Head for The Oregon Trail at Alleyway

Full disclosure: I never played The Oregon Trail videogame. Not being much of a gamer (except for my Pac Man and Ms Pac Man obsession in the ‘80s), I actually never heard of the game. If you had asked me what was The Oregon Trail, I might have guessed something that fur traders used to get from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean. So color me surprised that it turned out to be a pretty thoughtful, pretty funny show now onstage at the Alleyway Theatre.

Renee Landrigan is Jane, a typical ‘90s middle schooler who dramatically flops herself on the floor in embarrassment, dials up her mom on a flip phone with an antenna, and can’t quite keep up with big sister Mary Ann (Sue McCormack). Jane has a secret crush on class hunk Billy (Ben Caldwell) and another secret: a disc that sends her imagination back a century to The Oregon Trail where she can pretend she’s packing the covered wagon for a ride across the prairie, circa 1848. It’s all pretty harmless fun….until the day the computer talks back to her.

The stage action cleverly shifts between today Jane and 1848 Jane (maybe her great great grandmother, perhaps) with Elise Vullo in the vintage Jane role. Jane from the days of yore is struggling with her mother’s death and her father’s decision to go west. She adores her accomplished older sister Mary Ann (McCormack in a bonnet) who has stepped up into the caregiver’s role. But then Jane struggles with the rough, slow road and the threat of death by dysentery and other things. We time-hop forward and today Jane is an adult, of sorts. She is struggling to find her place in the world while big sister Mary Ann has a tiring but rewarding medical career. Jane manifests classic signs of depression, not caring for herself, devoted to screens (both computer and TV), unable to hold a job or find a career pathway. Tough love doesn’t seem to work. Even a chance meeting with ex-crush Billy isn’t shaking her out of her reverie. Mary Ann decides a wilderness day, some sage to burn, and some journaling might help Jane find her path.

Landrigan is a delight as Today Jane, both  young and grown up. She’s a great twitchy ‘tween and a lost soul 20-something. McCormack’s Mary Ann is equally solid: as today’s Mary Ann she’s both weary and wise and just wants her kid sister to find her way. Caldwell’s Billy is the middle school jerk who hasn’t grown up (we all know him). It’s John Profeta as Clancy, the 1848 dad and Nicholas Lama as the voice of the game who provide the wisdom of the Trail….actual and electronic. Profeta is determined that he’s made a good decision to ford the streams and hike the hills to a new life for his family. Lama’s resonant voice reminds us that outside forces can oddly, wickedly control you when you least expect it. It’s a clever device by playwright Bekah Brunstetter. Director Chris J Handley and Tim McGrath, scenic designer made good use of the stage that took use from classroom to wilderness to the gals’ apartment. Todd Warfield had some work cut out for him sourcing a full size-looking wagon and some ancient greige computers (memories of my vintage 286!) I loved some of Nicholas Quinn’s music choices for audio transitions, too.

All told, the earlier scenes and the waaay earlier flashback scenes were more satisfying than the ending. I would have liked to have seen a glimpse of Today Jane and Yesteryear Jane one more time, and maybe heard more creepy shout outs from the game himself to knit it all together.

The Oregon Trail is onstage to May 28. It runs a solid two hours+ with an intermission to enjoy Alleyway’s lovely lobby.  Get tickets and info at www.alleyway.com. Bring a mask. You’ll be OK.

It’s Tradition vs Modern at Jewish Repertory Theatre

We all know that person. He’s chronically late and eternally apologetic. He’s completely annoying and utterly charming. He swears he’s your best friend but given the opportunity, he’d shatter your trust.

That pretty much sums up Hershel Klein (“My friends call me Hersh,” he says), the diamond dealer who can’t shut up in Modern Orthodox, the current production of Jewish Repertory Theatre.

Hersh is traditional and proud of it, peppering his patter with plenty of Yiddish interjections, notably Baruch Hashem (blessed be the name of the Lord). He’s 45 minutes late to sell a diamond to Ben (RJ Voltz) who is finally ready to pop the question to his live-in doctor girlfriend Hannah (Kayla Storto). Hersh is curious about Ben and Hannah, who are Jewish and modern and breaking all the rules that Hersh holds so dear. Ben is less curious about Hersh’s life, even to the point of mocking his faith. So it’s a rather weird circumstance that lead Hersh to Ben and Hannah’s door where he passes out, then moves in, and an odd kinship develops. And it becomes clear that Hersh is settling in for the long haul. Hersh is content to be there…but only after the kitchen and items can be kosher, and some of Hersh’s treasures are on the walls, and there’s a mezuzah on the entrance doorframe. To get him out of their hair and lair, Ben and Hannah use an internet dating site (oy gevalt!) to find Hersh to Rachel (Robyn Baun), his b’shert…his perfect mate.

