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2016 Reviews



Thursday, December 8, 2016

REVIEW: “A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES” RETURNS TO STNJ IN CHARMINGLY NOSTALGIC PRODUCTION



Reviewed By Ruth Ross 

In 2003, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey reprised their musical production of Dylan Thomas’s lovely prose poem, A Child’s Christmas in Wales (it had been performed in 1998 and 1999), which played to sold-out houses through the course of its run.

Well, after a hiatus of 13 years, the boys from Wales are back in a brand-new production, and none too soon. For it’s Christmas, and A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a most welcome addition to the theater scene, especially given the warp-speed, technology-driven life styles so prevalent today. For Christmas is all about tradition, nostalgic memories and family. Thanks to The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, we are privileged to share this day with the extended Thomas family in their “semi-detached” home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea. (Top, left to right: Peter Simon Hilton, Greg Jackson, John Ahlin, Andy Paterson, Alison Weller, Clemmie Evans and Carey Van Driest.)

Conceived as a memory play, this adaptation by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell captures the magic and wonder of a Christmas long past, celebrated in a small country across the Atlantic Ocean, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. The lilting poetry, classic Christmas carols and traditional Welsh folk tunes weave a whimsical and heart-warming holiday tale. Capturing the audience’s imagination early on, Thomas reminisces: “I can’t remember if it snowed six days and six nights the Christmas I was twelve or twelve days and twelve nights the Christmas I was six,” and the action is off and running!

The set by Jonathan Wentz evokes the narrator’s Swansea neighborhood, with its rows of dormers, the Thomas’s front door and the environs and bandstand of Cwmdonkin Park where the boys go to play. Wentz recreates the snug coziness of a Welsh home of the 1920's, against which director Joseph Discher and his talented actors bring Thomas’s mellifluous words to life.

Greg Jackson’s young Dylan is wide-eyed and full of hi-jinks as Christmas snow blows in from the sea. He moves smoothly from the adult Dylan Thomas, with his posh British accent, to a pre-adolescent lad sporting a thicker Welsh accent. Aided and abetted by childhood chums Tom (the versatile Seamus Mulcahy), Jim (Thomas Daniels) and Jack (Julian Blake Gordon), he hunts hippos, shots gangsters, annoys Smoky the park keeper (Patrick Toon), engages in a battle with the Town Hill Boys (who, played by children, don’t look all that scary) and annoys his cousins Brenda and Glenda to much merriment. Even though they are obviously young adults, the actors convincingly depict children. Cassandra Cushman and Alycia Kunkle are hilarious as Dylan’s much-hated female cousins. Kunkle is an especially feisty little girl, giving as good as she gets. (Above, left to right: Julian Blake Gordon, Greg Jackson, Seamus Mulcahy, and Thomas Daniels.)


The story’s adults are equally endearing. Peter Simon Hilton and Tina Stafford play Dylan’s loving parents with just the right amount of authority and indulgence. Hilton’s recollections of his childhood Christmases are especially touching. They are ably supported by Alison Weller as rum-tippling Auntie Hannah, John Ahlin as jolly Uncle Gwyn (He doubles as a tipsy Postman), Clemmie Evans (the only Welsh actor in the cast; she gets to tell a hair-raising ghost tale) as Aunt Nellie, Patrick Toon as dour complainer Uncle Tudyr and Tess Ammerman as aspirin-popping Aunt Bessie—all of whom gather in the Thomas house on Christmas Day. Carey Van Driest (below) is splendid as the sad spinster Aunt Elieri, who recites a stirring poem about the Welsh bard Taliesin. Andy Paterson (who played Dylan Thomas in the first three productions) gives the role of outspoken socialist Uncle Glyn just the right touch of humor and outrage. (Above: John Ahlin and Greg Jackson)
The music provides a counterpoint to Thomas’s highly original poetic language. Using tunes of familiar carols—with new lyrics suited to the events on stage—along with traditional folk music and a few new songs, Brooks and Mitchell remind us that the Welsh are a people enamored of music (they hold national singing competitions each year!) and that the Welsh language is lilting and musical. Musical director Robert Long, sound designer Steven Beckel and Director Discher have made the music an integral part of the action. Tristan Raines’ costumes and Rachel Miner Gibney’s lighting lend the play verisimilitude while conveying the idea that the events presented on stage are memories in the mind of a sensitive and imaginative lad. Stephen Gabis has coached the cast in the Welsh dialect; it all sounds very charming except when the actors are singing. Then, it’s a bit difficult to make out the words.

It’s good to welcome A Child’s Christmas in Wales to the stage of the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre. The current production preserves the freshness and vitality of Thomas's language to draw the audience into the poem and reveal the universality of the boy’s experiences. A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a perfect holiday outing for the whole family. Although we may be unfamiliar with the particulars of Thomas’s tale, we were all children once.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales will be performed at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison (on the campus of Drew University) through January 1, 2017. There are no performances on December 24 and 25. A post-play discussion with the cast and artistic staff will follow the 2 PM matinees on December 10 and December 17. Know the Show, a pre-show talk, will be held on Thursday, December 8, at 7 PM, with the show commencing at 8 PM.

The F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre is fully accessible with ramp access and an elevator to all floors. Wheelchair seating is available in both the orchestra and balcony sections. An infrared hearing device is available at all performances. For more information or to order tickets, call the box office at (973) 408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online. Group rates are available for groups of 10 or more.



Reviewed By Ruth Ross

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Thursday, December 8, 2016




REVIEW: PAPER MILL'S GLITZY, TUNEFUL, YET STATIC, “BODYGUARD” FAILS TO IGNITE DRAMATICALLY

Reviewed By Ruth Ross

In her short lifetime, Whitney Houston was a musical juggernaut, racking up two Emmy Awards, six Grammy Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards, among a total of 415 career awards before her untimely death in 2012. Each album was eagerly awaited, and her concerts drew huge adoring crowds. Her life was filled with drama. So how come The Bodyguard, The Musical, now receiving its North American premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse is so unsatisfying?

True, the production starts off with a (literal) bang and features plenty of glitz and glamour, but the story line is as thin as a dime, lacks a compelling dramatic arc and is ultimately boring. Too, while Houston’s hit songs may be toe-tapping and hip-swinging, stacking them up one after another only magnifies how alike they sound and how vapid the lyrics are.

Based on a 1992 romantic thriller of the same name (conceived as a vehicle for Houston), this version of The Bodyguard hews to the original plot. Superstar Rachel Marron is being stalked by a psychopath who leaves threatening notes in her dressing room and steals one of her costumes. To provide better security for Rachel and her young son Fletcher, her manager hires former Secret Service officer Frank Farmer, with whom she initially clashes over his constant monitoring of her movements and activities. After a night at a karaoke bar, the two antagonists find themselves in bed, and in love, much to the consternation of her younger sister Nicki, who is similarly enamored. Despite his best efforts, the stalker gains entry to Rachel’s blockbuster show. Will Frank thwart the stalker’s nefarious plot? Will Rachel and Frank find true love? Stay tuned.

Director Thea Sharrock, choreographer Karen Bruce and set and costume designer Tim Hatley put on a visually exciting show, one that barrels along from one musical number to another. Lighting designer Mark Henderson really outdoes anything I’ve ever seen, transforming plain sliding panels into various locations.

The actors, especially Deborah Cox (above) as Rachel and Jasmin Richardson as Nicki, work hard to offer nuanced performances in a script that depicts the characters as two-dimensional. Both have great vocal pipes and really know how to put a song across (although Nicki gets to sing only two); Cox is every inch and note the R & B superstar in her interpretations of Houston’s hit songs. As Frank Farmer, Judson Mills (above, left) appears to be channeling Kevin Costner’s stoic taciturnity. Although he “sings” but one song, he’s especially charming in his interaction with Fletcher, played by an adorable Douglas Baldeo (on opening night; Kevelin B. Jones III shares the role throughout the week). Jorge Paniagua as the Stalker is both easy on the eyes (what a set of abs!) and terrifying. Other supporting roles are mostly forgettable.

Kudos to the very hardworking dance ensemble. They are a mass of constant movement, whether rehearsing or performing in a “concert.” And the special video effects (designed by Duncan McLean) and sound (designed by Richard Brooker) add suspense to the otherwise predictable plot.


Conceived and first performed in London, The Bodyguard is more juke-box musical than true musical theater. Part of this stems from the fact that, instead of growing organically from the plot, the songs feel shoe-horned in, often out of nowhere. The entire production feels more like a tribute show to Whitney Houston than a drama with music. Unfortunately, book writer Alexander Dinelaris merely adapted Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay for the stage instead of improving on the dramatic tension, thus giving the character development and drama short shrift.

If you were/are a fan of Whitney Houston’s music, you’ll love The Bodyguard. If you love theater, you may be dissatisfied. Nevertheless, the production at the Paper Mill Playhouse is polished, professional and entertaining. I give the music a grade of A, the script a C, and the entire production a B. In the realm of the modern juke-box musical (Beautiful, Jersey Boys, Movin’ Out), it’s pretty representative. If that’s your cup of tea, you might not want to miss it.

By the way, don’t scoot out after the curtain calls or you’ll miss a musical treat.

The Bodyguard, the Musical will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through January 1, 2017. For information and tickets, call the box office at 97.376.4343 or visit www.PaperMill.org online.


Photo by Matt Murphy


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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

REVIEW: CHARMING, TUNEFUL “DADDY LONG LEGS” SHINES AT GEORGE STREET PLAYHOUSE

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By Ruth Ross
In the days before email and text messages, letters were an essential part of everyday life, and authors naturally embraced this form of communication to tell a story. In the 18th century, Samuel Richardson pioneered the genre with Pamela and Clarissa, followed by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and, and more recently, Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Now, marry the epistolary (from epistles, or letters) novel to the “pocket musical” (a show with very few—often only two—performers), and you have the delightfully charming Daddy Long Legs, now onstage at the George Street Playhouse. While the story line may be neither deeply philosophical nor the events earth-shaking, the show is perfect for an audience still reeling from a contentious presidential campaign and longing for something uplifting —just in time for the holiday season.
Based on a 1912 novel by Jean Webster, this production with music and lyrics by Paul Cordon and book by John Caird is a far cry from the more familiar 1955 film starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron and featuring songs by the great pop music composer Johnny Mercer. For one thing, it’s quieter, more intimate; for another, the lyrics are filled with literary references and interesting rhymes, sung by two talented actors to lilting, introspective melodies.

With its references to orphanages (Charles Dickens), the education of a young woman who will go on to become a published writer (Louisa May Alcott), and social commentary and critique (Mark Twain), the plot of Daddy Long Legs will feel familiar. Conveyed entirely by sung-through dialogue, the letters engage us and make us care about what could easily be considered stock characters.

Eighteen- year-old Jerusha Abbott (Elise Vannerson, above), “the oldest orphan in the John Grier home,” receives a grant from an anonymous benefactor whom she nicknames Daddy Long Legs to honor his height, which she has fleetingly glimpsed. He will pay for her to attend college with the only requirement that she receive good grades and write him monthly to keep him posted on her progress. While what follows is a celebration of the education of a real naïf (Jerusha has lived her entire life in the home and so lacks any familiarity with literature or social mores) who struggles to be true to herself in the face of society’s expectations, Daddy Long Legs is essentially a love story. For not only do Jerusha and Daddy Long Legs (actually 40-something Jervis Pendleton) fall in love but each character learns to love him/herself through the letters. This last is accomplished by Caird’s having Pendleton, as well as Jerusha, read from the letters, thus revealing the man’s heart and mind—in fact, creating a character who doesn’t appear in the novel at all.

One of the driving forces of the play is its dependence on dramatic irony; we, the audience, are aware of what Jerusha only imagines about Daddy Long Legs. The old, bald man she envisions is, in reality, a handsome, albeit it lonely, young man (Ben Michael, left). His visits to the college, ostensibly to visit his niece Julia, Jerusha’s classmate, are all the more delicious as she becomes quite taken with him, her unknown benefactor! And his manipulation of her summer vacations to eliminate any other male suitors, while distasteful, can be attributed to his jealousy of her independence and possible suitors.

