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    Before the Bergen County lawmaker grabbed his scalpel, NJ Transit was a miasma of known unknowns. Watch video

    If you are one of the 300,000 New Jerseyans who ride the rails every day, or one of the 500,000 who take a bus, you lost one of your most tenacious advocates last week.

    Veteran State Sen. Bob Gordon left the Legislature Wednesday after spending the last 18 months disinfecting NJ Transit, a once-great agency that had been usurped by people in floppy shoes, suspenders and red rubber noses.

    With an unflashy gameness, the soft-spoken lawmaker from Fair Lawn set a standard for oversight by convening a joint committee that turned over every rock and exposed every worm. Co-chaired by Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, the committee held seven hearings between Oct. 2016 and August 2017 that revealed to taxpayers the bureaucratic underpinnings to the commuter's daily migraine.

    It was at these hearings where NJ Transit's top executives were forced to publicly admit its torrent of problems - dangerous problems, such as rampant staffing shortages, safety violations, and accident rates that led the industry.

    It was at these hearings where NJ Transit acknowledged years of the financial distress, created by an operating budget that relied too heavily on passenger revenue and cannibalistic funding schemes.

    It was at these hearings where we finally put names to the patronage parade conducted by Chris Christie, whose method of handing out six-figure salaries involved weeding out the truly qualified to reward the truly loyal.

    The coup de grace was the committee unleashing Todd Barretta, the agency's former compliance officer, who gave the public a peek behind the curtain and explained how political hacks had created a "toxic environment" that has destroyed morale and compromised safety.

    Yes, commuters already knew it was bad. But nobody knew it was this bad.

    Gordon also put his name and expertise on every reform bill for NJT and the Port Authority over the last five years. He also formed a redoubtable tandem with Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, during the interstate pie-fight over a new PA Bus Terminal. "Bob never lost focus on what had to be done to improve our state's infrastructure," Weinberg said.

    His new job is with the Board of Public Utilities, which oversees our state's electricity, natural gas, water, telecommunications and cable television systems. We hope he continues to do what the best public servants do, and defy Machiavelli's time-honored observation: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

    Gordon did that, and a grateful state salutes him today.

    Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.

     

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    The Taylor Swift Experience at the Grammy Museum in Newark is a thing to behold for super fans


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    Police say they discovered the man shortly before 11 p.m. on Friday.

    A Newark man was found dead in a vehicle Friday night, authorities said. 

    Around 10:45 p.m. police were called to the 100 block of Parker Street where they discovered 27-year-old Jose L. Colon in a vehicle, according to Kathy Carter, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office public information officer.

    Colon was pronounced dead at the scene at 10:58 p.m., according to the prosecutor's office, which is handling the investigation. 

    No suspects are in custody, and no further information is available at the time.

    Taylor Tiamoyo Harris may be reached at tharris@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @ladytiamoyo.

    Find NJ.com on Facebook

     

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    The pop superstar took on a Bruce classic and thrilled on her Melodrama World Tour Friday night in Newark


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    Nurse and mother victim of Maplewood triple homicide

    The first day of court, Wilhelmina Kelson came right from work in her NJ Transit uniform. She's been a bus operator for 24 years, most recently starting her route at 5:30 a.m.

    The next day she wore a T-shirt that read "Shona Forever in Our Hearts" as she took a seat on the unforgiving wood benches in the Essex County Veterans Courthouse.

    "Shona" was her daughter, Roshana Kelson, 30, who was murdered on the night of Jan. 28, 2017, in a Maplewood apartment complex, one of three victims in what prosecutors maintain was a drug-related crime.

    The trial opened Wednesday afternoon, and for Rashona Kelson's family, there is an added layer to the usual desire for justice.

    "I want people to know the truth about her," Wilhelmina Kelson said. "She was a good girl. She cared about people."

    The Kelson family's story is a familiar one in Essex courts. The front of the complex holds the county offices and is called the Hall of Records.

