Photograph 51 Holds the Secret of Life at JRT

One of my favorite James Taylor songs begins with these lyrics: “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time…”

Sometimes we’re robbed of time. Sometimes we’re robbed of opportunity. Part of the human condition. For real-life British scientist Rosalind Franklin, the focus of Photograph 51, presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre, her early death (at age 37 from ovarian cancer), robbed her of both, and so much more.

Franklin was a ground-breaking researcher with a fascination for shapes, images, and patterns. In fact, the show begins with her monologue as she reminisces about looking through a camera for the first time at an arrangement of fallen leaves. She wasn’t creating art, she says, she was fascinated by the shapes refracted through the lens. This curiosity led her to the field of xray crystallography, the study of molecular and atomic cellular structure. The repeated and organized patterns that make up cells hold the secret of life and all its creations. She was hooked.

One quick sidebar: the study of crystallography may spark resonance with Buffalonians, as downtown Buffalo is home to the National Crystallization Center (a national resource for crystallography research) located in the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute. Ironically, the Institute’s founding in 1956 was funded  by the largesse of a woman, Helen Woodward Rivas, whose family wealth came from the Genesee Pure Food Company, the makers of Jell-O…crystals of an entirely different ilk.

Back to the show.  In short, it’s riveting. Kristen Tripp Kelley is focused and fiery as Franklin. She makes the visceral passion and determination of a scientist incredibly real and palpable. You can see Franklin’s intensity through every movement of Kelley’s pencil in her journal or the turn of her head. You feel her anger when she’s marginalized by her peers. The supporting cast – a group of five male scientists in pursuit of their own scholarly work – orbit around Franklin with varying levels of dismissive disdain and vague fascination. Could this 1950s-era woman of all things really be on the cusp of a discovery that would change how we view the building blocks of life and cure disease, too? It was that chance glimpse of an image – the infamous Photograph 51 – that held the proverbial key.  Jacob Albarella as Francis Crick, Ray Boucher as Don Casper, Dan Torres as Ray Gosling, Adam Yellen as James Watson are each fine in their roles. It’s John Profeta’s portrayal of Maurice Wilkins, the biophysicist who ‘assumed’ Franklin was joining his Kings College lab to support his work, is captivating – first in his arrogance and later in his veiled admiration – and is a perfect foil for Kelley as Franklin.

Staging is sparse and spare thanks to designer David Dwyer’s deft hand and elegantly lit by Brian Cavanagh.  They create a mood here that’s nuanced enough to have subtle power. Your focus is oh so meant to be on words by playwright Anna Ziegler and purposeful stage movement orchestrated by director Katie Mallinson. Sublime.

There’s a lot to unpack in this production. Franklin knew her work was leading to major breakthroughs, yet her peers didn’t honor her contributions. Cancer took her life before she could make further professional strides. Even the Nobel Prize committee – which lauded the work of her peers with the prize in Chemistry  in 1962 and later awarded another colleague the same prize for advanced crystallography work in 1982 – didn’t grant her posthumous recognition.   

In reading about Franklin’s real life, she did indeed travel to the U.S., albeit not to Buffalo, where a woman’s support was quietly developing a facility where researchers (many who happen to be women) have made – and are still making – life changing discoveries in crystallography and other fields of science. Dr. Franklin, they are grateful for your bold manner and solid work.

Photograph 51 is 90 minutes long (one act) with no intermission, onstage at the Maxine and Robert Sellers Theatre in Getzville, until November 14. Visit https://www.jccbuffalo.org/jrt/ for tickets and details.

“A Chorus Line” at O’Connell & Company

The cast of “A Chorus Line” at O’Connell & Company.

“A Chorus Line” with book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban opened this weekend at O’Connell & Company. This long running Broadway musical won Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. It was conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Buffalo’s Michael Bennett. The kids in the chorus of musicals, nicknamed the Gypsies, are usually not recognized for their dedication to dance and theatre or acknowledged for their unique personalities and backgrounds. This show was based on a series of late night workshops that Gypsies had with Michael Bennett where he tape recorded their life stories. Many of the stories appear verbatim in the script and lyrics for this show.