Michael Mastro’s direction has a light enough touch to prevent the production from sinking into cloying sentimentality. Instead, we are enchanted to witness the education of a feisty young woman intent on making her way in the world as a writer. Elise Vannerson shines as Jerusha; her lovely voice and spirited delivery convincingly conveys the young woman’s delight at learning more about literature, math and science and the world around her. Her letters to Daddy Long Legs are charming; as she reveals more about herself, he (and we) fall in love with her. In the role of benefactor Jervis Pendleton, Ben Michael turns in an equally fine performance. He, too, is in fine voice and is especially winning in the scenes when Jervis actually meets Jerusha. I just wish the playwright had given more motivation for his philanthropy and anguished character.

A trio of musicians accompanies the actors, providing just the right touch without overpowering their voices. Alexis Distler has outdone herself with her splendid scenic design, a two-level playing space lined with books, all the better to signify the education of these very attractive young people. Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting design plays a significant role in establishing atmosphere and directing the audience’s attention to the actors. And Esther Arroyo’s costumes for Jerusha are not only beautiful and appropriate to the time period (1908-1912) but also signify each change in the young woman’s situation and character.
The bildungsroman, or coming of age story, is a time-honored literary genre, and Daddy Long Legs manages to make such a story both instructive and charming. A celebration of education—scholarly and interpersonal—this pocket musical is a delight for both eyes and ears, enchanting us with its heroine’s pluck and spirit and the gradual warming the heart of a curmudgeonly young man. Daddy Long Legs is just the ticket for a holiday production.
Daddy Long Legs will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through December 24. For information and tickets, call the box office at 72.246.7717 or visit www.GSPonline.org online.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson.


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Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: 'Mad Love' with terrific cast at NJ Rep in Long Branch




MAD LOVE by Marisa Smith
reviewed by Michael T. Mooney
on October 22, 2016 at 8pm
at NJ Rep, Long Branch


If you're a person who knows that WoW stands for World of Warcraft (and not just the acronym for a local gym), you should book tickets for MAD LOVE, Marisa Smith's new romantic comedy now on stage at NJ Repertory Company. The video game generation, which first appeared on the cultural landscape during the 1980s, has finally found its way to the theatre world, having already influenced virtually every other form of media. Earlier this year the Netflix TV series “Stranger Things” also appealed to grown-up gamers. Stranger still, the series also found fans with those who have never picked up a joystick, something MAD LOVE magically manages to do as well.

Alex Trow
The madness of MAD LOVE encompasses both the wrath of lovers scorned, as well as the craziness that love often brings out in us. Here wealthy Ivy Leaguer Sloane (Alex Trow) is dating middle-class middle school teacher Brandon (Graham Techler), until her insistence on buying his sperm to be artificially inseminated freaks him out to the point of “taking a break”. But Sloane is undaunted by his rebuke and takes it upon herself to visit Brandon's “man cave” apartment, introducing herself to his brother Doug (Jared Michael Delaney) under a false name. Pretty mad, huh? Also in the mix is a Russian call girl named Katerina (Brittany Proia) who may or may not be the classic “hooker with the heart of gold”. Cabbage soup, a rare baseball card, and a lizard named Pogo all play a part in the ever-maddening game of love that unfolds.

This is Smith's second show on the NJ Rep stage, having also written 2013's SAVING KITTY, which was also staged by MAD LOVE's talented director, Evan Bergman. In fact, the rest of KITTY's creative team (all NJ Rep regulars) are back, too: set designer Jessica Parks, lighting designer Jill Nagle, and costumer Pat Doherty - all at the top of their (video) games. Parks' set is where the show's video game themes are most obviously realized. Think THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME on a shoebox scale: a black light, pixilated cityscape that quickly alternates between a variety of Manhattan locations.


At first, none of the foursome in the story seems particularly likable. In fact, it is nearly an hour into the play's 90 intermission-less minutes before the audience starts to invest in the outcome. But MAD LOVE's terrific cast makes sure you stick with it. This is undoubtedly one of the best ensembles to ever trod the Long Branch boards. 

The persnickety Sloane, who isn't interested in love, marriage, or other people's kids, is in the capable hands of Alex Trow, who is masterful in her portrayal. She should be; she played the role in the play's Vermont world premiere earlier this year.

 Brittany Proia
Just as terrific is Brittany Proia as Katerina, a rent girl who is (as the British say) “on the game.” Proia takes what might be a purely comical character and imbues her with a sensitive, endearing side as well. 

Jared Michael Delaney's Doug is living with a TBI (traumatic brain injury) thanks to a “Jackass”-style stunt back in college. Delaney (photo above left) skillfully navigates the child-like wisdom of this grown up game boy. 



Graham Techler
Anchoring the madness is Graham Techler's Brandon. The trickiest feat of all is to be the audience's touchstone among mad-crazy characters, but Techler manages it with ease. Can four desperately different people find happiness playing the game of love? In Marisa Smith's romantic comedy, it somehow seems possible. After all, “Stranger Things” have happened.

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MAD LOVE – A Romantic Comedy for Cynical Times by Marisa Smith is onstage through November 20th at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey. For tickets and information call 732.229.3166 or visit www.njrep.org

Visit: www.michaeltmooney.com


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Saturday, October 15, 2016

REVIEW: 'KING OF THE MOUNTAIN' at LUNA STAGE


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By Ruth Ross

Just in time for the centennial of the National Park Service, Luna Stage presents the world premiere of King of the Mountain by Ben Clawson, the playwright responsible The Dangers of Electric Lighting, for the terrific play about Edison and Tesla, a couple of seasons ago.

This time out, Clawson and Luna Stage give us another mesmerizing encounter, this time between two champions of the natural world, President Theodore Roosevelt and the conservationist John Muir. Set in the Yosemite Valley in California, over the last three days of the longest Presidential trip 1903, the play portrays a private camping trip taken by Roosevelt and Muir; with no surviving record of their conversation, so Clawson has been free to recreate the discussion between the two men.

With only two characters, and 98% of the play dialogue, you might wonder how the playwright creates the conflict so necessary to drama. Well, the clash of wills, egos and agendas drives the play from the very first day of their meeting. For one thing, their reasons for meeting are very different. Roosevelt wants to escape politics for four days and relax in nature; Muir wants to discuss the defense of the Yosemite Valley against timber interests who want to cut down the great sequoias in the forest there. Roosevelt fancies himself a great naturalist, while the more laconic Muir keeps repeating his philosophy, “Pick out anything and you will find it hitched to the rest of the universe,” and calls Roosevelt a “nature faker.”

At the second and third meetings, the wrangling continues, with Clawson slipping in information about America’s Western expansion, Roosevelt’s sickly childhood and Muir’s immigrant childhood on a farm in Wisconsin to provide historic background and fill in the personal stories of the two. By the end of the 90 minutes, Roosevelt and Muir have come to a pretty good compromise. The more pragmatic Roosevelt agrees to create the Antiquities Act of 1906 to authorize presidents to proclaim and preserve landmarks, structures and other “objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments. The more idealistic Muir accepts the gesture, although he is still worried about protecting the Het Hetchy Valley from timber thieves. By the time the stage lights go down, you won’t really be sure just who is “King of the Mountains.”

The ingenious set by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader—actually a map of the Yosemite Valley unfurled on a platform of dirt and almost filling the playing space—eschews realism for metaphor and allows us to focus on the characters and dialogue. Jorge Arroyo’s light conveys the different times of day and weather conditions, even providing the flickering light of a campfire. With its bird songs, howling winds and running water, Andy Evan Cohen’s sound is spot-on for a play about nature.

Cheryl Katz’s energetic and efficient direction keeps the tension high throughout the play. As for the actors, Ian Gould (Above, right) as Roosevelt and Rik Walter as Muir are superb. Gould aptly portrays the bluster and pomposity of a man masking his vulnerabilities, obnoxiously interrupting Muir, boasting about his past, even sulking when Muir doubts his sincerity. He may be taller than TR, but the resemblance is good enough to convince us that he is the President. The lesser known Muir—famous for the grove of sequoias in Northern California that bear his name—is played by Rik Walter (Above left) with a convincing Scottish brogue and an earnest passion for nature. In the face of TR’s bluster, he is patience personified, and Walter manages to wring some black humor from the man’s economic speech. Best of all, both actors make us care about this topic, and we anxiously wait to see how it unfolds—even though we already know the outcome. That anticipation is a tribute to fine writing and acting.

For about 20 years, Luna Stage has been known for bringing new or little-known works to local audiences. It can be a hit-or-miss proposition and risky for a small theater. But once again, Luna and Ben Clawson have tackled a historic event, imbued with dramatic conflict, that has not only entertained us but has taught us something as well. In so doing, they have fulfilled one very important criterion of good theater. You won’t want to miss King of the Mountains.

King of the Mountains will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, through October 30. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.395.5551 or visit www.LunaStage.org online.


Photos by Christopher Drukker.

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: Final Performance Today of Carla Kendall in 'The Other Place'!


Carla Kendall and Matt Meier (photo by Jeff Knapp)

'Wow' is a simple word we have used in a few reviews in the past - to us it connotes an exceptional, outstandingsuperior performance. Last night we witnessed a performance that clearly deserves to be labeled 'wow.'  Community theater veteran Carla Kendall (she also wowed us as Maria Callas in Master Class at the Barn two seasons ago) gives a master class in acting in The Other Place by Sharr White and directed by Jeff Knapp at the Chester Theatre Group. The bad news is that the final performance is TODAY at 2 pm. 

Mr. White has written a powerful, challenging puzzle of a psycho-drama that defies the normal reviewer description. The only plot elements we are willing to reveal in this complex drama are that Carla Kendall plays Juliana, a brilliant Boston scientist turned drug salesperson who is troubled by her failing marriage and the loss of her daughter to a colleague 15 years her daughter's senior. We first meet her center stage making a slide presentation to a medical conference in a hotel in St. Thomas. She shares her thoughts with us particularly about the strange girl dressed only in a yellow bikini seated in the center of the physicians. Via a series of relatively short scenes the conference presentation is interrupted as we meet her husband, Ian, an oncologist (Matt Meier); their estranged daughter, Laurel (Gianna Esposito); Laurel's husband, Richard (Joe Guadara); and Cindy a young doctor treating Juliana (
Gianna Esposito doubles). To reveal any further details would spoil your enjoyment of this clever play where nothing is as it seems. 


The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Matt Meier as the caring husband. 
In The Other Place, Carla Kendall gives a performance worthy of any stage. Simply put, the play is good, but Carla Kendall is great. Please go see it this afternoon.

Note: The play's title The Other Place is how Julianna and Ian refer to their summer house on Cape Cod. 


Standing ovation also to the creative staff of The Other Place: director and sound design Jeff Knapp; producer and lighting designer Ellen Fraker-Glasscock; costumes Mindy Knapp; and stage manager Barbara Henderson.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio October 8, 2016


The Chester Theatre Group performs in The Black River Playhouse, an intimate, 100-seat theater in the heart of Chester Borough’s historic district. The venue’s in-the-round format ensures that every seat offers an engaging, memorable experience for each audience member. The theater is located on the corner of Grove Street and Maple Avenue. Tickets are $20.00 with a discounted price of $18.00 for seniors over 65 and students under 18. Tickets may be purchased online atwww.chestertheatregroup.org.

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Review: The Games Afoot in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily at CSC





​Director Carl Wallnau (Centenary Stage Company's highly respected artistic director) nicely brings to life Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 'super sleuth' Sherlock Holmes in a tongue-in-cheek tale "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily" (Note: this refers to the British island of Jersey for which our state was named).