    Drug wars and armed robberies, and the easy access to handguns by people who use them with criminal intent, makes the court side of the complex a Hall of Sorrows.

    MORE: Recent Mark Di Ionno columns

    When drugs are involved, the victims can be easily dismissed as players in the lethal game. That's why this ongoing triple murder trial is drawing almost no media attention.

    But often the women killed when their boyfriends are the target are, in military parlance, "collateral damage," jargon for "being in the wrong place at the wrong time." Their only crime is a penchant for bad men.

    In 2008, career-killer Rolando Terrell murdered Candes McLean, 40, a cheerleading coach, her daughter Talia McLean, 18, her niece Zakiyyah Jones, 18, and Latrisha Carruthers-Fields, 13. Latrisha was the daughter of Michael Fields, an imprisoned drug dealer and McLean's boyfriend.

    Terrell invaded McLean's Irvington home to shake her down for drugs and money, then shot all the witnesses.

    Anijah McLean, 19, Candes' other daughter, escaped only because she hid in a closet with her 16-month-old nephew and ran out after Terrell set the house on fire.

    This crime happened one year after the execution-style shooting of four college students in the Mount Vernon Schoolyard. Three died in a case that drew national attention and outrage.

    But since drugs were involved in the murder of McLean and her family, there were no public outcries of "Enough is Enough" or "Stop the Killing" and it was prosecuted and adjudicated in a media vacuum.

    So, today, a few short weeks after nationwide school walkouts and marches protesting all gun violence, a drug-related triple murder trial goes stealth. The acceptance that this is no longer shocking, sensational news speaks for itself. In the cities, we've become accustomed to such stories.

    Wilhelmina wants people to know there was more to her daughter than being a drug-dealer's girlfriend. She was a living, loving person, like all neglected victims.

    "She just finished nursing school," Kelson said. "She just got her LPN (licensed practical nurse) degree. She was supposed to start work at Bergen Regional (Medical Center) on Monday (two days after she was shot)."

    Her diploma came in the mail a week after she was killed. Kelson put one copy in her casket and framed the other.

    Kelson said her daughter was in all "the gifted and talented" classes in Paterson public schools, then went on to Bloomfield College. She became a mother nine years ago but worked in nursing homes and as a home health aide while raising her son, Zion Seegers.

    "That boy was everything to her," Kelson said. "She took him to school every day. They prayed together in church. We're devastated. My heart is broken. Her son isn't doing good in school now."

    For her father, Rodney Parker of Bloomfield, Roshana's death came one year after another daughter, Sheron Parker, was killed in a car accident on Route 22.

    "I don't know how I keep my sanity," he said. "I pray every day. I pray hard for strength. To lose two daughters like that ..."

    Kelson said mourners at Roshana's funeral spilled out of the Gilmore Tabernacle in Paterson where they worshipped.

    "This (murder) hurt a lot of people," she said. "Our family, the church family. You should have seen her funeral. The line went out the door, around the block. People loved her because she had a passion for helping people."

    Kelson recalled her daughter calling her, in tears, when a nursing home patient would die.

    "She loved all those old people," she said.

    Roshana Kelson also picked up shifts at Clara Maas Medical Center in Belleville, Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, and Kessler Institute in West Orange.

    "That girl worked since she was 16 years old," her mother said. "She paid for her own car and her own rent. He (her boyfriend Michael Davis, the alleged drug dealer killed the same night) didn't pay for anything. She was living with me while she went to nursing school."

    Roshana was shot once in the head while she lay in bed with Davis. Before she got to the Maplewood apartment, she had been with her mother and several other women in the family to celebrate Wilhelmina's birthday.

    They went to an art studio to paint and have some wine.

    "She picked out all the makeup for me," her mother said. "She got me a perfect foundation, it was invisible on my skin. She made me up fabulously."

    That day, surrounded by the female members of her family, Wilhelmina said, she was "never happier."

    "I felt everything had come together," she said. "That my life had worked out okay."

    Then came the call. The one that 70 to 100 people a year get in Essex County.