Adam Yellen is using his very best deadpan chops as Hersh: he has Hersh’s shtick down pat, from his earnestness to his overall twitchiness. Voltz and Storto are perfectly suited as the affianced Ben and Hannah. It’s the Hersh and Rachel combination that is so endearing. Baun is laugh out loud hysterical as they kibbitz away their first date. She’s that proverbial ray of sunshine with a brash and loud chutzpah; still she’s the zaftig girl of his dreams. You almost hope for a second act so you can see their marriage emerge.

Director Steve Vaughan had a good eye for this cast; they roles fit them like gloves.  Playwright Daniel Goldfarb has a real gift for banter and fast-paced conversation: if there are some holes in the plot, they are quickly forgotten.

Give yourself a few minutes before the show starts to scan the program’s pullout of Yiddish-Hebrew words: there’s a lot of them and it will come in handy (all these years, I thought Shlemiel and Shlemazzel were just the first few years of the Laverne and Shirley theme song…who knew!)

Modern Orthodox is onstage to May 29. The show runs 90-ish minutes with no intermission: tickets and details are at www.jccbuffalo.org. We’ve had a frightening and heart-breaking week…give yourself a night out to laugh and lose yourself in the blush of young love.

It’s All About the Music at Shea’s

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations is a hoot of a way to end this year’s Broadway season at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. It’s full of feel-good energy and lots of familiar tunes that has you wanting more….and that’s a good metaphor for a Buffalo theatre season, especially coming of the COVID-intermission.

The show is part memoir, part juke box tribute to the 60-year reign of The Temptations. Not unlike Jersey Boys or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the script is a loose outline of how Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James) created brotherhood through music with some fellow Detroiters, got introduced to Motown legend Berry Gordy (Michael Andreaus) who assigned fledgling songwriter Smokey Robinson (Lawrence Dandridge) to create a signature sound, and the rest – as they say – is history. Along the way, there were plenty of woman woes, drug abuse, competition for the spotlight and plenty of music. The most fascinating part of the Temp’s history though is the time: they were moving up through the 1960s, working though the Civil Rights Movement, mourning the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., coping with violence as they toured southern states, while making music history in their own way. There were hints that the group wanted more relevance and to take a stand for social justice, but Gordy hired Shelly Berger (Reed Campbell) to help manage them and introduce a cross-cultural sound for their unique talents. Was there disappointment here? Maybe. Probably. This is the part of their story that deserved more telling, methinks. But scripts like this are written to hit the high notes (at best in falsetto) and a little revisionist history means we just get to the tunes a little faster.

And that’s the whole point of the story…. to celebrate the music. And damn it was good. Diana Ross and the Supremes make a guest appearance along with Tammi Terrell. Deri’Andra Tucker as Diana, Shayla Brielle G. doing double duty as Tammi and Flo, and Traci Elaine Lee as Mary had voices worthy of the music for sure.

It’s the five original Temps that had the show, though (there were 24 Temps to date, Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams said). He plus James T. Lane, Harrell Holmes, Jr., Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis as Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, and David Ruffin had the voices, the dancing, the swagger, and brotherhood that showed the best of the Temps the way we want to see them. If the script washed over the less appealing stuff…well…that’s not what the show was meant to be. It’s all about “Cloud Nine,” “My Girl,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and the soundtrack of our lives from ’61 to ’73 and the group’s last Top 10 hit.

As you would expect, the lights, the costumes, the projection, and the set changes were flashy and dazzling. There was an appropriate Buffalo cheer when “Buffalo” and “Kleinhans” on flashed the projected marquee. And of course, when an early group member broke into “Shout,” this prompted an audience sing along. (Now wait a minute, kids, “Shout” was really a song before it became our favorite cheer.) Maybe it is in the script that the singer on stage ‘cues’ the audience to join in, but that clearly isn’t needed in this town.

If I had one disappointment, it is that there wasn’t a “mega mix” medley at the end so the audience – already on its feet – could dance and sing along one more time.

