Bristol’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR; A leap of faith that works!

Put away your Nazarene garb and sandals. This Superstar rocks a “Rent” style talent- heavy production. 

Director Keith Baker who celebrates his 30 years as Bristol’s Artistic Director pushes the envelope without going over the top for Bristol’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

Bristol Riverside Theater presents a dramatic and visually exciting take on “a global phenomenon that has wowed audiences for over 40 years. Jesus Christ Superstar is a timeless work set against the backdrop of an extraordinary and universally-known series of events but seen, unusually, through the eyes of Judas Iscariot.” ~ Jesus Christ Superstar website.

Having seen the staged production twice on Broadway, three times regionally with such iconic actors/singers as Ted Neely (the original Jesus on film), Danny Zolli as Jesus, Kevin Gray as Pilate, Tony Vincent as Judas as well as Rock star Sebastian Bach as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas and many more, well, you never know what to expect when a theater mounts this epic sometimes controversial rock opera.

The first thing to puzzle the Bristol crowd is the 25 foot stage totally covered wall to wall with white steps. So perhaps this is going to be very dramatic or a disaster or both! Fortunately and thanks to the talents of Choreographer Stephen Casey this entire cast was really on their toes, carefully placed for every scene and song. The steps were treated to some very high tech lighting and projections by Joe Doran and John Hoey that enhance each scene as they scroll over the steps.

The cast, from the mop -headed Patrick Dunn (Jesus) who is a marvelous Messiah to Adam Kemmerer (Judas) who is the show-stealing snitch to Ciji Prosser ( Mary Magdalene) who warms the heart, each bring out their best and they simply dazzle! Dunn’s “Gethsemane”, which every die-hard JCS demands perfection, possess a ‘got-to-hear-it-to believe it ‘voice sustaining his money notes to the next level.

Kemmerer’s Judas is a magnet of madness and frustration. Ciji Prosser captures Mary Magdalene so realistically. Her “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” was one of the sweetest most vulnerable versions I’ve seen and heard. Standout performances are offered by Julian Alvarez (Simon Zealotes) and Derrick Cobey (Peter), who also sings the touching “Could We Start Again Please? duet with Mary Magdalene. The stern Caiaphas was strongly played and sung as deep as any baritone as I’ve heard by long-time actor Steve Steiner.

 

The 15 piece orchestra cleverly almost hidden top left of the steps aptly handles the 25 rock song made famous by the incredible Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Such favorites include “Heaven on Their Minds”, “Hosanna”, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, Gethsemane”, Could We Start Again Please?”, “King Herods’s Song”, and of course “Superstar”.

Baker’s strong directional moments are seen in his many choices; the focus on Mary Magdalene’s big solo number staged and spotlighted sitting alone as she wipes off her lipstick and tears off her wig to expose a vulnerable woman changed by her affection for Jesus. The sick, blind and lame appearing in ghostly white veiled cloth begging Jesus to heal them adds a dramatic touch. “King Herod’s Song” and scene is a flashback to a Ziegfield Follies Revue. (I found it amusing at the reactions from this somewhat older perhaps new to JCS audience seemingly unsure of some of goings on at times). Pilate (Darren Ritchie) is presented as a modern-day typical rich business man, who plays golf during the persecution of Christ. The fact the actual crucifixion is never seen yet heard and felt quite dramatically. I was wishing that a resurrection would take place…but we all know the true story!

All in all these actors were completely up for the task of the show on the steps and Keith Baker’s gut feelings for his Superstar proves “Everything’s Alright” about this production.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR plays at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, Bristol Pa. through April 16. For tickets and information visit www.brtstage.org  call 215.785.0100.

Production Photo Credits: Mark Garvin

Pati Buehler (Broadwayworld.com) and Derrick Cobey (Peter)

 

Review: JOHN AND JEN at the Eagle Theatre

The truth and conviction of the human spirit makes this John & Jen a gorgeous triumph.

John & Jen, a story that spans over 50 years, is an intimate tale about connections, commitments and the healing of the human heart.