    Kelson said "she had concerns" about Davis, who was shot three times in the head that night.

    "But he was always good to her and never disrespected me," she said. "A few days before they died he said to me, 'Don't worry ... I won't let nothing happen to this girl that won't happen to me.'  In that way, he was right."

    Mark Di Ionno may be reached at mdiionno@starledger.com. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.  


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    The governor's commission's report had 99 specific recommendations. Watch video

    By Sanford M. Jaffe

    Fifty years removed from the riots in Newark, it's a good time to reflect on the content and impact of the report of the Governor's Select Commission on Civil Disorders that was appointed by Gov. Richard Hughes in 1967 and issued its final report in 1968. That history helps us understand where the Brick City is today.

    The commission -- I was its executive director -- studied the circumstances that led to the violence, including the deaths of 26 people that consumed Newark in July 1967; produced significant findings and issued a wide range of recommendations for change. 

    The riots culminated a period of decline in the city, particularly for African-Americans. For five days, looting and gunfire had attracted State Police and the National Guard to put down the violence. More than 700 people were injured and some $10 million in damage was suffered.

    The commission's report had 99 specific recommendations. In my view, though, one overarching theme emerges: recognition of the despair endemic to the black community and an unvarnished account of the reasons for it and what should be done about it. 

    Publication and dissemination of the findings started the long and difficult process of convincing the entire community -- particularly those holding positions of power -- that it was critical to deal with the issues facing the city and its poorest residents. A democratic, pluralistic society demanded no less than the full participation of all its citizens and improvement in the quality of their lives.

    Since most people outside of the black community didn't see or preferred not to see the reality in Newark, what led the group of people appointed by the governor, who represented the "elite" of our state, to recognize and confront that reality? Are there lessons for today in what took place then?

    The answer is, unquestionably, yes.

    The commission was made up of two former governors, one former Supreme Court justice, several leading attorneys (including easily the state's most prominent African-American attorney), the president of the State Bar Association, two bishops and a newspaper publisher, and it was chaired by the president of New Jersey Bell Telephone Co. It started its work with more than a little skepticism but gradually developed a compelling sense of outrage as it learned more about what took place and what lay below it: inattention to the needs and aspirations of the black community and the absence of opportunities across the board.

    As for its reach, the commission left no area of the city -- its governance, economy, housing, educational system -- untouched by its inquiries. Sparing no sacred cows, it made recommendations that challenged the elected leadership, for example, and insisted on profound changes in the city, county and state.

    To understand what produced this result is to know what occurred during the commission's short life. It was the effect of the profoundly moving education the commissioners received as they met daily over three months. They listened to 106 witnesses who talked about their existence, the turmoil and challenge of their daily lives. They also reviewed 700 staff interviews. As the facts surfaced and hopes and fears were expressed, one by one, commission members began to see what needed to be said, what findings had to be made public and, indeed, the critical role they, as a body, could play.

    Accordingly, they concluded that there was a pervasive sense of corruption in city government; the conduct of the looters exacerbated tensions and fears and needed to be acknowledged for what they were; the actions of the National Guard, the State Police and the local police called for substantial change and accountability in procedures and training; there was a need for jobs, housing, economic assistance, development and major changes in the criminal justice system. 

    The woeful state of education, moreover, took on monumental proportions, and the commission recommended that nothing short of a state takeover was likely to improve the education of Newark's young people. 

    Some of the recommendations were implemented in a reasonable time period. Some are yet to be acted on. Others, a state takeover of schools, for example, didn't occur until some 30 years later, and is now ending with the assurance of public confidence in local control.

    Other developments? The mayor was indicted and convicted. Political leadership changed significantly. But it is in that intangible arena where change gained a kind of palpability -- the shifting of attitudes, the recognition and acceptance of legitimate concerns and the sense in the black community that there seemed to be some reason for hope. Now, the current mayor, Ras Baraka, sees a city that is rising. Newark is a major hub for business, education and entertainment. High school graduation rates have improved dramatically. And it's even one of the nation's 20 finalists in bidding to land Amazon's second North American headquarters that's promising to provide up to 50,000 jobs.

