As the year comes to a close we looked back at the more than 60 plays that we (with Michael T. Mooney, Ruth Ross, and Sheila Abrams as guest contributors) had the opportunity to review since January 2014. The plays covered included mostly professional plus a small group of community theatre productions.
Due to overlapping schedules and travel concerns because of weather and other considerations (this year it also involved a bit of heart bypass surgery!) it was, of course, not physically possible to cover the nearly 100 productions that invited us to review. That said…here (with our review comments) is our selection of performers and/or productions to which we award a “Footlight” for excellence.
This was no easy task, the level of performances were equal to most of the activity across the Hudson. Not surprising since much of our talent works both sides of the river. Simply put…theater is alive and well in New Jersey.
LEA ANTOLINI-LID (“Peter Pan” Centenary Stage Company-Hackettstown)
“Now, here is where a barrage of superlatives are in order to describe the performance of Lea Antolini–Lid (photo). Her Peter Pan is extraordinary. She is a pure joy to watch (yes, worth the price of admission!). Clearly she is having the time of her (stage) life in this role. Her dancing and singing abilities have possibly never been more perfectly showcased. She charms from the dramatic first arrival in the Darling nursery in search of her shadow….flying of course, to the touching reunion with Wendy, a mother herself in the final scene. “
ANTOINETTE LaVECCHIA (‘’I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” George Street Playhouse-New Brunswick)
“A funny one-woman show with dinner made live on stage! The one-woman play is based on a memoir of the same name by Giulia Melucci, adapted for the stage by Jacques LeMarre. Giulia (played by the irresistible Antoinette LaVecchia). The banquet is one part “Shirley Valentine” with a generous dollop of “Moonstruck” thrown in for local flavor. The entertaining result is as if Rachael Ray were on Dr. Phil – while cooking.
What the play itself might lack in dramatic spice is more than made up for by Ms. LaVecchia’s ‘abbondanza’ of talent. Thanks to her, equal parts warmth and wit subtly flavor the evening and manage to elevate this culinary confessional from light repast to theatrical feast. Buon appetito!” (edited)
AMES ADAMSON (“Butler” New Jersey Repertory Theatre-Long Branch)
“With a rock-solid script and assured direction, the success of the play falls to the actor cast as Butler. NJ Rep regular Ames Adamson (photo above right) is nothing short of magnificent in the title role. His is a considered, exacting performance that keeps us riveted throughout. Thanks to his odd period hairstyle and desk-jockey paunch, Adamson also looks alarmingly like photographs of the real-life Butler. The actor inhabits the character inside and out.”
GLORY CRAMPTON (“My Fair Lady” Algonquin Arts Theatre-Manasquan)
“Glory days have returned to the Jersey Shore! Not Springsteen, but Crampton. Nationally known stage and recording star Glory Crampton (photo above right) is currently lighting up Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre as Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY. New Jerseyans can be forgiven for having a moment of deja vu. Crampton starred in the classic Lerner and Loewe musical for the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse in 2002. A dozen years later, her ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ of a Cockney flower girl seems even more ‘delightfully downtrodden’, more ‘deliciously dirty’ (as her tutor Henry Higgins calls her).”
STEVEN L.BARRON (“Harvey” Centenary Stage Company)
“Director Carl Wallnau has beautifully brought to life this tale of a man whose best friend and constant companion is a six foot and one inch tall rabbit… that only he, of course, can see.
The success of the comedy belongs in large part to the performance of Steven L. Barron, Barron is excellent. His Elwood has the perfect gentle, honest, naive qualities and gentlemanly demeanor so necessary to the success of the play. Barron’s Elwood reminds us of the marvelous French comedian and film maker of the post war period, Jacques Tati. His character Monsieur Hulot had the same gentle quality. (edited)
THE ALCHEMIST (Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey-Madison)
“Madcap comedy opens at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey…think a cross of ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ and ‘Noises Off, with a heavy dose of the Marx Brothers at their zaniest.
The play is the rarely produced bawdy satire The Alchemist by Ben Jonson.