We meet Jen as a 6 year old singing “Welcome to the World” to her baby brother John promising to make sure he’s happy and as safe as he can be; promises that are easily made yet in time take on a darker new meaning. Every family has its unique problems and situations. Turns out father has a temper that occasionally turns violent and Jen soon sees that John in sometimes the target of his rage. The two vow to work it out together in a cozy attic which becomes their safe place and later becomes a testing ground for the growing siblings over the years.

There is much to get involved with about this story; an emotional score by Broadway’s Andrew Lippa featuring some of his finest work paired with lyrics by Tom Greenwald and a book by both. Then there’s the incredible acting and vocals by Adam Hoyak (John) and Kimberly Suskind (Jen) and the effective direction of Ted Wioncek III. Wioncek takes a piece that was basically staged in a ‘black box’ setting and enhances the production by inviting the audience into the cozy attic filled with family treasures, memorabilia and stored pieces from their lives. It’s in this setting that Hoyak and Suskind live out their hopes, dreams, and frustrations as they bond together during their childhood and sing their hearts out!  The two brilliantly and believably become excitable little children who grow together and inevitably apart from one another as their evolving feelings and independence present challenges into young adulthood. Again Lippa’s score propels the emotions which always seem to be the focal point of the story with numbers such as the playful ‘Think Big”, “Trouble With Men”, (showing how Jen’s troubles with Dad affected her), “Hold Down the Fort”, (as the two march into young adulthood) “It Took Me While” and “Run and Hide”, as the two part bitterly ending Act One.

John and Jen could have ended gloriously after Act One, which I understand was the original idea during the reading stages of this Off- Broadway show that opened in 1995. However the creators decided to add a second act as Jen’s story takes on a new life after the death of her brother. As Jen struggles with layers of sadness, guilt and regret while raising a young son, also named John, also played by Hoyak after her brother, the plot takes on a whole new set of problems arising with Jen’s inability to let her son grow on his own fearing she would lose him as well. It was Act Two that I became aware of the similarities of this piece with Brian Yorkey, Tom Kit’s Broadway hit show “Next To Normal” who’s story-line revolves around the loss of a family member and repercussions that affect a family when a mother mourns and suffers through the loss alongside her family.

Jen relives her memories of her brother with and through her son in songs “Old Clothes” and “Just Like You” as her son struggles to become his own person apart from his uncle’s memory and Jen struggles to find a way to deal with letting go. Powerful songs such as “The Road Ends Here” (Jen’s recognition to let go and move on) and the ending song “Every Goodbye is Hello” bring the show to full circle leaving a totally immersed audience perhaps thinking about friends and family members facing the reality we call… life.

JOHN and JEN plays at The Eagle Theatre, 208 Vine St. Hammonton, NJ on selected dates through April 9. For tickets and information: visit www.eagletheatre.org or call 609.704.5012

Production Photos: Chris Miller

photo: Adam Hoyak (John), Kimberly Suskind (Jen), Artistic Director Ted Wioncek III, Pati Buehler ( PBENT.com/BWW.com) standing.

Interview: “Catch a Rising Star” Kimberly Suskind from “JOHN AND JEN”

Hammonton, NJ‘s Eagle Theatre brings in one of their favorite talents to star in Off Broadway’s “John and Jen”, a musical journey about a family’s strengths, weaknesses, hopes, failures and redemption.

Playing John is another Eagle favorite Adam Hoyak and Jen is played by Kimberly Suskind. We are spotlighting Kimberly who is no stranger to the Eagle Theatre having been part of 7 Eagle productions including Godspell, Heathers! The Musical, Beehive: The Musical and The Civil War.

Kimberly is far from a novice to the stage with a long resume of singing, acting and dancing in local and regional productions include Young Frankenstein (Elizabeth Benning), Burt and Me (Lacey) at the Delaware Theater Company and one of four productions at the Theater Barn in New York.

I caught up with Kimberly after the Eagle opening of John & Jen; the 1995 Off Broadway musical written by Broadway’s Andrew Lippa.

Pati Buehler: Kimberly, please shed some light on this emotional story and how did you prepare for the role?

Kimberly Suskind: This role is so incredibly special to me! I fell in love with John & Jen in college and could never get through the cast recording without tearing up. It’s such a beautiful story that everyone can relate to in some way. The relationships between two family members, whether it be brother and sister, mother and son, or any other combination, is often full of tension, affection, and most importantly, unconditional love. As far as preparing for the role, other than learning the extensive music and dialogue, I was fascinated by documentaries on the two sides of the Vietnam War and researching the 1960s counter culture. I love an opportunity to research and becoming more familiar with different time periods!