    The commission's report clearly was not alone in playing a role in shifting attitudes and undertaking commitment to change. Many people, institutions and changes in law also made a significant difference. But it is the unique opportunity the commission had, and that it seized at a critical time, that helped set the stage for much of what took place in the months and years that followed.

    Sanford M. Jaffe, co-director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers in New Brunswick, was executive director of the Governor's Select Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967 and 1968.

    Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.

     

     


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    A driver caused a chain reaction after crashing into a police car, Newark Police said.

    A driver has been charged with a DWI after allegedly colliding into a Newark police car, causing a chain reaction with another police car and sending two officers to the hospital on Sunday, authorities said.

    The driver, who was also charged with two counts of assault by auto, has not yet been identified. 

    Newark Police said the two officers were taken to University Hospital for minor injuries. The injured officers have not been named. 

    The crash occurred around 2:30 a.m. Sunday on Lincoln Avenue. 

    Karen Yi may be reached at kyi@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @karen_yi or on Facebook

     

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    The Essex County Cherry Blossom festival kicked off on Saturday and runs through April 15.

    Runners made their way through Branch Brook Park in Newark on Sunday for the annual Essex County Cherry Blossom 10K run. A bright sun was out but it was a very cold morning and onlookers were, for the most part, still dressed in winter coats. 

    The cherry blossoms, though they're not in full bloom, still provided a picturesque backdrop for the runners. Patrons also took the day to sun bathe or cheer on the participants. 

    "Any chance I can, I sun bathe," said Ellen Saranovic, of Mahwah, who enjoyed the sun under a blanket as she waited for her son to finish running the 10K.

    The park was closed to car traffic during the race but race-watchers and a few others walked into the park and were drawn to the few trees that have started to bloom. Many of the trees have not even started to bud.

    The 360-acre park is home to 5,000 trees -- the largest collection of cherry blossoms in the country and bigger than the display in Washington, D.C.

    The Essex County Cherry Blossom festival kicked off on Saturday and runs through April 15. Other events include: 

    • Essex County Family Day: from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on April 14. The event featured live performances, children's activities, a fishing derby and other events. Admission is free.
    • Bloomfest: The festival concludes on April 15 with a family-themed event that runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Winners of the "Why My Essex County Park is Important to Me" essay contest for 4th graders and "Cherry Blossom Poster Contest" for 6th graders will be recognized on stage. Other events include a crafter's marketplace, cultural demonstrations and children's activities.
    • Giving tree: The non-profit Essex County Parks Foundation sells cherry trees, for a minimum donation of $225, for planting at Branch Brook Park. Donors are named on the "Cherry Blossom Giving Tree," located at he entrance of the Essex County Cherry Blossom Welcome Center. A donation of $250 or more earns a leaf on the giving tree, and those contributing at least $1,000 get a plaque on the wall.

    Reporters Ed Murray and Rob Jennings contributed to this report.

    Karen Yi may be reached at kyi@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @karen_yi or on Facebook


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    Consider adopting one of these homeless dogs and cats.

    The United States Postal Service wants to share these tips on pet safety for mail carriers.

    * If a carrier delivers mail or packages to your front door, place your dog in a separate room and close that door before opening the front door. Some dogs burst through screen doors or plate-glass windows to attack visitors. Dog owners should keep the family pet secured.

    * Parents should remind their children and other family members not to take mail directly from carriers in the presence of the family pet, as the dog may view the person handing mail to a family member as a threatening gesture.

    * The Postal Service places the safety of its employees as a top priority. If a carrier feels threatened by a dog, or if a dog is loose or unleashed, the owner may be asked to pick up mail at a Post Office until the carrier is assured the pet has been restrained. If a dog is roaming the neighborhood, the pet owner's neighbors also may be asked to pick up their mail at the area's Post Office.