As any lover of detective mysteries knows, Sherlock Holmes is recognized as THE most famous fictional detective. The address of his London home, for example...221B Baker Street...is one of the best known locations in the city...sadly it is a mammoth insurance company building!

This clever play, written by Katie Forgette, includes not only the master of observation, Sherlock Holmes, chronicler Doctor John Watson, and the master criminal Doctor Moriarty, but also playwright Oscar Wilde, who contributes to the humor with an ample supply of witty lines. Several involve the titling of two of his most famous plays (Portrait of Dorian xxxx and The Importance of Being xxxxxxx.

The plot centers on the celebrated actress Lillie Langtry, who is being blackmailed for a long past romantic  indiscretion. Naturally, she turns to Sherlock Holmes for his unique brand of assistance. Sorry, that is the extent of our description of the plot, anything more would defeat the element of mystery, suspense, and action in this fun confection.

The prime, satisfying ingredient in the play is the spot-on casting of the principal roles. Several are returning CSC veterans including the always impressive Colin Ryan as Holmes.  Ryan was last seen in CSC’s acclaimed production of The Ladies' Man (which starred director Wallnau) and recently made his Broadway debut with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot/No Man’s Land.  

Also returning to the CSC stage are Amy Griffin as Lillie's assistant (she is a stand-out talent) and David Sitler as Dr. Watson. Griffin starred in the title role of The English Bride (read our review: http://www.njfootlights.net/2013/04/review-outstanding-new-play-at.html) Sitler was in CSC’s world premiere of Inventing Montana and has Broadway credits including, Frost/Nixon and An Inspector Calls.

Playing Langtry is a very talented Sandy York; Oscar Wilde is played to perfection by Joseph McGranaghan and Nicholas Wilder is properly sinister as Moriarty (Note: Wilder's leaner, hungry look not unlike Basil Rathbone, our favorite Sherlock Holmes, would also make him a candidate for the Holmes part.) The trio , all have impressive New York, Regional Theater and Film/Television credits, are making their Centenary Stage Company debuts.

Rounding out the cast and making their professional debuts are Thomas Farber as Moriarty's man, John Smythe (properly feeble), Ameer Copper as Adul Karim, a queen's messenger and Joseph Amato as Flynn, another of Moriarty's men.

Another key element enhancing the fun is a two-story revolving set designed by Ashleigh Poteat (also responsible for the excellent period costumes). Other members of the staff deserving a 'call-out' are Ed Matthews and John Salutz lighting and sound respectively. Christopher Young choreographed the fencing scene. Edanna Guaimano makeup and the stage manager, Danielle Constance.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio       Oct. 7, 2016

Remaining performances are Thursdays, October 13 and 20 at 7:30 pm; Fridays October 14 and 21 at 8 pm; Saturdays, October 8, 15 and 22 at 8 pm; Sundays, October 9, 16, 23 at 2 pm and Wednesdays, October 12 and 19 at 2 pm.  Centenary Stage Company is also offering buffet matinees for groups of 25 or more on Wednesdays October 12 and 19.  All performances are located in the Sitnik Theater of the Lackland Center.

Tickets for Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily range from $17.50 to $27.50 with discounts for students and children under 12.  Buffet Matinees are available for groups of 25 or more at $42.50/person.  Advance reservations are required.  Centenary Stage Company is also offering a special alumni discount of $10.00 off adult ticket price for Friday evening performances.  Thursday evening performances are “Family Night” $25.00 for ALL SEATS with a buy one/get one rush ticket special when tickets are purchased in person at the CSC box office, as early as, two hours prior to performance time.

For more information or to purchase tickets visit centenarystageco.org or call the CSC box office at (908) 979 – 0900. The box office is open Monday through Friday from 1 – 5pm and 2 hours prior to every performance. The CSC box office is located in the Lackland Center; 715 Grand Ave. Hackettstown, NJ.  
Cast photo: CSC Bob Eberle


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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review: 'Red Velvet' theatrical gem of a play at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey


Lindsay Smiling









Review by Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)

When the Smithsonian Institution's new National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington, DC, this fall, it may contain an exhibit about Ira Aldridge, the famous black Shakespeare tragedian. Then, again, it may not. For although he is American, Ira Aldridge made his career after 1827 largely on the London stage and later in Europe, dying in 1867 Łodź, Poland.

Now, in a departure from its usual theatrical fare, the esteemed Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey introduces this unknown man of the theater to local audiences in an elegant, eye-opening, (very) topical production of Lolita Chakrabarti's original play, Red Velvet, now receiving its New Jersey premiere in Madison.



 Lindsay Smiling and Victoria Mack.
While "topical" may seem an odd term to describe a play whose action occurs in mid-19th century, many of the criticisms leveled at the first black President are similar to—if not the same—uttered about Ira Aldridge. In addition, the "horror" at a black man's physical onstage involvement with a white actress recalls the 1968 hullaballoo over British pop music star Petula Clark's innocent, natural touch of Harry Belafonte's arm on her television special, When the vice president of Chrysler, the show's sponsor, objected to the "interracial touching" because it would offend Southern viewers (and car buyers, presumably) and demanded a retake, Clark and the show's producer refused, destroyed all other "takes" and delivered the tape to NBC with the touching segment intact.

Unfortunately, Ira Aldridge had neither the clout nor professional standing to make such a grand statement. Chakrabarti focuses on his début at Covent Garden Theatre in 1833 when he was brought in by his friend, theater manager Pierre Laporte to replace the ailing tragedian Edmund Kean in the role of Othello. Appalled by the grand, declamatory style of acting then in favor, he suggests a more natural approach so that Desdemona (played the leading actress of the time, Ellen Tree), upon landing in Cyprus after being separated from her husband Othello for weeks, actually looks at him when she greets him. Warned by Laporte to "take it slowly" and avoid pushing his style and personality on the actors (and the audience), Aldridge nevertheless plows ahead, engaging Tree in some solitary post-performance tweaking that gets him in hot water and leads to his ultimate dismissal from the company.


Chakrabarti frames this pivotal moment in Aldridge's life with a flashback set in Łodź where a young female newspaper reporter gains entry into the actor's dressing room and asks him some very pointed questions, leading to his "reminiscence" of the time he played Covent Garden for a very brief time. The technique is both economical and enlightening, giving the audience the information as to what happened to Ira Aldridge's career after he was so summarily fired and how it affected him for the next 35 years of his life.

Artistic director Bonnie J. Monte is to be commended for unearthing this theatrical gem of a play and bringing it to New Jersey audiences. Her direction is spot-on, allowing Lindsay Smiling as Aldridge to soar with the heady anticipation of his debut, only to fall with a thud when his friend abandons him with personal and professional dismissal. Monte never milks the story for melodrama; it always feels natural and convincing, due, in large part, to the fine performances she elicits from her actors. She is to be commended, too, for the seamless scene changes conducted with alacrity by actors and suitably attired stage hands.

As always, the cast on the stage of the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre successfully flexes its dramatic chops. Lindsay Smiling's magnificent Ira Aldridge is a man of great confidence in his ability to play Shakespeare, whether it be Othello or Lear. Even when Laporte literally throws him out of Convent Garden, he maintains his dignity while appealing to his friend's better nature, which makes his predicament all the more poignant. 


 David Foubert and David Andrew Macdonald
As the theater manager, David Foubert is a fine match for Smiling. His excitement at bringing his friend to the London stage is palpable, as is his anguish at having to accede to savage reviews expressing sentiments similar to the Chrysler VP and the theater board's express wishes that he let him go. Foubert's Laporte obviously wrestles with the professional and personal demands of the job. The climactic scene involving the two men is powerfully emotional, a real struggle of wills, that leaves both men personally bereft.

On the distaff side, a luminous Victoria Mack shines as Ellen Tree, intrigued with this exotic—in looks and demeanor—actor and willing to try acting in a style so different from the one she's been used to, even if it means incurring bruises on her arms during the choking scene. Given confidence by Aldridge, she stands up to her overbearing fiancé Charles Kean (played with appropriate arrogance and pomposity by David Andrew Macdonald) and is unafraid to spend time alone with Aldrich in his dressing room as they work out blocking for that fateful encounter. Sofia Jean Gomez is superb as the Polish reporter Halina Wozniak and Margaret Aldridge, earnest as the former, elegant and loving as the latter. Her German in the opening scene is impeccably uttered with a vehemence matched in her English exchanges with Aldridge. And our learning early on that her husband has had a child by another woman informs the nobility of affect in Margaret's attitude toward him after his début performance. Gomez really is a joy to watch; we should see more of her.

Garrett Lawson, Savannah DesOrmeaux, John Little,
Victoria Mack, and David Andrew Macdonald
Minor roles are performed with equal proficiency. Garrett Lawson is perfect as the nervous stagehand Casimir and the annoyingly eager actor Henry Forester. Savannah DesOrmeaux giggles like a Valley Girl as ingénue Betty Lowell, and John Little is a perfect obsequious gofer Terence and dyspeptic character actor Bernard Warde. Finally, in a role that requires her to do little except stand there smiling as the white actors blithely discuss the end to slavery (which came to Great Britain in 1833!) as though she's not there, Shannon Harris's black servant Connie really sparkles when she opens up to encourage Aldridge to remain true to himself, no matter what the consequences.

The play's title, Red Velvet, refers, of course, to the traditional theater curtains draping the stage that scenic designer Bethanie Wampol has made an integral part of the play itself. Burke Wilmore 's lighting (note the "gaslight" covers on the front of the stage) and Monte's sound design transport us to a 19th century theater, especially the tinkling piano music accompanying scene changes. And Paul Canada has employed luxurious costumes appropriate to the theater and fashion of the time.

Above all, Red Velvet, with its literate script, natural dialogue, taut conflicts and dynamic characters, is a fine piece of theater. But its political and social resonance cannot be overlooked, especially when, to Laporte's avowal that his dismissal is not political, Aldridge thunders, "Everything is political!" Of course it is.

Red Velvet will be performed by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Ave., on the campus of Drew University in Madison, through September 23. It is suitable for teenagers, so don't hesitate to bring them to a performance for a bit of theatrical, social and political history presented in a polished, professional production. For more 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

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: 'Iago' by James McLure at NJ Rep




IAGO by James McLure
Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney
at New Jersey Repertory Company
on August 27th at 8 pm

“I used to know human beings. Then I got involved in the theatre.” ~ James McLure's IAGO

Instead of Othello and Desdemona IAGO opens with a dramatic exchange between Lord Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton, a scene vaguely (if not directly) taken from the 1941 film THAT HAMILTON WOMAN. Here, however, the couple are standing in front of a red velvet stage curtain bathed in footlights – bowing to thunderous applause from an adoring (unseen) audience. This brief prologue sets the tone for what's to come: part-historical romance, part love letter to the theater. That historical romance, however, isn't between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton.



Ezra Barnes, Liza Vann, Todd Gearhart
Backstage, after the couple's performance, we also meet up-and-coming young Australian actor Peter Finney (Todd Gearhart) as well as a well-known English director named Sir Basil Drill (John FitzGibbon). Those au fait with the world of the paint and the motley – and perhaps possessing some serious cinematic savvy – will soon realize that playwright James McLure is actually writing about real-life celebrity couple Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, here coyly dubbed Anthony Roland (Ezra Barnes) and Vivacity Wilkes (Liza Vann). The Peter in the room is none other than a young Peter Finch, with whom Leigh famously conducted a torrid extra-marital affair. Marshaled by Drill (who is modeled on self-described genius Noel Coward), the three rehearse a production of OTHELLO, a fact that – like their names – McLure likely invented to parallel the actors' real-life romantic triangle.


This was McLure's final play before his untimely death in 2011. It is rare for NJ Rep – which exclusively produces premieres – to be without a living author in the wings. Experienced director SuzAnne Barabas (photo) deftly fulfills McLure's intentions, smartly mixing the abundant theatrical ambiance with quick pacing and spare (but effective) design elements to also reflect the characters' better known movie careers. 