Kimberly’s bio reveals that she was singing at 18 months old and dancing by 3. Seems like she never stopped! Please tell where you call home and what was your family life all about?

KS: It’s true! Once I started, I was hooked forever. I’m very lucky to say, both of my parents were incredibly supportive of my career choice and helped me achieve everything I set out to do. My mother took me to infinite auditions, dance classes and rehearsals. I’m grateful every day that she believed in me and was will to give so much of her own time. My 14 year old little sister, Kayci, has the theatre bug too! My two brothers, Kayci’s twin, Tyler, and my older brother, Matt, have their own interests and specials skills. I actually spent my childhood moving about every two years, a corporate brat, some might say. I’ve lived in 9 states, all over the country, and went to eleven schools. I usually say I’m from Seattle, as that’s where I attended high school. My family now resides in beautiful southern Florida.

Kimberly earned her BFA in Musical Theater at the Boston Conservatory where she was awarded the Sue Ronson Levy Tap Scholarship. In addition to rigorous training in acting and dancing, her special skills include dialects in British, Cockney, Irish, New York, Southern and Jewish Grandmother! Having seen this delightful always smiling young actress in several productions I’d love to see you cast in a show requiring a Jewish Grandmother! Have you had the opportunity to use any of these ‘special talents’?

KS: I’m laughing out loud about that one! My lovely grandma, Sheila Cohen, is the inspiration as my quintessential Jewish grandmother and I have spent my lifetime trying to emulate her fabulous Brooklyn-born accent! She loves to have me “Do my voice!” in front of her friends. Why not throw in something to add a little humor to a resume? That being said, unfortunately, I’m never asked to portray a role that requires it. I’m still holding out hope! I have been able to use some other dialects, mostly southern and British.

PB: What do you hope the audience of John and Jen take away from this show?

KS: I hope the audience will leave the theatre thinking, “Wow, I need to call my family.” Our director, Ted Wioncek III, has found every touching and heartfelt moment the script has to offer. It’s so rewarding to work with someone who can read between the lines and lyrics to extract beautiful hidden meaning. I hope the production will warm the hearts of our audiences and encourage them to experience rarely produced musicals and plays! There are some hidden gems out there, and this is one of them!

Kimberly and Adam will appear in JOHN and JEN at The Eagle Theatre, 208 Vine St. Hammonton, NJ on selected dates through April 9. For tickets and information: visit www.eagletheatre.org or call 609.704.5012 For more information about Kimberly Suskind visit www.kimberlysuskind.com

Photo # 1 Kim in Eagle’s Beehive: The Musical-Photo credit: Chris Miller

Photo # 2 Adam Hoyak (John) and Kimberly Suskind (Jen) in “John and Jen”- Photo credit: Chris Miller

Photo # 3 Kim ( Elizabeth Benning) “Young Frankenstein, Barn Theater – Photo credit: A. Phelps

Cherry Hill East High School “Ragtime: The Musical” School Edition

A South Jersey High school drives its “Wheels of a Dream” bravely through a wonderful production. Surrounded by a barrage of local and regional media attention Cherry Hill East High School decides to “Make Them Hear You”.

The sweeping musical based on the novel ‘Ragtime’ by E.L. Doctorow came alive with a strong young cast that did justice to the spectacular score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Easily one of most under-rated musicals to come out of Broadway in the last 20 years, Ragtime: The Musical—with book by Terrence McNally, follows the lives of three families and their communities through the tumultuous and promise filled early 20th century. For each member of the African American, upper-class suburbanite, and Eastern European immigrant groups, the fight for understanding brought unique perspectives to this vibrant and challenging time in American history.

Cherry Hill East’s decision to follow the shows script as outlined by MTI (Music Theater International) brought a barrage of confrontation due to the racial language and profile of this piece. But copyright laws prohibited modifying the script, leaving the district with the option to perform the musical as written or not at all.

