Act Festival’


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A highlight of the summer community theatre season for the past 20 years has been the Chatham Community Players' annual "Jersey Voices One-Act Festival." This special 20th season, they are presenting 12 of the 'best-of-the best" selected from the 112 original plays they have presented over the past 19 seasons.

This impressive production includes ten original short plays written by New Jersey playwrights as well as two original dance pieces to represent the 20 years of “Jersey Voices.”  The plays are presented in repertory style in the comfortable black box theater in the Chatham Playhouse.

To keep things simple, the two programs are labeled A and B. The schedule this past weekend was Friday Program A, Saturday Program B, and Sunday Program A. This week it will be Friday Program B, Saturday Program A, and Sunday Program B. The themes run from broad comedy to heart tugging drama to the challenges of love (and marriage!).
The two programs are divided equally with three pre-intermission and three post-intermission. The total time is about two hours including a discussion with the actors, directors and writers.
The fact that the evening consists of six separate, different themed plays that are obviously short and each ends with a nice plot twist presents a bit of a reviewing conundrum. In other words, we will only include here the author's description with no further plot discussion.
We attended a performance of Program A on Sunday night, and will cover Program B next Sunday.
The A program is as follows:
Act One:
Voices In SickIn Sickness and Fine China by Margaret Ruvoldt
What goes on when a woman drags her fiancéto register for wedding gifts?  This production features Ken Vespasiano and Miriam Salerno. Directed by Steve Catron. Ken Vespasiano and Miriam Salerno (photo right) are nicely paired as a couple who are about to move from the state of "living together" to the state of marriage. This is a nice light start to the program. Catron is a very in-demand director with a growing list of successes.

Voices Couple Sr.Grandparents Day by Grace Wessbecher of Morris Plains

Two grandparents each narrate their own story by reminiscing about growing up in Northern Ireland in two different religions and therefore two different neighborhoods. There is an attraction between them that would never have been allowed but that was then and this is now.  This production features Howard Fischer and Geraldine Baillod (photo right). Directed by Joann Scanlon.  Howard Fischer and Geraldine Baillod are both 'spot-on' as the reminiscing Northern Ireland couple. Very touching story of the havoc the "troubles" made on many lives. Wonderful accents. Baillod demonstrates the acting skill that won her a Perry Award for her role in the Chester Theatre Group's recent "Blood Brothers." Ms. Scanlon's sensitive direction is also 'spot-on.' She impresses every year.

voices danceLove Me Deadly by Desirée Caro and Anthony Rubolotta of MontclairA lyrical dance piece centering on the romantic exploits of “Charlie” and his three femme fatales, cautioning us that, in love, everything has its price.  This production features Darius Delk as Charlie (photo right), Katey Sabo as First Love, Zetta Cool is the Starlet and Melissa Kaban as The Vixen. Directed and Choreographed by Desirée Caro. Nice change of pace with a story told via dance. Romance takes a nasty dark turn in this dance piece about love and violent death. Darius Delk is a standout. Desirée Caro is clearly a very talented choreographer.
Act Two:

Voices PrintEleanor Descending a Staircase by Ian August of Lawrenceville

Eleanor wants to buy a print of a painting for her husband's birthday. To do that, she must wrestle with what is Art, what is its purpose in life, and why is this sales clerk such an ass?  This production features Judi Laganga and Brian Carroll (photo right). Directed by Jon DeAngelis. This is a seriously funny skit. Brian Carroll is properly droll as the clerk in D.C., New York, Paris and Afghanistan! Judi Laganga, a marvelous actress, is an absolute hoot as the very frustrated wife.

Voices Ebbets FieldEbbets Field by Frank Briamonte of Scotch Plains
A cherished childhood memory is revisited.  This production features Art Delo as the memory challenged Vincent, Michael King as his son Daniel, and Kendall Green as Leslie an assisted living nurse (photo right). Directed by Arnold J. Buchiane.
This is a superior piece that touches the heart, particularly if you are dealing with this tragic situation in your family.  Art Delo is excellent as the father, Kendall Green makes a fine nurse, but, Michael King, who impressed in "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Best Man" and "God of Carnage," gets the MVP trophy for the evening. King would win star applause on anyone's stage on either side of the Hudson.

voices boatRun of the River by William Kovacsik of Singapore
A father gets an unexpected second chance to tell his son things he meant to say.  This production features Christopher C. Gibbs as Jim McCandliss and Matt Lafargue as his late son Tom. Directed by Maybelle Cowan-Lincoln. Both men are perfect in their roles, with Christopher C. Gibbs nicely demonstrating his pro level acting ability.
As with our two prior "Festival" experiences, the play selection, staging and performances were impressive. The entire event is another example of the marvelous acting, directing, and oh yes...writing talent we have in the Garden State. Ticket info is below. Don’t miss!
We will review Program B next Sunday night. That program is as follows:

​Ping by Mary Jane Walsh
A one-woman play that depicts, in a riveting fashion, a mother's unwavering love for her grown child.  This production features Teri Sturtevant of Hillsborough. Directed by Arnold J. Buchiane
Ties by Eric Alter of Livingston
A father and son cannot communicate with or accept each other untilforgiveness for either of them weighs too heavily.  This production features Frederick Gallo of Morristown, Matthew Cronin of Chatham and Mike King of New Providence. Directed by Jon DeAngelis of Chatham
Tech Support by Henry Meyerson
A tongue-in-cheek look at what we suspect is really happening when we call the Tech Helpdesk. This production features Liz Royce of Cedar Grove and Kristin Bennett of Montville. Directed by Maybelle Cowan-Lincoln of Morris Plains
Couples Therapy by Amanda Mayer of Livingston
What goes on when a wife drags her husband to a marriage counselor?  This production features Colleen Grundfest of Warren and Lewis Decker of Millington. Directed by Steve Catron of Mendham.
 The Fruppum, Alabama, Chamber of Commerce by John Dowgin of Spotswood
Two old codgers run gas stations across the street from each other since forever. One talks a blue streak, the other mumbles answers. One thinks they are identical copies of each other, the other knows different. When modern life enters the differences begin to show and the quiet one wins the day.  This production features Jim Clancy of Basking Ridge, Kevern Cameron of Hamburg and Chip Prestera of Stirling. Directed by Joann Scanlon of Chatham

Executive Dreams written by Don Howes of Morristown
This is what happens when inattention meets imagination in this rocking dance piece.  This production features Rachel Fikslin, Kimberly Jackson, Michal Efron, Melissa Kaplan and Gabriel Malo.  Directed and Choreographed by Don Howes of Morristown
​​The single remaining ​performance date for “Program A” is Saturday, August 2 at 8 pm; ​The two remaining performance dates for “Program B” are ​Friday,  August 1 at 8 pm and ​Sunday, August 3 at 7 pm.
imagesAll performances will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse 23 North Passaic Ave Chatham, NJ.

All tickets to each “Program” are $15, but if you buy one of the “Combo Tickets” for $25, it allows you entry for both Program A and Program B (one performance from each Program).

To access the theater’s online ticketing service, simply go toccp.ticketleap.com.  To purchase a “Combo Ticket” (tickets to both Programs), you must contact the Box Office at (973) 635-7363.  For more information go towww.chathamplayers.org.

It is highly recommended that tickets be purchased in advance. Patrons with special needs requiring seating accommodations should contact the Playhouse at least 24 hours prior to the performance. Without prior notice, accommodations cannot be guaranteed.
Cast photos by Howard Fisher

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: Premiere Stages’ Taut Drama ‘Soldier’s Heart’

Reviewed By Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)


"Ripped from the headlines" might sound like a cliché, but the phrase applies very well to Soldier's Heart, now making its New Jersey premiere as the first play in Premiere Stage's tenth anniversary season. On the heels of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's failed attempt to get Congress to overhaul the procedure for dealing with sexual assault in the military, Tammy Ryan has written an intense drama that grabs you from the first scene and doesn't let go until the lights go down two hours later.

When we first meet Marine Sgt. Casey Johnson, she is a super-organized, caring mother about to deploy on a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq. Before she leaves, she has prepared for any eventuality her mother Margie might encounter taking care of her son Sean, even going so far as to compile a notebook filled with telephone numbers, forms completed and ready to be filed on certain dates, and warnings about the effect of her mother's smoking on Sean's asthma. She has, apparently, prepared for anything that could possibly occur while she is away.

DebriefBut when she returns from Iraq, she's more Hyde than Jekyll: paranoid, jittery, belligerent, even suicidal. She doesn't want to see Sean and even tries to give up custody. The reason, she finally admits to Kevin, Sean's father, is that she was raped but was unable to report it because her rapist is 1st Lt. Baines, her commanding officer. Such an accusation would be dismissed because there were no witnesses, he outranks her, and women in the military are considered "walking mattresses," sluts, there for the taking. And, should she charge Baines with rape, her military career would end, a blow to a young woman from a military family.

The conundrum: she obviously needs psychological help, but won't go to theVeterans Administration because they take too long to honor appointments and, anyway, she will have to fill out long forms and write a narrative that probably no one will believe. (Above, L-R: Landon G. Woodson, Michael Colby Jones, Mairin Lee, Erica Camarano)
Playwright Ryan presents the back-story of the rape through flashbacks that show just how Baines "courted" Casey and then abused her. We also learn about her habit of making her own decisions instead of always following orders and mistakes she's made that resulted in the death of a Marine under her command.
Kim Zimmer_Soldier's Heart copyThis gripping narrative is tautly directed by John Wooten, who ratchets up the tension incrementally until it finally explodes. He has cast a group of very talented actors to tell the tale. As Casey, Mairin Lee carries the weight of the drama; she's onstage in every scene, and we cannot take our eyes off her. She's tough yet vulnerable, vulnerable yet tough. She is a veritable walking powder keg. Her loving mother is played by Kim Zimmer (left), who appeared in Ryan's previous play produced at Premiere Stages, Lost Boy at Whole Foods. Zimmer's Margie is concerned about her child and at a loss to help her. Her mothering style stands in stark contrast to Casey's before and after her tour of Iraq. Benton Greene, as Sean's father Kevin, is a veritable rock in this seething atmosphere of fear. He is a character to be admired, and Greene certainly conveys that.

Baines_CaseyThe villain of the piece is 1st Lt. Baines, played with appropriate smarminess and malevolence by Michael Colby Jones (right, with Mairin Lee). He goes out of his way to make Casey his “bitch,” giving her a phone to call home for free, offering to protect her against those in the company who find her off-putting. One of those is Lance Cpl. Hernandez, played by Erica Camarano, the only other woman in the company. She doesn't (and cannot) befriend Casey and even spreads salacious rumors about her, which is reprehensible and something Baines uses to his benefit.