The talented cast rightfully uses McLure's script as their prime resource, and while suggesting their famous inspirations, they wisely do not attempt to imitate them. Set designer Charles Corcoran beautifully balances the script's multiple locations without taxing the play's tricky theatrical metaphor. As usual, Jill Nagle's lighting is exquisitely evocative and Patricia E. Doherty's wardrobe nicely conveys the 1950s, as well as the more flamboyant costumes for the play's theatrical moments.

Those looking for a bio-pic style look at the subject would best look elsewhere. While the play is constructed using cinematically brief scenes, the details are often seen through a fuzzy lens. The short scene structure often gives short-shrift to traditional character development, but McLure more than makes up for it with a plethora of pithy dialogue. When Peter hopes that appearing in OTHELLO will launch his acting career, Sir Basil dryly replies that “No one ever became a star playing Iago.” IAGO is McLure's tribute to star-crossed lovers living and working in a star-struck theatreland.

IAGO is on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company at 179 Broadway, Long Branch, through September 25, 2016. For tickets and further information call 732.229.3166 or visit www.njrep.org


Photo by SuzAnne Barabas

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Chatham Players' Jersey Voices a winner!



Review by Ruth Ross

One of the joys of summer is Chatham Players' Jersey Voices, the festival of one-act plays performed by the venerable troupe for the past 22 seasons. I think I have seen all but three in my 20 years of reviewing! Some years, the offerings are uneven in writing and/or performance, but this year the company has put together a winner!

Of the seven playlets, three are dramas while the remaining four are comedies. All the entries are helmed by different directors and acted by seasoned veterans and newbies to the troupe.

Lauri Macmillan and Charles Green
It was difficult for me to select my favorites, for all the plays had something to recommend them. Of the dramas, Paper Bell was the most affecting. About to make a recording on a "diamond disk," famous singer Ruth McKintire (Lauri Macmillan) passes some time with self-described "farm boy" Charles Green (Charlie Thomson). She longs for the family life in a small town he enjoys; he seeks the adventure and travel she experiences on the road. While nothing is resolved at the play's close, the moments these two spend together certainly are bittersweet. Jessica Phelan competently directs, but she needs to get Thomson to speak louder. He was often difficult to hear even in the little black box Chatham Playhouse.

One, Three, Two by Michael Weems and directed by Lynn Polan, addresses the stranglehold technology (and its accompanying passwords and codes) has on modern life, strangling our need for simplicity. Daniel De Guzman is affecting as Jake, who has "gone fishing" instead of picking his son up at school, much to the consternation of his very capable wife Heather (Sarah Blannett Pharaon). The play moseys along rather pokily, as befits a man escaping from the rat race, but the satisfactory ending finds the couple determining a possible solution to Jake's problem.

The third drama, Not Enough, written by Chip Bolcik and directed handily by Robert Lukasik, explores a marital dilemma faced by a middle-aged couple. Their predicament is presaged by Peggy Lee's rendition of "Is That All There Is" and by the play's title. That Bob and Mary (Lewis Decker and Bridget Burke Weiss—both terrific) break the fourth wall to address the audience adds a bit of levity to the fraught situation doesn't really diminish the play's emotional punch. He wants the two to be lovers again; she chastises him for not making her feel special—a situation probably faced by many long-time couples, making the topic relevant and timely.


(L-R) Zach Sinske, Paula Ehrenberg, Amie Quivey Colleen Grundfest 
As for the comedies, be warned that I will not divulge details that might affect your enjoyment of them. The festival opens with a bang, presenting What Every Grown Son Wants His Mother to Know by Joann Lopresti Scanlon and directed by Kevern Cameron. Janie (Paula Ehrenberg), Donna (Colleen Grundfest) and Laura (Amie Quivey) have gathered for lunch and to complain about the lack of maternal attention paid by their college sons. 

Enter Donna's son David (Zach Shinske) and we get a hilarious "take" on what goes on between mothers and sons from the latter's point of view. All the actors are superb, with Grundfest best expressing the plight of "helicopter moms" who can communicate with their college student offspring by text or computer. Although we are familiar with parental complaints of neglect, Scanlon gives us the opposite point of view to great comedic effect.

Happily Ever After penned by Jeanne Johnston and directed by George Seylaz stand the Cinderella happy ending on its ear, also to great comedic effect. Broadly played by Bradley Carrington (the Prince) and Katherine LeFevre (the Princess), the two fairy tale innocents charmingly display the dilemma posed by such a sunny ending. The play provoked much laughter as it really tackled what, in real life, is a serious problem.

The last two plays, both comedies, were especially droll. Bottle for a Special Occasion (by William C. Kovacsik and directed by Arnold Buchiane) features the great comedic actress 
Terri Sturdevant
Terri Sturdevant as the grieving widow Judith shopping at the wine store for an appropriate bottle of wine to put in the coffin of her late oenophile husband. As the clerk Martin (Duane Noch) attempts to help her, the truth of her marriage is revealed; it's not pretty, but both the playwright and Sturdevant manage to wrest comedy from it—the latter through her masterful delivery of the dialogue! She is a delight to watch.

And Fantasy Dance (by Gary Shaffer and directed by Joann Lopresti Scanlon) involves a trio of Dance Dads at a competition in which their daughters and granddaughter are competing. This playlet ended the festival with a bang appropriate to the first entry; the two acted as perfect bookends to the entire festival! Frank Bläuer (Tim), Bob Grundfest (Bob), Roy Pancirov (Frank) and TJ Ryan (Jerry) apply the jargon of fantasy sports to dance and the result is side splitting. Pancirov is especially comical; Grundfest matches his performance as a man obsessed by palindromes. Using the sport fantasy metaphor in an offbeat way is hilarious.

Jersey Voices 2016 is a delight for lovers of original one-act plays, especially by New Jersey playwrights. Every year it's like what Artistic Director Bob Lukasik paraphrased from "Forrest Gump," a box of chocolates—you never know what you're going to get. This time, it's a box of whatever your favorites may be (mine are caramel). So open the cover and dive right in!

Jersey Voices 2016 will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through August 7. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.

Photos by Howard Baker

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016



REVIEW: STNJ MOUNTS STUNNING PRODUCTION OF 'CORIOLANUS'

STNJ_Coriolanus_2
















Reviewed by Ruth Ross:

"While Shakespeare isn't often thought of as a political playwright, one has but to consider Macbeth, Julius Caesar, the History Plays, Othello, Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing (the last three about sexual politics) for proof. Now, in this current political season fraught with name-calling, innuendo and fear-mongering, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has selected what is perhaps the Bard's most overtly political play, Coriolanus, as its second main stage production of the 2016 season.

This last of Shakespeare's tragedies was written sometime between 1605 and 1608, but was not performed until 1682! Replete with political manipulation, fallen heroes and revenge, the play's outer shell is political while its core is a searing portrait of a complicated and tortured highly decorated war hero wrestling with his true nature and the public persona that his family and peers have thrust upon him. Faced with famine from within and threats from outside its walls, Rome turns to this defender, Caius Martius Coriolanus, only to have him learn that his true enemies lie inside Rome—and inside himself! (Above left to right: Clark Scott Carmichael, Greg Derelian, Raphael Nash Thompson. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.)

This conflict of personal nobility and political reality hinges on the rivalry between republican (democratic, i.e., bottom up) vs. absolutist (aristocratic, i.e., top down) forms of government. The common folks’ profound dissatisfaction with patrician rule, famine and high prices leads to rioting and the expression of democratic sentiments. Without taking sides, the playwright dwells on the struggle's ambiguity and on the indecisive, self-defeating results ironically achieved by both parties. In the end, both groups learn the harsh lesson of being careful what you wish for.



This handsome and very moving production unfolds on stunning set designed by Dick Block, lit by Andrew Hungerford and accompanied by grating sounds designed by Karin Graybash. Industrial-looking studded metal panels represent the walls of Rome; they open to reveal a silver Roman eagle, suggestive of the eagle atop a swastika, the official insignia of the Nazi party. Tristan Raines' imaginative costumes signal to which party the various groups belong. The commoners wear blacks and grays slashed with red; the patricians, blazing white; the enemy Volscians, drab brown sashed with aqua; and Coriolanus and his soldiers in black, studded leather tunics and helmets. (Above, left to right: Corey Tazmania, Raphael Nash Thompson, Greg Derelian, Clark Scott Carmichael, Bill Christ. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.)

Brian Crowe's firm directorial hand keeps the action moving inexorably through various scenes and locations to its inevitable end. Greg Deralian's portrayal of Coriolanus is delicately balanced: On one hand, he is a valiant, fearless comrade in arms, humble when singled out for military honors; on the other hand, once the patricians have selected him to be consul, a position for which he has to solicit the approval of the plebeians, he shows his true aristocratic colors as he denigrates them, condescendingly calling them curs and complaining about their stench, and citing his hatred of hypocrisy, refusing to "beg" for their approbation. This war between humility and arrogance plays out on Deralian's expressive face as he struggles with his two natures. It is a masterful portrayal of a character difficult to like.



Aiding and abetting his arrogance is his mother Volumnia, the "military mother" extraordinaire who has nurtured her son's warlike qualities, pushed him to seek military fame and basks in his limelight. Jacqueline Antaramian plays this regal woman with the fierceness of a lioness protecting her cub. She's really quite terrifying. (Above, left to right: Aurea Tomeski, Amaia Arana, Anthony Joseph De Augustine, Jacqueline Antaramian, Greg Derelian. Pictured in background: Javon Johnson, Aidan Eastwood. Photo Credit: Jerry Dalia.)

The noblemen of Rome are represented by Bruce Cromer as the peace-maker Menenuis Agrippa; Raphael Nash Thompson as the dignified general/consul Cominius; and Clark Scott Carmichael as Coriolanus's loyal soldier friend Titus Lartius.

Leading the mob of commoners, Mike Magliocci is a very vocal First Citizen. And as the two tribunes appointed to represent the commoners in the Senate, John Ahlin (Junius Brutus) and Corey Tazmania (Sicinius Velutus) start off as reasonable representatives but morph quickly into rabble rousers whipping the crowd to a frenzy and driving Coriolanus into exile. (Above, right: John Ahlin and ensemble. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.)

Adding to Rome's misery are the attacking force of Volscians (the "Volskis") led by Michael Schantz as Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus's nemesis and later ally in his quest to destroy his home city in revenge for banishment. Schantz plays this leader as courageous and fierce; his confusion and distrust of Coriolanus when the former enemy enlists his aid is palpable and understandable.

The huge cast of close to 40 (many playing multiple roles) convey the appropriate political and military upheaval. The soldiers fight ferociously while the mob scenes set a tone of instability. The easily swayed mob lacks a consistent political philosophy of its own so, prompted by the tribunes to express resentment, it giddily follows whatever charismatic orator that catches its imagination, leading to disaster for all.

If much of this sounds familiar, perhaps it's because many aspects of Coriolanus are being played out on the American public political stage this year: anger at economic inequality, a feeling of not being listened to and being looked down upon; a charismatic leader who falls short of what is expected of him (or her); and partisanship that has reached heights (or lows) magnified by the 24/7 cable news cycle and constant "Breaking News" reports that pop up ad nauseum on television.

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare's take on humanity is disillusioned, wry, almost anticlimactic. By the inconclusive conclusion, no one gets what he or she wanted. What we, the audience, do get is a polished, professional production of a little-known, infrequently performed play, and that's quite a gift.

Coriolanus will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, through July 25. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.orgonline."



Reviewed by Ruth Ross of njartsmaven.com



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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

REVIEW: AMBITIOUS CHESTER THEATRE GROUP PRODUCTION OF “PETER AND THE STARCATCHER” REACHES FOR THE STARS!



CAST PHOTO BY RICH KOWALSKI

 Reviewed by Ruth Ross:

"This first New Jersey production of Peter and the Starcatcher is a worthy representation of the one I saw on a proscenium stage on Broadway."

