The Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell, NJ has been a part of the regional theatre family for the past twenty-six years.  It was the first dessert theatre in New Jersey, and its fare generally leans towards the lighter side of the spectrum.  One such play is currently on stage through October 2.  SOUTHERN COMFORTS by New Jersey playwright Kathleen Clark is an enjoyable two-hander that is a bit above the usual slight comedies one generally expects in regional theatres.  The evening also boasts a splendid performance by local actress Lois Carr.

Aging is an unavoidable aspect of life; aging alone is not, but it is often a difficult choice.  SOUTHERN COMFORTS is the story of a widow and widower who meet by accident and work through their various difficulties in the hopes that they might have a future together.  Into the sparse Victorian home of Gus Klingman (Dennis McGeady) in Morris County, NJ sweeps an irrepressible Tennessee grandmother named Amanda Cross (Carr).  Gus’ life is a spare as his home.  Gus and his wife never seemed to get along in their 45 year marriage, and he never brought himself to ask why.  He has an estranged son who may stay away from him for the same reason his wife moved into a separate bedroom: Gus is a difficult man who is sedentary and set in his ways.

Where Gus would never let his wife into his world, Amanda was shut out of her husband’s.  Both men brought the terrors of the war back with them, but Amanda’s husband could not cope with nor talk about his.  He was killed in a car accident, and Amanda has made herself believe that it was an accident, but the audience is lead to believe otherwise.  Amanda who loves to travel now spends her time driving from her home in Tennessee to her daughter’s family in New Jersey.  She loves to travel; besides the war, Gus has never really left his home town.  He and his wife lived in the house next door to this one until his childhood home became available, and they moved into the house where the evening takes place.  He sees no need to travel; he has everything he needs.

There is something about the energy Amanda exudes that awakens something in Gus.  At first, he resists, but he cannot help succumbing to his feelings for her.  However, it is not all smooth going.  Amanda brings her furniture into Gus’ house along with all of her books with which she cannot live.  Gus feels trapped and rebels.  Amanda sees change as a necessary part of living; Gus abhors change, and the difficulties begin.

Clark’s dialogue is telling; she must have known these people.  There is a naturalism to the dialogue that makes these people easily recognizable, and the difficult Gus is understandable and even likeable. 

McGeady has a difficult task with Gus because he could be immediately disliked.  His performance on opening night was a bit wooden and cautious, but he may loosen up enough to find some levels to Gus that will keep him human and still be the curmudgeon he has become.  Carr, on the other hand, is simply charming from her first entrance throughout the evening.  Her accent is consistent and spot on, and she has found many nuances to this woman whom Gus compares to “a good cup of coffee” because she keeps him “awake.”  McGeady does loosen up a bit when the conversation turns to sex, a topic with which he apparently thought he was through.  Carr’s contortions as Amanda tries to broach this difficult subject are wonderful.

The evening is a relatively short one coming in at about 100 minutes with an intermission, but it’s 100 minutes spent with two charming people for whom one really wants the best.  This doesn’t happen often in theatre today.

SOUTHERN COMFORT runs weekends through Oct. 2. Friday and Saturday evenings doors open at 7 p.m. for dessert, with curtain at 8 p.m. Sunday matinees feature dessert at 1:30 p.m. with curtain at 2:30 p.m. Admission Friday and Sunday is $27.50, Saturday is $29.50 and there is a senior rate of $25 available on Sundays only. Admission includes dessert and show. For reservations contact the Off- Broadstreet Theatre at 5 South Greenwood Ave., PO Box 359, Hopewell, NJ, 609-466-2766. Visit online at www.off-broadstreet.com.

Leake Street before the blight.

I remember a book from the 1970s where some “learned person” decided that graffiti was “art” and should be embraced.  The type of graffiti showcased in that book was little more than vandalism on the sides of public buildings and train and subway cars.  Although graphically interesting, the sameness left a question regarding artistic value.   However, there are a few gifted people who have taken to the streets, especially in London, to use art as the springboard for social commentary as well as some just great visual puns.  Is it still vandalism?  Yes, but it’s not mindless vandalism.   In fact, I have been told that shopkeepers often ask for paintings on their security gates or walls to promote their shops.  This is especially true with Banksy.  Like the bubble figures of Keith Haring, Banksy’s grayscale images are immediately recognizable.

Back to Leake Street which is a strange, partially underground access road that runs off of York Road in London.  When the Eurostar (which has been dubbed by some pessimists as “The World’s Longest Crematorium”) used to leave from Waterloo Station, this road was the hub for cabs to pick-up and drop-off travelers.  When the Eurostar moved to King’s Cross / St. Pancras, it shut down.  Now, there’s only a hand car wash underneath this “tunnel.”  At times, it can be a little frightening to walk through, but it’s the fastest route from the London Eye to the shops on Lower Marsh. 

When it first became redundant, the usual vandalism occurred, but shortly after that, something wonderful happened.  Street artists moved in and brought some interesting visuals to the walls.  It became an interesting place to walk through; a chance to see what topics were important to the artists.  Of course, there were simply some very good “pieces” on the walls, but some of them really worked towards statements as can be seen in some of the pictures below which were taken in June of 2008. 