    Such safe practices also apply to any package delivery services and most anyone who comes to your door. Take a moment to be sure about safety.

    Greg Hatala may be reached at ghatala@starledger.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregHatala. Find Greg Hatala on Facebook.


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    Bon Jovi denied us access to its Prudential Center show, thinking we'd be too critical. We went anyway.


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    The newest edition of the Top 20 brings another shakeup.


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    Even without the forces of gentrification, Newark residents are already at risk of displacement, a new study finds.


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    A host of Top-20 matchups are among this week's can't-miss games


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    Eddie Gonzalez handed in his badge in 2008 but continued to wear his police uniform in public to get favors, prosecutors contended.

    Eddie Gonzalez.jpegEddie Gonzalez. 

    A jury has found a former Newark police officer guilty of impersonating a police officer and making false reports.

    Eddie Gonzalez handed in his badge in 2008 but continued to wear his police uniform in public to get favors, prosecutors contended.

    For example, when he met a woman in 2013, Gonzalez, sporting a Newark police shirt, told her he was a cop. That girl wound up becoming his girlfriend, but the relationship soured and both obtained mutual restraining orders.

    Gonzalez was charged with filing false police reports after he told Newark police his ex violated the restraining order six times between December 2014 and February 2015 by stalking him or making harassing phone calls.

    However, it turns out, prosecutors said, that Gonzalez was lying to police -- evidence showed that his ex-girlfriend was not at the places Gonzalez claimed she was.

    Gonzalez, 39, has three pending indictments against him, including one indictment for failing to surrender a personal weapon when he was served with a restraining order.

    He also has a disorderly person conviction for harassing a 14-year-old girl who lived next door to him. The incident occurred on Aug. 28, 2002, when Gonzalez, then 23 years old and dressed in his police uniform, visited the girl's home, an appellate court decision states. The girl attempted to avoid speaking with Gonzalez but he grabbed her by the shoulders and forced his tongue into her mouth, the decision said.

    This incident cost Gonzalez his job as a police officer.

    He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 8 and faces a minimum of 18 months in prison. 

    Alex Napoliello may be reached at anapoliello@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexnapoNJ. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

    Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips

     

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    Check out a slew of good events on the softball fields of New Jersey this weekend.


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    A playground in Newark became home to drug addicts and strewn with garbage until the city stepped in and cleaned it. Now the park is closed.

    It's called the "Peace Playground," but there's nothing about the name and space to make you think that.

    In the past two years, the small park in Newark on Pennsylvania Avenue has become a playground for addicts.

    Until last week, when the city closed the park, addicts and the homeless lived there, sleeping on playground equipment and underneath the sliding board.

    Tops from drug vials littered the ground in and around the play area. Needles were visible, too. Garbage cans were filled to the brim. Trash was piled high between the fence and the Link Community Charter School next door.

    The school's principal, Kathleen Hester, said at its worst point, the trash was at least 3 feet high. Her middle school students don't use the park. She can't take the risk. So, recess is held in the gym and in classrooms.

    Residents have complained about conditions at the park on Facebook, and the noise finally reached Newark City Hall.

    MORE: Recent Barry Carter columns  

    Even though Newark doesn't own the property, city sanitation workers showed up last week and cleaned the park, hauling out more than 50 contractor-size bags of garbage.

    The park is now closed, and the city says it will fine the owner, La Casa de Don Pedro, a community-based nonprofit corporation in Newark.

    The longtime agency has owned a majority of the park for nearly 10 years, having acquired it from El Club del Barrio, a social agency that has a food pantry and provides mental health and addiction services, including for those with HIV.

    Carrie Puglisi, director of La Casa's program and fund development, said the organization has been overwhelmed by the abuse of the park and that it has tried to maintain the space with the school and St. Columba's Church across the street.

    "It is as much a community problem as it is a policing problem,'' Puglisi said.

    Over the years, she said, La Casa has held clean-up campaigns and organized projects to repair the park, but dumping and illegal activity continued.

