‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ Brings Good Cheer to the Holiday Stage

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, adapted for the stage by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell. Directed by Joseph Discher. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey 2016. Pictured left to right: Peter Simon Hilton, Greg Jackson, John Ahlin, Andy Paterson, Alison Weller, Clemmie Evans, and Carey Van Driest. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.

When all the preparations are done for the holiday season, it’s time to enjoy all that comes along with this glorious time of year. If theater is your pleasure of choice, a good choice is to go see A Child’s Christmas in Wales which is currently running at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.  The production is based on the classic story by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and adapted for the stage by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell. It has a story line that is timeless and classic. It incorporates music and singing along with colorful, humorous dialog.

This festive show is being revived for the first time since it last appeared on the Shakespeare Theatre New Jersey stage in 2003.  While attending a talk back with Director Joseph Discher and cast after the Dec. 5 performance, questions were asked if this was the same show as presented back then. Discher said it basically was but there have been a few changes made. Also, the addition of new actors gives the show a fresh, new look.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a composite account of Dylan Thomas’ childhood holidays in Wales in the early 1900s. It features Greg Jackson as Dylan Thomas who lives with his mother and father in a simple but comfortable home. Jackson does an incredible job moving between the roles of grown up narrator and the child he once was. His transformation into young Thomas is so well done it allows the audience to imagine a child onstage even though he is an adult still dressed in the costume of the narrator. We see him become excited as Christmas morning opens with his family sharing breakfast. Father is played by Peter Simon Hilton and Mother by Tina Stafford. They receive a visit from the Postman for Cwmdonkin Drive played by John Ahlin.  He brings young Dylan a parcel which will be opened later.

Next, young Dylan meets his friends played by Thomas Daniels, Julian Blake Gordan, and Seamus Mulcahy in the local park where they play all sorts of imaginative games that we watch and remember what life was like before video games! The Park Keeper, Patrick Toon, keeps the boys orderly and also add to their adventures of trying to get away with something.

The time arrives for the friends to depart and go to their respective family gatherings. This was an especially enjoyable part of the show because we watch as the relatives and friends arrive at the Thomas house. They carry with them gifts for young Dylan and we see the gratitude for some lovely thoughtful items. The train set is especially a revelation to watch being put together and used reminding us of how this tradition continues on to this very day in many homes at the holidays. Each person who arrives has a back story that is told and they add to the light humor of the show. A bit of a calamity occurs when the gas oven backfires on Mother and burns the turkey. However, an unexpected solution arrives at the home to salvage the meal and the mood of the group.

There are other scenes that keep the story line moving at a fine pace. This show has a warm feeling that is created by an exceptional cast who in some cases play several roles in the production. In addition to the names mentioned above, the cast includes Alison Weiler, Clemmie Evans, Andy Paterson, Cassandra Cushman, Alycia Kunkle, Tess Ammerman, Carey Van Driest, Benjamin Hajek, and Ian Zane.

Make sure to add this to your list of holiday shows to see and enjoy.  It has been logged in my book of favorites to be seen again.

About the Show

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes plus one 15 intermission

Location: F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ

Performances: Through Jan. 1, 2017

Contact for Info and Tickets: Call the Box Office 973-408-5600 or online at ShakespeareNJ.org. Prices range from $25 – $75. This season, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is initiating their 30 UNDER 30 Program, which offers $30 tickets for patrons aged 30 and under, with valid ID, tickets subject to availability. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offers various cost-saving opportunities, including $15 student rush tickets, which are available 30 minutes prior to each performance, with a valid student ID, and a limited number of Pay What You Can tickets for every performance on a first come, first serve basis.

Suggested Audience: Appropriate for all ages


‘The Bodyguard’ Premieres at the Paper Mill Playhouse

Photo by Matthew Murphy; Judson Mills (Frank Farmer) and Deborah Cox (Rachel Marron)

A new show in the U.S. is enjoying its pre-tour run at Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse. The show, a musical called The Bodyguard, is based on the Warner Brothers film of the same name that was written by Lawrence Kasdan. The 1992 film starred Whitney Houston and Kevin Cosner. The film delighted fans of Jersey Girl Whitney Houston and Cosner fans too. With the casting for this new musical, it could be headed in that same direction as the film only this time it will delight fans of Deborah Cox and Judson Mills who fill the leading roles. The Bodyguard comes to the U.S. directly from the United Kingdom where it first ran in London in 2012. It has since toured the U.K., Ireland, and parts of Europe. It is now back onstage in London for a short run. This run at the Paper Mill precedes the start of a national tour due to begin in January, 2017 in Minnesota.