The O’Connell & Company production of “A Chorus Line” has been directed and choreographed by DeWayne Barrett who is a veteran of many productions of this show. His choreography is impressive – especially the long, complicated opening audition sequence and the show’s grand finale, “One.” Mr. Barrett also appears on stage as the director, Zach, and he gives the role a commanding presence. 

This is an ambitious undertaking – casting sixteen very specific characters who have to be played by performers who are strong singers, dancers, and actors. There is a large cast and I got the feeling that everyone was very glad to be back onstage after the long pandemic hiatus. Heading up the company is Aimee Lynn Walker as Cassie, a character based in part on Donna McKechnie who had a long term and volatile relationship with Michael Bennett. Ms. Walker’s big solo number, “The Music and the Mirror” elected cheers and whistles from the audience and the best acting of the evening is her fight scene with Zach.

The talented cast also includes James Anthony Caposito who has plenty of zip, all the right moves, and is one of the best dancers in the production. His solo number “I Can Do That” starts the show off with a big wonderful bang. Anna Fernandez is a stunning and forthright Morales.

Kris Bartolomeo is a formidable Sheila. Ms. Bartolomeo is always in character and, because of that, she is a standout even in the group numbers. Her monologue and “At the Ballet” were affecting.

In smaller roles, but also making a strong impression, are Marc Thagard who is an adorable Richie and who dances with great verve and Joey Bucheker who is riveting as the intense Leonard Frey-type  of the group. Thomas Evans and Lizzie Arnold are perfectly in sync as a married couple and they do a joyous job with their duet, “Sing.” 

This is a high spirited, pleasing production that has obviously been mounted with lots of love and attention to detail.

Masks are optional but encouraged. Proof of vaccination must be shown for admittance. 

The show runs 2 and half hours including a 15 minute intermission.

Tootsie – Now on Stage at Shea’s

Full disclosure: I generally don’t enjoy productions that morph from screen to stage.

I prepared myself to embrace Tootsie, now on stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, with an open mind, and pushed my 1982 movie memories to the back of my brain. So a show with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (writing for screen to stage shows is his thing, having done so for The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrel, Women on the Verge…, and The Band’s Visit which is next on stage at Shea’s), seeing Buffalo gal Dominique Kempf in her first national tour, and the opportunity to be back in Shea’s again after a long intermission, how can it be bad?

Truth be told, it wasn’t horrible. Nor was it the best thing I’ve seen in this venerable house. Yazbek’s score was lively and clever, albeit not terribly memorable, beginning with an overture (a wonderful throwback that most musicals skip nowadays…there was an ent’racte, too) and a bright and snappy opening number. Straight up we meet Michael Dorsey (played by Drew Becker), a struggling stage actor and waiter who has high-minded opinions about the roles he is offered – and regrettably loses –  thanks to his passion for truth and depth. His roommate and aspiring playwright Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant) is his deadpan sidekick. Grant has some of the best lines with perfect delivery, too. He even cleaned up Bill Murray’s iconic observation of his roommate’s dual persona ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38lkRCedEys).

Up next is Michael’s ex girlfriend Sandy Lester (Payton Reilly), a whirlwind of neuroses and emotions as she clamors for acting roles, too. Her repeated “What’s Gonna Happen” theme song is a study in rapid fire words and feelings in a funny sort of jumble. Sandy is pursuing a role in a sequel to Romeo and Juliet, and she when isn’t cast, Michael decides to audition, too…in the persona of Dorothy Michaels, a good ol’Southern girl who speaks her mind and by golly don’t people start listening. He wins the role and influences a plot pivot and title change. Michael as Dorothy is admired and liked and heard…and is falling in love with his leading lady (Ashley Alexandra) who thinks Dorothy is her new mentor. But the cast dumb-as-a-post hunk Max (Lukas James Miller) is falling for Dorothy, too. What’s a girl/guy to do?

In between all this, there are lovely costumes (the ‘50s styles glam gorgeous billowy ball gowns), some wonderful choreography, and plenty of funny bits. There is some meat behind the plot, too: self-realization and the value of true friends and digging deep to do what’s right all will prevail. It was also great to see Ashley Alexandra in her leading role: she’s a full figured woman cast in a part that – in a less inclusive world – might have gone to someone else. Brava. What I didn’t love were the overly long pregnant pauses to milk the laughs for an extra beat or two.