“Ain’t Too Proud” is in town (God willing and the COVID rate don’t rise) to Sunday, May 15. It runs a full two hours including a 20-minute intermission.  Tickets and details at www.sheas.org.

D’Youville Kavinoky Play Looks at Addiction and Recovery

“It’s the nouns you have to look out for…the people, places, and things…,” is a poignant line in People, Places, and Things, on stage now to May 22 at the D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre. This is a powerful story about addiction and recovery, the death-defying lows and the terrifying highs that are part of this very human condition.

You’re used to seeing a few serious, soulful dramas every year in this lovely space. You’ve probably seen plenty of plays and movies where someone is drinking or using. Chances are someone in your family or circle of loved ones is struggling with something similar. But you’ve probably never seen a production that is so intense, so gripping, and so well executed as this. Director Kate Mallinson and the cast with Aleks Malejs in the lead role put their hearts into this and it shows in every word and movement. And no, I’m not overselling this. Duncan MacMillan’s play is remarkable and this cast and crew elevated this work to become an experience.

Malejs is Emma, an actor who – in the opening scene – loses focus on-stage during a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. A series of flashbacks show snippets of her life, dancing, clubbing, using…until she crashes and checks into rehab. There she’s haunted by images of herself (Mallinson created some special stage magic here) as she’s trying to control the uncontrollable state of her being. She falters, fails, tries again. It’s not a cliché to say that she triumphs in the end: every day is a new challenge, a new struggle on the road to sobriety.

This is raw, exquisite work by Malejs, who by day in her ‘real life’ is a Peer Specialist for Save the Michaels of the World, Inc. She has lived experience and she brings that to her performance tenfold. She’s not some doddering drunk or strung out junky: her character is complex, endearing, frustrating. She’s alone with her acting career where she’s surrounded by characters and and offstage, she’s haunted by familial pain. Those two halves make a very troubling, human whole. Maureen Ann Porter is the center’s doctor, therapist, and later Emma’s mum. She trebly ironic here: in one character she’s understanding and supportive. In another role she’s wary, tired, and bitterly disappointed. It’s a wonder to see Porter shift like this. Gregory Gjurich, one of the region’s most versatile comedic actors, is Emma’s dad and a variety of ensemble roles where his skill for drama is mesmerizing. He preaches his addiction to heroin with the passion of clergyman. (There are glimmers of humor sprinkled in the script. After a twisted and prayerful monologue, Emma is encouraged to say “amen,” she’s hesitant until she’s reminded that it’s like hitting ‘send’ on an email. In another exchange with the same peer counselor, she scoffs “are all your references from cartoons? Read a book!”) Ah, humanity. Ben Michael Moran, Gabriella McKinley, Diane DiBernardo, Dylan Zalikowski, Afrim Gjonbalaj, Christopher Guilmet, and Michele Roberts effortlessly slide in and out of their ensemble roles gracefully. You do get the sense that this ensemble – in real life – connected perhaps through common bonds or their actor’s empathy. As the cast when they chant “don’t come back” as their fellow clients leave rehab, there is strength and hope in their sincerity.

David King designed a deceptively simple set that frames the stage action as well as it does the projection crafted by Nicholas Taboni. Through Taboni’s choices, Brian Cavanagh’s lighting, and Geoffrey Tocin’s sound, we are in Emma’s psyche as it sorts through layers of images and influences. Diane Almeter Jones and Amber Greer and Andrea Letcher round out the team with props and costumes that knit the visual experience together so well.

D’Youville Kavinoky waited a few years for this one (thank you, COVID), and perhaps that has added to its relevance. The isolation and fear of COVID is making us more aware of mental health diagnoses and addiction struggles. Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell made some very thoughtful programming choices by inviting area behavioral health agencies to share information on Thursday evenings and participate in a post-show talk-back. She also suspended sales of alcoholic beverages on Thursday nights, too.

COVID has truncated the show’s run, so make ticket arrangements now at kavinokytheatre.com. The show runs for two hours with a 20-minute intermission. Bright lights and some strobes may be uncomfortable for some audience members. Trigger warning:  smoking, drug use, alcohol references, and suicidal ideations are prevalent. Help and hope is just a click away:

Save the Michaels of the World, Inc.