With a book by Alexander Dinelaris, direction by Thea Sharrock and choreography by Karen Bruce The Bodyguard is a big, high volume show. What is the biggest appeal of this show? Without a doubt it is the musical performances and especially those by Deborah Cox. Just as the film was a showcase for Whitney Houston, this musical allows Ms. Cox to perform well known and very popular songs for the audience. The songs are hits that Whitney Houston made famous. However, make no mistake about it, Ms. Cox puts her own distinctive sound on each and every note. She is not a Whitney Houston imitator; she is an artist in her own right and her style is firmly on the nine solo songs and the group and ensemble numbers she performs. To listen to her sing is to hear a velvet tone voice in action. She also is a darn good actor as well as she plays her character, Rachael Marron. Another excellent singer is Jasmin Richardson who plays Nicki Marron, Rachael’s sister. Their duet, “Run to You” is one of the highlights of the show.

There is the singing part of this show and then the acting portion where the story gets told. It starts with a very loud bang (which knocked the audience off their seats Opening Night) when a gun is fired at a person whom Frank Farmer is guarding. Farmer, played by Judson Mills, is seen standing by the injured man but unfortunately, we only learn by chance later in the play that the incident led to his taking on the duties of protecting Rachael Marron. He is hired for that job because someone is stalking her and threatening to do her great harm. That stalker, played by Jorge Paniagua, shows up unexpectedly and in a very creepy fashion throughout the show. His appearances are well entered into the story leaving the audience uneasy at times. As the story progresses, we learn that Rachael’s sister, Nicki, has an interest in Frank; but we don’t how it began or why. Rachael and Frank battle at times but eventually become lovers. However, as Frank realizes this affair could jeopardize the way he does his job to protect her, he breaks it off with Rachael. The remainder of the story leads up to a scene at the Academy Awards where the stalker is apprehended and finally the ending where Rachael’s song “I Will Always Love You” has a very definite meaning. The story line is thin in parts but there is enough good acting to carry it off very well.

In addition to Cox and Mills, the principal cast includes Alex Corrado as Tony Scibelli, Rachel’s personal security guard, Charles Gray, as manager Bill Devaney, Jonathan Hadley, as publicist Sy Spector, Jorge Paniagua as the Stalker, Jasmin Richardson as Rachel’s sister Nicki Marron, and Douglas Baldeo and Kevelin B. Jones III alternating in the role of Rachel’s son Fletcher.

The ensemble includes Arielle Campbell, Brendon Chan, Jarid Faubel, Megan Elyse Fulmer, Emily Jenda, Alejandra Matos, Bradford Rahmlow, Benjamin Rivera, Matthew Schmidt, Maria Christina Slye, Jacquez Andre Sims, Lauren Tanner, and Naomi C. Walley.

There are a lot of good things about this show. It is worth going to see for the musical numbers alone. They are exquisitely choreographed with a strong dance ensemble and singers. Debra Cox is fabulous in all she does and her fans will enjoy coming to see her in this role.

Those who have issues with loud sounds or bright lighting will have to be cautious while watching the opening number and one other ensemble presentation.

The Bodyguard will play at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, in Millburn, NJ through Jan. 1, 2017. Several additional matinee performances were recently added so be sure to check their website, papermill.org for availability of tickets.

Free Audience Enrichment Activities for The Bodyguard:

Conversation Club: Thursday evenings, Dec. 1, 8, 15. 22 one hour before the curtain. This is an informal, informative gathering where you can learn more about the performance and perhaps catch a glimpse of the stage being set.

Audio-Described Performances – Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016 at 1:30 p.m. Free Sensory Seminars are offered at noon before these performances.