To be honest, I was amazed by the dexterity shown and the product delivered by the people who were using only spray cans as tools.  I eagerly looked forward to going through this new gallery on subsequent trips.   Sadly, the blight moved in, and the vandals who were celebrated in the aforementioned book took over.  Much like the rest of the world, if someone should try to add something of merit to this “urban fresco,” another is ready to deface it.  Often with an unintelligible scribble as if to say that an image of a name, whether readable or not, is more important than anything else.   The “self” wins again.  I believe that this is the problem facing the world today: individuals are being brought up to believe that their importance stems simply from who they are, not what they achieve or create.  Right, wrong, or ludicrous, a person’s beliefs wants and beliefs should be glorified and respected.  No one needs to earn respect today; it’s guaranteed – as long as those ideas stay in line with “the majority.” 

I’m sorry; I digress.  I don’t know why I was so taken with something that I normally dislike.  I am against defacing buildings and the property of others.  I can only believe that I enjoyed this because this was an otherwise dark and somewhat derelict spot that had been reclaimed by artists.  It could not be seen from the street; it did not detract from the surroundings.  Because it was a closed in spot, it did seem that this was a new form of gallery.  It almost felt like one of the social movement I remember from the 1960’s.  Now, sadly, it’s mostly an eyesore.  At least, I still have the pictures since all of these pieces are now under several layers of paint.

I really loved this one for some strange reason.

This one used damages in the bricks for relief.

...What superb commentary.For some reason, I found this haunting.

 

 

 

I can only think that this is a personal statement regarding the artist's beliefs. In any event, it is a strong image.

 

 

I know they probably used stencils, but the results are still startling.

These were on station emergency exit doors.

 

 

I found this incredibly intriguing...

 If any of the artists represented here would like me to remove their image(s), please e-mail me.   Conversely, if I can credit you for your work, I will happily include your name with a piece as long as you can send me proof of your ownership.

There’s a joyful noise at London’s Palladium Theatre, and fortunately, it’s heading towards Broadway in 2011. SISTER ACT: The Musical is one of those feel-good times that doesn’t pretend to be anything special but ultimately is. The show is running through October in London, and producer Whoopi Goldberg is going to be taking over the role of Mother Superior for a few weeks in August. I’d like to have seen that.

The show’s book is by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner who have written hit television shows like Cheers, and it’s based on the original film by Joseph Howard (the pseudonym for a group of writers that includes Paul Rudnick and Carrie Fischer among others) and has the same positive energy. Alan Menken’s music is incredible. His adapted gospel numbers have all of the same incredible energy as the music in the film and really showcase the talents of the company of sisters. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are, for the most part good. However, his lyrics for the two songs for Shank and his “crew” are a bit forced and get stale quickly. They are jokes that go on for too long.

The story of the musical is very close to the film about a disco club singer, Delores Van Cartier (Patina Miller – All My Children), who witnesses her boyfriend Shank (Simon Webbe – of the band Blue) murder someone. She escapes and is placed in protective custody in a failing convent/church in Philadelphia run by a no-nonsense Mother Superior (Sheila Hancock – a West End legend). Delores has trouble adjusting, but when she takes on the task of teaching the pitiful choir to sing, she and they shine.

The only place this musical falls a bit flat is when it’s not about the sisters. The material for Shank and his henchmen (Nicolas Colicos, Ivan De Freitas, and Thomas Goodridge) is just not special enough to match the exuberance and special quality of extended sequences of the sisters learning to sing and performing. In fact, one song for the trio, “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” is pretty much cheap humor and out of place.

Patina Miller is a delight as Delores, and I hope that she’ll be moving to New York with the production. The three main sisters, Sister Mary Patrick (Claire Greenway who matches all of the wonder of the film’s Kathy Najimy beautifully), the indomitable Mary Lazarus (Jacqueline Clarke who is as feisty as the film’s Mary Wickes), and the repressed Mary Robert (Katie Rowley Jones) who finds her voice and her confidence, are all adorable as are all of the sisters. This is one time that I think the choice to cast types parallel to the film worked because they are not merely imitating the originals; they are originals themselves.

This is one of those musicals where one walks out of the theatre with an aching face from smiling so much. Once again, there’s no pretence here. This show is not claiming that it is high art or meaningful theatre; it’s a good time in the mold of MAMA MIA! One has solid characters for whom one can root, and even though the ending is predictable, especially after watching and knowing the film, it’s still gloriously happy.

Menken’s score soars during those wonderful numbers for the sisters. From the extended singing lesson lead by Miller in “Raise Your Voice” through “Take Me to Heaven,” “Sunday Morning Fever,” and the finale, “Spread the Love Around,” the energy builds and sweeps the audience along to its joyous conclusion. Fortunately, the cast recording on First Night Records captures all of this beautifully. Alan Menken is surely one of the more important writers we have in musical theatre today, and he shows why here. Even in those songs that don’t quite work for Shank and the henchmen, the music is sound.

The physical production in London is colorful and appealing. The sets by Klara Zieglerova seamlessly move the action along and offer some stunning visuals as the church is reborn. I particularly loved the 20 foot tall “disco Madonna.” Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is fitting here, and he has done an excellent job of letting the charming sisters’ lights shine in their numbers.

SISTER ACT - Patina Miller and Sisters

SISTER ACT: The Musical is opening in Germany this fall and is scheduled to open in New York next spring. If it is received half as well as it has been in London, it will be the ticket to get.