Kim and Azlan_Soldier's Heart copyLandon G. Woodson is tough as Staff Sgt.Williams. Azlan Landry (left, with Lee) is heartbreaking as Sean; when he finally appears, we feel this 10-year-old's pain at what he sees as abandonment by his mother ("You missed all of fourth grade," he cries). Zane King Beers is the silent Iraqi boy who haunts Casey's dreams.
Joseph Gourley has designed a set that works on several levels, in this case, Casey's home and Iraq. Nadine Charlsen's atmospheric lighting takes us into Casey's tortured mind, and Janie Bullard has chosen music that, with its driving beat and rap lyrics, reinforces the Marine motto of "Semper Fi" and highlights the turmoil faced by young soldiers in a faraway place.

Once again, Tammy Ryan and Premiere Stages have given us a play with topical significance and much to think about. Albeit a tad overwritten and somewhat repetitive, Soldier's Heart certainly gets across the point that we are failing our females in the military and that military justice needs an overhaul when it comes to prosecuting crimes committed by soldiers against soldiers. Although Ryan has set this play in the context of the Marines, the problem exists in all branches of the service. Best of all, she has given the audience a story with a strong dramatic arc, acted by a very talented company, on an important subject with which we must deal decisively, now
Soldier's Heart will be performed at the Zella Fry Theatre on the Kean University campus in Union through July 27. For information and tickets, call 908.737.SHOW (7469) or visit www.kean.edu/premierestages.
Photos by Mike Peters.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ is a gem at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey


DD Trial scene
Perfect for the July Fourth, Independence Day period,The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is presenting a gem of a play George Bernard Shaw’s rarely produced Revolutionary War drama "The Devil’s Disciple."  Shaw wrote the play in 1897 and it was his first financial success.  The play, set in 1777 Colonial America (New Hampshire), tells the story of Richard Dudgeon, a local outcast and self-proclaimed "Devil's disciple" who flaunts his vice-driven beliefs to his puritanical family led by his dour mother, but yet is also a man of honor who finds himself headed for the hangman's noose courtesy of the British Army when he becomes entangled with the local minister Anthony Anderson and the minister's beautiful wife, Judith. An alternate title of "The Devil’s Disciple; A Melodrama" might have been "A Question of Honor."

If your only exposure to the play was via the abbreviated 82 minute 1959 film adaptation (Kirk Douglas as Richard Dudgeon, Burt Lancaster as the minister,Anthony Anderson, and Laurence Olivier as the British General John "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne) and you were less than impressed, please don't let it put you off this production. The movie padded Douglas' part transforming the film into a swashbuckling adventure, whereas this Paul Mullins directed production is faithful to Shaw and, most importantly, is superior theater, at the high level of presentation that we have come to expect from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. This is an excellent example of a live theater production outshining a film version of the same story.

The outstanding cast includes James Knight as Richard “Dick” Dudgeon, the black sheep “Devil’s disciple;” Knight is, as the Brits say, "spot-on" properly dashing in the Errol Flynn mold; as the respected local minister Anthony Anderson, Paul Niebanck is properly sober; Tony Award-nominated actress Elizabeth A. Davis nicely plays the minister’s wife Judith Anderson, conflicted and confused by the unexpected actions of her "virtuous" husband and the assumed scoundrel “Dick” Dudgeon; Cynthia Mace is very effective as the strict Dudgeon matriarch, Anne, who shocks when she wishes for her bible flaunting son Richard an early demise; Edmond Genest could not be more perfect as the thoroughly disillusioned British General Burgoyne; Matt Sullivan gives a solid performance as the properly stiff, by the book Major Swindon; Sheffield Chastain provides several humorous moments as the British Sergeant; Connor Carew is “Christy” Dudgeon, the obedient son, Michael Daly as the stern Uncle William Dudgeon and the Chaplin; and John Little as Lawyer Hawkins and a British officer.

Rounding out the cast are: Katie Willmorth as the young, illegitimate Essie; Nancy Rich and Rosemary Wall as Dudgeon aunts; Samuel Cheeseman, Samuel Hardy,  Stark Kirby, Chris Rothbauer, and Jeffrey Allen Sneed as British soldiers.

The production impresses from the stark, gallows inspired platform set from scenic designer Brittany Vasta, Candida Nichols's colonial costumes and Red Coat uniforms, the dramatic lighting from Andrew Hungerford and the sound design of Steven L. Beckel, particularly the chill producing military drums.
"The Devil's Disciple" is a beautifully produced, thoughtful play with a finebalance of drama and comedy. The cast, in particular, is superb. It is wonderful to see that theatre is 'alive and well' in New Jersey.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  July 5, 2014

"The Devils Disciple" began July 2nd at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. (at Lancaster Road) in Madison.  Individual tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 973-408-5600 or by visiting www.ShakespeareNJ.org.  Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.  Individual tickets range from $15 to $75. The run ends on July 27th.
DD MAND
            Cynthia Mace as Mrs. Dudgeon and Paul Niebanck as the minister
DD Burg Swindon
             Edmond Genest as Burgoyne and Matt Sullivan as Maj. Swindon
DD Dick Mrs A best
                     James Knight as “Dick” with Elizabeth Davis as Judith
TOP PHOTO: Richard “Dick” Dudgeon (James Knight) pleads with Judith Anderson (Elizabeth A. Davis) while appearing before the British army court.
   All Photos: © Jerry Dalia, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: The Landmark Rock Musical ‘Hair’ at Chester Theatre Group


Chester_Theatre_Group_Hair
"Hair," the landmark 1967 anti-war rock musical, opened Thursday night at the Black River Playhouse, home of the Chester Theatre Group, with an impressive, high energy, production directed by Alan Van Antwerp. The large, excellent cast (21) sing and dance in all corners and levels of this intimate space with the all the enthusiasm this play that introduced us to The Age of Aquarius requires.

The play, rarely performed in recent years, is basically plotless with thirty-three musical numbers running non-stop.  Most of the songs are joyous, with subjects and language that were shocking for 1960s audiences. Several of the songs have become classics; "Aquarius," "Good Morning Starshine," and "Let the Sunshine In." "Aquarius" is considered the iconic, powerful uplifting anthem for the decade.

In case you were not around during the 1960's...it was one of the most  turbulent  periods in the history of the US. The decade included the assassinations of President Kennedy (on live television)  his brother Bobby, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, the moon landing, the shift in popular music led by the Beatles, and, what was at the time the most unpopular US war, the Vietnam War. It was the first war, with its horrific scenes of death and destruction, that played out on the evening news. It divided the nation and served to create a generation of disillusioned, anti-establishment, young people calling for peace and love while evading the military draft. Their bizarre lifestyle centered on sex and drugs, unconventional clothes, and long hair earned them the title of 'Hippies.' In fact, many kids were being kicked out of school for growing their hair long! The original Broadway production broke new ground with a racially integrated cast and full frontal nudity at the end of Act One (no nudity in this production).
hair3
The story centers on a group, or "tribe," all living this hippie, bohemian life in New York City.  The main characters are Claude (photo above with tribe), a Vietnam war draftee, who befriends the tribe on his way to the army induction center, and Berger, the extroverted primary voice of the tribe who introduces Claude to their counter cultural lifestyle and attempts to pressure him to resist the draft.

The supporting cast are all very good, with particular standout performances from Lindsay Braverman as Sheila. She beautifully nails her first act solo "I Believe In Love;" Ashley Leone has a commanding presence as Dionne; Marisa Garrity as Chrissy, she has a fine solo "Frank Mills;" Raven Dunbar as Jeannie; Melrose Johnson as Hud has fun with "Three-Five-Zero-Zero;" and Shane Long as Woof, has the attention grabber "Sodomy;"
hair1But, back to Claude and Berger (photo right), both clearly played by superior, experienced, performers. Berger is played with great style and good 'ole "gusto," with or without his trousers, by Chris Abbott. Brian Hall, who impressed us in CTG's recent production of "Urinetown," and recently made his professional debut in Florida, is outstanding as Claude. Both men do it all...sing, dance and act.

The other "tribe' members: Hannah Schroeder; Nicole Boscarino; Laura Mullaney; Anthony Bruno; Chris Frazier; Steven Munoz; Ryan Mark; Caroline Hatcher; Kelly Miller; Chris Ciavatta; Mike Rossi; Dillon Feldman and Ericka Traugh.

Special credit is in order for choreographer Megan Ferentinos and music director Jack Bender. Director Alan Van Antwerp production staff includes: producer Cindy Alexander; stage manager and lighting Ellen Fraker-Glasscock; audio and visual effects (including video projection) Jeff Knapp; costume design Vince Esoldi; wardrobe and props Gina Schwenck, Barbara Henderson and Trish Lum; wigs,hair and makeup Gina Stevens; scenic construction Kevern Cameron and Stephen Catron (set design); scenic painting and design Claire Symanski.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  July 3, 2014

The remaining performance dates are 8 pm Saturday, July 5 (TONIGHT), 12 and 19; Thursday, July 10 and 17; Friday, July 11 and 18; 2 pm Sunday 6, 13 and 20.
TICKETS: $25.00  Senior citizens 65+ and students under 18: $23.00. Call the box office at 908-879-7304 or purchase tickets on-line atwww.chestertheatregroup.org.

The Black River Playhouse (photo below) is located at 54 Grove Street, at the corner of Maple Ave., in Chester, NJ.

Some "Hair" background: Book & Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado, Music by Galt MacDermot.  It was conceived by actors Rado and Ragni. They began writing "Hair" together in late 1964. The main characters were autobiographical, with Rado's Claude being a pensive romantic and Ragni's Berger an extrovert. Rado described the inspiration for Hair as "a combination of some characters we met in the streets, people we knew and our own imaginations.

REVIEW: COMEDY SKEWERS POMPOUS LEARNING AT STNJ’S OUTDOOR THEATRE

 Reviewed by Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)

They were the "it" girls of 17th century France, upper-class women, enamored of the new zeal for Reason, who held regular salons attended by learned men who talked about literature, science and philosophy. Despite having scant education themselves, these women fancied themselves learned ladies, attaining knowledge just by hobnobbing with the intellectual elite of the age. And, they had big hair.
STNJ_LearnedLadies_IMG_7844Of course, their self-important pomposity was ripe for deflation, and no one did it better than Molière, as in his effervescent and mordant comedy, The Learned Ladies, the summer production of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, currently glowing with wit and humor at the Greek Amphitheater on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station. With sharpened quill, France's greatest comedic writer takes aim at academic fools and those who indiscriminately worship them. Oh, and did I mention that they had really big hair?

The plot involves a marriage between young aristocrat Henriette and her penniless suitor Clitandre, a match condoned by the bride-to-be's father Chrysale but violently opposed by her battle-axe of a mother Philaminte, who thinks the foolish philosopher Trissotin is a better match for her younger daughter. Abetting Philaminte in getting her own way are older daughter Armande and sister-in-law Bélise, both "learned ladies" (with big hair) who look down their noses people like Henriette, whom they consider to be stupid and materialistic, especially because she wants to become a wife and mother. (Above, l-r: The “learned ladies” [Alison Weller, Marion Adler, Susan Maris] voice their high-brow disapproval of poor grammar.)
STNJ_LearnedLadies_IMG_7911Director and sound designer Brian Crowe's choice of sprightly harpsichord music sets the tone from the very outset, as servants cavort around, performing their chores while reading books! The energy level thus established, Crowe keeps translator Richard Wilbur's snappy rhymed verse dialogue flowing nonstop, as when big-haired Philaminte pontificates on the need for good grammar and Trissotin reads his sonnet with (unintended) comic expression and often misplaced emphasis as the listening women, so moved by inanities, faint with pleasure. (Left, The pseudo-scholarly poet Trissotin [Clark Scott Carmichael] performs an impassioned original composition as an amazed Armande [Susan Maris] watches.)