This is the first national tour for the Tony Award-winning show and the cast projects a strong ensemble vibe. It was wonderful to see Kempf on this stage, after enjoying her outstanding work at MusicalFare Theatre’s Ragtime, and West Side Story.

The story may be ho-hum but the energy is high and overall it’s entertaining. And Shea’s, it’s just good to be home.

Tootsie runs a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission; it is onstage until October 16: visit sheas.org for details.

All Through the Night Opens Varlets’ Season

The cast of “All Through The Night.”

Those of us of a certain age may remember watching “Fractured Fairy Tales,” one of Jay Ward’s staples in weekend morning TV cartoons. Each installment put a different spin on a traditional fairytale that –truth be told – was probably meant to appeal to the adults watching with their kids.

All Through the Night  by Shirley Lauro is staged by the 15 years-fabulous Brazen-Faced Varlets at Alleyway Theatre and it uses a chillingly fairytale set up to tell the story of a group of German Gentile woman in the never-idyllic days of Nazis and World War II.

Scripted as a series of vignettes (complete with fairytale titles displayed on her work table) with  Ludmilla – the village baker – as the moderator, All Through the Night is painfully, poignantly, all too real account of how Nazism manipulated and brainwashed its followers to spew hate and pain on any person who didn’t fit the party’s idea of perfection.

Ludmilla (Kaeli McGinnis) starts the show with lots of cheery smiles and vocal animation as she reflects on the girls she knew and the village girl’s school. School is changing, jah, as the “man on the hill” is promising a new society. And change it does. We meet Angelika (Jessie Miller) a devout Catholic who dreams of running a clinic in Africa, Friederike (Sarah Emmerling), the wealthy rebel who skips school to listen to American jazz at a verboten cabaret, and Gretchen (Stefanie Warnick), the good girl who wants to please authority thinking it will help her family.  Kathleen Rooney appears in multiple roles identified as the The Fraus, first as the school’s new headmistress, then the nurse at a Third Reich-run hospital, and finally as the sadistic leader of the women’s tent in the village square.  The story leads the ensemble from school girl innocence to shrewd, cunning women doing what they can to survive. Frederike’s wealth doesn’t elevate her from humiliation. Angelika’s faith doesn’t deliver her from suffering. Gretchen’s party loyalty doesn’t lead her to the perfect life. Each actor is strong and tight in their role. McGinnis’ Ludmilla and Rooney’s Frau roles are at opposite end of the spectrum: Mc Ginnis’ Ludmilla grows wiser in adversity and Rooney’s Frau just gets more evil. You have to love Ludmilla’s optimism: she’s a survivor to the core and McGinnis plays her just right. It was interesting to note that the ensemble actors are all  brunette and dark eyed while Rooney’s natural blonde hair and blue eyes were solitary reminders of the Aryan goal. While she may look like the kind-hearted Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life sitcom, she was cold to the bone.  Good casting across the board.

Director Lara D. Haberberger wisely kept staging, props, and costuming intentionally simple to allow focus to stay fixed on the script. Rachel Maggs used reversible aprons to transform school to-prisoner-to worker uniforms. Heather Fansgrud’s set was tiered platforms against a lit stockade fence. Props were simple or suggested.  While the director’s notes in the program state that Haberberger had this show on her RADAR for a time, now is the right time to see this production. Admittedly at times it’s not easy to watch: and it’s a startling reminder of inhumane cruelty, yet there are moments of hope and goodness.

There were a few moments when the German words sprinkled into the dialogue were more distracting than evocative, and the attempts at an affected accent were just too phony. (I heard some upper East side New York City socialite in one of Rooney’s speeches.) 

Ludmilla does indeed get her ‘happily ever after’ in this grown up fairytale, even at great expense to humanity. Or in the words of conceptual  artist Jenny Holzer, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.”

All Through the Night runs a long two and quarter hours with one 10-minute intermission, until October 24. Visit www.varlets.org for details.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit at Alleyway Theatre

The cast of White Rabbit Red Rabbit at Alleyway Theatre.

The Alleyway Theatre is looking very snazzy under the new management of Chris J. Handley. The lobby, in particular, has had a terrific makeover and now sports a glorious full wall mural by Audra Linsner. There are more beverage options at the bar than there used to be, and munchies have started to be introduced, too. The times, they are a-changing! 