Superintendent Joseph Meloche, who made the decision to allow the musical to go on as written with racial slurs, said the required class discussions about racism and stereotypes were an important first step for the district of 11,350 students “History and English classes for thousands of students at Cherry Hill East took a detour to engage in a hefty subject: race and the N-word.” The South Jersey district has developed a special curriculum to discuss those sensitive themes before the production of Ragtime-School Edition hit the school’s stage for a nine-day run.

The issue sparked such far- reaching interest to the extent that Broadway’s Brian Stokes Mitchell, the star of the original production, came down to his experience and support at Cherry Hill High School East. Prior to the opening he tried to help students address the thorny use of the N-word and other racially charged language in the school’s upcoming production. The student actors rose to the challenge by making a public statement before each performance assuring their stand on this delicate matter.

Ragtime is a show that reaches hearts to the core. No story more dramatic and touching than the relationship of the musical’s central couple, Sarah played by Ashley Cooper and Coalhouse Walker Jr played by Cedric Middleton. With a highly charged emotion- fueled score it reveals the carelessness of young love in songs “Sarah Brown Eyes” the heartbreak of the losses that weighs heavy on the two young lovers. The powerful desperation of “Your Daddy’s Son” and the smooth sorrow of “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy” equally express emotional power. Both Cooper and Middleton are expressively caught up in their respective roles and are outstanding in their roles which are played to near perfection. The role of Father was played nicely by Ezra Nugiel and Mother beautifully played and sung by Katherine Trauger whose soars in “Back To Before”. From Emma Goldman played by Kathryn Quay to Evelyn Nesbit played by Jacki Orlando, each actor delivers a performance to be proud of and thoroughly grabs the audience at every scene. For a musical already driven so lyrically by the stories of individuals, these actors made me taste the struggles, the disappointment, and the hope that they each lived.

Often bringing comic relief to the production was the inextinguishable optimism and fatherly devotion of Tateh played by Jake Ropka, faced with years of hardship after his decision to move his life and daughter to a new life in America. Ropka’s Tateh was rooted in kindness, determination. You could see his character’s energy touching every member of the company.

The powerhouse behind any production typically goes to the director(s) and East’s Theater director Tom Weaver and co-director and choreographer Sandi Makofsky can take a well deserved bow! The two manage to wrangle over 100 student/actors and turn this energy into a flowing, well acted, well synchronized creation. Weaver is also is responsible for the impressive sets and lighting. Scenes were visually stunning and the addition of projections by Peter Gambino, particularly the moving train scene is quite effective. Noel Davis’s beautiful period costumes add to the authentic feel of the 1920’s.

RAGTIME- School Edition plays at the Cherry Hill East High School, Kresson Rd. Cherry Hill on selected dates through 3/19. For tickets and more information visit: www.chetheatre.com  

Production Photo: Cherry Hill East Theatre

Photo: Brian Stokes Mitchel and Cedrick Middleton (Coalhouse)

Photo Credit: Tricia Burroughs

SISTER ACT at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Those wonderful sisters are at it again!
The Sisters “Raise Their Voices” in historic Haddonfield New Jersey with a heavenly, heartfelt production.
For those not from South Jersey, welcome to one of the oldest theater troupes in the area. Since 1934 this dedicated group of individuals has performed in many local venues, including the Haddonfield Fortnightly and the Kingsway Learning Center. In 1986, they built a 150 seat performing arts center where they now do most of their productions.
Based on the popular 1992 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg award-winning composer Alan Menken and lyrics by Grammy winner Glenn Slater bring this story to life and almost everyone loves these singing nuns.

The cast is delightful from the super talented Paige Smallwood who plays Deloris
Van Cartier to Tami Gordon Brody playing Mother Superior to Sister Mary Robert (Kelsey Hogan), Sister Mary Patrick (Karen Henry), Monsignor O’Hara (Charles L. Bandler). Terrance Hart puts in a standout performance as Eddie (Sweaty Eddie), the officer/hero who saves the day!

For the few who don’t know the story, the show tells the story of Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring disco diva in late 1970’s Philadelphia. Deloris accidentally witnesses her mobster boyfriend Curtis killing a man in cold blood. Deloris runs to the police for safety and agrees to testify against her ex. Officer Eddie Souther, a shy, nervous man who had a crush on Deloris when they were both in high school, offers her witness protection in the most unlikely of places: a convent. Brash Deloris immediately runs afoul of the Mother Superior at the ailing church, but finds her place working with the nuns’ feeble choir, transforming the group into a slick musical unit that performs spiritual songs with soulful energy and flashy choreography.