Dressed in wonderfully evocative and silly-looking costumes designed by Paul Canada, the talented cast confronts Molière's satire head on, slinging his barbs against those who worship wit, the prominence of mind over body, but know nothing of what's happening in the real world. And these learned ladies and gentlemen certainly do have big hair. Philaminte and her posse wear huge white wigs that look like lambs on their heads, with a magnifying glass, book, globe, and a quill pen and scroll perched precariously on the tops. Their gold and white attire is decorated with words, math equations and geometry symbols to ram home that these wackos eat, sleep and drink knowledge, yet remain supremely uneducated!

STNJ_LearnedLadies_IMG_7677Everyone turns in a first-rate performance, from Marion Adler as the harridan Philaminte, who plans to banish all verbs and nouns the ladies do not like and who terrorizes her milquetoast husband Chrysale (deliciously played by John Hickock  as a bowl of quivering jelly whenever she appears) to the unable to be intimidated Henriette, played charmingly with a steel backbone by Rachael Fox. As the older sister Armande, Susan Maris has great fun inveighing against marriage (which she calls "slavery") but who continues to pursue Clitandre even after she has dumped him. Allison Weller's ample Bélise sails around the stage like a frigate as she, too, pursues Clitandre, despite his rejection of her. Of course, these two women are supremely deluded hypocrites, and Molière revels in taking them down a notch or two! And John Hickock does double duty as Vadius, dressed in all-black (his wig looks like a helmet) as the savant who expounds in Greek, saying, of course, nothing that sounds reasonable. (Above: The imperious matriarch Philaminte [Marion Adler] silences her husband Chrysale [John Hickok])

STNJ_LearnedLadies_IMG_8001Clark Scott Carmichael has a field day as the Greek scholar Trissotin, performing lots of physical comedy with aplomb, looking quite serious as he spouts idiocies, poses with his leg extended (called "making a good leg") and avidly pursues Henriette, who clearly does not welcome his attentions. Lindsay Smiling turns the small part of Ariste, brother to Chrysale and Bélise, into an important source of equanimity in the face of disaster, as does Christine Sanders as the wise maid Martine, dismissed because of her poor grammar by Philaminte in the beginning of the play, only to return to utter truths about human nature, even if she does so in an inartful way! (Left: The aspiring poet Trissotin (Above: Trissotin [Clark Scott Carmichael] wows Philaminte [Marion Adler] with his cultured “learning.”)
The set, designed by Charlie Calvert, glows in the descending darkness, with curving walls imprinted with words and a white marble floor furnished simply with four chairs and piles of books (some of which protrude from under the stage to form steps so the actors can exit gracefully). Hamilton E.S. Smith's lighting completes the jewel box effect.

As Clitandre says, there is "no fool like a learned fool," and with The Learned Ladies, Molière and the folks at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey provide dramatic proof of that axiom. Of course, it's all performed with style, elegance, precise comedic timing, and the ability to recite verse without it sounding sing-song-y yet amusingly charming. And many of Richard Wilbur's clever rhymes will make you laugh out loud with their wit!

So grab a low-backed chair or cushion, a picnic dinner or snacks, grandma and the older kids, and head over to Convent Station for a rollicking 95 minutes in the company of The Learned Ladies. You will be glad you did!
The Learned Ladies will be performed at the outdoor Greek Amphitheatre on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth , 2 Convent Road (entrances off Park Avenue and Madison Avenue/Rte. 124), Convent Station, through July 27. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Sundays at 7:30 PM and special twilight performances Saturday at 4:30 PM. Tickets are $15-$35 for adults; children under 5 go free (although I do not think they will enjoy the play's witticisms). For information or to purchase tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.
Reviewed by Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)
Photos © Jerry Dalia, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: New Play ‘Butler’ at New Jersey Rep


butler2
Review by Michael T. Mooney (www.michaeltmooney.com)

First, banish any preconceived notions that BUTLER, Richard Strand's new play currently at NJ Rep, is about the life of a domestic servant – the sort with Oprah Winfrey in the background to provide moral support. The title actually refers to real-life Civil War Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, who served the Union as commander of Fort Monroe, Virginia, where the play is set.

The events of May 1861 are matters of historical record: three runaway slaves arrived at the Fort seeking sanctuary. Butler's predicament is whether to return them to their rightful owners (as per the laws of the time) where they will most certainly face torture or death, or to somehow allow them to escape North to freedom. Both options seem equally unacceptable to the slaves, who insist on sanctuary - also a matter of historical fact. What is not fact, of course, are the imagined conversations between Butler and the slaves (here embodied by Strand-appointed spokesman, Shepard Mallory); those are strictly the manufacture of the playwright. And riveting stuff, they are indeed.

Strand opens his play with an extended verbal exchange between Butler (a commanding Ames Adamson) and his Lieutenant (an appropriately obsequious Benjamin Sterling), who has the unfortunate duty to convey the slaves' demands to the astonished Butler. The Major General's pre-War profession becomes increasingly apparent as he engages in a lengthy linguistic diatribe over the Lieutenant's unfortunate use of the word 'demands'. Only a lawyer could so vigorously battle over the verbiage used by a duty-torn soldier. The sequence brilliantly sets up what is to come – a war of wits and witticisms. Mallory (a wonderful John G. Williams) is a well educated slave – one who may or may not be able to read but who has a vocabulary that surely comes from something other than building Southern garrets, which has been his main pastime of late. Whatever its source, this educational edge allows him to go toe to toe with the Major General – taking the blustery Butler somewhat aback.

butler1In the play's second act, the Confederacy sends munitions expert Major Cary (a dignified David Sitler) to retrieve their 'property.' Once again, wily wordsmith Butler engages mightily with Cary, whom he rightly assumes is more Southern spy than official emissary. How the issue is eventually resolved is on a par with the most brilliant courtroom drama – showing that Butler's brain is certainly mightier than his bravery or brawn. Without resorting to history book spoilers, Act Two finds Butler taking issue with another choice word - 'contraband' – and manipulating a recent declaration from the Commonwealth to his own ends.
Strand's play is pitch perfect in both structure and dialogue – a rarity for a world premiere. He paints a textual picture of a man who is more at home on the bench than the battlefield. Strand's Butler is a complex character, one with moral ambiguities – a beast with a brain. In his NJ Rep debut, director Joseph Discher stages the play with a no-nonsense briskness that always values words over movement, something that would please the Major General, no doubt.

With a rock-solid script and assured direction, the success of the play falls to the actor cast as Butler. NJ Rep regular Ames Adamson is nothing short of magnificent in the title role. His is a considered, exacting performance that keeps us riveted throughout. Thanks to his odd period hairstyle and desk-jockey paunch, Adamson also looks alarmingly like photographs of the real-life Butler. The actor inhabits the character inside and out.

George S. Kaufman once quipped that “God writes lousy theatre” - meaning that the events of history are rarely interesting enough on their own without a dramatist's intervention. In BUTLER, the Deity comes as close as can be imagined, and Strand and company more than capably provide the rest.
BUTLER continues at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ, through July 13th. For tickets and information contactwww.njrep.com or call 732-229-3166

Review by Michael T. Mooney (www.michaeltmooney.com)

Photo 1: John G. Williams and Ames Adamson (credit SuzAnne Barabas)
Photo 2: David Sitler and Ames Adamson (credit SuzAnne Barabas)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: ‘Third’ by Wendy Wasserstein at Two River Theater in Red Bank


Wendy3

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney June 6 (www.michaeltmooney.com)
In 1977 playwright Wendy Wasserstein wrote her first big hit, “Uncommon Women and Others.” It is the story of seven seniors at a seven sisters college in New England. One of the grads, sassy Rita Altabel, assures her friends “When we're 45, we can be pretty amazing.” In “Third,” her final play before her untimely death from cancer in 2005, Wasserstein gave us Laurie Jameson, an English professor at a college in New England, now well past 45 but still striving to be amazing. In between, Wasserstein created such uncommon women as Heidi Holland in “The Heidi Chronicles” (1988) and Sara Goode, one of “The Sisters Rosensweig” (1992). Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ, is currently presenting a fine production of “Third,” a play that is as much about the author as it is about its characters.

“Third” is ostensibly the story of Laurie Jameson (an exquisite Annette O'Toole), an English professor at a small, elite college who accuses her student, a portentously named Woodson Bull III (handsome young Christopher Sears), of plagiarism. As the play progresses, however, it becomes clear that the script is less concerned about the veracity of her charges than it is about her reaction to everything the boy represents. Bull (or Third, as he prefers to be called) is an outgoing, bright young man who has no qualms about approaching his slightly intimidating teacher to request exemption from attending a screening of “King Lear.” Shakespeare's play looms large over “Third” (both the man and the play) much in the same way Chekhov's “The Three Sisters” hovered over Sara and her siblings in “The Sisters Rosensweig.” It should come as no surprise, then, that Laurie's father Jack (J.R. Horne) is a stout, bearded man slowly slipping into senility. Any resemblance between Lear and Jack is purely intentional.

Wasserstein takes time to painstakingly paint the professor's domestic life, introducing her college-age daughter, Emily (Emily Walton), if for no other reason than to add 'empty-nest syndrome' to Laurie's psychiatric laundry list of problems. While Laurie herself is in the throes of menopause, her husband remains noisily off-stage having his own mid-life crisis working out in his home gym and joining a motorcycle club. The final character in this busy scenario is Laurie's best friend Nancy, a fellow English professor who is battling cancer, something that must have been painfully familiar to the author while writing “Third.”

Add to that Wasserstein's usual predilection for politics and pop culture and you've got a weighty course load of ideas – many of which remain sadly under-developed. For instance, the play is nearly 45 minutes old before anyone posits the idea that the friction between student and teacher might be due to a May / December attraction. The notion is quickly dismissed in favor of less obvious possibilities. In a marvelous solo scene Laurie confesses to her unseen shrink “My thoughts are all over the place.” Wasserstein's, too.
By the second half we've nearly forgotten the premise of plagiarism, but so has the author, whose Act Two veers away from expected confrontations in favor of peaceful reconciliations. The Shakespearean symbolism peaks when Jack is found ranting in a raging thunderstorm, comforted by his saddened daughter. We reluctantly realize that perhaps Third's early assessment of Laurie - “You don't like me because I'm happy” - may indeed be the simple truth.

Although Wasserstein's script proves ultimately unsatisfying, the Two River production is eminently watchable because it is in the capable hands of skilled director Michael Cumpsty and an superb cast. O'Toole strikes a patrician elegance combined with a simmering inner turmoil that reminds us of the best work of Meryl Streep. Sears' earnest demeanor and boyish good looks are well matched by his capable acting skills. Hohn skillfully inserts a note of practicality and humor despite her character's anger and frustration with her illness. One expects that this is what Wasserstein must have been like in her final year.