Spectrum Health and Human Services

Horizon Health Services

Evergreen Health

BestSelf Behavioral Health

The Other Josh Cohen is a Delight

What do you do when your apartment is burgled, your job kinda sucks, money is tight, and love eludes you? Worst of all, your only possessions are a “hang in there” cat calendar and the Neil Diamond III CD (“the best songs are on one and two”)? Well, if you’re Josh Cohen, you just keep on keeping on.

The Other Josh Cohen, on stage at MusicalFare Theatre until May 22, is a completely loveable story about a guy who hates February 14 and 15 equally because Valentine’s Day and the Ides of February just aren’t his days…until a series of circumstances turns it all around.

This is 90 minutes of absolute delight on a stage, with music, including a Neil Diamond appearance. I mean, come on…what’s not to love? Director Randall Kramer gets this all right with a superb cast and  a adorably quirky and endearing story by David Rossmer and Steve Rosen

There are actually three Josh Cohens involved here. The story unfolds in retrospect as Narrator Josh (Zak Ward) details a critical time when Last Year’s Josh (Joseph Donohue III) encounters the ‘other’ Josh (Brandon Barry) when Other Josh’s mom sends a hefty check to Last Year’s Josh’s almost-empty apartment. What to do? This big chunk o’ change could turn Last Year’s Josh’s life around….but then again….so can doing the right thing.

Along this journey we meet Last Year Josh’s parents, his landlord, his neighbors, the other Josh’s mom, Darth Vadar, and a few women not meant for any Josh. In between there are plenty of laughs (not belly busting slap stick guffaws, but the delectable, sly chuckling kind that are more enduring and infectious), and some really good tunes. The earworm for the night is “Samuel Cohen’s Family Tree,” a story song that sets up the family lineage with a tune that will remind you of Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” If you’re not smiling by the second chorus, well then, it just sucks to be you.

The band members (all three Josh actors) plus music director Theresa Quinn, Robert Insana, and Solange Gosselin) are on stage and do double and triple duty as various cast members.  It’s a hoot to watch them effortlessly glide from role to role. Quinn is the standout stepping out from the behind the keyboards to be Josh mom I and II and Neil. Insana kills it when – as Josh’s dad – he meticulously voices his answering machine. This band is tight, the vocals are excellent, and it’s all easy on the ears. Chris Cavanagh kept the set simple and effective and used some subtle lighting to shift the mood as needed.  Costumer Kari Drozd dressed Narrator Josh and Last Year’s Josh identically: it’s only in the demeanor and quiet wisdom (and facial hair) that you see the difference. It all worked.

Underneath the gags and gimmicks, there’s a message for the ages: goodness will always win, and patience pays off.

The Other Josh Cohen runs 90 minutes without an intermission. Visit www.musicalfare.com for details and tickets.

Little Women…now…At Last!

Louisa May Alcott’s coming of age chick lit classic Little Women has been required reading since its 1868 publication. Hence, it’s multiple iterations on stage and screen: everyone loves the four plucky sisters of Concord, MA, their stalwart mother, and the men who dance around their periphery of their lives. Except me. I know, some may think I need to revoke my woman card, but the book and its adaptations have never appealed to me.

Major props to playwright Donna Hoke for tackling this old chestnut and bringing it to 2022 relevance. Little Women…now made its world-premiere at Road Less Traveled Theatre after two years of Covid delays. The family is now at home in Western New York, Father is in the midwest helping his ailing cousin, and the four sisters still adore each other when they’re not dreaming and bickering.

Director Doug Weyand has an A-list cast and crew for this long-awaited production. The March sisters (Brittany Bassett as Meg, Sabrina Kahwaty as Amy, Heather Gervasi as Beth, and Alexandria Watts as Jo) play off each other well enough as they cope with their financial woes and general growing pains. Beth is no longer in scarlet fever’s grip: her maladies are anxiety-based with hints of long-haul Covid and perhaps an eating disorder as she raises her fist for social justice. Gervasi plays Beth frail and pale with determination. Bassett’s Meg is ready to be the young bride of John Brooke (Ricky Needham); he’s perfectly earnest and endlessly patient. Kahwaty’s Amy is the most transformed of the quartet: in Act 1, she’s the annoying and whiny adolescent and by Act 2 she’s matured into the sister with a secret love and the realization that her girlhood dreams can grow into another direction. Watts is a delight as Jo the ‘tomboy’ (who now is a women’s studies major) aspiring writer who isn’t ready to accept Laurie’s (so well played by Jake Hayes) affection. Lisa Vitrano rounds out the cast as Mom. The role model of pluckiness, she’s working in a diner to keep her quartet afloat. She’s wonderfully weary and wise, although at times she feels more like sister number five and not the matriarch.

