REVIEW: “Songs from the Silver Screen” at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Millman-Dwyer

When they have their own base of talent, many theaters seize the opportunity to create a show that can especially showcase that talent.

Louis Palena at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville has conceived “Songs from the Silver Screen” to do just that and more. Palena is one of the theater artistic directors. Throughout the year, he has had many hats but currently on display is one which doesn’t get worn as much and that is as a writer.

The show brings the audience all those unforgettable movie melodies. We get songs from animated films, theme songs that are done during opening and closing credits, and songs from musicals. Palena is thoughtful in his choices and expert as where to place them and highlight them. It is a fun evening to see and hear.

A new lighting system impressively showcases the different numbers. The casting of the show brings us some of the resident company’s most seasoned performers, along with new talent that will be exciting to see in future shows.

The whole company is bookended in the front and back of the show in ensemble numbers “Let’s Go to the Movies” from the movie “Annie,” and “Last Dance,” originally made famous by Donna Summer in the 1978 movie “Thank God, It’s Friday.” The selection of those songs were inspired. The first song says it all in the title, and after a feast of songs, what is better than “Last Dance,” which seemed to close out the night at every bar and club for decades. It also provides a high-energy ending for a high-energy cast to celebrate movies, their great songs and themselves.

Music Mountain, both last year and this year, put out song anthologies to celebrate different music platforms. Last year, it was a best of Broadway, and this year, an overview of movie melodies. The opportunity for the audience to reminisce about great songs also provides a space to hear from both familiar and new talent from this much lauded theater company and its friends. It is exciting to hear new voices, and that happens with this show.

There are 24 different numbers, and three of them are ensemble medleys honoring the music from Disney, James Bond films and 1980s cinema. 

Jenna Parilla is a professional singer with the most beautiful, pure sound that was ideal for the song “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic.” The evening’s highlight for many was when she, along with one of Music Mountain’s favorite actresses, Jill Palena Gibilisco, sang the duet “When You Believe,” from the 1998 “The Prince of Egypt.” That they knocked it out of the park was jaw-dropping. Parilla sang the first song in the shadow of Celine Dion, and the duet of Parilla and Giblisco sang the latter, which was done most memorably by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. You totally forgot their predecessors, as they soulfully owned both of those iconic songs. They were also dressed in two of the most beautiful gowns that were provided by the best costume designer in the region, Jordan Brennan.

JoMarie Apelt is an actress/singer who is a force of nature. That was proven when she was onstage as one of the most memorable Bloody Marys that I have seen in last summer’s “South Pacific.”  She tears into the song “Get Happy” from “Summer Stock,” originally done by Judy Garland. With her powerhouse voice and the energy of a locomotive, you are mesmerized.  When she sells a song, it gets totally bought, and with more applause than you think your hands can produce. She came back and did “Goldfinger” in the James Bond Medley and “Shallow” from the most recent “A Star is Born” with Justin Derry.

Jeffrey Stephens has skills. He is a joy to see move. When he did Rooster in “Annie” last year or any other musical, he sticks his movement and executes precisely. He took on “Singing in the Rain,” and worked it. He is fearless. He tapped, worked the umbrella and made the difficult look effortless. Another actor to watch because with that talent, effort and dedication, you can’t help but be a fan.

Music Mountain has produced a few people whose onstage presence is so enjoyable that just seeing them smile makes you smile. Eddie Honan and David McLouglan, Jr. definitely have a following. It is based not just on talent, but a certain charisma. That was present during their duet of Randy Newman’s song from “Toy Story 3,” “We Belong Together.” Honan again scored, charmingly natch, with the Fred Astaire and Judy Garland song “We’re a Couple of Swells,” done with a rolling cityscape scrim behind them.

Rhett Commodaro’s resonant singing was grand. Justin Derry had charm. Regina Mercadante sang “Moon River” from “Breakfast at Triffany’s” poignantly during a film tribute to the beautiful, talented, always fashionable Audrey Hepburn. Jenny McNiven was killer as a Bond girl who sang “Nobody Does It Better” from the movie “The Spy Who Loved Me,” and “Live and Let Die,” from the movie of the same name, in a duet with Commodaro.

Aidan Rice and Miguel Ramirez did a fine tribute to “The Graduate,” and perfectly harmonized a la Simon and Garfunkle with “Mrs. Robinson.” Deborah Heagan brought Doris Day back to us as she encouraged us to sing along in a rousing “Que Sera, Sera” from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Lindsey Lewis has a fantastic voice and shined in the title song of “Fame.” Shout outs to Riley Kay Bultemeier, Jennifer Hsiao, and Ann Mikoski (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), as well. 

This show has paired seasoned professionals with some eager and talented young actors and actresses that are growing their skills. It is wonderful to see pros like Parilla, Gibilisco, Apelt, Stephens and the other more seasoned performers work with some newer talent who seemed destined for bigger and better opportunities, considering their abilities and promise.

I am always in awe of Music Mountain Theatre, as are many. That is why a generous donation was made to this non-profit by a donor for their new lighting. They believe in our community and its rich history in the arts. Daily they work and train young and old in the skills of acting, singing and dance. The fruits of their work are seen onstage this week.

To see this inspiring show and how it works the creative muscles of their seasoned performers and their students explains how they have given us some shows that rival the most professional companies in the city. I am looking forward to the upcoming season, after astounding productions last year like “The Full Monty” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” 

We live in quite a well-to-do area. I encourage you to be generous to this non-profit, like the kind soul who donated the lighting. So much good is being done here. Good shows and a theater program make us a better community and enrich our souls.

Louis Palena’s originally conceived “Songs from the Silver Screen” runs until Feb. 9, and tickets can be purchased at online.

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