The WNY premiere of White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour opens the Alleyway season. This theatrical piece is performed by one actor and the role can be played by an actor of any age, gender, or appearance. I saw the production on September 24 and the actor that evening was Don Gervasi.

I had asked our editor for a ticket for either the night Mr. Gervasi or Todd Benzin was performing as I had heard that feeling comfortable with improv would be a real asset for whoever performed this piece, and Don Gervasi and Todd Benzin are the absolutely top improvisers in town. I was glad that I saw the play on the night that Mr. Gervasi was starring because his onstage ad libs were the funniest lines in the show.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit was written in 2010 by a young man who couldn’t leave Iran because he refused to serve in the military but who wanted his voice to be heard around the world. Playwright Soleimanpour’s wish was certainly granted — this theatre piece has been a huge hit worldwide with productions in more than 20 different languages.

The gimmick here is that there is a new actor every night and this actor is handed the script, in a sealed envelope, onstage and performs a cold reading. I love this concept – it’s sounds fresh and exciting – but parts of this play are very wordy and a cold reading of page after page is not necessarily the best way to keep an audience’s attention. 

Styles, tone, and mood change considerably throughout the evening. My companion and I enjoyed Mr. Gervasi’s humor and confidence. We liked the audience participation element very much – although some of the set-ups weren’t taken to completion. I can’t be more specific. The audience is not supposed to give away anything about this play. This is by no means the fault of Mr. Gervasi. The play itself takes strange twists and turns — sometimes philosophical, sometimes Pirandello-esque.

The set by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader is clean and stark with appropriately red touches. Emma Schimminger’s lighting is very effective. 

Kudos to Don Gervasi, Todd Benzin, and all the other courageous “rabbits” for tackling this demanding assignment! 

Next onstage at the Alleyway Theatre is a brand new Golden Girls show directed by Todd Warfield and tickets are going fast! Incidentally, there was a nice sized audience at White Rabbit Red Rabbit, too. I was thrilled about seeing so many theatre goers downtown again. Audiences members must show proof of vaccination and wear masks throughout the evening.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit runs about 85 minutes, depending on the actor’s delivery and the audience participation element. For more information, click here.

“To the New Girl…” at New Phoenix Theatre

Sarah Emmerling as Elissa

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

And if that woman has your address  – physical or email – there’s a good chance you’re gonna hear from her.

Sharing pearls of personal wisdom between the about-to-be-ex and the trade-in is the premise behind To The New Girl from the Former Mrs. ___: Sound Advice for my husband’s new wife or mistress on stage now at the New Phoenix Theatre. Playwright and filmmaker Samantha Macher wrote the stage version in 2011 (she later adapted it to a film) with 10 different women actors delivering epistolary monologues. The one thing they all have in common:  they have something to say to the person who now is the proverbial apple of her husband’s eye.

Each monologue is a story onto itself and the actors range in age, marital (or not) commitment, and social status. Infidelity is the great equalizer here.

The staging is simple: maybe one or two set pieces are moved to a dark stage with as many props per scene. It’s stark which adds extra emphasis on the works and the delivery.

It starts off innocent enough, with even a bit a humor. Zoe (Jessie Miller) is a former internet dominatrix whose beau has an adult baby fetish (yup, he’s the baby) and she aghast that there’s another woman in town willing to play mama. Next up is Miriam (Kathleen Recchione), a Jewish grandmother whose husband announces at Seder that he’s starting over…with a Catholic woman. Bethany (Vanessa Shevat) is calculating as she is charming as she plans how to manage her televangelist husband’s fling with…a man. Davida Tolbert is Sheila, a woman who can’t bring a pregnancy to term who learns her husband’s  new interest gave birth to twins. Her anger fierce, her disappointment in her body is palpable, and she manages to land some of the only purely funny lines of the night (“I hope your baby is as fat as Oprah in the ‘90s…”).  Ciara Davie is Faye, the youngest of the team, whose ex is a felon holding her engagement ring hostage. Alexis (Kari Becker) is the wealthy social climber, who coldly tells her daughter’s nanny that her husband’s abuse is part of the gig. Karen (Kathryn Schneider) is the teacher who finds a former student is her husband’s new study buddy.  Melanie (Pandora Kew, also the co-producer) is completely enraged as she offers strong warnings to her replacement, as sheshares horrific details of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. Elissa (Sarah Emmerling) dons her bridal gown as she reflects on her husband’s admission of longing for his high school sweetheart. Mary Craig ends the show on wistful, bittersweet note as Give ‘Em Hell, Harriet, whose loving husband Harold lives his final days in a nursing home as his withering capacities direct him to a fellow patient.