Dyan Burlingame built a set that morphs from March family living room (obviously in a lovely home that’s starting to a get bit shabby as the finances run down) into the “Sister House” beach house. Some clever shutters here and slipcovers there do the trick, along with some beachy art and other objects deftly assembled by prop master Diane Almeter Jones. Nicholas Quinn has some fun with the sound design; the production is really a series of vignettes that span several years. Quinn connects these moving parts with period-appropriate song snippets. John Rickus adds his magic with focused lighting and illuminated “chapter titles” in the set’s TV screen.

The show gets laughs in the right places, sighs when necessary, and some tears when the family tale is most poignant. There’s one lovely scene where Jo’s writing comes to life, with some silhouette lighting and some expert stagecraft by Watts. This shouldn’t be a spoiler alert, but after almost two hours of foreshadowing, Beth’s death is an odd moment of melodrama complete with a gasp and a grasp to the white light.

Little Women…now is onstage until May 22. It runs a full two hours with a brief intermission. Find details and tickets at http://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

Anastasia is a Feast for the Eyes at Shea’s

I’ll say this straight up: suspend all your thoughts about present day Russia and erase your knowledge about the Russian Revolution and the urban myths behind Princess Anastasia dead or alive (maybe).  Instead embrace the idea that the two plus hours you’ll spend in Shea’s Performing Arts Center seeing Anastasia The New Broadway Musical is a charming fairy tale about hope and perseverance with a great score, stunning scenography, and beautiful costumes.

This production is the stage version of the popular 1997 film that is (very) vaguely based on the fall of the Romanov Empire of Imperialist Russia circa 1917. In brief, the people revolt against their austere living conditions vis a vis the royal family’s lavish lifestyle and the Tsar, his bride, and their children are killed after the Tsar’s mother – the Dowager Empress – escapes to Paris. Only one daughter – Anastasia – survives, albeit traumatized and suffering from amnesia. Rumors of her life are widely circulated on the street, and two shady sorts decide to audition girls to pose as the young Princess, bring her to Paris to reunite with her beloved Dowager Nana, and reap the ruples of reward. Unbeknownst to them, the scrappy, hard-working street-sweeping waif they meet is Anastasia herself, and while she is tutored by a former gentleman of the court to adopt royal ways, her old memories begin to return.  The Terrence McNally book throws in a couple fun plot twists for interest along with some laughably loveable characters.

Revisionist history notwithstanding, this production is visually stunning. The sets are lush and are beautifully augmented with spectacular video of old St. Petersburg, the Hermitage, and a breathtaking ride up the Eiffel Tour. The video helps advance the years from 1906 up to 1927 and the scenery and fashion change accordingly. It’s all seamless and lovely. Anastasia’s flashbacks and dreams are illusions that come to life, too.  There’s even a simulated train ride from Russia through Poland to the outskirts of Paris where the (one) train car appears to turn and bank and jerk along. Scene purists will balk that we only see that solitary car in what we assume to be a longer train, but hey, it’s all about point of view. Once the trio gets to Paris, they mingle with Russian emigres and in a truly special moment, there’s a beautiful ballet sequence with excerpts from Swan Lake. The Tchaikovsky score is nicely performer by two keyboards, a small ensemble orchestra, and an exquisite quartet of dancers.

There are some truly stand-out moments. Kyla Stone as Anastasia has a rich and full voice that is perfect for the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Aherns score. Gleb, the military man who is on a mission to find Anastasia is expertly played by Brandon Delgado: his music conservatory training is well-used here for sure. My favorite moment of theatre magic is in the opening scene. The Royal Family is joyously dancing and little Anastasia lifted by her father as years turn from 1906 to 1917. While father and daughter twirl and spin, an older Anastasia is in her father’s arms right before your eyes. Yes, I was paying attention and no, I had no idea how the transition happened.

So it’s not authentic history and the story is a little thin, there is such joy on the stage, just go with it and be swept up by the gltiz and glam. It’s plenty of fun with a dash of romance, too.