While Laurie Jameson may always live in the shadow of Heidi Holland and Sara Goode, she has easily managed to exceed the expectations of Rita Altabel. By sharing this last work of a great American playwright, we realize that Wendy Wasserstein herself was pretty amazing – one of the great 'uncommon women' of our time.

“Third” can be seen through June 22nd at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ. For tickets and information contact www.tworivertheater.org or732.245.1400

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney June 6 (www.michaeltmooney.com)

Top photo: Christopher Sears (Woodson Bull III) with Annette O’Toole(Laurie Jameson) and Amy Hohn (Nancy Gordon). by Michael Daniel

Sunday, June 8, 2014

REVIEW: ‘AVENUE Q’ SUPERB TAKE ON KIDS’ SHOWS FOR MATURE AUDIENCES!

Guest Review By Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)


Quick: What immediately comes to mind when you hear the word "puppets"? Jim Henson and Sesame Street, right? Well, add the word "adult" to puppets, and you get Avenue Q, the snarky, profane, hysterical take on a children's show now being performed by the very talented folks at 4th Wall Theatre in at the Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield.

Recent college grad Princeton ("What Do You Do with a BA in English?") moves to Avenue Q, a rather rundown neighborhood in New York City that is populated by a mix of human beings and puppets, much like Sesame Street. But here, in a book penned by Jeff Whitty, instead of dealing with learning the alphabet or the colors, the denizens (right) must cope with unemployment, sexuality, racism, pornography addiction and a search for a purpose to their lives.

Robert Lopez (“Frozen”) and Jeff Marx have composed a sprightly score toconvey the vicissitudes of city life, whether it be recognizing that "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" or "You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love"). These are among the 20 individual songs warbled by 11 actors, only three of them not operating puppets. All are to be commended for making us believe that those puppets are talking, singing and dancing; in the beginning, one tends to look at the human operators, but within a short time, it is easy to believe that the puppets are real!
Kate Swan has directed this mayhem with a sure hand, insuring that the actors move around the stage and through the exits fluidly and without bumping into one another. And the backstage assistants deserve kudos for switching puppets when needed in a jiffy!

Michael Campbell (left) is terrific as Princeton, the eager beaver new college grad who's downsized even before he starts his new job and decides to seek his purpose in life. Helming Kate Monster is Tara Haight, whose lovely singing voice and endearing personality match that of her green, furry puppet. Gonzalo Valencia and Johnny Vento deftly manipulate and speak/sing for Nicky and Rod, clones of Sesame Street'sErnie and Bert, respectively, but poking fun at the Right's labeling the two original puppets as "gay."
As Lucy T. Slut, Madeline Fansler (right) sashays around the stage much as her vampy puppet would; she's outrageously seductive as she raunchily sings about making everyone she meets feel "Special"—given her name, you can figure out just what she means! Kate Hoover and Jacob Haury control the Bad Idea Bears (the opposite of "Care Bears") who tempt Princeton to spend his meager funds unwisely; that they are so cute makes their treachery even more ominous.
Rounding out the puppet ensemble is Tom Schopper as Trekkie Monster (left), a very furry, large mammoth with a huge mouth, a gravelly voice and a taste for porn on the Internet, similar to Cookie Monster's love of. . .cookies! Two things to note here about the actors' manipulation of the hand puppets: For one, keeping their arms up requires great stamina (they engaged in strength training during rehearsals), and their ability to give cloth heads facial expressions without doing much of anything are to be commended. None of the eight are puppeteers; they had to learn how to move their props' mouths and shift their hands with rods. I would have thought they had been trained at the Jim Henson Creature Shop! Bravo!
The human characters are equally as excellent. Danny Egan's awkward Brian is an unemployed and not very funny would-be comedian. The adorable Asami Tsuzuki (right with Tara Haight and Kate Monster) plays his fiancée/wife Christmas Eve with great flair as she mangles the English language and pronunciation (she sings "The More You Rove Somebody" and calls her mate "Blian"). Her character, as written, is the antithesis of politically correct, but it fits the show's snarky attitude. Finally, Lynette Sheard is hilarious as the actor Gary Coleman, providing great fun with celebrity jokes, many of which make fun of the real comedian. Sheard and Valencia have great fun with a ditty called "Schaudenfreude" wherein they express their pleasure at others' troubles. They even spell it out at the end, just as they do on Sesame Street.

By now, you have probably surmised that this is not a children's show. There is coarse language, adult themes and full puppet nudity (there is even a sex scene!), so leave the kids at home. Set design by Duane McDevitt (left) conveys a city street with a bit of a cartoonish air; Nicholas Mammo's lighting and Joe DeVico's sound complete the picture. Marc Dalio and Joe DeVico are responsible for the cartoon projections above the set that enhance the Sesame Street feeling. And Music Director Markus Hauck directs an unseen ensemble that accompanies the puppets/actors without ever overpowering them.

Avenue Q opened Off Broadway in 2003, moved to Broadway that same year, and continues to be performed Off Broadway to this day. It ranks 23rd on the list of longest-running shows.
 However, you do not need to spend money on tolls, parking and dinner to see Avenue Q. For a reasonable admission and a super experience with a different style of musical theater, just head on over to Bloomfield by June 15 to see a thoroughly professional production every bit as good as the original!
Avenue Q will be performed at the Westminster Arts Center, 449 Franklin Street, Bloomfield through June 15. Friday and Saturday evening performances are 8 PM and Sunday matinees are at 3 PM. For information and tickets, call 973.566.9255 or visit www.4thwalltheatre.org.
Guest Review By Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

REVIEW: ‘GREASE’ AT PAPER MILL PLAYHOUSE

Guest Review By Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)


When it debuted at the off-Broadway Eden Theatre in New York City in 1972, Grease was a raunchy, vulgar "little" musical that shined a light on an inner-city high school where there was conflict between the working class students and the preppy kids. But by the time it hit Broadway and subsequently the silver screen, the language had been scrubbed, the energy level amped up so high as to obscure some of the rawer messages (bullying, teenage pregnancy, gang violence, changing one's identity to "fit in") to make it more palatable for general audiences.

That said, the rousing production now onstage at the Paper Mill Playhouse continues to emphasize the themes of love, friendship, teenage rebellion and sexual exploration during adolescence. Music that recreates the sounds of early 1950's rock and roll transports us to 1959 Rydell High School (originally in Chicago) to hang out with the Burger Palace Boys and their Pink Ladies and witness the post-summer romance between greaser Danny Zuko and the prim and proper new-girl-on-campus, Sandy Dumbrowski (right, the dance in the gym, with Danny Zuko and Sandy Dombrowski in front; photo by Matthew Murphy).

Theatergoers familiar only with the John Travolta-Olivia Newton-John film of the late seventies, may be disappointed with a setting that is decidedlynotCalifornia, although several of the movie's songs ("Grease [is the word]," “You’re the One That I Want” and "Hopelessly Devoted to You") have been added. Without the Hollywood glitz, however, the story focuses on and satirizes conflicts so prevalent in high schools of the decade: the greasers vs. the nerds, the need for “wheels” to impress the girls and what a new student has to do to be accepted.

Director Daniel Goldstein has assembled a cast stellar in both talent and looks, instantly believable as teenagers of the period. The Burger Palace Boys, led by Bobby Conte Thornton as Danny Zuko and Shane Donovan (center) as his sidekick Kenickie, become the greasers they portray as they swivel their hips, sing falsetto (à la the fifties’ rock ‘n’ roll guy groups) and dance with great energy and enthusiasm. Their rendition of “Greased Lightnin’”—complete with a red convertible (above)—brings down the house.

Their female counterparts, the Pink Ladies, led by Morgan Weed as tough Betty Rizzo and Dana Steingold (right center) as Frenchy, are appropriately coarse, bitchy and contemptuous of prissy and refined students personified by Sandy Dumbrowski and smug baton twirler Patty Simcox. Weed is terrific as Rizzo, whether toughly mocking Sandra Dee or wistfully explaining her promiscuity in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Steingold is very funny as a “Beauty School Dropout,” where she is accompanied by a fine-voiced Teen Angel (Telly Leung, center top in photo to right) and a quartet of Pink Ladies dressed in beauty salon smocks and hair roller helmets.

The more mainstream characters had a harder time of evoking the audience’s sympathy, for their roles are less interesting than the rebellious greasers. Eloise Kropp's Patty Simcox is an obnoxious “brown-noser.” As blonde, blue-eyed Sandy Dombrowski, Taylor Louderman (right, with Thornton as Zuko) sings with a lovely voice, but her character is so bland as to almost fade into the background through most of the play. The fault is in the writing, however, not the actress. When she comes out of her shell and dresses like a sexy Pink Lady at the end, Louderman lights up the stage.

Fine support is provided by Donna English as Miss Lynch, the no-nonsense spinster teacher everyone remembers but would like to forget; Leela Rothenberg and Tess Soltau as the muncher Jan and brassy Marty, respectively; and, as greasers, Robin De Jesus as Doody, Matt Wood, as Roger (he gets to sing a really funny song about mooning) and Tommy Bracco as Sonny La Tierri. Kat Nejat is a Latin firecracker as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, and Joey Sorge as Vince Fontaine conveys the smooth smarminess of a radio dee-jay barely out of high school himself! And as Eugene, Sean Patrick Doyle is the quintessential nerd; he may look awkward, but boy, can he dance!

The other star of the production is scenic designer Derek McLane, who has fashioned a fabulous set of bubblegum pink, black, aqua, checkerboardpatterns and stainless steel so prominent in the burger joints and drive-ins of the era. Two “drops” remind us of such high school icons as the yearbook and athletic banners; another elicits memories of Big Boy Burgers, Whistle Soda Pop, Elsie the Cow and Texaco. Framed by lighted arches reminiscent of a juke box, the production is a visual knock-out!

Director Goldstein's nonstop pace keeps the audience from noticing some of the troubling subjects I mentioned earlier. Thomas Charles LeGalley's colorful costumes, Leah J. Loukas's wigs, and Joann M. Hunters energetic choreography complete the period picture.

The original production of Grease ran on Broadway for 3,358 performances, launched many Hollywood careers, spawned a movie version (released twice) and a sequel, and has become a cultural icon of its own. Since its première in a Chicago barn, the play has been performed the world over, and a PG-13 version has become a staple of high school drama clubs and community theaters. Its reputation is well-earned, for Grease provides great fun, great nostalgia and a great evening of musical theater, especially when performed as well as Paper Mill Playhouse does it. It’s a treat for the whole family, but be aware that some of the language, physical movement (suggestive hip thrusting) and themes are a bit coarse for the little ones (and over their heads).