    Puglisi said La Casa does not have a presence to monitor the park because there's limited funding for public spaces and even less money to help maintain community-owned parks.

    La Casa's answer is to move on. It plans to transfer ownership of the land to the charter school within 30 days.

    Maria Pilar Paradiso, executive director of Link Education Partners (LEP), a nonprofit organization that supports the school, said the group approached La Casa in December about acquiring the property after watching it deteriorate.

    "Both organizations are working to move this forward and complete the sale as quickly as possible,'' she said.

    Paradiso said LEP believes it can maintain the park with regular monitoring and by working with the police department, a relationship it already has with the Fifth Precinct.

    No timetable has been set for when the children can use the park. That will happen, Paradiso said, once LEP evaluates the park's needs and determines its level of safety.

    Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said the department will continue to build bridges with the community and enforce the laws to improve quality of life in the area.

    Whatever happens, hopefully it will discourage the addicts and make them uncomfortable if they try to congregate in the park.

    The students have yet to use the park during the five years the school has been in the neighborhood.

     Instead, the fifth- through eighth-grade students played during lunch in front of the building for three years when school officials would block off the street.

    But that ended last June, Hester said, after a fatal drive-by shooting near the school and another homicide in July a few blocks away.

    "The kids had just come inside,'' she said, referring to the first shooting.

    Until the park can be used again, it remains closed. Several signs are posted on the fence, but anyone can walk through, unless a new gate with a lock is installed.

    Compared to what it had been, there's a noticeable difference in how it looks.

    Science teacher Errol LaGuerre, has a more pleasant view again from his classroom window.

    "I can look outside now,'' he said.

    Hester would love for her students to be able to play outside. It should be part of their development, she said, during a day that starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m.

    MORE CARTER: N.J. statewide group seeks minority inclusion in marijuana legislation | Carter

    Parents want the same thing, but they understand the problem: strangers getting high in plain sight, nodding off on the benches, or lying on the ground, oblivious to what's around them.

    "You don't want your kids to see that,'' said Brenda Daughtry, president of the Link Parent Association.

    Recess is in the gym, and while it can be cramped, the students have adjusted.

    "I wish I could go out there, but she has to protect us," said Jazz Williams, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, speaking about his principal. "That's why she won't let us go outside. But it's fun inside.''

    Across the street, Rafael Santiago grows vegetables and gives them away to the people in the neighborhood. He's seen the park's decline and stopped taking his daughter there last year.

    "It was good for a lot of years,'' he said. "The kids need a place to play.''

    Rashon Williams, 55, of East Orange agrees. He understands the situation from both sides. The addicts, he said, are homeless like him, and that's why they wind up in the park. They don't want to go to the airport or Penn Station.

    For them, the park is safe and quiet.

    But it should be that way for the kids, too.

    Barry Carter: (973) 836-4925 or bcarter@starledger.com or 

    nj.com/carter or follow him on Twitter @BarryCarterSL


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    Explorateur French Triple Creme might contain infection-causing Listeria

    A specialty cheese sold at two Whole Foods locations in New Jersey has been recalled due to concerns it contains listeria, federal health officials said. 

    Explorateur French Triple Creme has been pulled from shelves at stores on Main Street in Madison and Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in a statement Monday.

    The cheese begins with PLU code 0294317. It was sold in clear, plastic wrap and 8 ounce packages.

    Look inside N.J.'s newest Whole Foods, opening Friday

    There have been no reports of illnesses. Listeria can cause serious or sometimes fatal infections in young children, the elderly or pregnant woman. Other people can suffer short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea and abdominal pain

    Customers can return the cheese to the store for a refund. Anyone with questions can call 1-844- 936-8255.

    The recall also affects select Whole Foods stores in New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Illinois and Connecticut.