Director (Bonnie) Monte (a recognized NJ theatre treasure), has skillfully brought this play to life with an outstanding ensemble of actors, all masters of comedy. This terrific cast of pros is led by four of the most eccentric characters in this play (where the lunatics rule)…Jon Barker excellent as Face, master of disguises; Bruce Cromer better than perfect as the charlatan Subtle; Aedin Moloney spot-on as the friendly prostitute and Brent Harris as the outrageous nobleman (magnificent gold costume). Harris performs with exceptional exuberance…a showstopper turn. Moloney is a very special, one-of-a-kind actress who greatly impressed us last season as George Eliot in the world premiere production of A Most Dangerous Woman. She teams beautifully with Barker and Cromer to make this a special theater event. The Alchemist is a bit of a marathon event… Monte has reworked the plot to a still robust 2 hours and forty-five minutes. Her remarkable effort required hundreds of cuts and word changes, plus deleted minor characters and locations. The result is outstanding theater.” (Edited)
BUTLER (New Jersey Repertory Theatre-Long Branch)
“ A solid new play about the Civil War by Richard Strand. The play is pitch perfect in both structure and dialogue – a rarity for a world premiere. He paints a textual picture of a man who is more at home on the bench than the battlefield. Butler is a complex character, one with moral ambiguities – a beast with a brain. In his NJ Rep debut, director Joseph Discher stages the play with a no-nonsense briskness that always values words over movement, something that would please the Major General, no doubt.’
OUR TOWN (George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick)
“ A wonderfully simple and heartfelt production returning the show to its NJ roots.
“Director David Esbjornson wisely eschews directorial trickery to present a clean, concise and ultimately traditional OUR TOWN that manages to fulfill Wilder’s mission of being palpably modern while simultaneously recalling a lost time and place. Esbjornson brilliantly reinforces those themes with subtle touches. Act Two’s nuptials are set amid the orchestra section, involving us, the audience, in a way that never seems forced or gimmicky.
Mid-way through the play, Thornton Wilder has one of the town’s youngest citizens muse on their place in the world: “Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” Specific and universal – that’s the brilliance of OUR TOWN and in aim this production excels.” (edited)
MARRY HARRY (American Theatre Group, Rahway)
“ A new old fashioned musical about love and romance. As the title might suggest, MARRY HARRY is an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love story….The tuneful new score by Dan Martin and Michael Biello is a lot like biscotti – sweet, satisfying and easily digested. If all this sounds terribly conventional – it is. Delightfully so! Book writer Jennifer Robbins inserts a modern sensibility, but it is really the uniformly excellent cast that grounds MARRY HARRY and keeps it consistently entertaining.
Director Kent Nicholson never forgets that the most important ingredient in this character-driven show is chemistry and toward that end he has assembled a first rate cast. Howie Michael Smith and Jillian Louis are bright and attractive nearly thirty-somethings – just as delightful to watch fall ‘head over heals’ as they are to listen to when they sing about it. As Big Harry and Debby, Danny Rutigliano and Michele Ragusa match them witty word for word and notable note for note. There isn’t a finer musical theater character actress than Ragusa, who infuses every moment with expert comic timing and nuance.
It’s obvious that the development process has fine-tuned MARRY HARRY, an old-fashioned musical about falling in love. The result is a heart-felt love letter to musical comedy.” (edited)
CAMELOT (Two River Theatre-Red Bank)
“By thinking out of the box, the creative team at Two River has given us a play that is less spectacle and more human. Eschewing the elaborate scenery and costumes of most other productions (e.g., Broadway, the Paper Mill Playhouse), director David Lee and his crackerjack production team provide this classic romantic triangle with more nuance than we usually associate with it. It’s all about the people, folks.
“As Arthur, Oliver Thornton —has a beautiful voice and a playful manner, as showcased in “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight” and his vivid explanation of what simple folk do when they’re blue.
Britney Coleman is a fetching Guenevere, a strong young woman who nevertheless longs to have men fight for her honor in the traditional way!
Nicholas Rodriguez (a Channing Tatum look-alike) is magnificent in the role of the arrogant French knight who crosses the Channel to join the Round Table. –And his rendition of “If Ever I Would Leave You” brings tears to the eyes.
Best of all, real chemistry, physical and psychological, is exhibited by this trio. We feel their longing, love and pain very keenly, unobscured by pomp and ceremony.” (edited)
SOUTH PACIFIC (Paper Mill Playhouse-Millburn)
“Opening night of South Pacific at the Paper Mill Playhouse was truly “some enchanted evening” as Richard Rodgers’ lush melodies and Oscar Hammerstein’s clever and affecting lyrics, sung by attractive and talented actors, enveloped the playhouse’s cavernous auditorium, transporting the audience to the South Pacific Ocean where Americans battled the Japanese in the 1940’s.