Grease will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through June 29. For performance information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit online at www.PaperMill.org.
Photos by Jerry Dalia.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: ‘Barnum’ at the Chatham Community Players

Barnumbig


Guest Review By Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)
Back in the 19th century (and in the early part of the 20th), bored youth sought to escape the confines of their small towns by running away and joining the circus—thanks to the touring shows promoted by sideshow entrepreneur Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810–1880). Operating on the premise that "there is a sucker born every minute," this self-described "Prince of Humbug " managed to fleece the American public with such oddities as the Feejee Mermaid; a man standing only 25 inches tall whom he called General Tom Thumb; the Oldest Woman in the World, Joyce Heth; and the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, among others. His particular brand of flimflam was especially attractive to hard-working, provincial people starved for novelty and excitement.
It is that love of novelty and excitement that animates the Barnum being performed by the Chatham Community Players as their final offering of the 2013-2014 theatrical season. With a book by Mark Bramble, lyrics by Michael Stewart and music by Cy Coleman, this musical graced the Broadway stage from 1980 to 1982, starring Jim Dale as Barnum and Glenn Close as his wife Charity (Chairy). It has never been revived in the United States since (although a film was made of it in 1986), nor has it been performed much, if at all, by community theaters. One glance at this production makes the reason clear.
One_Brick_At_A_TimeCovering the years 1835–1880,Barnum recounts the rise of Phineas Taylor Barnum as he builds an empire of spectacle, still alive in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus that comes to Madison Square Garden each year. Against the wishes of his New England schoolteacher wife Chairy, Barnum rejects a job in a Bridgeport, Connecticut, clock factory in lieu of promoting his exhibits of sideshow freaks. As he rises, he builds Barnum's American Museum (right, “One Brick at a Time”); when that goes up on literal flames, he rebounds by becoming the manager of the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, whom he accompanies on tour, abandoning Chairy at home. Realizing that his wife is the true love of his life, he returns to Bridgeport, assumes a traditional job, runs for political office. Upon discovering that he has been humbugged by his own political party, he returns to his former calling at the urging of James A. Bailey to form the Barnum & Bailey Circus that toured the country and enticed those young people to run off and join the circus.
ClownsA musical about the circus has to presentthe circus, and that means physical tricks, acrobatics, clowns and magic—all the things one would expect to see at such a spectacle—posing a high hurdle for any director. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Jeffrey Fiorello has gathered a talented group of singers, dancers and circus-type performers to turn the little black box Chatham Playhouse into a rousing, exciting circus, no mean feat, that!
Chris_AbbottTo the accompaniment of a five piece band, the actors inBarnum cavort around the small stage and sing and dance to a fare-thee-well. Christopher Abbott (right) is singularly terrific as Barnum, wise to what he's up to (he even names his different forms of humbug: marital, educational, for example) and sly, he commands the entire production with his agility, fine voice and great stage presence. He is complemented by Kathleen Campbell Jackson (below) as his wife Chairy, whose more somber esthetic clashes with his more flamboyant ("The Colors of My Life). But her longing for more traditional life does not make her character a stick-in-the-mud; Jackson's looks and beautiful smile make manifest the reasons Barnum loves and respects her so much. It doesn't hurt that her magnificent voice soars to the rafters, especially in her duets with Abbott.
CharityMichael Healy is an imperious Ringmaster, calling the shots as the times and venues change; his magic tricks before the show entrance the audience. The rest of the cast performs as an ensemble. Standouts include Ray Guy as General Tom Thumb; although he's more than two feet tall, Guy's lithe body and strong voice convince us, if not Barnum, that "Bigger Isn't Better." Sarah Kuhns has great fun as Jenny Lind, singing in Swedish and learning enough English to wow the American audience. Shannon Ludlum really rocks the blues in "Black and White," in addition to appearing as a clown and dancer. The rest of the large cast provides ample and able support as a variety of minor characters while the ensemble of dancers, acrobats, jugglers and plate/hat twirlers keep the spectacle energy high as they perform Megan Ferentinos' energetic and inventive choreography.
Come_Follow_The_BandRichard Hennessy's lighting is spot on (pun intended); Joe Devico's sound and Tish Lum's props and set decoration round out Andrea Sickler's scenic artistry to transport us to the circus. Fran Harrison is to be complimented for her lush and very appropriately garish costume design, along with Raven Dunbar and Jessica Phelan for their wigs and make-up. (Left, “Come Follow the Band”)
Barnum celebrates "the noble art of humbug" involved in a "fight to the finish" with truth, as PT himself puts it. Kudos to Chatham Community Players for undertaking this little-performed piece of musical theater. So come on out and "join the circus like you wanted to when you were a kid," but this time, don't forget to bring the kids.
Barnum will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through May 24. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.
P.S. As youngsters, my two daughters saw the show on Broadway and loved it. On the telephone this morning, the younger one sang “The Museum Song” from start to finish, very fast, which is quite a feat since it is a real tongue-twister (“Not a lotta Roman terracotta, livin’ lava from the flanks of Etna….”)! I was amazed that she remembered the lyrics!
Guest Review by Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)


Friday, May 9, 2014

Review: ‘Forever Plaid’ at the Bickford 

Reviewed By Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)*
long time ago, B.E. – B.R.R. (Before Elvis and Before Rock n’ Roll), before there were In Sync and The Backstreet Boys, the leading “boy groups” of popular music included the Four Aces, the Four Freshmen, the Four Lads, the Four Tops and the Four Plaids.
The Four Plaids? Well, although they weren’t all that famous—not famous or real, really—the group has been immortalized by Stuart Ross in Forever Plaid,now being performed at the Bickford Theatre in Morristown.
silhouette for final poseThe operative word here is “immortalized,” for the basic premise of the show is that while en route to pick up their custom-made plaid tuxedos, a quartet of boy group wannabes from eastern Pennsylvania has been killed by a bus loaded with Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see the Beatles’ debut performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Although their lives have ended, a miracle of astrotechnology has given the group a chance, 50 years later, to perform the show they never got to do in life. (Above L-R: John Anker Bow, Daniel Peter Vissers, Robert Farruggia and David Murgittroyd)
What ensues is a nearly two-hour trip down Memory Lane, as the group performs “covers” of such fifties pop hits as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Moments to Remember,” “No, Not Much” (bottom photo)  and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” (middle photo). They even manage to mangle the Beatles' "She Loves You," performed Doo Wop style! And their clunky footwork (choreographed with appropriate cheesiness by Scott McGowan, himself a former Plaid), awkward patter and wavering harmonies remind us of their amateur status, but their passion and enthusiasm win our hearts as we sing along.
Individually, each of the four actors is winning and talented; as a group, they’re dynamite. Robert Farruggia as the tenor Jinx wears a "deer in the headlights" look through most of the performance, but he sure can sing. Daniel Peter Vissers plays Frankie a la Valli; he's the de facto leader of the group and the most personable of the four. David Murgittroyd is a wide-eyed naïf as Sparky, and John Anker Bow's Smudge ably sings bass and contributes some patter to bridge the musical numbers. Nick DeGregorio on piano and John Hoesly on bass provide terrific accompaniment, and Eric Hafen’s direction is natural and steady (those dead spots are intentional, folks).
Splendored ThingThe Plaids do manage some pretty fancy footwork in “Gotta Be This or That,” and bring down the house singing “Crazy ‘bout Ya, Baby,” using plungers instead of microphones (they’ve only practiced it that way)! Farruggia's rendition of Johnny Ray’s “Cry” is right on the money, and Bow's deep bass resonantly drives “Sixteen Tons” and “Chain Gang.” In “Heart and Soul” three Plaids sing the lyrics as Farruggia plays the piano (bet you didn’t know that piano ditty had words!), and the group even drags an audience member onstage to play the top part (the melody) on the piano, with a little help from the boys. Murgittroyd is especially funny in “Perfidia” when he sings the words in high school Spanish! Other funny moments include a whirlwind Ed Sullivan Show, featuring Senor Wences and the mouse Topo Gigio, a tribute to Perry Como entitled “The Golden Cardigan,” and a Calypso medley complete with outrageous straw hats and an audience sing-along to "Matilda."
No, Not MuchThere’s not much that’s original inForever Plaid, and some of it’s plain cheesy, but that’s just the point. In fact, as Frankie notes, their sound is to contemporary (1959) music as "Formica is to marble." It’s great fun to hear these oldies again, kind of like entering a time warp, but without the zits and dateless nights. Best of all, these songs remind us of a time when music really meant harmonic melodies and lyrics about love and yearning—a far cry from the misogynistic, homophobic rap and heavy metal that passes for music today. There is a reason public television uses Doo Wop and Fifties concerts to raise money! (Above: Back, Vissers, Farruggia; Front, Bow, Murgittroyd)
So for a tuneful evening that will produce a big smile, tear yourself away from the rotten news on television, grab your best guy or gal, and drive on over to the Bickford Theatre for Forever Plaid. With “a pocketful of starlight” (and a few shekels), you will have "moments to remember." And get a load of those plaid tuxedos!  Ruth Ross
Forever Plaid will be performed at the Bickford Theatre, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown, through May 25. For performance information and tickets, call the box office at 973.971.3706. Online ticketing is not available.
*Note: Rick Busciglio is ‘on medical leave’ (i.e. unable to review at this time). Reviews are being kindly provided by Ruth Ross and Michael T. Mooney

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: Chester Theatre Group's hilarious production of 'Spelling Bee'


Sheila and OreoGuest Reviewer: Sheila Abrams (njartsmaven.com)


There is only one weekend left for you to get to the Black River Playhouse in Chester, to see the ChesterTheatre Group’s hilarious production ofThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. If you are lucky enough to get a seat, it will be well worth the effort.

Roseann Ruggiero has directed a tight-knit, fast-moving, raucous show guaranteed to leave the audience giggling. The show, which opened on Broadway in 2005, is a beautiful example of what the 21st century musical theater is. What it isn’t is OklahomaOr Man of La Mancha. Or in fact any of the 20th century classics. Not that it’s necessarily better. But it is absolutely different!

There isn’t really a plot. The situation into which the audience is thrust is a spelling bee in an unspecified county, which the flexible nature of the script leaves moveable. In the CTG version, a parent who is late to arrive is described as being tied up on the Pulaski Skyway. In a different production, he might be in a traffic jam on the Beltway or in some other appropriate local spot.
The competitors are middle schoolers, each with aback story and a lot of funny quirks. One girl, with the compound name, Loggaine Schwartzandgrubenniere (Becky Nitka) is the offspring of two fathers and the head of the gay-straight alliance at her school. Another, William Barfee, pronounced “Bar-fay,” as he says over and over (Zach Mazouat) is a classic nerd who traces each word on the floor with his “magic” foot. Poor Chip Tolentino (Esteban Vazquez), a favorite based on past performance, has what we might call a biological malfunction which causes him a major distraction when his turn comes. (Above: (top row): Christina Pirog, Ethan Lynch; (middle row): Zach Mazouat, Becky Nitka; (bottom): Allie Acquafredda.)