A few gentle warnings: the show runs just shy of three hours with one intermission (cue the fanny fatigue). The lighting is spectacular for sure, but there are some flashing strobe lights in the first act which some folks may find bothersome. And “Journey to the Past” (originally nominated for best song in the 1997 Academy Awards) with its tricky syncopation and key modulations can easily become a fine earworm.  Details and tickets at www.sheas.org.

‘Riverdance’ visit’s Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The 25th Anniversary Show of Riverdance made its way to Shea’s Buffalo Theatre this past weekend with three Buffalo-natives in the cast. This thrilling addition was the cause of several mid-show standing ovations like I’ve never seen before! The excitement filled the air for Erin Lynch, Fiona Dargan, and Kevinah Dargan along with the rest of the incredibly talented cast and production team.

The original Riverdance that premiered at The Point Theatre Dublin 25 years ago has been reimagined in this captivating anniversary show with new additions in lighting, stage designs, costuming, and music. This theatrical show consists mainly of traditional Irish music and dance with occasional features of flamenco, Russian folk dance, and American tap. Even if you aren’t particularly knowledgeable about dance, you’re sure to be fascinated by the effortless movement on stage accompanied with complex rhythms and incredible musical talents. As a dancer myself (primarily trained in classic ballet pointe), I found this performance all the more interesting from a technical point of view. 

Irish Dance and Ballet differ in many ways, but also have a great number of parallels. For example, the idea of having principal dancers backed by a troupe or corpse is the same as well as the overall goal of making even the most intricate routines appear easy and light. Something that differed that I particularly enjoyed was the air of confidence and attitude possessed by the female dancers. Instead of having to appear dainty, sweet, and fragile as is often the goal in ballet, these Irish dancers present themselves with sass, flair, and empowerment. The way they move across the stage is almost unreal in that they just seem to float from one place to another with such speed and power. 

The musicians of this production, especially Emma Frampton, Tara Howley, and Haley Richardson, are extremely talented and make their instrumental “face-offs” exceedingly enjoyable to watch. It seems like everyone is having fun and is so passionate about what they do that you can feel it as an audience member. The Riverdance Singers have the traditional, angelic voices we equate to celtic music that transcends you to the peaceful rolling hills of Ireland and eases your mind so you can only focus on the beauty of their sound. 

The audience continued to be an active participant throughout the show, getting involved with clapping, cheering, and reacting to the performance. The buzz of energy and delight that filled the theatre was unlike anything I’d felt before when attending a typical Shea’s season show. Perhaps it was the attendance of all of the Rince Na Tierne dancers- past and present, young and old- that created such a buzz. The feeling of seeing the possibility of your dreams coming true and turning your hard work and passions into a career like the dancers on stage is made even more achievable and palpable. 

Overall, this is an exciting show you won’t want to miss. Even if you think you’ve seen it before, you’ve never seen it like this! If you missed it in Buffalo, it’s headed to New Brunswick, NJ next. Definitely worth the day trip- you won’t be disappointed! 

For more information, click here.

Berserker Is an Ursine-Driven Love Story

If a bear dances in the woods, will a teacher find true love?

Berserker, on stage now at Alleyway Theatre, is full of similar existential questions, with a killer Led Zeppelin soundtrack, too.

This was a 2019 Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition winner for good reason. Playwright Bruce Walsh created a quirky, complex, endearing set of characters in a multi-layered love story with some interesting twists.

Pete Green (Patrick Cameron) is a teacher who set off to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail, leaving his lady (not his wife, we hear repeatedly) Vicky (Kelly Copps) at home.  They share a home, a daughter, and a profession, and this brief respite doesn’t seem foreboding. While Vicky is relishing some quiet time listening to Chopin, Pete is spooked when he sees a bear. And then he wanders off-trail onto private property and is spooked a second time when he hears a voice coming from the birdfeeder/trail cam, first singing Zeppelin’s 1969 megahit “Whole Lotta Love” and then admonishing him for trespassing onto private property. Seems he’s stumbled onto the grounds of LeiberCraft, a multiplayer gaming platform tech company. He’s intrigued by the voice in the birdhouse. They faux-flirt around their shared Led-Head obsession until she finally directs him off-grounds. Back home with Vicky, he decides to leave his traditional classroom gig to pursue a teaching job with one student – the LeiberCraft founding 12 year old gaming wizard named Mason – and perhaps a spark a relationship with Soojin the voice in the birdfeeder (Sara Kow-Falcone), the corporate attorney who signs him to the gig. This is the start of the real love story; between teacher and student, and between music-lovers who get swept away, and between a boy and a bear and fast-food left overs.