 

"Since its appearance as a chapter in an adult novel in 1902 through its stage incarnation in 1904 to a 1911novel, a 1953 animated film, a 2003 dramatic/live-action film, a TV series and many other iterations, J.M. Barrie's iconic character Peter Pan has captivated audiences—young and old alike.

If you ever wondered just how Barrie came to create the mischievous flying young boy who never grows up and lives in Neverland where he leads a band of Lost Boys, interacting with fairies, pirates, mermaids, Native Americans—and occasional ordinary children from the world outside Neverland—you had only to see Finding Neverland, the Broadway musical starring Glee's Matthew Morrison that recently closed.

And if that's not enough to feed your Peter Pan addiction, just hop on over to the Black River Playhouse where the talented and ambitious troupe is presenting the first New Jersey production of Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Elice's musical adaptation of a novel by nationally syndicated columnist, Dave Barry, and author of children's adventure books, Ridley Pearson. That mayhem reigns without destroying the little black box theater is a testament to Director Alan Van Antwerp's sure-handed marshaling of 12 actors who play nearly 100 roles around the theater's tiny playing space (and its four corners, too)!

The protagonist of the play is the starcatcherof the title, Mollie Aster, not Peter. A feisty (and bossy) little girl, she has been raised by her aristocratic father to be resourceful and fierce. They even converse in a strange language called Dodo and communicate through magic amulets worn around their necks. En route to a far-off land whose ruler is to be the recipient of a treasure trunk, Lord Aster travels on board the Wasp, Mollie on the slower decoy ship Neverland. Mollie's job is to save the treasure trunk filled with star stuff that fell from shooting stars and must be destroyed before it wreaks havoc on the world. Unfortunately for the two, both ships are captained or commandeered by pirates; with the Neverland's treasure chest in danger, it is up to a group of Lost Boys (actually, the abandoned orphan progeny of London prostitutes) to help Molly save the trunk. By the end of the play, several important questions raised in Peter Pan have been answered and Mollie's role in the famous tale has been surprisingly elucidated.

With its large number of characters and multitude of scene changes, the play's action at times feels too large (and a bit too long in duration) for the tiny playing space. Nevertheless, the performers act with gusto and energy, enchanting us and making us want to know more. Allie Acquafredda is a charming Mollie, full of vinegar, even if her British accent is often difficult to understand. She needs to project her voice louder so she can be heard when her back is to different parts of the in-the-round audience. Lewis T. Decker is the malevolent old seadog Slank, who is matched by the oily obsequiousness of Steve Nitka as Smee. Walter Zimmerman is a hoot as Mollie's nanny Mrs. Bumbrake, especially when receiving the ardent attentions of Joe Guardara's Gremkin, on of the Neverland's mates. Jeff Maschi does a fine job as Lord Aster, although his British accent sometimes obscures his dialogue.

The standout in the entire cast has to be Mike Patierno as pirate extraordinaire Black Stache. Yes, he does have a black mustache (as he reminds us often), but his prime personality trait is his mangling of the English language. He is a Mrs. Malaprop in pirate's clothing. He's loud, appropriately bombastic and foolish—although he doesn't think so. If you enjoyed him as Sir Galahad in the recent Chatham Community Players' production of Spamalot, you're going to love him here.

Founding out the cast are the Lost Boys: an adorable Zachary Catron as the food-obsessed Ted; Mark Piltz, Jr., as the know-it-all presumptive (and presumptuous) leader Alf; Joel Redmount as Alf; and a winning Scott Tyler as Boy, later to become known as Peter. The latter is a worthy side-kick to Mollie, for his feistiness, while not as strong and aggressive as hers, shows him to be the natural leader he later becomes in Barrie's classic.

In addition to director Van Antwerp, kudos o to Gayle Hendrix for the inventive (and often hilarious) costumes; Jack Bender for his music direction; Jeff Knapp for the very important sound design (operated by Bryan Miner); Kevern Cameron for an inventive set; Megan Ferentinos for choreography that somehow manages to be performed by large groups in a tiny space; Nik Marmo for evocative lighting; and Barbara Henderson for the myriad of props.

This first New Jersey production of Peter and the Starcatcher is a worthy representation of the one I saw on a proscenium stage on Broadway. Above all, it is an ambitious effort on the part of a community theater that is known for taking risks and producing edgy stuff. So if you want to find out how Captain Hook lost his hand, why an alligator ticks, among other details of the Barrie tale, and if you want to be entertained by a rollicking, new take on an old chestnut, get on over to Chester where Peter and the Starcatcher runs for just one more weekend!

Peter and the Starcatcher will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM through July 17 at the Black River Playhouse on the corner of Grove Street and Maple Avenue in Chester. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 908.979.7304 or visitwww.chestertheatregroup.org online.

The show is suitable for younger audiences but most enjoyable for ages 10 and up."     


Reviewed by Ruth Ross of njartsmaven.com



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Monday, July 4, 2016


Review: 'Struck' at New Jersey Repertory




Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney at NJ Rep on
Saturday, July 2, 2016 at 8pm

SUSAN MARIS
"Sometimes an otherwise rational character does something so illogical that you just want to shout at the stage. In the world premiere of Sandy Rustin's play STRUCK, for example, aspiring actress Vera (Susan Maris) is hit by a bicycle while trying to cross the street. She limps into her apartment accompanied by Nate (Adam Bradley), her attorney husband, to reveal a bloody gash and a bruise on her leg the size of Staten Island. Vera didn't file a police report, not wanting to get the biker (Benjamin Puvalowski) in trouble. 


BENJAMIN PUVALOWSKI
She also refuses medical attention, despite her husband's suggestion. In no time she is up on her feet (in high heels) preparing to welcome the reckless cyclist, who appears repentant for his careless driving. It isn't long before the couple's lives then take a terrifying turn – one that might have been avoided had Vera done what logical people do. But... this is a play, not real life. Your tolerance for smart people doing stupid things will determine your level of enjoyment of the intermission-less 90 minutes that follows.

ADAM BRADLEY
New Jersey Repertory bills the play as a “serious comedy about a (possibly) cosmic event” which sounds like Vera might (possibly) be abducted by joke-telling aliens. Director Don Stephenson takes the “serious comedy” part quite seriously, infusing the action with high energy and a quick pace. To top off the play's comic aspirations, Rustin introduces a stock character from sitcom-land, the wacky next door neighbor. In STRUCK she's a Texas-born metaphysical healer and all around kook named Vicky. 


JENNY BACON
Everything that Vicky says is funny – if only because she says it with a twang. It helps that the character is in the very capable hands of Jenny Bacon, who makes Vicky's frequent non-sequiturs (seriously) believable. Maris, Bradley, and Puvalowski are also quite good – taking the characters down the tricky path that Rustin and Stephenson have laid out for them.

MATTHEW SHEPARD
The play's jocular tone takes a turn for the sentimental in the second half, which is where the condensed running time (seriously) undermines both story and character development. Rustin introduces a fifth character, Bertrand (played by Matthew Shepard), whose identity cannot be revealed here without accusations of spoilers. But suffice it to say the only comedy (serious or otherwise) after Bertrand's arrival is derived from Vicky's inappropriate romantic aspirations. As usual, New Jersey Rep lavishes Rustin's script with a top notch production, but you'll need to suspend logic in order to avoid being STRUCK by reality."

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney
__________________________
STRUCK runs through July 31st at NJ Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey. For tickets and information visit www.njrep.org or call 732-229-3166.

                                          +++++++++++

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Review: Delightful Sondheim Songfest 'Marry Me A Little' at Women's Theater Company


The Women’s Theater Company, the gem of a professional Equity theater company in Parsippany, NJ, is closing the 2015/16 season with a charming one act musical Marry Me A Little, with lyrics and music written by Stephen Sondheim.
Actually, Marry Me A Little is a musical revue featuring a cast of two...a boy and a girl...(normal right ?). In this clever vehicle, the two live in the same New York building in separate studio apartments......they sadly fantasize via song what life with the other might be like...however, without ever making actual contact. Quite simply, they lack the courage to talk to each other. They may be two of the loneliest people in the world.

Here is the truly unique part, none of the songs (18) were composed for the show. Each song is from Sondheim's songbook. Shows represented are: Follies, Funny Thing Happened of the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Saturday Night, Anyone Can Whistle and Company. The play's title was originally written for Company. Fourteen of the songs, however, were never performed in those shows...they were cut! (I did say 'unique' ?).

'Unique' also can mean 'special,' In the case of the performers, we have two very special talents who would be at home on any stage either side of the Hudson. The woman is played to perfection by the award winning actress/singer Patricia Durante. Yes, this is the same Patricia Durante who first impressed us in WTC's Enchanted April, and wowed us as Patsy Cline last season.  She is a very attractive redhead, who nicely morphs into this emotionally challenged loner. 

The man is played by a veteran of regional theater and tv soap operas, the fine voiced Joe Elefante. He impressed with all his songs ...with the title song of qualified commitment a particular treat...."Marry me a little, Love me just enough. Cry, but not too often, Play, but not too rough. Keep a tender distance so we'll both be free. That's the way it ought to be. I'm ready! Marry me a little, Do it with a will. Make a few demands I'm able to fulfill. Want me more than others, Not exclusively. That's the way it ought to be. I'm ready! I'm ready now!"

Marry Me A Little, is beautifully directed by Barbara Krajkowski, artistic director at The Women’s Theater Company. The multi-talented Lauren Moran Mills provided the fine musical staging. The musical direction is by Rich Lovallo who uses his two keyboards to produce a beautifully delicate accompaniment.

The excellent creative team also includes: stage manager Regina Novicki; set construction/ lighting design Todd Mills; scenic painter Stephanie Shulman (marvelous backdrop); and spot-on costumes Francis Harrison. 
This is a delightful 60 minutes of love and romance as presented by the imagination of the two would-be lovers.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio May 29, 2016

Marry Me A Little runs through June 5; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for seniors. To purchase tickets online please visit www.womenstheater.org or call 973-316-3033.

The Women’s Theater Company is located at the Parsippany Playhouse at 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha, NJ. For GPS driving directions, enter the town of Boonton, 07005.







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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

REVIEW: 'START DOWN' AT CENTENARY IS ENERGETIC,    FUNNY AND SMART


Sheila and Oreo

By Sheila Abrams

Crackling with energy is the first phrase that comes to mind for Start Down, which opened April 8 at the Centenary Stage Company. The play, by Eleanor Burgess, was developed in the 2015 Woman Playwrights Series at Centenary, garnering for the playwright the Susan Glaspell Award.

Not much is missing from this ensemble piece. Directed at breakneck pace by Margo Whitcomb, it boasts snappy dialogue, confrontations about important current issues and ROMANCE! The last, revolving around two attractive and endearing couples, brings this exploration of very real contemporary problems into a human framework. The result: it makes us care.

Sandy teaches history and Karen, math, in an overcrowded public high school in the San Francisco area. Both are bright, caring teachers, frustrated by their inability to provide their students with the individual attention a good education requires.
The young and attractive cast handles this high-speed adventure brilliantly. This is ensemble acting at its best, quite the accomplishment for the cast: Molly Densmore (Sandy), Jeanine T. Abraham (Karen), Tim Liu (Will), and Christopher J. Young (Adam) are the four at the center. Donald Danford has a couple of comic turns as Matty and Gabriel Robinson, in his professional acting debut, is a convincing Jesse.

How lighting, sets and props are handled, we won’t even try to describe, but special praise goes to Joyce Liao for the lighting design.

Here’s a chance to have a look at some important contemporary issues while having a good time doing it. You will leave thinking.