This show is filled with clever, non-stop fun at the hands of director/choreography by Chris McGinnis with show stopping costumes by Tina’s Productions. The movies-to-musicals trend has been in full swing for a quite some time and Sister Act lends itself nicely for a live musical treatment. There are some charming character moments for both shy Mary Robert and the relationship between Deloris and Mother Superior. These added plot changes not seen in the film tone down all the Vegas-style hoopla nicely.

Musical Highlights include “Take Me To Heaven”, Raise Your Voice”, The Life I Never Led” and Sister Act”.

SISTER ACT plays at the Haddonfield Plays and Players, on selected date through Feb. 18. For tickets and more about the Haddonfield Plays & Players visit www.haddonfieldplayers.com or call 856.429.8139

Photo Credits: Perspective Media Productions

PHILLY POPS SGT. PEPPER CELEBRATION


The Philly Pops “Get Back” to their usual greatness with a tribute to the Beatles.

It’s the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and that’s a cause for a POPS musical celebration!
The Pops soar “With a Little Help From Their Friends” the widely acclaimed tribute band Classical Mystery Tour as they cover Sgt. Pepper’s magical lineup — “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds”,” With a Little Help From My Friends”, and “When I’m 64” — as well as other timeless “Fab Four” classics including “Yellow Submarine” and “Come Together”.

The Pops open with their wonderful “signature style” of orchestral introduction medleys with “Eleanor Rigby” and “Getting Better” under the robust baton oh Michael Krajewski. The nearly sold out crowd of three generations of Beatles fans cheered and sang along to such familiar tunes as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” “When I’m 64”, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da” and many more legendary hits. The Classical Mystery Tour; all talented musicians/vocalists in themselves portray the original Beatles featuring Jim Owen (John Lennon), Paul Curatolo (Paul McCartney), Tom Teeley (George Harrison), and Chris Camilleri (Ringo Starr). In an interview with the group’s founder Jim Owen, he shares just how much work went into the creation process of writing the orchestral charts for these famous songs. http://www.broadwayworld.com/philadelphia/article/BWW-Interview-Jim-Owen-of-CLASSICAL-MYSTERY-TOUR-at-Kimmel-Center-20170127

But this sold-out audience was more interested in cheering and enjoying the show! Dressed in Sgt. Pepper garb, the four simply dazzle and amaze in a style that if you “Close Your Eyes” you hear the original artists from Liverpool. My personal favorites were the vocal harmonies in “She’s Leaving Home” and “Here Comes the Sun”, Paul Curatolo’s “Live and Let Die” along with the awesome orchestra backing, “Golden Slumbers” and “A Day In The Life”. After the intermission, A simply stand-out medley arrangement by the Pops which included “Yesterday”, “Blackbird” featuring a wonderful trumpet and violin offering, “All My Lovin’” “Day Dreamer”, Lady Madonna”, “If I Fell”, “Something”, “Money Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Let It Be” and “All You Need Is Love” brought the entire audience to its feet! In all there were 19 songs and two encore songs including the familiar ending song “Hey Jude” which brought out the lighters and a grateful happy crowd. Philly even brought in the Beatle Beetle!

The Philly Pops Sgt. Pepper Celebration played at the Kimmel Center on Feb. 3,4,5. For More information about the Philly Pops visit www.phillypops.org or call 215.893.1999 For More information about The Classic Mystery Tour visit www.classicalmysterytour.com

Photos: The Philly Pops and  Pati Buehler

Interview: Jim Owen of the “Classical Mystery Tour”


The Classic Mystery Tour joins the Philly Pops “Tribute to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Album”.

Philly celebrates the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Album” with a special concert performance on Feb. 3, 4, 5.

I caught up with Jim Owen who performs the role of John Lennon as well as guitar, keyboard and vocals with the Classical Mystery Tour to see what the excitement is all about. Jim was born and raised in California and grew up with a rich musical background.

Pati Buehler: Your father was a great influence on you musically. What did you glean from him and what music did you play prior to your interest in the Beatles?