Director Rob Ruggiero, choreographer Ralph Perkins and music director Brad Haak give us a production worthy of Broadway. The cast they have assembled is talented, energetic, attractive and have no trouble carrying both the music and the dance steps. Erin Mackey is a lovely Nellie. Her clear soprano soars as she reveals she’s a cockeyed optimist who’s in love with a wonderful guy whom she later wants to wash right outta her hair! As Emile de Becque, Mike McGowan conveys the man’s gravity while letting us see how besotted he is with Nellie. He is very handsome, and his baritone bowls us over as he sings of that enchanted evening when he first spied Nellie. As Nellie slips through his fingers, he sings “This Nearly Was Mine” so poignantly that it brings a tear to the eye.
Doug Carpenter, as Lt. Joseph Cable, conveys the yearning of a young man far from home who falls in love with a native girl, winsomely played by Jessica Wu. Carpenter’s tenor is especially suited to the song that Oscar Hammerstein wrote that sums up the play in a nutshell (and caused quite a stir when it was sung at the premiere), “You’ve Got to Be Taught.” Tally Sessions’ Luther Billis is a real operator, but one who can sing and dance, kicking up his heels as he leads the Seabees in their lament “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” or as Honeybun at the camp variety show. And Loretta Ables Sayre brings down the house as the conniving and profane Bloody Mary; her rendition of “Bali H’ai” will not be forgotten.
This sublime example of American Musical Theater reminds us of how much we have missed with the passing of two musical geniuses. A big thank you goes to the Paper Mill Playhouse for reviving South Pacific just in time for its 65th anniversary. When it opened in 1949, starring Broadway’s darling Mary Martin and opera great Ezio Pinza, its themes were edgy and the war had been over for just a half decade. That it has stood the test of time is testament to its brilliance and, yes, to the fact that racial prejudice is still with us. And, it is a prime example of the heights to which the Paper Mill Playhouse will go to entertain us.
There are no special effects, cartoon figures brought to life or jukebox melodies; what there is onstage is what the American theater does best: musical theater in all its glory.” (edited)
WITTENBERG (Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey-Madison)
“If you have ever wondered what a critic meant when he or she described a production as a tour de force, I suggest you run, do not walk, over to the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison to see one in the flesh. There, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has mounted the dazzling New Jersey premiere of a wickedly clever play about the Protestant Reformation (yes, the Reformation, really) called Wittenberg, penned by David Davalos, and it is a production you won’t want to miss. Davalos has likened the University of Wittenberg as akin to Berkeley in the 1960s, “a center for intellectual ferment” and “a certain amount of invention”—a perfect setting for the exhilarating verbal pyrotechnics and war of ideas that play out before our eyes.
The brilliant cast Joe Discher (Note: he also directed BUTLER!) has assembled delivers these lines with wry humor. Jordan Coughtry’s Hamlet is the quintessential collegian, caught up in the intellectual foment around him while worried about an upcoming tennis match with a player named Laertes from the University of Paris. Torn between the theology of Luther and the philosophical pronouncements of Faustus, he has wild nightmares about a bottomless abyss upon whose edge he teeters; Coughtry’s recital of his dream is a wonder to behold!
But it is the two actors playing Faustus and Luther who carry the brunt of the action as they struggle for the young man’s attention. Anthony Marble is excellent as a very contemporary Faustus (he plays guitar in a coffeehouse called The Bunghole), a lawyer and physician who dispenses coffee and special candies that contain a drug suspiciously like marijuana as antidotes to Luther’s constipation and Hamlet’s emotional turmoil. He cavorts around the stage, jumping on benches and tables, a veritable whirlwind of ideas and knowledge. As Luther, Mark H. Dold wrestles mightily with his bowels and his faith, while dueling with Faustus over Hamlet’s fate. Rounding out this quartet of talent is Erin Partin as the Eternal Feminine. As Helen of Troy, she rejects Faustus’ marriage proposal, but allows him to make love to her in a wild scene that accompanies a lecture given by Luther on a Biblical text. She also appears in other female incarnations, all of them different, and all of them comical. The four actors exhibit spot-on comedic timing that keep the quips coming quickly and hilariously.” (edited)
ALAN SEMOK (Dicken’s Christmas Carol-Chatham Players-Chatham
“Playing Scrooge for the eleventh time (since 1988!) is the veteran actor Alan Semok. Semok’s performance this year, as it the past editions, deserves a rave review. He is outstanding as Ebenezer making the transformation from the “cold-hearted, tight-fisted and greedy man, who despises Christmas and all things which give people happiness.” His “Only A Fool” song brought tears to the eyes of more than a few in the full audience.” Semok’s recognition is long overdue.