It is an emotional roller coaster with 10 different highs and lows of heartbreak, disappointment, anger, and a twist of revenge planning, too.  With only a few minor quibbles (Elissa’s bed might have been angled differently and Karen’s story seemed a bit disjointed) , each actor does a solid job telling their character’s story, from Alexis’ frosty facts of privileged life  to Zoe’s kitten-with-a-switch outrage. It’s Kew and Craig who make you sit a little straighter in your seat. Kew is visibly trembling with anger from the moment her light comes up. Her jaw is tensed so tightly the words growl from her lips. Two scenes later, Craig is tender and loving as her memory is fading from her husband’s mind. They were married 57 years (58 in August), she says, and as he turns his affection to someone else, he is still her great love. This was the perfect way to end this often biting and bitter show. Sometimes love shouldn’t, couldn’t fade away, even in the ultimate betrayal.

Permit me one minor rant here: I love everything there is about WNY theatre, from big to small, Theatre District across town to the ‘burbs. All live theatre is good (even when it’s not) and deserves support and engagement. That’s my main reason for volunteering as a reviewer (I’m the first to admit I’m not the theatrical authority, I’m just a Buffalo gal who wants to encourage others to support local theatre). It’s not lost on me that the house at New Phoenix was pretty light in its second weekend, while a few blocks east, another theatre was packed and enjoying a stunningly presented fantasy about two other less than real women. There is room for fantasy and reality in life and on stage. It’s my hope that the fantasy seekers also make the time and allocate personal resources to see locally produced shows, too, whether it is another musical, drama or comedy.  Rant over.

“To the New Girl…” runs a tight 90 minutes with no intermission until October 3. Visit www.newphoenixtheatre.com for details and tickets.

It’s a New Camelot at MusicalFare

“Camelot” at MusicalFare. Picture courtesy of the theatre.

Sometimes the simple joys of maidenhood are experienced in a comfortable theatre watching a classic piece of American musical theatre re-imagined on stage. Who thinks that? C’est moi, of course.

MusicalFare Theatre opened its 2021-22 season on a resonant high note with Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot taking a fresh new spin.  If the title conjures up imagines of President John F. Kennedy and his bride listening to the album with the voices of Richard Harris, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet (le sigh), fie on those 1960s memories! This re-imagined version still has all the chivalry, passion, and infidelity you love with a lively new beat and a more casual vibe.

Co-directors Carlos R.A. Jones and Victoria Perez set the show in a tropical setting, with a group of beachy-clad friends hanging out and putting on a show. Outside of Ex Calibur, swords became wood poles and shields are pieces of found driftwood. King Arthur’s crown was a fedora with a bird of paradise rising from the hat band. The call to battle was sounded from a seashell. Music director Theresa Quinn matched the mood with Latin and island rhythms for every tune.  Chris Cavanagh’s set was sandy-perfection, complete with a waterfall and a boardwalk. Camp shirts, neon rompers, and floral prints replaced armor and flowing chiffon gowns.  The whole effect was oddly reminiscent of early stagings of Godspell (without the clown clothes and street setting). It was fun and inviting after our 18 month intermission.

Jones and Perez couldn’t have found a better cast. Gabriella McKinley is stunning as Guenevere. Her voice is incredible: rich when she’s in her lower register and lilting and controlled when her soprano soars. Her duets with both King Arthur (Darryl Semira) and Lancelot (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez) are lovely and Quinn’s arrangements graciously accommodate the vocal shifts for each pairing. Semira’s King Arthur is disarming and charming, boyish at first glance and rooted and mature in both conviction and confusion. Gomez’s  take on Lancelot is earnest and his gentle passion in the role’s signature song “If Ever I Would Leave You” is beguilingly beautiful.  

The ensemble is fun, with gender-crossing double roles for every member. Arin Lee Dandes is at her best as the cunning Mordred. Every movement and stage cross is a dance and it’s so fun, you almost forget to despise Mordred’s scheming.