Jim Owen: Simply being around music so much at home from a very early age,
being exposed to mostly classical music playing on the home stereo, and also played on the piano by my father. Then my father’s sister moved out to help take care of the kids and she also played piano, and brought Beatles records with her. I was about 7 years old when she played “Meet the Beatles” for us kids (in 1973—The Beatles had already broken up). So now I wanted to learn guitar to play their music, so my dad taught me the basics on a nylon string acoustic guitar. The rest was by ear by listening to Beatles records over and over. My dad also encouraged me to continue piano study, which I’d started at age 6, and to enter piano recitals and competitions. He definitely encouraged me to aim high in artistry, citing examples of Horowitz and Rubinstein frequently.

PB: When, how did the group form and where did you perform prior to your Symphony work?

JO: I played in various bands since about 11 years old starting with friends at school — Beatles music only! — and then continued through the high school years by entering sound alike contests at Beatles Fan events, then began working with some Beatlemania cast members shortly after graduating high school. We traveled far and wide playing as a 4-member Beatles Tribute band, always utilizing keyboards or backing tracks to fill in many of the more complicated Beatles songs. I suppose due to my exposure and attending classical and pops concerts when I was young, I thought it would be great to use real orchestral musicians to back our group. It took a year to put it all together and our first show was in 1996.

PB: There have been Beatles Tribute bands since the 80’s namely BEATLEMANIA, RAIN to name just two. You all seem to have “Beatle camaraderie” with one another to the point that you often ‘fill in’ when needed. I personally know Graham Alexander who played Paul with RAIN on Broadway. Do you all keep tabs on one another and have a schedule as to who’s performing and who’s available?

JO: We are mostly very friendly with each other, with very few exceptions, so if we need a fill in we simply call and ask availability. Graham has filled in for us on a handful of shows, and I think he is one of the best out there!

PB: I agree… What a talented ‘young’ man!

PB: The Beatles themselves quit touring in 1966. The pioneering, intricate recordings from Sergeant Pepper through Abbey Road were never performed live by the group. Much has happened technically since then. How exciting is it to play these songs live? What are the challenges?

JO: I’ll never forget the first time standing on stage with a full symphony orchestra and hearing “I Am the Walrus,” “The Long and Winding Road,” etc.—What an amazing experience! We try to be as authentic as possible in our Beatles character and musical representations, so it was nice to hear from orchestra members that they felt performing with us was like doing the original sessions at Abbey Road studio! The main challenge is obtaining and mixing the sound for the audience. Lots of work goes into mic’ing the band and orchestra and making a mix to sound as much like the original recordings as possible. Vocal effects are one of the fun aspects; for example the delay on John Lennon’s voice in “A Day in the Life” which we can recreate live using today’s technology.

PB: In 1996 you found someone in California to help you write out all the charts, scores and parts for the orchestra. How was that received with your first orchestral booking? And the Audience?

JO: Transcribing all the music for full orchestra was quite an undertaking, and it was a good thing we had nearly a year to prepare. Martin Herman, Bruce Miller, and one other gentleman whose name I can’t remember did the charts, but Martin rewrote more authentically the scores by the others, so the charts are all his ultimately. The first-ever concert in 1996 was very well received by the audience in attendance, and also thankfully by newspaper reviewers!

 

PB: It seems most Beatles tribute groups are playing this wonderful music for many years. We hope you all will play this for the next generation of Beatles fans. How long will you play “Strawberry Fields Forever” ?!

JO: I hope our show will continue as long as there are orchestras to perform with. I’ll certainly go as long as I can; I still love the music as much as ever, and it actually seems to get better and better with time.

For  Philly Pops Tickets and Information: Visit www.phillypops.org.

For more information about Jim and the Classical Mystery Tour visit: www.classicalmysterytour.com

Photo Credits: Courtesy Jim Owen

Review: MEMPHIS- The Musical at the Ritz


With the show’s motto “His Vision- Her Voice” Memphis slowly finds its way into your heart.