Director Robyn Lee Horn got her casting exactly right with this group. Cameron is wonderfully focused as the bear-phobic teacher in heart and mind turmoil and in charge of the frenetic Mason (Haleigh Curr).

Curr’s physical comedy is outstanding, scaling a desk to back-bend off it seconds later. Blurting out expletives in one minute, and then pensively pondering the next-level thinking behind why Pete is using Beowulf as a lesson. Curr is an amazing young talent cast in a pretty extraordinary role.

Kow-Falcone is fierce-tender as Soojin the lawyer with a compelling backstory that sneaks into the plot in bits and pieces. Copps as Vicky, the non-wife and mother to Pete’s daughter, is gentle and strong as she moves on with her life while Pete makes other choices. Watch her face and her body language: her subtle gestures are as in-your-face as a Robert Plant falsetto.

The technical team did a masterful job in staging this work. Emma Schimminger’s lighting scheme complemented Collin Ranney’s three-place set beautifully with some fun surprises. Nicholas Quinn designed a great soundscape that reminded that Zeppelin’s “All Of My Love” is still my favorite.

Full disclosure: I didn’t love the ending. I felt the last five minutes or so spun an incredible plot into some odd places. Hey, not-quite-mid-life crises happen, and they aren’t all weird. Up to that point, the story was a unique and powerful examination of the power of music to attract and influence our decisions and choices. And that love and belief in someone else can change lives. Or to put it in Zeppelin-speak,”there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

Berserker runs two hours with a 15-minute intermission, on stage to April 23. When you visit www.alleyway.com to book your seats, click over to www.alleyway.com/education to learn more about a powerful student engagement on April 20, #Enough Plays to End Gun Violence, and Buffalo’s role in this national effort.

Tepid Passion in Stage Kiss

Despite what the timeless song says, sometimes a kiss is not just a kiss. Sometimes a kiss stirs up memories, emotions, and things that have no place coming to light again. That’s the heart of Stage Kiss, presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company now to April 24.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s examination of what happens when lips lock is one of those farcical “plays within a play” where actors are playing actors and then they act out. In this case, He (Guy Balotine) and She (Tracie Lane) are ex-lovers who – after a lengthy interval – find themselves playing lovers onstage in a stilted 1930s revival of a show called “The Last Kiss.” She had left the boards to raise her daughter. He is a rather hapless sort who hasn’t figured out how to grow as an actor or a person. Their stage kiss leads them back into each other’s orbit to the shock of She’s husband (Rolando Gomez) and the dismay of their teen daughter (Christine Turturro). He has a partner, too, sweetly played by Marisa Caruso who briefly tumbles into the arms of She’s jilted husband. The only one who appears to be winning is the Director of “The Last Kiss” (Greg Howze) who moves on to write a play that’s perfect for He and She’s encore performance far off in Detroit. The twist is that this production proves their stage kiss is just a folly and – as in all good rom-coms – true love will prevail.

I didn’t enjoy this production nearly as much as I did the Shaw Festival’s production of it back in 2018. Even under Fortunato Pezzimenti’s skillful direction, the story dragged and felt sloggy. Paul Bostaph’s set captured “The Last Kiss” low budget ethos well enough, as well as He’s grungy apartment. Lane and Balotine – fine and accomplished actors as they are – didn’t seem to connect convincingly in their roles and their conversations felt stilted and over-articulated.  Two bright spots were Gomez as the husband: he was charming and cunning in a good way, and Turturro as She and Husband’s daughter Angela. Turturro’s Angela was the perfect specimen of teen wisdom (not unlike her 2019 role in Road Less Traveled Productions’ The Undeniable Sound of Right Now.) In one breath she is expounding her thoughts on real love and commitment and in one moment she’s content to munch a PB&J sandwich.

I did enjoy that little bit of whimsy that closed the show: in a nod to Fox sitcom Call Me Kat, the cast danced their curtain call to the iconic Prince tune “Kiss,” performed lounge-act-style by…wait for it…Tom Jones, I think. I seriously loved Gomez’s jubilant bell kick as he leapt from the stage.

Stage Kiss runs an interminable two hours with a 10-minute intermission. I love that ICTC still has a mask and vax policy in place. Thank them when you order your tickets at www.irishclassical.com.