Start Down runs at the Kutz Theater, Lackland Center, on the campus of Centenary College in Hackettstown through April 24. There will be a panel discussion about issues raised in the play, featuring three professional educators from local school districts, following the matinee performance on April 17. For information about the panel discussion or the production, contact the CSC offices at 908.979.0900.
Sandy’s longtime boyfriend, Will, is a techie, looking for the next great idea. They’ve been invited to celebrate the engagement of Karen to Adam, who works in finance. The chemistry between the couples brings about some explosive reactions.


From Will’s fertile brain comes an idea for a technology that will allow students to progress at their own individual pace. Slower ones will be directed back to easier prob reveal where this leads, but it further complicates relationship issues among the four friends.

As the software is put into use in real classrooms, new problems arise. Some of this is nicely demonstrated in the interaction between Sandy and Jesse, a student with real potential and real problems. (LEFT L-R Donald Danford as Matty, Timothy Liu as Will. Photo credit: Robert Eberle)

The intrusion of technology into education, and how it might influence the relationships between teachers and students, is a big issue. If Karen has six sections a day, each with 35 students, how can she possibly give daily individual attention to each of 210 students? But if a machine does it—Wait! Can a machine do it? And who is accountable for the results?

This is obviously an intricate web if problems for a playwright to take on. Whether she can solve them, along with a few others, we won’t reveal.
Read Ruth Ross's WWW.NJARTSMAVEN.COM

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review: Monty Python’s 'Spamalot' hilarious at Chatham Players


Consistently one of the top community theaters in any state, The Chatham Community Players is concluding its 94th Season with a wonderful over-the-top production of Monty Python’s wild and wacky Spamalot. This is a must-see for any Monty Phython fan or lover of good old fashion slap-stick comedy. Did we mention deliciously silly?

This is the Tony Award winning musical based loosely on the classic 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy GrailEric Idle, one of the Pythons, wrote the book and lyrics and composed the score with John Du Prez.  It premiered on Broadway in February 2005.   Spamalot won three Tony Awards, including best musical, and ran for more than 1,500 performances. 

This version, directed by James Mosser, with musical director Patrick Phillips and choreographer Jennifer Williams, has all the crazy nonsense of the film, including men in tights, showgirls, flying cows, dancing monks, coarse French soldiers, an armless and legless knight and a killer rabbit. 

At the head of the tale is the not-quite-mighty King Arthur of England (Mark Smith), who, not unlike Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. He is on a  quest to form the Knights of the Roundtable in Camelot with a detour along the way to find the Holy Grail.  The King's journey is met with considerable resistance even from the aforementioned killer rabbit. 

This production is a bit of a jaw-dropper. It has everything.. impressive performers, costumes, scenery, dancing and music. Chatham's Spamalot has to be one of the most ambitious plays a team of volunteer actors and creative support could possibly mount. Wow, do they carry it off, in extraordinary style. 

The cast is wonderful...Mark Smith is perfect as King Arthur. He is assisted by his grossly unappreciated servant and horse Patsy played with great humor by fine voiced Joseph Laurino Jr. (photo). The pair, along with the Knights, sing the favorite song of the show Always Look On The Bright Side.

Chip Prestera, one of the finest comedy performers on anyone's stage, is a major contributor to the fun as the cowardly Sir Robin. He joined the Roundtable to sing and dance! (Prestera is also a guard and Brother Maynard...most of the cast cover more than one part). 

Peter Horn is impressive as the noble Sir Lancelot; Robyn Lee Horn is the beautiful Lady of the Lake possessed with mystical powers. She is terrific singing the Diva's Lament (Whatever Happened To My Part?);  Mike Patierno has fun as Dennis, a lower class ‘mud gatherer’ who becomes Knighted and transforms into the dashing Sir Galahad. He is also Prince Herbert's Father and The Black Knight; Howard Fischer is Sir Bedevere/Dennis' Mother/Concorde; Gus Ibranyi is fine as the narrator/historian and, nicely garners laughs as Not Dead Yet Fred. 

The Ensemble is made up of Jonathan Duvelson, Ronin Ruste, Emily Cyrier, Danielle Pennisi,  Lori Bennett Reyes, Alyssa Carbonell, Toni Orallo, Ashley Phillips, Christopher Erdman, and Cameron Brito. Every Ensemble member plays at least SIX roles.

Rounding out Mosser’s production team, the Producer and Scenic Designer is Bob Lukasik, Production Coordinators are Steffi Denmark and Esther Musili, Stage Manager is Tom Marshall, Scenic Painting by Andrea and Dean Sickler, Costume Designers are Cheryl Galante and Christina Kirk, Lighting Designer is Richard Hennessy and Sound Designer is Joe DeVico.

Again, if you enjoy off-the-wall humor including 'silly walks' this is a must-see. Marvelous effort by all concerned. Four stars.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  May 13, 2016

Remaining performance dates are May 14, 20 and 21 at 8 pm and May 15 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.​ ​Tickets can be purchased at the Box Office or Online. To access the theater’s online ticketing service, simply go to ccp.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. Chatham Playhouse’s box office (973) 635-7363. 



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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' great fun at Chester Theatre Group


L-R: J M Hogan, Leslie Gayle Williams, Jackie Jacobi, Lauri MacMillan,, Tasha R Williams-Seated: Michael King
The Chester Theatre Group premiered its superior production of the Tony Award winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike this past weekend. Once again, we have witnessed a community theater presentation that blurs the line between professional and community 'non-pros.'

This production, directed by Chase Newhart, could easily be transferred to most professional theaters on either side of the Hudson. First, it is a wonderful satire from Montclair native Christpher Durang that won the 'Best Play' Tony in 2013. Second, Newhart has selected a cast of community theatre allstars. From the cast of his recent Glengarry Glen Ross at the Chatham Playhouse he has master actor Michael King as Vanya; for the role of Sonia, he has Lauri MacMillan, who excelled in CTG's When We Were Married and the Barn Theatre's God of Carnage...plus everything else she has done. MacMillan can do it all...with bags of charm. The role of Masha is beautifully played by a newcomer to the intimate Black River Playhouse Leslie Gayle Williams. She just finished a star turn in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at the Barn Theatre in Montville; as the young Nina is Jackie Jacobi who impressed in CTG's Doubt with Dale Monroe; J.M. Hogan is beyond perfect in the outrageous role of the oversexed Spike; Tasha R Williams marvelous in the equally outrageous role of Cassandra, cleaning lady and vodoo practitioner;

The play premiered in 2012 at Princeton's McCarter Theater with a cast led by three-time Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver and four-time Emmy Award winner David Hyde Pierce. The play went on for a good run in New York winning
​the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, as noted.

This production, as you may have guessed, is inspired by Chekhov, but with a modern twist by Durang. It starts in an idyllic setting, a country house in Bucks County Pennsylvania (marvelous set) with Vanya (Michael King), ​calmly at rest in the morning room overlooking a pond, reading while sipping his morning coffee, normally provided by his adopted sister Sonia (Lauri MacMillan).

This morning however, the possibly bi-polar Sonia was tardy and is outraged that he made his own coffee. Her reaction to this dastardly deed is over the top. We reveal only that work was provided for the cleaning lady. Sonia for many years cared for their parents right up to their demented end and now her only sense of worth is providing for her fellow 50 something brother Vanya. The two have lived in the house since childhood. Their names, of course, were selected by their professor parents active in local Bucks County community theater.

Neither Vanya or Sonia have ever been employed, although Vanya has play writing ambitions. Neither, have ever been, or even close to being married, Sonia cries "I haven't lived'' and Vanya is 'quietly' gay, with no apparent relationships. They are living on the good graces of their, dare we say fading, stage and film star sister Masha (Leslie Gayle Williams) who owns the house and pays all the expenses.

Lauri MacMillan and Leslie Gayle Williams
Masha who has been absent for several years returns with an objective that promises to negatively alter Vanya and Sonia's lives. She arrives dramatically, but again remember she's a movie star who never lets anyone forget her exalted status in society, with toy-boy Spike (J.M. Hogan). Her previous romantic encounters included five failed marriages.

Oversexed Spike is happiest when wearing next to nothing, which discreetly registers with Vanya. Keeping the four in line is the sassy cleaning lady Cassandra (Tasha R. Williams) who gets more than her share of laughs as she delights in bursting the pretentious Masha and Spike's balloons. She claims psychic powers and dabbles in voodoo magic. She hilariously applies her voodoo skills on Masha in an attempt to alter her plans.

Early in the play, Masha informs the household that she has been invited to a costume party at the nearby former home of Dorothy Parker. Naturally, only the famous locals are invited, but she has had them (Vanya, Sonia, and Spike) invited in order for her to complete her costume theme (sorry, no reveal/spoiler here either, oops...don't look at the top photo!).

A turning point for Masha comes when a young theater student from next door, Nina (Jackie Jacobi) arrives. Nina is in awe of Masha, while gaining attention from the young stud, Spike....much to Masha's considerable displeasure. Nina gets to demonstrate her acting talent to Masha via a reading of Vanya's unfinished play. She convincingly plays a molecule.

The plot may be thin and a bit obvious but this is a very enjoyable play with many hysterical moments, particularly Vanya (Michael King) venting his frustration with Spike who is rudely texting during the play reading This leads to a rant about modern, sterile, solo communication via e-mail and texting, versus the shared event days of the 1950's. He recalls particularly the tv programs of the period...from Ed Sullivan to Howdy Doody to the very mis-named Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio May 7, 2016

The play sold out for both opening weekend performances (no Mother's Day matinee). The remaining dates are
​May 13, 14, 20, 21 at 8 PM and 15, 22 at 2 PM.
​Tickets are $20.00 with a discounted price of $18.00 for seniors over 65 and students under 18. Tickets may be purchased online at www.chestertheatregroup.org.

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The Chester Theatre Group performs in The Black River Playhbouse, an intimate, 100-seat theater in the heart of Chester Borough’s historic district. The venue’s in-the-round format ensures that every seat offers an engaging, memorable experience for each audience member. The theater is located on the corner of Grove Street and Maple Avenue.

Director Chase Newhart's creative team includes: Producer Ellen Fraker-Glasscock; Stage manager Roxanna Wagner; Set design Stephen Catron; Construction/Painting Stephen Catron and Juliet Messina; Lights/Sound programmer Ellen Fraker-Glasscock; Costumes Francis Harrison; Dresser Barbara Henderson; Props Colleen Lane; and Lights/Sound operator Richard Vetter.

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Sunday, April 10, 2016


Review: 'My Mother, My Sister and Me' a first-class production at the Bickford Theatre


Reviewed by By Ruth Ross

The domestic drama has long been a staple of theater—from the gory Greek tragedies through Eugene O'Neill's searing dissection of his dysfunctional family (Long Day's Journey into Night, now being revived at the Roundabout Theatre in New York) to Neil Simon's gentler comedic trilogy about his childhood in Brighton Beach.

Now, with a nod to Simon, Sherri Heller has penned My Mother, My Sister and Me, a gently charming, coming-of-age dramedy of an eventful summer in the life of Holly Sarah Abrams, a 14-year-old living with her mother, older sister and maternal grandmother in a small Bronx apartment up near Yankee Stadium.


The summer of 1969 is a seminal one in history: Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and the women's movement was in its incipient stage. Locally, the Bronx was in societal flux, as Jewish residents moved out to the suburbs and "new" people (e.g., Latinos) took their place. Physically, construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway meant the demolition of many apartment buildings (my own grandmother's included), and, culturally, Woodstock would change music forever.


Onstage, Holly's parents have separated, her mother has received a job promotion with concomitant benefits, her older sister Robin is in full-throttle rebellion mode and her father Danny has concocted a hare-brained (and illegal) scheme to make money from an apartment building his late father left him. As the world around her changes, Holly yearns to be considered "grown up," which means getting her period and experiencing her first kiss.