BOB MACKASEK (“A Christmas Story” Barn Theatre in Montville)
“Bringing this fun tale to life is a wonderful, exuberant cast led by Bob Mackasek as Jean Shepherd. Mackasek is simply terrific. Not hard seeing him in the same role on any stage including NYC. His warm, at-ease style, with a twinkle in his voice, is the glue that holds the show together-a bit of a cliché, but appropriate.”
CARLA KENDALL (“Master Class” Barn Theatre-Montville
“Last year we wrote ‘Carla Kendall excels as Diane, the opera singer ready to advance her career via the casting couch, in this case, the bed…in “Lend Me A Tenor” at the Barn Theatre. Now… Carla Kendall is back on that stage again as an opera singer, but this time center stage giving a master class in acting, in the aptly named “Master Class.” The Tony award-winning play by Terrence McNally is based on a series of master classes given by fiery opera diva Maria Callas at Julliard in New York….The role of Maria Callas is exceptionally demanding for an actress. This is her story, her play, she is on stage for the entire play. The five other roles in Master Class could be likened to opera spear-carriers….important, but vastly over shadowed by the star…and Kendall is the star in every sense of the word. To say she is simply “terrific,” is an understatement. She is marvelous. Always in full control of the emotional roller-coaster the demanding part requires.” (edited)
GLORIA LAMOUREUX (“Good People” Chester Theatre Group-Chester)
“With Good People Lindsay-Abaire has written a remarkable play about the struggles of life in the blue collar, working class area of South Boston where he grew up and a local is called “Southie.” The heroine-victim of “Good People” is Margaret, played by Perry award winner (New Jersey Community Theater Association’s “Tony” —for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play-Shirley Valentine) Gloria Lamoureux.
Gloria Lamoureux’ touching, sensitive performance in Good People is truly outstanding. She may be on her way to another Perry. It is exciting to see how such a fine actress, with a superior, well directed, cast can light the stage and remind us of the magic that is unique to live theater.” (edited)
TERRI STURTEVANT (“Ping” Chatham Playhouse-“Jersey Voices”)
Ping by Mary Jane Walsh
“A one-woman play that depicts, in a riveting fashion, a mother’s unwavering love for her grown child. This production featured Terri Sturtevant. Directed by Arnold J. Buchiane. Terri Sturtevant won the 2012 ‘Best Actress’ Perry Award for this role. She is not only a marvelous comedy actress, but in Ping wins our hearts with this show stopping dramatic performance. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. The play and Terri can best be described with one word…”WOW.” (edited) Terri earned this encore recognition.
A CHRISTMAS STORY…the Musical (Barn Theatre-Montville)
“A Christmas Story the Musical had its New Jersey premiere last night at the Barn Theatre in Montville. It is directed by Scott Hart, one of the producers of the Broadway musical (a Tony nominee last year). We are doubtful if anyone not as intimately involved with the New York production as Hart could have pulled-off this amazing large scale production. The sheer size of the cast– combining some of the most experienced, most talented, area performers with a sprinkling of talented novices, largely of the juvenile variety, has to have been a major challenge. Wow… did he with musical director Charles Santoro, choreographer Megan Ferentinos and producer Nancy Zeidenberg deliver in all areas. This production can best be described with two words…JOY and JOY–one for each act.” (edited)
RUTHLESS! the Musical (Chester Theatre Group- Chester)
“Ruthless! the musical is an outrageously campy delight. It is a parody of Broadway musicals and iconic Hollywood movies such as The Bad Seed,Gypsy, and All About Eve.
Rarely have we seen a play with stand-out performances from all cast members, but each member had a show stopping star-turn.
Young Molly Farrell was truly remarkable as the evil singing and tap dancing Tina. Maria Ludwig Brodeur was terrific as wimpy Judy Denmark and then the confident, arrogant Ginger Del Marco. Michael Foley was sensational as Sylvia St. Croix. He delivered a spot-on performance as a manipulating (female) agent.
Beth Amiano Gleason wowed with both her Miss Thorn, the third grade teacher, and the black leather dressed reporter Ms.Block. Director Cindy Alexander, musical director Clifford Parrish, choreographer Megan Ferentinos, producer Ellen Fraker-Glasscock and assistant director Bob Longstreet deserve their own ovations for the impressive effort in overcoming a tough situation (last minute cast change) and our admiration for the outstanding production they produced. The phoenix did not just rise it soared!“ (edited)
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