The back stories of these three and three more, each a classic pre-adolescent misfit in one way or another, make up the body of the show. Each has a scene in the spotlight, and a song. They are joined by a handful of other competitors, volunteers drawn from the audience beforehand, who get some laughs before they are eliminated from the competition.
Then there are the adults. Running the bee are Rona Lisa Perretti (Barbara Haag), whose moment of glory was to win a bee some years past. In the key position of the giver of words is Vice Principal Douglas Panch (David Romankow). He is also charged with giving a definition and the word’s origin, and using it in a sentence. This provides much of the show’s hilarity. A third “official” is Mitch Mahoney (Michael McEntee), who is doing community service, comforting the losers and serving as a sort-of unofficial enforcer. In a cast of accomplished musical performers, McEntee’s gorgeous singing voice stands out.

The choice of words for the competition is hilarious. The definitions and use in sentences are even funnier. But the delivery is the best. At one point, things speed up and the performers’ voices rise in pitch as if they are a recording played at the wrong speed. The speed and the pitch come way down a minute later, as if things are moving in slow motion.
Also delivering marvelous performances in what amounts to a brilliant ensemble cast are Allie Acquafredda as Olive, a girl with absent parents; Ethan Lynch as Leaf Coneybear, a boy who is only there because some btter spellers had somewhere else to go; and Christina Pirog as Marcy Park, an overachiever who asks Jesus for permission to be less than perfect. (Above: (L-R): Allie Acquafredda, Michael McEntee, Barbara Haag, Ethan Lynch, David Romankow, Becky Nitka and Zach Mazouat.)

The songs, with music and lyrics by William Finn, are good and advance the plotline but are not memorable. The lyrics impressed more than the music. Rachel Sheinkin wrote the book and deserves a trophy for the wit of her words. The production was accompanied by an orchestra of 5 under the direction of Tracy Lee Witko. Billy Brisley was the choreographer.
This show is a delight. I tend to think much of the humor would be beyond the reach of children and I would not recommend it for the pre-teen set. Teens, though, would probably enjoy it. For reservations and schedule information, call 908.879.7304.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Review: Thornton Wilder's classic 'Our Town' at George Street Playhouse



Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney on Friday, April 25th at 8:00pm

OUR TOWN has come home - literally. Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered in New Jersey at McCarter Theatre at Princeton University in 1938. Now, more than 75 years later, the timeless classic is onstage at George Street Playhouse in an inaugural partnership with nearby Rutgers University. Although Wilder set his meditation on life and death in a fictional New Hampshire town called Grover's Corners, he earned his master's degree from Princeton and taught school in nearby Lawrenceville. He set his 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winner “The Skin of Our Teeth” completely in the Garden State.

OUR TOWN hardly needs introduction. It has been performed across the globe on stages large and small practically non-stop since its premiere. Chances are you have seen a production somewhere at sometime. But the magic of Wilder's masterwork is that despite being set just after the turn of the last century it somehow seems timeless. Examining small town life before the advent of technology and industrialization, Wilder created a play told without scenery, without props, and even without much in the way of plot. The events of life are his subject – and the miracle of his writing is that three quarters of a century of progress hasn't rendered the script dated or quaint. The play is divided into three acts: daily life, love and marriage, and death. As one character so aptly puts it “My, isn't life awful - and wonderful.”

George Street Playhouse's new production is certainly the latter. Director David Esbjornson wisely eschews directorial trickery to present a clean, concise and ultimately traditional OUR TOWN that manages to fulfill Wilder's mission of being palpably modern while simultaneously recalling a lost time and place. In order to meld Rutgers with New Brunswick's Theatre Row, Esbjornson (chair of the University’s Theatre Program) has recruited a fine cast featuring Rutgers alumni, current students, and theater veterans led by Tony winner Boyd Gaines. As the Stage Manger, Gaines lends a quiet gravitas to the proceedings, his centered authority always emanating a respect for the material and his great privilege to share it with us. The Stage Manager is essentially Wilder himself. The author even played the role on Broadway for a fortnight in 1938. The entire ensemble is uniformly excellent, but Aaron Ballard stands out as Emily, arguably the show's leading character. Ballard's Emily is a refreshingly simple creation. A gawky country girl, not completely comfortable in her own skin, but terribly earnest in intention.

Ending their 40th Anniversary Season, this long-awaited 'town and gown' partnership between George Street and Rutgers has created a new theater community – and community is one of Wilder's chief themes. Esbjornson brilliantly reinforces those themes with subtle touches. Act Two's nuptials are set amid the orchestra section, involving us, the audience, in a way that never seems forced or gimmicky. Scott Zielinski's lighting casts a warm amber glow over us as we bear witness to this important event in Emily's life. As a nod toward timelessness, stars are frequently mentioned in OUR TOWN. 

Toward that end, bare bulbs hang above both stage and auditorium lending added poignancy to lines like“The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, – doesn't it?” Esbjornson also wisely directs his cast away from huge 'Pepperidge Farm' accents that mar lesser TOWNs with too much specificity. This Grover's Corners might be New Brunswick, Princeton, or your town. Mid-way through they play, Wilder has one of the town's youngest citizens muse on their place in the world: “Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” Specific and universal – that's the brilliance of OUR TOWN and in aim this production excels. Visit Grover's Corners at George Street Playhouse now through May 25th.


The George Street Playhouse at 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Review:'Motherhood Out Loud' at Dreamcatcher in Summit


Reviewed by Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)

Just as mothers and their children come in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and temperaments, so too does the experience of motherhood. That is the premise of Motherhood Out Loud, a collection of short playlets about the joys, sorrows and perplexities of this singular state experienced by half the world's population, currently being performed by Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre at the Oakes Center in Summit.

Conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein and directed by company member Harry Patrick Christian, Motherhood Out Loud is organized around five themes: Fast Births, First Day, Sex Talk, Stepping Out and Coming Home. The program features the work of Leslie Ayvazian, David Cale, Jessica Goldberg, Beth Henley, Lameece Issaq, Claire LaZebnik, Lisa Loomer, Michele Lowe, Marco Pennette, Theresa Rebeck, Luanne Rice, Anne Weisman, Cheryl L. West and Brooke Berman, work that is both hilarious and heartbreaking and shatters the standard notions of what it means to be a mother.

Switching accents and stances as easily as scarves and jackets, Dreamcatcher company members Scott McGowan, Harriett Trangucci, Laura Ekstrand and Nicole Callendar assume multiple roles to convey the joys and sadness that come with being a parent. All do such a fine job that it is difficult to single any one out for superior work.

Ekstrand (left, with Nicole Callender, center, and Harriett Trangucci, right) is magnificent as the mom who deals with her son's wanting to dress up as Queen Esther for a Purim celebration ("Queen Esther" by Michele Lowe) and completely convincing as a woman who has to deal with her boyfriend's teenage children ("My Almost Family" by Luanne Rice). Trangucci nails it as the adoptive mother of a Chinese daughter ("Baby Bird" by Theresa Rebeck)) confronting the "minefields" of that role. She also conveys very well the angst of the mother whose an autistic son is going on his first date ("Michael's Date" by Claire LaZebnik). Hilariously, Callender shows that being a Muslim mother isn't very different from the rest of us ("Nooha's List" by Lameece Isaaq), but it's her role as the mother of a young soldier in Afghanistan ("Stars and Stripes" by Jessica Goldberg) that grabs the heart of everyone in the audience; preparing for the notice of her son's death, every day, is crippling and very poignant.

And McGowan's portrayal of the gay dad ("If We're Using a Surrogate, How Come I'm the One with Morning Sickness" by Marco Pennette) is spot on: With humor and truth, he prepares his young daughter for the "brave new world" where she will have to deal with people who want to know where her mommy is (right). And revealing the difficulties of dealing with an aging mother in "Elizabeth" by David Cale, McGowan warmly conveys the love that will help him (and her) get through it.

Each of the five sections is preceded by a dramatic fugue, wherein the four actors recount an aspect of the subject to come. Written by Michele Lowe, these funny yet serious snippets act as the perfect set-up for what follows. Director Christian wisely broke up the final piece, "My Baby" by Anne Weisman, into four parts to bring the evening to a satisfactory end. The photographs of each actor's mother provide a lovely conclusion to an exciting performance.

Lighting by Zach Pizza signifies scene and mood changes; Laura Ekstrand's costumes—actually black pants/shirts/skirt—are transformed by the addition of a scarf, shawl, jacket or tee shirt; And Dave Maulbeck's Spartan scenery (really just a pair of boxes on a platform) provides a variety of minimal, though more than adequate, settings. Jeff Knapp's unobtrusive sound design further enhances the production.

Once again, Dreamcatcher Rep has brought to us the New Jersey Premiere of an important, albeit offbeat, work. Motherhood Out Loud reveals the comedy that accompanies the seriousness of life and celebrates the personal truths that span and unite generations. So whether you are a mother-to-be, a new mom, an empty-nester, a grandma or a great-grandmother—or the spouse, child or male friend of one of the above—you will enjoy yourself and think about Motherhood Out Loud long after you've left the theater. I know I have!
Motherhood Out Loud will be performed by Dreamcatcher Rep at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Avenue, Summit, through Sunday, May 11. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call 1.800.838.3006 or visit online at www.dreamcatcherrep.org.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reviews: Two New plays on New Jersey Stages-'A View of The Mountains' and 'Marry Harry'    Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney on April 26, 2014


There's an old saying in the theater that “good plays are not just written – but rewritten.” That axiom is sure to hold true for two new shows on Jersey stages this week, each at a different phase of their all-important development process.

The state's most valuable resource in introducing new plays is undoubtedly Long Branch's New Jersey Repertory Company. This cultural gem at the Jersey shore is currently offering up the world premiere of A VIEW OF THE MOUNTAINS by Lee Blessing. While many NJ Rep playwrights are new writers, Blessing is a veteran. His most famous play, A WALK IN THE WOODS, was nominated for a 1989 Tony Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. MOUNTAINS is not exactly a sequel to WOODS, but it does continue the story of one of its characters, Reagan-era arms negotiator John Honeyman.

We catch up with Honeyman (John Little) just before a big national election. A right-wing Presidential candidate is about to nominate a conservative Tennessee senator as his running mate. It just so happens that the senator, Will Branch (John Zlabinger), is also his estranged son. Liberal Honeyman will stop at nothing to stem the Republican tide, including the possibility of blackmailing his son with a long-buried family secret. He invites Branch to his wife Ilsa's (Katrina Ferguson) Catskills estate to make him an offer he surely can't refuse. Branch brings along his scheming wife Gwynn (Eva Kaminsky) for support and security - literally.

The premise of MOUNTAINS has great potential for political and familial fireworks. But director Evan Bergman often allows the play to devolve into Jerry Springer-like antics. The main cause for derailment is the character of Gwynn; an offensive, shrieking, shrew who immediately frisks her hosts with a metal detector and then confiscates the refreshments to test for poisons. She verbally assaults her in-laws with a barrage of outrageous remarks that would cause any reasonable person to show her the door, if not the back of their hand. The character might have been reminiscent of Claire Underwood of TV's “House of Cards” - an iron fist in a velvet glove. But Bergman and Kaminsky take a less subtle route, one that has audiences rooting for her to be thrown off the nearest Catskill mountain. Her disruptive shenanigans take precious time 
Katrina Ferguson and John Little (photo S, Barabas)
away from the far more interesting father/son – and later husband/wife – dynamics. When the 70-minute play briefly concentrates on these relationships, it shows promise – especially in scenes involving Ferguson, one of New Jersey's busiest actresses, who is terrific as Ilsa.

