YES, VIRGINIA, Bridge Players Theatre Lives and Shines

by Terry Stern

Cast members from Bridge Players' YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS, which is based on the famous 1897 New York Sun newspaper editorial by Frank Church. from left is: Rose Lloyd, Delran, Celeste Bonfanti, Burlington City, and Dave Piltz, Bristol, PA

Before it was the title of this show, YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS was the title of an editorial which appeared in the September 21, 1897 edition of The New York Sun in response to a plaintive question from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon. This smart, tight play is a funny, intelligently fictionalized account of the editorial and the events which led to it. Skillfully it builds to the most obvious climax you never expected: a full, moving recitation of the original editorial by a Capra-esque everyman chorus. When you hear it, you say, of course! And it is perfect.

This play owes a nod to OUR TOWN, with the ubiquitous narrator, Chief, leading the way. Chief, the editor-in-chief of the Sun, is filled out to our great satisfaction by Frank Nusbickel, who gives us a boisterously funny combination of Perry White (Clark Kent’s cranky editor) and Mr. Rogers, the shark and the grampa, each showing teeth but for remarkably different reasons. He steps out of scenes and into chats with the audience, out of chats into scenes, turn after turn and, well, it works every time (an oft-repeated phrase in the play). A very funny, completely centered performance which anchors the show in a bedrock of audience grins from the moment he appears until the lights go out.

Celeste Bonfanti as Mama O’Hanlon is the perfect calm at the center of the madness. With a daughter in shock over Santa Claus and a husband, played like a whirlwind by Dave Piltz, in full, late-Victorian rant about the stupidity of superstitions, Ms. Bonfanti’s voice floats like a soothing balm of oil on roiling waters. She offers a fully-wrought performance perfectly pitched to the needs of the play. Mama O’Hanlon is last century’s woman happily bearing the burdens of life, keeping everyone happy, taking one day at a time. Ms. Bonfanti’s fine character choices are beautifully supported by a wonderfully full, rich voice and superbly sharp diction. I notice this because I was an actor. If you never studied the craft, you won’t notice, you’ll just say, she was great! Wasn’t she great?  Good work, Ms. Bonfanti.

Timothy Kirk and Gina Petti, as Sun columnist Frank Church and his secretary, Mrs. Marbury, are quick and punchy in their comic banter. They play the hard-bitten newsman and no-nonsense assistant with the easy charm of Nick and Nora Charles. He writes a full condemnation of a politician’s moral turpitude before deciding whom it’s about. She guides him into answering Virginia’s letter—a thing he considers beneath his talents—like a skilled trainer guiding a skittish thoroughbred to a stall. It’s done without sentiment or even slowing down, and it is done so very well.

But the show-stoppers by far are Rose Lloyd, Sophia Chascsa and Tierney Lee Howard as Virginia O’Hanlon and her friends Missy and Charly respectively. These three actresses are school-aged veterans of the community stage. All are very good on their own. Ms. Lloyd gives us moving tears as a distraught Virginia contemplating a horrible loss of innocence. Ms. Chascsa provides a very bratty friend and a very comic exit being pulled by her mother as things resolve. And Ms. Howard has the vocal expression and timing of a natural comedienne. She gives us a comic turn worth the price of the ticket itself when the tooth fairy comes up in the conversation.

But when they are together, the sparks they throw light the stage. If I were teaching an acting class, I would beg them to perform their common scenes for the benefit of my students. I, myself, learned a thing or two from their example of furiously paced comic delivery with no loss of intention, no stepping on lines or missed cues and not a dropped consonant amongst the three of them. Thank you, Ms. Lloyd, thank you, Ms. Chascsa, and thank you, Ms. Howard for your fine performances. I hope to be seeing more of you.

There’s only one reason to mention that this is director John Hughes’ freshman outing. That’s because you didn’t get a program, and reading the program is the only way to know he’s not done this many times before. The staging is fluid and very creative, making intimate spaces with light and shadow as well as masking entrances and exits in darkness so when a scene ends, lighting throws focus to another staging area, keeping the pace sharp and most pleasingly crisp. Congratulations on your debut, Mr. Hughes. I hope you do it again soon.

The Bridge Players of Burlington is the sort of community theatre company which makes me very glad to review community theatre productions. 36 years old, it has had the same president for 21 years. This is not always a good sign. It often forebodes an exclusivity too well known in community theatre.

Not this time. President Pat Marotta saw the theatre recover from near extinction, remembering a time when eight disheartened souls considered disbanding permanently. Today, under her stewardship, it boasts a healthy core group and solid, though not full, houses. But the most telling facts are that a quarter of the cast of the current production are first-timers on the Bridge Players’ stage, and this is the director’s first. This gives solid credence to the story I found repeated again and over as I heard company members talking: this is an open company. It comprises a base of dedicated folks who welcome talent and participation from all comers.

So see this marvelous holiday offering at Bridge Players. It’s a 7:30 curtain worth twice the $8 ticket. Go for the comedy, stay for the welcome. You may find yourself starring in the next production. Think you’re not the Conrad Birdie type? The Bridge Players do wonders with makeup.

written by Pat Cook
Directed by John Hughes
Through December 3, 2011
Bridge Players Theatre Company
36 E. Broad St.
Burlington, NJ

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