As evident in the title, My Mother, My Sister and Me is a tale of women; the three male characters (other than Danny) are mere props. Laura Ekstrand successfully portrays the mother, Arlene, as a strong woman, fiercely protective of her daughters and having little use for her husband Danny, well played by Gary Littman in the thankless role of luftmensch (literally, "air man"), an unambitious man who thinks he can make something of nothing—which, of course, enrages his go-getter wife and has caused their separation. Both actors convey their characters' essential traits very well, although Littman's Bronx accent is more convincing than Ekstrand's, who starts out strong but loses it as the play progresses.


As Heshy Mankowitz, the science teacher/dance instructor who lives with his mother upstairs, Scott McGowan personifies the sixties with his loud shirt and sideburns, but he plays the character as a bit too gay, with his vocal tics and effeminate gestures, thus becoming more a caricature than a real character, something quite unusual for this fine actor. Worse, his Bronx accent sounds almost Bostonian. And as Marco Lopez, the "new" boy on the block who has caught Holly's attention, Ethan Berman needs to work on his stage presence a bit; the character's shyness is understandable (after all, he's only 14 years old), but more confidence and better projection would help his performance immensely.


That leaves the other three actors, all of whom are uniformly terrific. Although it was difficult to hear and understand her in the opening scenes, Paris Mercurio's portrayal of Holly grew in passion and conviction as the evening progressed. Her adorable physical appearance is matched by the character's winning personality, as she attempts to remain loyal to her rebellious sister, placate her mother and grandmother, and navigate the shifting tides of the adult world swirling around her. Every time she addresses the audience (as she does quite often), she wins our hearts. Despite this being her professional debut, Mercurio's stage presence marks her as an actress to watch.


Matching her performance, albeit sometimes a tad too loudly and passionately, is Stephanie Windland as her sister Robin, complete with fake British accent, go-go boots and fringed vest that telegraphs her rebellion. She exhibits great comedic timing and is equally as charming as her sibling (although most parents in the audience may recall their own rebellion or commiserate with Arlene over the difficulty of raising a child on the cusp of adulthood).


Rounding out the cast is Broadway actress Loni Ackerman as grandmother Sylvia Fenster, who has moved into the small apartment and helps raise her granddaughters while her daughter works. For her, Arlene and Danny's separation is jarring (divorce is not a word in her vocabulary), and her misguided efforts bring about the defining conflict of the play. She's not the battle-ax of Neil Simon's grandmother; her softer depiction stems from her awareness of Arlene's magnanimous offer of a place to live out her widowhood, but she could have been a bit more forceful in dealing with her granddaughters. Nevertheless, Ackerman gives us a warm-hearted (grand)parent who loves her family (even those who reside in Long Island) very much.


Eric Hafen directs with an eye to keeping the action humming along (the performance clocks in at two hours), eliciting convincing deliveries of Heller's well-written, natural dialogue. He needs to tighten up the Bronx accents and work on getting the opening scenes off to a stronger start. Jim Basewicz's set depicts a city apartment of the period, but Roman Klima's lighting appeared to wax and wane from time to time inappropriately. Fran Harrison has dressed the actors in costumes appropriate to the time (Robin's attire is especially droll).


Sherri Heller's My Mother, My Sister and Me is receiving a first-class production at the Bickford Theatre, a venue not usually known for producing world premiere efforts. Whatever its (minor) faults, I am confident that as the run progresses (it closes April 17), the performances will grown stronger and more confident.


As it stands, My Mother, My Sister and Me is a nostalgic love letter to strong family values, palpable affection and teenage angst. It also reminds us that change is ever present and unavoidable. As the French say, "Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose"—the more things change, the more they remain the same."  Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)


IMAGE: (L-R) Paris Mercurio, Laura Ekstrand, Scott McGowan, Gary Littman, Stephanie Windland. (Center) Loni Ackerman.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: 'James and the Giant Peach' fun musical for the whole family at The Growing Stage




Attention Parents, Grandparents, even Aunts and Uncles! Here is a wonderful way to spend quality fun time with
your junior members...and introduce them at the same time to the magical world of live theatre. The venue is The Growing Stage, The Children’s Theatre of New Jersey, located in the very child friendly Palace Theatre on Route 183 in Netcong.

The production is the New Jersey premiere of the musical version of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, has Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and Book by Timothy Allen McDonald. The play is under the fine direction of Stephen L. Fredericks, The Growing Stage’s Executive Director with musical direction by Stephen Fox and Choreography by Jillian Petrie.


The charming plot revolves around James, (Danielle Becht), a young newly orphaned English boy, who is sent to live with his only living relatives, two greedy, conniving Aunts, Spiker (Martha Harvey) and Sponge (Lori B.Lawrence). They only agree to take James for the money and free labor. The Aunts quickly demonstrate that they are despicable villains, albeit amusing, with the song, “Property of Spiker and Sponge,” When James is sent by his aunts to chop down their old fruit tree, however, with the help of the mysterious Ladahlord (Robert Allan) he discovers a magic potion which results in a giant peach. Suddenly, James finds himself in the center of the peach among human-­sized insects, but after it falls from the tree and rolls into the ocean; the group faces hunger, sharks and plenty of disagreements.

Thanks to James’ quick wit and creative thinking, the peach residents learn to live and work together as a family. 


Naturally, it all ends happily, except for the Aunts who return to their chosen profession as boardwalk thieves (master pick pockets).

The music and dancing are charming, the sets are attractive, the costumes are colorful and time appropriate, but the production rises to four stars mostly due to the impressive talents of seven professional equity performers and two outstanding community artists. First, is Danielle Becht (photo right), making her Growing Stage debut as the hero James, this young lady (yes... James is beautifully played by Miss Becht who at an early age already has an extensive resume). Robert Allan has great fun as Ladahlord, who mysteriously leads James to a better life, he also serves nicely as a guiding narrator throughout the story with several cute sight gags; Lori B. Lawrence and Martha Simmons Harvey are terrific as Aunts Sponge and Spiker. Nasty, but funny, and clearly not threatening to a young audience, Spiker is the brains whereas Sponge is more concerned with finding something to eat.

Rounding out the fine cast as the insects and various other characters are: Jeremy Feight as Earthworm, a gentle spirit who is a bit of a coward; Izzy Figueroa as Centipede, loyal but a bit of a grouch; Cara Ganski as Ladybug, who takes on a maternal role in James’ life; Robert Mintz as Grasshopper, the ever optimistic leader of the Insects; and Casey Low as the clever, fun­loving Spider.

Director Steve Frederick's excellent creative team includes:  choreography Jillian Petrie, musical direction  Stephen Fox, Perry Arthur Kroeger scenic design, mask design and painting, Becky Nitka sage manager. 

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio   March 19, 2016


JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH will be performed through April 3rd on Friday Evenings at 7:30 pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 4 pm. All Friday tickets are $15, Saturday and Sunday tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $15 for children. The theatre is located at 7 Ledgewood Avenue, Netcong, NJ 07857. To purchase tickets, visit www.growingstage.com or call the Box Office at (973) 347-4946. Group rates and Birthday Party packages are also available.




Photo Credit: Jerry Dalia



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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review: 'FOR WORSE' by Deborah Rennard at New Jersey Repertory Company




FOR WORSE by Deborah Rennard
at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch NJ
Friday, March 11, 2016

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney

"As secretary to the infamous J.R. Ewing, Sly Lovegren (played by Deborah Rennard) watched her boss's marriage to Sue Ellen end in divorce – not once, but twice. During her tenure at Dallas's Ewing Oil, Sly's own marriage came to an end. In 2012, Rennard's union to Oscar-winning screen writer Paul Haggis was also dissolved. Safe to say that Deborah Rennard knows a thing or two about marital strife. Now, Rennard the actor has made the sly transformation to Rennard the playwright with her first fully staged script FOR WORSE, now playing at NJ Rep in Long Branch.

Ed Kershen and Kristin Griffith
The title alone should give ticket buyers a clue as to the sort of play Rennard has written. As the lights go up, Karen Richards (Kristin Griffith) is hearing from her husband Peter (Ed Kershen) that he's been having an affair. The 50-something couple are successful gallery owners and art collectors with adult children. Peter soon discloses that he's been having an affair with 26 year-old Italian artist Lucia (Daniela Mastropietro). Almost inexplicably, and much to Peter's chagrin, Karen is in a forgiving mood and is ready to work through this blip on their matrimonial radar. Karen is not the sort to fail at anything – let alone marriage. Peter, however, has other plans; plans which may or may not also include Ashley (Angie Tennant), his obviously incapable young gallery assistant.

Rennard has taken to heart the sage advice often given to new writers to “write what you know.” Her characters and dialogue have a nice mix of comic and dramatic moments. While the play rarely sheds any new light on the “for worse” part of the marriage vows, it certainly presents the situations convincingly and with plenty of entertainment value. Rennard is massively helped by the exquisite production supplied by NJ Rep. 


The show's greatest asset is Kristin Griffith as Karen. While the play occasionally drifts, Griffith is continually engaging and watchable. As Rennard's surrogate, she had better be. As talented as he is, Ed Kershan's Peter can do little to avoid becoming the evening's hapless schmuck. Rennard's feelings about cheating husbands are all too clear. Lucia and Ashley, the other women in Peter's life (and Rennard's narrative), are capably played by fiery Daniela Mastropietro and quirky Angie Tennant, although there's the nagging feeling that these women might be best relegated to off-stage characters – especially the fumbling Ashley. Director Evan Bergman nicely keeps things as balanced and as brisk as possible.

NJ Rep's production values only get better and better – which bodes well for their eventual move to their new (larger) home at the nearby West End Arts Center. Set designer Jessica Parks' West Village Brownstone is picture perfect, with lots of art pieces on hand to remind you of the characters' professional lives. 


If you are one who drools over fashionable handbags and shoes, FOR WORSE showcases some really noteworthy accessories smartly selected by costume designer Michael Bevins. With each new world premiere NJ Rep enters into a sort of marriage with its playwrights, creating a partnership that can end for better, or for worse. In this case, the result is clearly the former.

FOR WORSE is onstage through April 10th at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey. For tickets or information please visit www.njrep.org or call 732.229.3166.


Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney

Photo by SuzAnne Barabas


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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: 'Becky Shaw' witty tale of a blind date from hell-at Centenary Stage



Terence MacSweeney and Alycia M. Kunkle

Have you ever gone on a blind date? Was it a disaster? 'Becky Sharp' now having its NJ premiere at the Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown is a sharp-witted comedy
​about a blind date that has major life changing results.

The play is from Pulitzer Prize finalist Gina Gionfriddo. Ms. Gionfriddo, also a Obie Award-winner, has written extensively for stage and television, including Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Cold Case and House of Cards. However, her twisted plot of romantic relationships between five very dysfunctional individuals is closer to the more sophisticated pairings in television sit-coms (think Friends, Seinfeld, etc.) 

Alycia M. Kunkle and Aaron Matteson
The play concerns two couples... first...a newly married couple, Suzanna (Alycia M. Kunkle) and Andrew (Aaron Matteson); the other couple, the blind daters, are Max (Terence MacSweeney) and Becky (Suzanne Kimball). The fifth participant in this edge-of-your seat modern comedy of middle-class (bad) manners is Suzanna's recently widowed mother Susan (Catherine Rust).

Now, the plot is a bit complicated containing numerous twists. In the first act we learn that Susan's late husband has left her in a financial mess. Max, who is her adopted son, is a successful money manager trying to secure Susan's financial future. We also learn that Suzanne and Max are very close having been raised as practically brother and sister. Suzanne on a ​ski ​trip meets and marries Andrew. He is sweet, attentive, and a major 'good samaritan', happiest when saving lame ducks. 
Alycia M. Kunkle, Suzanne Kimball, Aaron Matteson

The play really begins when Suzanna sets her 'brother' Max up on a blind date with her husband's mysterious co-worker, Becky Shaw. Becky Shaw is a friendless soul working as an office temp desperate to snare a wealthy husband. In the interest of not revealing too much of the plot we will omit
​the reasons for​ her​ depression. The date is a disaster... Max
​takes an instant dislike ​to Becky and their night is disrupted by a mugging. Max dismisses the mugging, but Becky is traumatized by the event. To Becky's emotional rescue arrives Andrew. Ah, the plot thickens...what we can say is that ​as a result of the 'blind date' every one's life is changed in a major way. 