    Jeff Goldman may be reached at jeff_goldman@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSGoldman. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

     

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    "The Sting" makes for an evening of fun that seems regularly forced

    In 1974, Paul Newman and Robert Redford carried "The Sting" to a best-picture Oscar. Now a world-premiere musical version of the film hopes to make a similar splash at the Paper Mill and perhaps beyond. Bolstered by a marquee name in Harry Connick, Jr. and fortified by the superb choreography of Tony-winner Warren Carlyle, the show is certainly well equipped to make a run at the top of the musical theater world.

    But it is not there yet. Clumsy at three uneven hours and still showing its brushstrokes, "The Sting" makes for an evening of fun that seems regularly forced. Stories of gamblers and grifters are always a good time in the theater and at the movies, so this classic tale of smalltime hustlers bringing down a big fish should be no different. And for the most part, that's true: we get all the twisting plot lines, double crossing, and long-odds bets that we expect and love from stories of the heist and the con. But those formulas, and not any real depth of character, inventiveness of story, or compelling performances, lie at the heart of "The Sting." Unlike its characters, it is a show that takes a safe bet, happy with a marginal win rather than a big score.

    Following the plot line of the classic film closely, Bob Martin's script focuses on the collaboration between small-town hustler Johnny Hooker (J. Harrison Ghee) and legendary Chicago con man Henry Gondorff (Connick) aimed at taking down Doyle Lonnegan (Tom Hewitt), a ruthless and wealthy gangster against whom both men hold a grudge. Toppling Lonnegan is complicated and dangerous, but if they can pull it off the rewards are as personal as they are financial.

    Connick's name carries the marquee at the Paper Mill, but the show asks much more of Ghee's talents. "The Sting" is more interested in Hooker's coming-of-age than it is in Gondorff, and so Ghee must guide his character over the furthest arc of development, a challenge he faces confidently. Ghee's Hooker is as brash as he is vulnerable, perhaps out of his depth but managing to keep his head above water with sheer confidence.

    Of course, the star power of Connick cannot help but find moments to shine. An entertainer of many facets, Connick is a perfectly capable song-and-dance man for musical theater, but at his core this is a New Orleans jazzman most comfortable with a piano and microphone. Sadly, the show only gives us two brief glimpses of Connick more or less on his own, uncluttered by an orchestra or chorus or sweeping arrangements. Those moments are Connick at his best, with the voice and charisma that earned him his fame, but they throw into relief the rest of the show when his talents seem crammed uncomfortably into the mold of razzle-dazzle musical.

    And to be sure: this show's creators have doubled down on razzle-dazzle. Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis's songs chase the rhythm and energy of big-band jazz, while the large ensemble taps and swings their way through a frequently dizzying pace. Most importantly, though, "The Sting" looks and feels and operates like a musical, not like a musical version of a film. Our contemporary moment is saturated by musicals making a mess of movies by trying to shoehorn songs where they simply don't fit (I'm looking at you, "A Bronx Tale: The Musical"... and I'm side-eyeing you, "A Christmas Story: The Musical"), but "The Sting" avoids that most obvious pitfall. Maybe it is because the film is already so invested in the showmanship of the long con, or maybe all the credit goes to the show's creators with resumes littered with Tonys and other awards, but it is no small feat for this musical adaptation to distinguish itself from a crowded field by actually seeming like a musical.

    Ultimately, fans of the movie will likely find much to enjoy about this musical version. The spirit and the fun of the film remain, and while not all the songs succeed, Carlyle's choreography shines as the production's highlight. The show's dance arrangements are sometimes meticulously crafted explosions of energy, and sometimes delicately nuanced, but at all times Carlyle's work helpfully and importantly bolsters a show that regularly drags across its three hours.

    And maybe there is much for musical fans to enjoy here too, but any notion that what we have here is a well-crafted, sharply directed and performed musical smells like a con. All the trappings are here, but looking to closely might reveal a hollowness to their construction.

    THE STING

    Paper Mill Playhouse

    22 Brookside Drive, Millburn

    Tickets available online (https://tickets.papermill.org/). Running through April 29.

    Patrick Maley may be reached at patrickjmaley@gmail.com. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @PatrickJMaley. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.


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