Jones and Perez created something very special; they asked us to suspend our memories of past stagings or the movie and see past those images. What if Camelot was created in a different space by different people? Does that make the musings and vision of a King any different? Quinn’s interpretations brought a  freshness to the score that was lovely to hear, too. Her band – Joe Donohue on guitar and violin, Jim Runfola on reeds, and Jim Linsner on drums – was just right and fine.

If you have any qualms about coming inside for theatre, MusicalFare diligently checked vaccine cards/Excelsior passes and required facemasks, there are no more physical tickets, and playbills are irksomely online only. Relax and escape to this most congenial spot.

Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is onstage now until October 15; the show runs a good two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets, playbill, and temptingly lovely videos are online at www.musicalfare.com.

“Frozen” kicks off National Tour at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

Disney Theatrical Productions under the direction of Thomas Schumacher presents Frozen, the North American Tour, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and book by Jennifer Lee directed by Michael Grandage with: Caroline Bowman (Elsa), Caroline Innerbichler (Anna), Mason Reeves (Kristoff), F. Michael Haynie (Olaf), Austin Colby (Hans), Jeremy Morse (Weselton)

For the first time in forever, Shea’s is back with LIVE theatre! Kicking off the 2021-22 season for shows is Disney’s Frozen: The Hit Broadway Musical. Anyone familiar with the animated film will be familiar with the show’s storyline: two young sisters, Anna (Victoria Hope Chan) and Elsa (Natalie Grace Chan), live in the country of Arendelle with their parents, the King (Kyle Lamar Mitchell) and Queen (Marina Kondo). The eldest sister, Elsa, has magical powers over ice and snow that enchant her younger sister until one night she loses control and shoots an icy blast straight at Anna. Concerned for Anna’s safety, the King and Queen decide it’s best to keep the sisters separated until Elsa learns to control her powers and to have all of Anna’s memories of her sister’s magic erased. The King and Queen set off on a journey to seek answers regarding their daughter’s powers but are swept away at sea and never return. Back at the palace, the sisters grow up isolated from each other and the kingdom until Elsa (Caroline Bowman) comes of age to be crowned the next queen of Arendelle. On Coronation Day, Anna (Caroline Innerbichler) gets carried away in the excitement of the celebration and meets Prince Hans (Austin Colby) who she immediately falls in love with. After their swift engagement, Elsa refuses to give her blessing to her sister’s marriage. A fight between the two causes Elsa to have an outburst of anger that sends her powers out of control and frightens the citizens of Arendelle. She flees the palace leaving Anna responsible to find her and end the eternal winter set off by her magic. 

First off, it felt amazing to be back in Shea’s and experience Frozen with an audience full of excited patrons and younger children. You are required to wear a mask throughout the entire performance regardless of your vaccination status, but I found that wasn’t uncomfortable in the slightest as it’s easy to get lost in the world of Frozen and forget your surroundings. I was immediately impressed with the young cast opening the show. Natalie and Victoria Chan performed the Tuesday evening show I attended and were absolute pros onstage. They had the audience engaged and laughing right off the bat. Later when adult Anna started singing “For the First Time in Forever”, I began to tear up. Innerbichler is the perfect Anna and truly embodies the character in every way. Her voice is stunning, and the song really resonates with a lot of us now as we’ve all felt shut away from people and “normal life” throughout the pandemic. Bowman is an absolute powerhouse as Elsa and brings such strength to her pieces. I found it amusing that in real life, Caroline Bowman is married to Austin Colby or Prince Hans. 

Mason Reeves brings a refreshing take on Kristoff and is immediately likeable. He appears with his infamous sidekick, Sven, who is played by two different actors depending on the performance due to the physical demands of the role. On Tuesday evening, Evan Strand did a phenomenal job with the body contortion and puppetry required for the role that allows the effect of a realistic reindeer onstage. I truly hope the show has a traveling chiropractor specifically for Sven! Olaf (F. Michael Haynie) was another character using puppetry. Haynie provided comic relief and stole the show during “In Summer”. 