But let's remember that this play is still in its infancy and infants are sometimes messy, frequently loud, and often behave inappropriately. Under strong 'parental' guidance from Blessing, MOUNTAINS may indeed grow into something respectable, if not quite remarkable.

At New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch and will run through May 25, 2104For tickets, contact the NJ Rep Box Office at 732-229-3166 or visit www.njrep.org

A child at a much later stage of maturity is American Theater Group's new musical MARRY HARRY,which is enjoying a superb New Jersey premiere at the pristine Hamilton Stage in Rahway, a new venue of the Union County Performing Arts Center. 

As the title might suggest, MARRY HARRY is an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love story. Set in New York City today, the musical follows Little Harry (Howie Michael Smith) who works at his dad Big Harry's (Danny Rutigliano) failing restaurant while secretly hoping to land a coveted job with celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich. In the meantime, he falls in love-at-first-sight with recently jilted Sherri (Jillian Louis), whose doting mom Francine (April Woodall) is the restaurant's landlord. In addition to money woes, Big Harry also has relationship issues with long-term girlfriend and business partner Debby (Michele Ragusa). Before you can say 'homemade biscotti' Little Harry and Sherri are hastily headed for the altar. Complications ensue, naturally.  

The tuneful new score by Dan Martin and Michael Biello is a lot like the aforementioned biscotti – sweet, satisfying and easily digested. If all this sounds terribly conventional – it is. Delightfully so! Book writer Jennifer Robbins inserts a modern sensibility, but it is really the uniformly excellent cast that grounds MARRY HARRY and keeps it consistently entertaining. 

Director Kent Nicholson never forgets that the most important ingredient in this character-driven show is chemistry and toward that end he has assembled a first rate cast. Howie Michael Smith and Jillian Louis are bright and attractive nearly thirty-somethings – just as delightful to watch fall 'head over heals' as they are to listen to when they sing about it. As Big Harry and Debby, Danny Rutigliano and Michele Ragusa match them witty word for word and notable note for note. There isn't a finer musical theater character actress than Ragusa, who infuses every moment with expert comic timing and nuance. 

It's obvious that the development process has fine-tuned MARRY HARRY, an old-fashioned musical about falling in love. The result is a heart-felt love letter to musical comedy. Performances continue through May 11 at Hamilton Stage in Rahway. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: ‘Glorious’ MY FAIR LADY with Glory Crampton at Algonquin Arts Theatre, Manasquan NJ


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Review by Michael T. Mooney (papermoon4@aol.com)

“Glory days have returned to the Jersey Shore! Not Springsteen, but Crampton. Nationally known stage and recording star Glory Crampton (photo below) is currently lighting up Manasquan's Algonquin Arts Theatre as Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY. New Jerseyans can be forgiven for having a moment of deja vu. Crampton starred in the classic Lerner and Loewe musical for the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse in 2002. A dozen years later, her 'squashed cabbage leaf' of a Cockney flower girl seems even more 'delightfully downtrodden', more 'deliciously dirty' (as her tutor Henry Higgins calls her).

In the musical's memorable opening scene, she whines noisily as a passerby jostles her flowers to the pavement. “Two bunches o' violets trod in the mud!” Crampton's Eliza is a lot like those violets: sooty and bedraggled from her encounter with the streets, but a delicate beauty none-the-less. Singing the wistful “Wouldn't It Be Loverly?” it becomes apparent that Eliza has had to toughen up in order to fit in with the rough and tumble costermongers and chimney sweeps that dominate her world. Her remarkable transformation to a cultured, well-spoken lady of society never lets us forget the 'downtrodden violet' within – subtly reminding us of her humble roots while simultaneously looking downright smashing in her tiara and glittering ball gown. Crampton cleverly avoids the trap of playing Eliza as two separate characters, concentrating instead on her conflicted transition.

MyFairLady2014To bring Crampton's creation to the edge of glory [okay, I'll stop], the Manasquan theatre has wisely re-united her with director Robert Johanson. Johanson staged the 2002 Paper Mill production as the finale to his remarkable 20-year run as the Playhouse's artistic director. During his tenure, Johanson created opulent re-stagings of musicals that are still fondly recalled by New Jersey theater-goers. Ten of those starred the talented Crampton. His staging skills work amazing magic in Manasquan, inspiring his community-based cast to heights of glory [last one, I promise]. He has also attracted top-notch production designers, including the sumptuous costumes of Greg Poplyk and Jacquie Revier.

It would seem impossible to improve upon the original iconic designs of Cecil Beaton for the lavish “Ascot Gavotte” but Poplyk's subtle infusion of a touch of fuchsia does just that. While inspiring cast and crew to professional caliber artistry, Johanson also tackles the leading role of Eliza's muse, Henry Higgins. His intimate knowledge of the show extends to his portrayal of the smug yet oddly endearing Professor.

Overall, this production incorporates many of the clever visual images and wise edits used in previous stagings, several successfully borrowed from the 1964 film version. Without giving it away, the musical's final fade-out strikes a clever compromise between the embattled Eliza and Higgins that will satisfy modern audiences without betraying the original. Perhaps most refreshing are the brisk scenic transitions, something that can easily weigh down a less-inspired FAIR LADY.

Considering the resources at hand, Johanson works a kind of theatrical miracle on the Algonquin stage. But in the end it is the heaven-sent Crampton who makes Eliza's three-hour journey seemingly fly by. Her soaring voice and unflinchingly honest performance is simply 'loverly'. [You thought I was going to say 'glorious', didn't you?] “

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney  March 22ndat 8pm (papermoon4@aol.com)

MY FAIR LADY plays through March 30th at Algonquin Arts Theatre, 173 Main Street, Manasquan, NJ.

Remaining DatesThursday, March 27 – 7:30 p.m.
Friday, March 28 – 8 p.m.
Saturday, March 29 – 2 & 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 30 – 3 p.m.

Tickets:
Premium: $36 (Adults), $33 (Seniors), $25 (Students)
Regular: $29 (Adults), $26 (Seniors), $18 (Students)
Group discounts for 10 or more tickets to the same performance.
Algonquin Arts Box Office: 732-528-9211 or algonquinarts.org
All tickets subject to $2 per ticket fee.

Note: Glory Crampton photo from Paper Mill Playhouse production

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Review: ‘Run For Your Wife’ hilarious at Barn Theatre in Montville


RunForYourWife_BarnTheatre
If you are like me and think "Noises Off" is one of the funniest comedies of all time, are you in for a major treat at the Barn Theatre in Montville. This award winning community theatre with a long history of producing plays the equal of many professional companies including much of Off-Broadway, is currently presenting an absolutely hilarious production of the adult British farce "Run For Your Wife" written by Ray Cooney and directed by Chris Mortenson. The play, loaded with a heavy dose of political incorrectness (1980's gay stereotypes), was a huge success in London's West End running from 1983 to 1991. It was less successful on Broadway and later as a film in 2012.

Director Mortenson is actually more of a ringmaster....demonstrating considerable skill in keeping the action, and the actors, moving at a fast clip in this wild adventure with almost non-stop laughter. The plot is relatively uncomplicated, but the clever, amusing way confusion is piled on confusion is a total joy.

​The excellent cast includes: Lauren Klemp, Joe Wohlgemuth, Tom Morrisey, Ruth Morley, Dave McDonald, Chris Esmerado, Jonathan Rudolph and Craig Zimmermann.​​

John Smith (Tom Morrisey​)​ ​is a London taxi driver AND a bigamist. Smith is able to ​manage​ having two wives Mary​ ​(Ruth Morley) and Barbara (Lauren Klemp) ​due to his flexible work schedule and the cross town distance he is able to keep between the two households.

​His ​"idyllic" arrangement is seriously challenged when he attempts to rescue an old lady from muggers. In the process of committing this heroic act, she knocks him unconscious with her handbag thinking him an accomplice of the attackers.

 This requires an overnight stay in a hospital ward. In the morning, both wives simultaneously call their local police stations to report the missing Taxi driver John Smith. Now the fun begins! The press want to publish his story with a front page picture, plus the police from both stations (Dave McDonald and Craig Zimmerman) arrive at both flats to "sort out" the confusion of a man with two addresses. Smith​ must rush back and forth between his two wives, trying to untangle the marital mess he has made.​

​"Run For Your Wife" is pure fun. A nonstop roller coaster ride with marvelous performances from the "spot-on" Tom Morrisey ​ as the stressed-out Taxi driver​ John Smith. Morrisey is particularly hilarious in his resourcefulness in destroying the revealing newspaper photo. First wife: Mary Smith is beautifully played by Ruth Morley. Morley is in top form when she skips, screams and strips as her world is turned upside down. The Second wife: Barbara Smith is played by Lauren Klemp making an impressive Barn Theatre debut as Smith's ready-for-sex "Lady in Red".....red negligee, that is.

​Much of the humor comes from the inter play of Smith and his​ ​moronic upstairs neighbor, the unemployed Stanley Gardener ​Gardener​, who​ reluctantly aid​s in ​Smith's​ deception​ is ​Jonathan Rudolph. Rudolph​, ​coming off two notable performances at The Barn (God of Carnage and Lend Me A Tenor) nicely demonstrates his considerable comedic skills. ​​Craig Zimmerman impresses with his tailored, efficient, toothpick between-the-teeth, all business style as Detective Sergeant Troughton. The second policeman, Detective Sergeant Porterhouse is played by Dave McDonald who earns a goodly share of the laughs with his fun bit-of-a-bumbler performance. Joe Wohlgemuth is terrific in the role of Barbara Smith's new upstairs neighbor, the very gay, Bobby Franklin.​ Rounding out the cast is Christopher Esmerado as the highly intrusive newspaper photographer. This is Chris' first effort at The Barn.

"Run For Your Wife" may be a dated play (1980's),​​ but the mix-up comedy format works very well today in the hands of this talented cast and crew. You have until April 5 to see this laugh-a-minute production.

​The play is performed on one attractive interior living room set divided equally​ to represent the two Smith flats (Right: Mary Smith, Left: Barbara Smith) with design and construction by Lawrence Gabriel and crew, plus decor by Laura Kennedy and Joe Guadara. Other key credits: Jill Cappuccino props; Jeff Knapp sound design; Alexandra Kiely costume design; Jessica Phelan hair and makeup; Larry Wilbur lighting design; Omar Kozarsky lighting and sound operation; and Alice Regan-Moynahan stage manager.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio March ​​16, 2014 

​We give the final word to Director Chris Mortenson:

"​Before the age of the Internet, iPhones, iPads and all the rest of these electronic labor saving devices that we are blessed with in 2014, life was much simpler.. .Well if this show is any indication, maybe not simpler but definitely more innocent. Okay, maybe not that either. Different, let's stick with that, life was different. Back when you were tethered to a wall whenever you wanted to make a phone call, and when keeping a daily planner meant you actually had to write things down in a book. In reality, the story of Run For Your Wife would be practically inconceivable given today's technology. Our poor taxi driving hero, with all his secrets, would most likely be exposed by page five, rather than lasting an entire two acts. The political incorrectness throughout the play is at times shocking to the sensitive 2014 mindset.