Sign-Interpreted and Open-Captioned Performance – Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 at 7:00 p.m.

‘Daddy Long Legs’ is a Delightful Treat for Holiday Viewing

Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael play Jerusha and Jervis in "Daddy Long Legs" at George Street Playhouse, (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Elise Vannerson and Ben Michael play Jerusha and Jervis
in “Daddy Long Legs” at George Street Playhouse, (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The George Street Playhouse will run the romantic musical Daddy Long Legs through the month of December at their New Brunswick theater.  Based on Jean Webster’s novel of the same name, the musical recently completed an Off-Broadway run. This musical has a book written by John Caird with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon.

Resident Artistic Director and Director of this production is Michael Mastro who describes the show as follows:  “Daddy Long Legs is a moving, lovely, beautiful and funny new musical. It’s sure to warm the hearts of our patrons this holiday season.” This is a good description of how we felt after seeing this show and it has many positive aspects to it that make it a good pick for families this December. For younger children who need to see a lot of action taking place, this show might be difficult. But there is nothing in it that a family has to be concerned about if they go to see it.

The setting is various locations in New England and New York in the years 1908 – 1912. The story is about a young woman, Jerusah Abbot, who has lived her life in the John Grier Home for orphans. It has not been a bad life, but she doesn’t see much of a future until she receives a letter from a a man who works anonymously with the Board of the Grier Home who informs her that he will fund her way through college to help her obtain her degree in writing. He was impressed with an essay she wrote and he feels that she could do something with her skills. He places some conditions on the acceptance of the offer which include her being required to write letters to him on a weekly basis informing him of her daily life activities. There are several other stipulations but the most important one is that she will never know who he is. She soon adapts the name Daddy Long Legs when writing to him. The closest she comes to a personal connection is through a “Mr. Smith” who handles occasional correspondence for the benefactor.  Throughout the show, the audience see Jerusha grow and change and learn about all that she is encountering as she reads aloud the letters she is writing to her Daddy Long Legs.

The other character we see in the show is Jervis Pendleton who is actually the benefactor who wishes to remain hidden from Jerusha until he becomes very intrigued with her. All works out conveniently for him to meet her because his real life niece (who we never see) is also at the college where Jerusha attends classes. He pays his niece a visit but ends up spending time with Jerusha and somewhere along the line, he falls in love with her. It all sounds very neat and easy, but it is not. What happens to both of these people in the process allows the magic of the story to unfold and to lead to a very happy ending.

In addition to the story line, there are so many good things about this show that make it a great pick to go to see. First off, Elise Vannerson as Jerusah is a revelation to watch. She is totally convincing in everything she says, sings, and does that you feel you are truly watching an early 1900’s woman. Her manner is relaxed and yet intense in what she says and believes and her singing voice is perfect for this part. Ben Michael plays Jervis Pendleton with the right amount of trepidation and hesitation to show his character’s insecurity about loving someone. However, when he becomes jealous of other potential suitors for Jerusah, his character quickly becomes unforgiving. Mr. Michael also has a singing voice that is strong and convincing as he struggles to impress Jerusah and then win her back.

Ben Michael and Elise Vannerson play Jervis and Jerusha in "Daddy Long Legs" at George Street Playhouse (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Ben Michael and Elise Vannerson play Jervis and Jerusha in “Daddy Long Legs” at George Street Playhouse (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Another very enjoyable feature of this show is the way in which the action takes place. The stage has been divided into an upper and lower portion and each character dominates one area. So we watch Jervis on the upper level at a desk and Jerusha on the lower level with a desk and a few other items around her including a wardrobe trunk filled with costumes that are beautifully designed. The orchestra is under the direction of Darren R. Cohen who also plays piano for the show along with Sam Quiggins on cello and Luke McGinnis on guitar. They are behind a screen which serves as a backdrop to give lighting clues as to the time of day and even the seasons. The songs are melodic, some are descriptive, and some are downright romantic!

About the Show:

Run Time:  2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission

Location: George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue • New Brunswick, NJ

Performances:  November 29 – December 24, 2016

Contact for Info and Tickets: George Street Playhouse Box Office 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.