In addition to the well-known songs from the movie, the musical offers new numbers to fill the show and add to our understanding of character development. One of my favorite additions is “What Do You Know About Love?” sung by Anna and Kristoff. A strange addition I could have done without was the song “Hygge” that is sung primarily by Oaken (Michael Milkanin) who is then joined by Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and the Family & Friends from the sauna. While this song was fun, it mainly felt like an unnecessary filler with a strange concept and odd use of implied nudity. Because this is a Disney show, rules are stricter when it comes to things like this. When the Family & Friends appear to dance nude out of the sauna covered only by leaves and branches, they are actually wearing mesh, skin-toned body suits to cover any bare skin. While I’m sure the effect is more believable farther away, from closer up it was very strange and noticeable.  

While enjoying this show, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between Frozen and Wicked. After all, Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa in the animated film, was also the original Elphaba on Broadway. Oddly enough, Caroline Bowman who portrays Elsa in this performance also previously played Elphaba on Broadway. Like Elphaba, Elsa has powers she can’t control that others view as frightening and dangerous. She ends Act 1 with the famous “Let it Go” which can be likened to Wicked’s Act 1 closer of “Defying Gravity”. Both are incredible, show-stopping numbers involving high belts, stunning visual effects, and acceptance of one’s own power and destiny. The mob format of Hans and his men coming to put an end to Elsa is reminiscent of Wicked’s “March of the Witch Hunters”. The focal point of Frozen is the relationship between Elsa and Anna which could be related to the friendship of Elphaba and Glinda. All of these similarities are very interesting to examine and may be the reason certain elements of Frozen are so successful. It makes sense to model a show after one so wildly successful that it has been on Broadway for 18 years. Frozen is Disney’s Wicked

A final element I wanted to discuss was the extravagance of the show’s visuals. Elsa’s ice powers are conveyed through a combination of projection, fake snow/confetti, and set pieces. The overall impact is mesmerizing and includes hundreds of thousands of glittering crystals. Elsa’s quick costume change in “Let it Go” had the audience cheering mid-song and is a spectacular reveal. Overall, Frozen: The Hit Broadway Musical is sure to delight Disney-fanatics of all ages and provides a little bit of something for everyone. While I suspect it may not go on to become a top hit like Disney’s The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, it’s sure to stick around for years to come bringing magic to audiences everywhere. 

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Frozen runs until September 24, 2021 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

It’s a Hoot at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of From Honky Tonk To Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

I’ll put this right upfront: I’m not a country music fan. That didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying From Honky Tonk to Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music onstage now at D’Youville Kavinoky Professional Theatre (note the new variation on the name, please).

Conceived by the theatre’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell, this show is part juke box musical, part survey of the genesis of American country music, and part women’s history retrospective with a healthy dose of social justice. And it is just plain fun.

This was a pandemic passion project for O’Donnell who spent part of that time in her hometown of Boonville, NY, with her dad in his last months of life. More time spent in rural Adirondack foothills drew her to country music. She began to appreciate the deeper nuances of the lyrics and the people who penned them. She learned, too, that women played a relevant role in the genre…even when they were marginalized by good ol’ country boys.

O’Donnell  assembled a stellar production team to unite many moving parts, plus a great line up of musicians, actors, and dancers to bring her vision to stage.  There is a lot going on here.

First, the band.  Dee Adams – musical director, singer, guitarist, and mandolin player – has a great, tight group. Kathryn Koch (guitar, harmonica), Helen Butler Ceppaglia (violin, accordion),  Elton Hough (drums, a real kit, mind you),  John Martz (steel guitar, banjo, dobro),  and Charlie Gannon (stand up bass, electric guitar) have the sound.  I loved how costume designer Andrea Letcher drove home one of the shows key messages by dressing the men in black and the women in vibrant traditional cowgirl fringed dresses. Her recreations of Shania Twain’s decidedly non-traditional Country costumes were spot on, too.

Then, the singers. O’Donnell is the narrator and lends her big beautiful voice to Dolly Parton’s iconic “Jolene” and the wistful  “I Hope You Dance.” Adams and Koch come center stage to perform country standards “Crazy” and “Harper Valley PTA.”  Renee Landrigan, doubling on keyboards and melodica, is a kick singing Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill.”  But my oh my, it’s Annette Daniels Taylor who gives these country tunes their soul.  She’s both powerful and tender in her storytelling and singing and her “Down to the River to Pray” was passionate and moving. Drummer Hough stepped out from the kit and picked up an African drum to accompany her.