We fore go any additional plot reveals because Becky Shaw is an intriguing, thought-provoking, beautifully presented play with an excellent cast deserving of your participation.

The director, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, a veteran of the Broadway scene, received Tony Nominations for best director, as well as, best choreographer for Broadway’s “Swing!” among other impressive credits. She has assembled a highly talented cast of professional actors from New York City and New Jersey, three of whom are making their debuts on the CSC stage. 

Catherine Rust and Alycia M. Kunkle
Those making their debuts are: Terence MacSweeny  perfect as the emotionally confused Max, Suzanna’s adopted brother. Aaron Matteson the loving​, overly kind, yes, pious Andrew, Suzanna’s husband. And, Suzanne Kimble in the title role of the emotionally bruised Becky Shaw. Alycia M. Kunkle as Suzanna is superb, a former CSC intern, featured in CSC productions, Ladies Man and A Christmas Carol. She is a unique talent​...deserving of her own standing ovation. The last member of the cast is Catherine Rust as Susan, Suzanna’s mother. Sitnik theatre regulars know her as the General Manager of the CSC. She nicely demonstrates her acting talent by so convincingly portraying a much older woman.

Lynne Taylor-Corbett's creative team has ​also impressed. They include: Dustin Cross who earns kudos for the spot-on costumes, particularly Ms. Rust suits. Jordan Janota's very effective sets, Ed Matthews lighting, and Danielle Constance who makes it 'all go' as the stage manager.

Now, in its second weekend, Becky Shaw continues its run through March 6 in the Sitnik Theater of the Lackland Center. Performances this week are Wednesday, February 24 at 2 pm; Thursday, February 25 at 7:30 pm; Friday, February 26 at 8 pm; Saturday, February 27 at 8 pm and Sunday, February 28 at 2 pm.

Centenary Stage Company is also offering a buffet matinee for the Wednesday, February 24 2 pm performance. All performances are located in the Sitnik Theater of the Lackland Center; 715 Grand Ave. Hackettstown, NJ.

Tickets are $25.00 for adults on Friday and all matinee performances. Saturday evening performances are $27.50 for adults. Thursday evening performances are “Date Night” with $25.00 for all seats and a 2 for 1 rush ticket special when purchased in person at the CSC box office two hours prior to the performance. Buffet/matinee is $42.50 per person with a minimum of 25 people. To reserve for the buffet/matinee contact the CSC box office directly. 



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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: 'The Runner Stumbles' superior thriller with top notch cast at the Bickford



One of the best plays on Broadway in 1976 was the thriller, The Runner Stumbles directed by the noted actor/director Austin Pendleton. Three years later it was made into a major film starring Dick Van Dyke, Kathleen Quinlan, Maureen Stapleton, Tammy Grimes, Beau Bridges, and Ray Bolger. Today, an absolutely first rate staging of this religious themed murder mystery is on view at the Bickford theatre in Morristown.

The play is set in a small Catholic parish located in the desolate area of northern peninsula, Michigan, circa 1911. The former parish priest is on trial for the suspected murder of a young nun ​who died a decade earlier under mysterious circumstances. The jury members, the judge and most of the small town citizens are, unfortunately for the priest, of the 'fire and brimstone' variety of Christians fundamentalists. They share a common fear of anything unnatural or unexplained, such as religion, particularly Catholicism. Note that The Runner Stumbles does not share the theme (child sexual abuse by priests) of the current Oscar nominated movie Spotlight and John Patrick Shanley's Doubt. The play dramatically covers the forbidden love that develops between the priest and the nun and his agonizing struggle with his faith and passion. 


Lizzie Engelberth - Rik Walter (Photo Warren Westura)
This story of love and religion, surprisingly relevant today, is impressively presented by director Eric Hafen, Bickford's artistic director. It is the outstanding lead actors that Hafen has so perfectly cast that take a good play to a truly rewarding theatre experience. The star is the priest (Rev. Brian Rivard) played by a remarkable actor with impressive stage and television credits, Rik Walter. Walter perfectly projects the torment Rivard faces.


The young Nun (Sister Rita) is played convincingly by a newcomer to the Bickford stage, Lizzie Engelberth. She is a recent graduate of Drew University Master's program and has trained at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Engelberth should have a bright future in theater. The three other leads are each highly acclaimed veterans of stages on both sides of the river. In fact, each are past 'best actor' winners in our annual New Jersey Footlight Awards. First, is Liz Zazzi, a delight who excels in everything from comedy to drama. She nails the part of Father Rivard's exceptionally caring housekeeper, Mrs. Shandig. 


Second is, one the best character actors on anyone's stage, J.C. Hoyt (right). Hoyt is spot-on as the inexperienced (in criminal cases) lawyer for Rivard, Toby Felker. His bit-of-a bumbler, good ol' boy character nicely balances the others. 


Third, a particular favorite at the Bickford and NJ Rep, is the highly talented Duncan M. Rogers (left). Rogers projects perfectly the stern, unforgiving, by the book Monsignor Nicholson.

The secondary roles are also nicely cast: Kelley McAndrews (Erna Prindle), and three ​Drew University students- Shakur Tolliver (Amos), Christopher Reyes (Prosecutor) and Ava Serne Portman (Louise). ​Drew University is a co-producer with the Bickford of the play.


L-R: Rik Walter, J.C. Hoyt, Christopher Reyes, Kelley McAndrews, Shakur Tolliver

A note about the author and the source of the story per director Hafen's program comments: "Playwright Milan Stitt began his journey called The Runner Stumbles during his second year of the MFA program at Yale. His assignment was to write an outline for a full length play. As he struggled for an idea, his wife told him a story she had heard as a child in Traverse City, Michigan. In the small town of Isadore just a few miles from Traverse City, a nun had gone missing. Ten years later, her bones were found buried underneath the rectory. A trial began, the murderer was found and a church cover-up was revealed. Stitt loved his wife's idea and began working on the play in 1955. He had no idea that this little school assignment would become his most famous work, nor did he guess that it would occupy the next eleven years of his life. On May 18th, 1976, The Runner Stumbles opened on Broadway....and was listed as one of the Best Plays of 1976."

Director Eric Hafen's creative team:


Set Designer: James Bazewicz
Lighting Designer: Roman Klima
Costume Designer: Angela Rouse
Properties Designer: Danielle Pietrowski
Sound Designer: Andrew Elliott
Make-Up Artist: Christopher Burns
Assistant Stage Manager: Michal Kortsarts
Production Stage Manager: Yumi Matsuura


The thriller is presented in two acts, the first is 75 minutes, the second act 50 minutes. The play is running twelve times at the Bickford Theatre from this past January 28 to February 14, 2016.


Reviewed by Rick Busciglio  Jan. 31, 2016

​Remaining ​Performances

Thursday, Feb. 4 at 7:30PM; Thursday, Feb. 11 at 2PM
Friday, Feb. 5 & 12 at 8PM
Saturday, Feb. 6 & 13 at 8PM
Sunday, Feb. 7 & 14 at 2PM
Audio described performance available on Thursday, Feb. 11 at 2PM

Tickets

$45 General Public; $40 Seniors, Museum & Theatre Guild Members; $33 Groups (10+); $20 Students (under 18 or w/valid college ID).

Tickets may be purchased online at morrismuseum.org, by phone at (973) 971-3706, or in person at the Bickford Theatre Box Office. The Bickford Theatre is an integral part of the Morris Museum, located at 6 Normandy Heights Road in Morristown, NJ, and offers free parking and full accessibility. Box Office hours for phone sales are Monday through Friday, 10:00am to 5:00pm. Walk-up hours are Tuesday through Friday, 11:00am to 5:00pm.


All photos by Warren Westura



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Sunday, January 17, 2016


Review: 'The Pavilion' at Alliance Rep












As the old adage says, "Time heals
everything," but the notion gets knocked on its pointy, platitudinous head in Alliance Rep's production of The Pavilion, now onstage at Mondo in Summit where it runs through January 24.


Despite the ostensible setting of a 20th high school reunion, wherein the Cutest Senior Couple of 1995 confronts each other and a disturbing past event, Time is actually the main character in Craig Wright’s quirky, bittersweet—albeit a bit long and talky—comedic drama. Shepherded by a Narrator  through the evening—he announces the time of each successive event—the script features lots of philosophical talk about the meaning of Time, the role of forgiveness and the possibility for redemption. 

Such talk sometimes interferes with the story of Peter and Kari, the once power couple whose individual lives have not gone so well since Kari's announcement of her pregnancy 20 years before sent Peter heading for the hills, her to an abortion and "rescue" marriage to Hans, the town's golf pro, and him to a career as a psychologist, unable to form lasting relationships as he pines for his high school sweetheart.
Beginning with a brief trip through time from the Big Bang to the present—presented with sober enthusiasm by the Brad Howell (Narrator) at the play's outset and reinforced by a similar pronouncement at the beginning of the second act—Time's passage is signaled by whooshing sounds as the Narrator (above right, as the reunion’s emcee) morphs into a variety of former classmates, male and female, whom Peter and Kari encounter throughout the evening and often get in the way of their story. But anyone who has ever attended a high school reunion knows that these types exist everywhere, not just in Pine City, Minnesota, and their insertion adds to our appreciation of the playwright's ability to evoke a universal experience.

Michael Driscoll has directed this trip through reunion time very well, keeping the action moving despite the long philosophical interludes that could make an audience antsy. Erik Gaden is a winning Peter, obviously still in love with Kari, professing regret for his previous bad behavior and earnestly seeking reconciliation with his beloved, if not total forgiveness. Sarah Kuhns is terrific as Kari, still angry at being abandoned while pregnant and, in a way, blaming Peter's decampment for her loveless marriage and a feeling that her life is an uncomfortable and ever-present 17 degrees off kilter from normality. Kuhn gives a luminous performance, appearing to glow throughout the evening.


The initial awkward meeting of the two is especially delicious, as is Peter's singing of a sweet love song he wrote with the last surviving member of The Mustangs, the school's popular musical group. What makes it especially touching is that we know the lyrics are directed to Kari. Gaden's beautiful performance appeared to touch the audience, for several people wiped tears from their eyes at its conclusion.

In the second act, the two actors meet again, this time out on the town's pavilion, which is about to be torn down to make way for a country music venue. There, as Peter and Kari talk about the past, he reveals himself to not have moved on beyond high school while she, having to deal with the fallout of an unwed pregnancy and subsequent abortion, has become an adult. The contrast is striking, and while the past cannot be rekindled, by the end, some sort of detente appears to be reached.

Gordon Wiener's sparse set manages to evoke a century-old river pavilion, while Ed Pearson's light design is atmospheric, as well as suggestive of a summer sky arching above. Brad Howell's sound design takes us through the four-hour reunion, complete with appropriate music, chatter and that whooshing time warp.

Alliance Rep is known for producing interesting, often quirky, plays that don't involve large casts, elaborate costumes or complicated scenery, and The Paviliondoesn't disappoint in these respects. Despite its being well acted, the play's script is, however, a bit talky and overwritten. 

But Craig Wright (a writer of the television shows Lost and Six Feet Under) and the folks at Alliance Rep offer an interesting "take" on time and its role in our lives and our existence. That the tiny theater downstairs in Mondo brings us close to the actors and the action engenders the feeling that we are part of it all. And for drama to be cathartic, that's a good thing.

The Pavilion will be performed on the lower level of Mondo, 426 Springfield Ave., Summit, through January 24, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday, January 24, at 7 PM. For information and tickets, call 908-472-1502 or visit http://alliancerepertory.ticketleap.com/pavilion/  online.

Ruth Ross


Photos courtesy of Alliance Rep
Reviewed by Ruth Ross (njartsmaven.com)

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