How many derogatory terms for one group of people can you possibly use in one sitting? But at the end of the day this is a comedy; and not just any comedy, but a British Farce. Such intellectual thoughts have no place here. We are not meant to try and make sense of this, to try and understand the overtones and underlying meanings behind such events. We are simply meant to laugh. That is this play's sole purpose. To paraphrase an expert on the subject, one Mr. Roger Rabbit: this play's whole purpose in life is.. .to. . .make.....people........laugh. And so in the grand theatrical tradition I offer you this: "Playgoers, I bid you welcome. The theater is a temple and we are here to worship the gods of Comedy and Tragedy. Tonight I am pleased to announce a comedy. We shall employ every device we know in our desire to divert you."

The Barn Theatre is located at 32 Skyline Drive in Montville, NJ, just minutes off Route 287 (Exit 47). For more information or directions, call 973-334-9320 ext. 5, or visitwww.barntheatre.org

Performances will be on March 14, 21, 22, 28, 29 and April 4th and 5th 2014 at 8 pm; and on March 15, 16, 23 and 30th at 2 pm. Tickets are $18 (senior/student tickets are $16 on matinees only). ​

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: ‘Good People’ superior theater at Chester Theatre Group


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The Chester Theatre Group's current production is Good People written by David Lindsay-Abaire (Fuddy Meers, Rabbit Hole and Shrek the musical) and directed by Cindy Alexander (CTG's Shirley Valentine). This is the first community theater  production of the play in New Jersey since the George Street Playhouse's acclaimed production in early 2013 (to our knowledge).
Lindsay-Abaire has written a remarkable play about the struggles of life in the blue collar, working class area of South Boston where he grew up and a local is called "Southie." The heroine-victim of Good People is Margaret, played by Perry award winner (New Jersey Community Theater Association's "Tony" —for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play-Shirley Valentine) Gloria Lamoureux (photo right).
GloriaLamoureux' touching, sensitive performance inGood People is truly outstanding. She may be on her way to another Perry. It is exciting to see how such a fine actress, with a superior, well directed, cast can light the stage and remind us of the magic that is unique to live theater.
A bit-of-the plot: Margaret is a 50-ish single mom, with a young adult handicapped daughter, who can barely pay her bills at the $9.25 per hour she earns as a cashier at a 'Dollar Value' store. As the play opens she is fired from the job for chronic tardiness, due to the lackadaisical attitude of her babysitter who also happens to be her landlady.
With the job options almost non-existent due to the recession, Margaret desperately seeks out, after 30 years, her high school sweetheart Mike now a successful and married Boston doctor in hopes of obtaining a position in his office....even cleaning if necessary. Each has a vastly different story of how they either climbed out of their original lower class world, as in the case of Mike, or remained trapped by circumstances, in Margaret's case, mostly beyond her control.
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In addition to Gloria Lamoureux as Margaret, the cast includes an impressive Matt Meier as Mike. He clearly does not want any reminders of the "southie" life he successfully escaped. Equally, impressive is the attractive, Kellei Cosby as Kate, Mike's troubled African-American wife who attempts to offer Margaret the help Mike withholds.  The very talented CTG favorite Ellen Fraker-Glasscock is having a fun turn as Dottie, Margaret's landlady, babysitter and bingo buddy. Claudia Metz is a comedy treat as Margaret's foul-mouthed best friend Jean; and young George Bierly is nicely making his debut at CTG as Stevie a young friend from the neighborhood and the "Dollar Value" store manager.
Director Alexander's creative team includes: Steve Catron who contributed the fine set design; Phil Lamoureux lighting design; Jeff Knapp sound design; Diane Butler producer; Barbara Haag, Beth Gleason and Karen Catron props; Colleen Lannigan stage manager; and Bob Longstreet and Jerry Lane lighting/sound operation.
Good People is a thoroughly satisfying, well-written, thought-provoking play that at its core is sad, but yet has many funny moments. It is hard not to look at Margaret without coming away wondering about our own life choices. This is a must-see-event.
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio March 15, 2014
The Chester Theatre Group's Good People will have five remaining public performances: March 21, 22, 28, 29 at 8 pm, and 30 at 2 pm
Tickets are $20 with a $2 discount available for seniors aged 65 and over and students under 18. Tickets can be reserved by calling the theater box office at908-879-7304 or by visiting www.chestertheatregroup.com.
Also of note: Good People is also the very first CTG sBlack-River-Playhouse-chesterhow to offer onlineticket purchasing via the group’s recently redesigned website.
The Chester Theatre Group's Black River Playhouse is located at 54 Grove Street in downtown Chester, NJ at the corner of Grove Street and Maple Avenue.

Group Photo: George Bierly, Gloria Lamoureux, Claudia Metz, Ellen Fraker-Glasscock (CTG supplied)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: Meredith Willson's ‘The Music Man’ with all African-American cast at Two River Theater and NJPAC


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Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney (papermoon4@aol.com3/15/14 at 8pm at Two River Theater, Red Bank NJ
In a first time collaboration between the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and Red Bank's Two River Theater, the groups have chosen to re-imagine Meredith Willson's 1957 Tony Award-winning classic “The Music Man” through an all African-American cast. The concept is not as quite as novel as you might think. Broadway has staged many African-American versions of best-loved shows, from the traditional “Hello, Dolly!” (1975) and “Guys and Dolls” (1976) to the more radically reinterpreted “Timbuktu” (1978), an adaptation of “Kismet.” Even more recently, a revival of the play “A Trip To Bountiful” won a 2013 Tony Award for its star Cicely Tyson. This visit to 1912 River City, Iowa, retains all the nostalgic charm of the original, but asks us to experience it in a slightly different context.
The program notes for this concert style “Music Man” remind us that although the fictional River City has previously been populated primarily by white characters, in reality there were many all African-American communities across the country during the turn of the last century. They were mostly formed by freed slaves looking to begin new lives in the heartland after the Civil War. Visually, the entire concert is set in a railroad car with the sign “Colored Passengers Only” prominently visible throughout. But that's where the re-imagining ends. The rest is more interpretation – both from audience and actors.
The musical has been strategically streamlined for a cast of 11 and an onstage musical ensemble of seven. Zaneeta Shinn and Tommy Djilas appear to have left town (ye gods!), but otherwise the talented cast easily handle doubling as the many 'River Citizens' (to quote Mayor Shinn) that the script demands.
isaih johnsonFast-talking salesman Harold Hill is played with a slick charm by Isaiah Johnson, his scarlet vest and bow tie setting him apart as a rabble rousing Troublemaker. (That's Troublemaker with a capital 'T'.) Marian, the prim but spunky librarian who falls under his spell, is portrayed by Stephanie Umoh. Her warm, dulcet tones more than do justice to the show's classic songs.
If nothing else, this concert staging allows Willson's grand and glorious score to take center stage – musically and literally. Given the concert's context, we can be forgiven for suddenly realizing that the á cappella opening number “Rock Island” may indeed be Broadway's first rap song! Listening with new eyes we also sense the Act One finale “The Wells Fargo Wagon” (an anthem to rural delivery) rise to something akin to revival meeting fervor. One can't help but hope that director Robert O'Hara and his creative staff are allowed to take this visceral re-imagining to the next level: a full production – here in New Jersey, of course! In the meantime, performances continue through March 23rd at NJPAC in Newark.
Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney (papermoon4@aol.com)
Performances in NJPAC’s Victoria Theater take place Friday, March 21 at 8pm; Saturday, March 22 at 3pm and 8pm; Sunday, March 23 at 3pm. Tickets, on sale now, are $59.50 and $69.50 and can be purchased atwww.njpac.org, by calling 1-888-GO-NJPAC or by visiting the box office at One Center Street in Downtown Newark.
These performances have been made possible in part by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, by funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and by Discover Jersey Arts.

Performances in Two River’s Rechnitz Theater were Thursday, March 13 at 8pm; Friday, March 14 at 8pm; Saturday, March 15 at 3pm and 8pm; and Sunday, March 16 at 3pm and 7pm.

Review: ‘I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti’ is one part ‘Shirley Valentine’ with a generous dollop of ‘Moonstruck’ at George Street Playhouse

Antoinette-LaVecchia_i-loved-i-lost-i-ate-spaghetti
Reviewed March 14 8 pm by guest contributor Michael T. Mooney(papermoon4@aol.com)
“With all due respect to the Diety – food is love. The connection between the dining room and the bedroom has been explored time and time again. But somehow the aptly-titled new play “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” now being served up at George Street Playhouse manages to make it all seem as fresh as homemade pasta. The one-woman play is based on a memoir of the same name by Giulia Melucci, adapted for the stage by Jacques LeMarre. Giulia (played by the irresistible Antoinette LaVecchia photos) not only gives us the lowdown on her failed relationships, but also actually cooks a three course Italian dinner in front of us while she does it! Along the way she serves up the meal to a fortunate few theatre-goers seated at onstage tables.
hc-lovedlostspaghetto-extends-run-20120619-001The recipe for this theatrical banquet is one part “Shirley Valentine” with a generous dollop of “Moonstruck” thrown in for local flavor. The entertaining result is as if Rachael Ray were on Dr. Phil – while cooking. There's no 'fourth wall' in Giulia's kitchen and LaVecchia remarkably maintains the delicate balance between stand-up comic and dramatic actress with ease, responding to her live audience without ever going too far off recipe (or script).
On opening night she humorously negotiated the line “Most of my friends are Irish and those people cannot dance” in front of an onstage table of visiting Irish dignitaries. Her timing is impeccable as she clinks her wine glass with a spoon when 'wedding bells' go off in her head listing the appealing qualities of her suitors. LaVecchia's Guilia is so good natured that it seems no amount of romantic rejection can spoil her mood – let alone her sauce. Even the words “I don't love you” fail to make her simmer for very long. She's such a resilient spirit that one wonders why she's remained single.
John Coyne's attractive set is more TV cooking show than Brooklyn 'cucina', but it helps keep the evening as current and recognizable as anything we might see on the Food Network. What the play itself might lack in dramatic spice is more than made up for by Ms. LaVecchia's 'abbondanza' of talent. Thanks to her, equal parts warmth and wit subtly flavor the evening and manage to elevate this culinary confessional from light repast to theatrical feast. Buon appetito!”  Michael T. Mooney (papermoon4@aol.com)
i lovedI Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti
Adapted by Jacques Lemarre from the memoir by Giulia Melucci-Directed by Rob Ruggiero-Starring Antoinette LaVecchia-March 11 – April 6, 2014
The Arthur Laurents Stage-George Street Playhouse • 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ
Box Office: 732-246-7717 • www.GSPonline.org

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