Lynne Kurdziel Formato is the director/choreographer, and she had folks moving to and fro on stage and a trio of dancers on videotape in a variety of local places. Dancers  Aurora Hastings, Christina Tribo, and Evan Matthew Stuart share Zodiaque Dance Company roots among their bone fides. They rock the Company’s  angular, contemporary frame  that gave an interesting juxtaposition against the show’s contemporary Country pieces especially in the second act. Brian Milbrand used the stage screens to full advantage with some historic photos and lots of interpretive dance interludes. Regrettably, some of the dance numbers that were “green screened” to appear happening in rushing waters looked a bit odd and not well connected to the narrative.

While there were some gaps in the history – notably missing was Tammy Wynette, often called “The First Lady of Country Music,” June Carter and Mother Maybelle Carter, and the entire 1980s decade (O’Donnell acknowledged this and said it’s coming in the sequel) – the personal storytelling and musical selections really drive home O’Donnell’s key points about women in the industry and social justice.

Most importantly, this was a love letter to O’Donnell’s late parents and a poignant reminder that sometimes the music we hear in our youth will sound very different to us again as time marches on.

It’s worth noting that D’Youville has invested in some truly lovely upgrades to the theatre over the past few seasons and it looks spectacular. New seats are bright and cozy. No more physical tickets or playbills (find it online here) and required face mask on campus) should make all theatre goers feel comfortable. One more thing: if you wear one of those over-sized signal watches that illuminates every time you get a text or an email, please tuck it under your sleeve or turn it off. It’s as bright as a cell phone and is super distracting to those around you. (And I mean you, lady who was in the middle of my row the other night.)

From Honky Tonk to Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music is on stage until October 3.  It’s a toe-tapping two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and reservations.

“Art” on Stage at O’Connell & Company

It’s so good to finally write these words after the longest intermission ever: welcome to a new theatre season, Western New York.

O’Connell & Company started the season with a surprise: a comedy and not the typical musical. “Art” was written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton. It was first performed in London and Broadway in the 1990s.

This three-hander has a curious plot: Serge (played by John Kreuzer) buys a pricey modern painting. It’s a tone on tone canvas which could easily be named” Polar Bears in a Blizzard Eating Marshmallows.” His friend Marc (Rolando M. Gomez ) doesn’t get it: to him, it looks like a “white piece of $hit” and he can’t get past his friend’s attraction to it. The third friend, Yvan (Joey Bucheker) tries to mediate his two friends’ verbal battle on this canvas, which later spirals into deeper conflicts.  Ah, but Yvan has his own drama-within-the-comedy: he’s about to be married and is also adapting to a career change, too.

Director Victoria Perez uses some clever and attractive stage devices at the very beginning and end of this one-act piece.  Here the characters shares their point of view in monologues in front of a projected white rectangle of light between the soft-focused muted floods of color.  It does just what it needs to do to direct your focus.

Between the effecti ve beginning and end motiffs, there’s a long and rather loud middle section that is mostly progressively higher pitched yelling. The barbs fly as Marc and Serge drag the canvas and their friendship through the mud. Regrettably their vocal pitch keeps rising, too, almost to the level of hausfrau chick-fighting. It’s easy to lose focus here and forget the bickering buddies are supposed to be professional men of means having an emotional and intense (and metaphorical) discussion.  The frenetic energy leads to a well-staged fist fight that felt almost too slapstick:  ratcheting down the shrill screeching might have brought more tension to this moment.

It’s the painting itself that helps settle the riff: Serge demonstrates his friendship and Marc steps up, too, in a surprising moment that would make any art collector shudder.  

There were a couple opening night distractions. An intermittent buzz in the audio will need to be worked out and there were a few dropped lines here and there that were artfully covered by this veteran trio. Costuming and set design (I didn’t understand that it was supposed to flip between three apartments until I read the playbill) were functional but not commanding: the painting itself (by artist Sara Jo Kukulka) and creative lighting by Reuben Julius grabbed attention.

O’Connell & Company has all the right protocol in place for making patrons feel comfortable coming back inside, including an online playbill. Executive artistic director Mary Kate O’Connell’s onstage greeting is verbal hug and ‘welcome home’ that we’ve been waiting for.

“Art” runs 90 minutes with no intermission until September 19.  Click here for details.