It’s nice when a somewhat unfamiliar musical can actually surprise you in a good way. Though it starts on a familiar note with a storyline reminiscent of “Hairspray” and “Dreamgirls”,”Memphis” eventually finds its own voice and beat, and wins over with its sheer enthusiasm and passionate performances. For the most part its careful balance of pure fun and character drama proves to be irresistible.
The show’s story is relatively simple. Its hero, Huey Calhoun, is a poor white guy who wiggles his way into one of Memphis’s Beale Street clubs, where he falls head over heels for both the intoxicating rhythm and blues sound, and a young black singer, Felicia.

Memphis is a musical by David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book). It is loosely based on Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips,[1] one of the first white DJs to play black music in the 1950s. It played on Broadway from October 19, 2009 to August 5, 2012. This production won four 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Book, Original Score, and Orchestrations. Not bad for a show that some folks barely heard of!

Ritz veteran Matt Reher plays Huey Calhoun, a stand-in for real-life Memphis D.J. Dewey Phillips, who was among the first to play R&B “race records” for white audiences and famously gave Elvis his radio debut. Unlike Dewey, Huey doesn’t put Elvis on the air. Oddly enough there’s no mention of Elvis at all in this 1950’s Memphis story. In fact Huey seemingly forgets he is a white boy except for the fact the he reminds everyone around him about the inability of white people to sing and dance.
Matt Reher’s summoning up of Huey is so perfect that not for a moment do you believe that it is only acting. He is enchantingly partnered by Felicia played by newcomer to the Ritz, Vedra Chandler- a thrilling singer and commanding actress; so much so that you find yourself rooting for her ( and Huey) all the way.

The principal and ensemble cast, mostly new to the Ritz, are equally wonderful and direction by Bruce A. Curless and choreography by Arthur Leo Taylor bring this show to a non-stop treat for all. The score while not especially memorable outside of the material, moves the story line effectively with songs “Music For My Soul”, “Everybody Want to Be Black”, “Love Will Stand” sung wonderfully by Felicia. Huey’s eleven o’clock number “Memphis Lives in Me” is a painful reminder of the choices that need to be made and Reher delivers it well.

MEMPHIS The Musical plays at the Ritz Theatre, 915 White Horse Pike, Haddon Twp. NJ through February 5. For tickets and more information: www.ritztheatreco.org or call 856.858.5230

Photos by Chris Miller

We’re off to see the Wizard at the Walnut!

dorothy-and-totoThe Merry Old Land of Oz lands in Philly in time for the Holiday Season.

Just three clicks of the heel away on Walnut Street- America’s oldest theater takes its audience on a familiar journey through the all-time beloved story of Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and all your favorite characters in L. Frank Baum’s classic story” The Wizard of Oz”.

Director Glenn Casale brings this classic story to life on stage in grand style. He shares with me, “Everyone knows exactly what to expect from the story and these characters. I asked the cast, however to make each role their own”. Casale captures this concept so well as he brings to life each familiar old friend and iconic moment with a few new surprises.

The twister twists, The witches fly, the Munchkins sing and dance and Emerald City ozis ‘just as beautiful as you expected’. The success of Walnut’s Wizard is a combination of a stellar company and principle cast as well as incredible scenic designs by Stephen Gifford who creates a terrific twister as well as a fabulous fairy-tale settings to fill the stage with color and excitement. Costume designer Mary Folino fashions a wardrobe to challenge Broadway’s WICKED and Rodney Glen Roberts keeps the action tight and entertaining.

dorothy-and-coLeading us down the yellow brick road is newcomer to the Walnut Adrienne Eller as Dorothy who is refreshingly so much like the the most famous Dorothy we’ve all come to love while adding her own adorable style to the role. She is joined by the talented Christopher Sutton as the clumsy cute Scarecrow and the multi talented Christopher Shin as the rusted Tin Man who turns in an impressive tap dance ditty to rouse the already excited crowd. The Cowardly Lion is played larger than life by a robust Nichalas L. Parker bringing an equal amount of updated humor along the way. Parker’s “King of the Forrest” brings the crowd to a roar of its own. Walnut favorite Bill Van Horn is outstanding as Prof. Marvel and The Wizard. The witches are wonderful! Lyn Philistine’s Glinda is perfect and Ellie Mooney’s Wicked Witch of the West is wickedly funny.

oz-munchkinsStealing the show as no surprise are the Munchkins. A double cast of local talented children, 30 in all share as much talent and cuteness as one can handle and they almost single-handedly( or paws in this case) outdone by the amazing Toto played by Dusty who despite twisters, witches, dancing, flying humans and creatures never misses a cue!  “I’d Turn back to the Walnut if I Were You”.

The Wizard of Oz plays at the Walnut Theatre through January 8th. For tickets and more information visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org or call 215.574.3550

Photos: Mark Garvin

 

 

Smokey Robinson in Concert at the Academy of Music

smokey-robinson-headshot-2Smokey’s “Really Got a Hold” on his career and he’s not letting go!
Opening his 2016 12- city tour in Philadelphia he’s about to “Get Ready”

During the course of his 50-year career in music, Robinson has accumulated more than 4,000 songs to his credit and continues to thrill sold-out audiences around the world with his high tenor voice, impeccable timing, and profound sense of lyric. Never resting on his laurels, Smokey Robinson remains a beloved icon in our musical heritage.

The Academy of Music was filled to near capacity last night with Smokey fans all anticipating a great concert and Smokey did NOT disappoint! Many loyal fans had hoped he would put on a show reminiscent of his younger days but surprisingly Smokey gave us so much more. Backed by 3 young talented singers and a very cool 6 -piece band the man took us on his Motown journey with such hits as “My Girl”, “Tears of A Clown”, “Being With You”, Tracks of My Tears” “Ooo Baby Baby”, ” You Really Got a Hold on Me” and so many more.

He entertained the audience with memories of his favorite performing friends such as The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight, The Fifth Dimension, Stevie Wonder etc. and told a funny story about Stevie Wonder at a Motown party who offered to “drive Smokey home” if he would write lyrics for a tune Stevie wrote….think about it!  Smokey was charming, grateful for this most enthusiastic crowd whose voices filled the space as they sang along to all his legendary tunes for and hour 45 minuets of non stop memories.  Having seen Smokey perform with the Miracles too many years ago I never remember this lead singer “move” with such cool, sultry style as he truly melted the crowd!  All I can say is “Smokey has still got it!

Once pronounced by Bob Dylan as America’s “greatest living poet,” acclaimed singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson’s career spans over four decades of hits. He has received numerous awards including the Grammy Living Legend Award, NARAS Lifetime Achievement Award, Honorary Doctorate (Howard University), Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts Award from the President of the United States. He has also been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. In 2016 Robinson will be awarded the Gershwin Prize for his lifetime contributions to popular music.

smokey-robinson

Born William “Smokey” Robinson, Jr. in February 1940 and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Robinson founded The Miracles while still in high school. The group was Berry Gordy’s first vocal group, and it was at Robinson’s suggestion that Gordy started the Motown Record dynasty. Their single of Robinson’s “Shop Around” became Motown’s first #1 hit on the R&B singles chart. In the years following, Robinson continued to pen hits for the group including “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “More Love,” “Tears of a Clown” (co-written with Stevie Wonder), and “I Second That Emotion.”

The Miracles dominated the R&B scene throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s and Robinson became Vice President of Motown Records serving as in-house producer, talent scout and songwriter. In addition to writing hits for the Miracles, Robinson wrote and produced hits for other Motown greats including The Temptations, Mary Wells, Brenda Holloway, Marvin Gaye and others. “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “Don’t Mess with Bill,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” and “My Guy” are just a few of his songwriting triumphs during those years. Between 1962 and 1966, Robinson was also one of the major songwriters and producers for Motown, penning several hit singles such as “Two Lovers”, “The One Who Really Loves You”, “You Beat Me to the Punch” and “My Guy” for Mary Wells; “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, “My Girl”, “Since I Lost My Baby” and “Get Ready” for the Temptations; “When I’m Gone” and “Operator” for Brenda Holloway; “Don’t Mess With Bill”, “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and “My Baby Must Be a Magician” for the Marvelettes; and “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye.

John Lennon of The Beatles made countless remarks regarding Robinson’s influence on his music. The Beatles had recorded Robinson and The Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” in 1963 and in 1982 another popular British group, The Rolling Stones covered the Robinson and the Miracles’ hit “Going To A Go-Go.”

For more information about Smokey Robinson and his upcoming tour visit his website at  www.smokeyrobinson.com 

Photos: Kimmel Center.org.