RENT by Starring Buffalo at Shea’s 710 Theatre

It takes a lot to fill Shea’s 710 Main theater, and certainly the anticipation of Broadway and Buffalo talent performing one of the most recognizable musicals in the recent canon was all it took. Anticipation filled the air as Artistic Director Drew Fornarola took the stage to introduce Starring Buffalo’s third production in Buffalo, after far too long away.

RENT, which is somehow 25 years old (!!!) essentially revolutionized the way commercial Broadway functioned. People camped out on the street to get rush tickets, while the NYC elite were paying hundreds of dollars for the same show. It was Hamilton before Hamilton. Starring Buffalo has astounded me in their past two performances, and I was certainly excited to see their take on this revolutionary work. Fornarola and his team have assembled a seemingly perfect cast, including Broadway performers Jay Armstrong Johnson as Roger, Jerusha Cavazos as Mimi, and Troy Iwata as Mark. 

As Roger, Johnson is equipped with an unbelievable vocal instrument that is well suited for the role. I’ve long admired him as a performer, but felt that his performance was slightly low-energy off the bat. Iwata is the strongest of the Broadway performers, finding honest humor in each moment. I was grateful to see Iwata have a fresh take on the character. As Mimi, Cavazos’ physicality works, but she doesn’t quite have the powerhouse voice that has come to be associated with Mimi.

Buffalo standouts Dudney Joseph Jr. and Joe Russi are able to fully realize their potential as Collins and Angel, respectively. Joseph Jr.’s rich vocal instrument is as effective in both versions of “I’ll Cover You,” Act One’s uptempo love duet with Russi, and Act Two’s heartbreaking tribute at Angel’s funeral (Spoilers, I guess). I was thrilled this production made the decision to dress Russi in the signature Angel costume, and was captivated by his performance of “Today 4 U.” Giving strong performances are Alex McArthur as Joanne and Leah Berst as Maureen, while Jonathan Young manages to instill “yuppy scum” Benny with some redeemable qualities. Special commendation is to be given to Sean Ryan, who is playing an ensemble role in this piece and also served as Assistant Director. Ryan’s opening to “Will I?” is as good as it gets. 

Ultimately, the thing that nearly derailed the opening night production was a band that was not nearly performance ready. It should be noted, of course, that the entire cast only had about 48 hours of rehearsal together, so there were bound to be some onstage jitters or fumbles. That being said (and setting aside a moment in “Tango Maureen” that seemed to be more of a technical issue and less of a musical one, but nevertheless forced the actors to adlib) the lack of accurate musicianship from the band severely hindered performances from succeeding. Cues were bound to be messy, but there were several occasions where the band, especially the normally sharp guitarist Larry Albert, were just playing entirely incorrect phrases. 

As I said before, Starring Buffalo is an incredible organization whose mission brings Broadway performers, Buffalo professionals, and (usually) high school choruses together. Their previous productions have been excellent, and I felt that this RENT just didn’t quite meet their high standards.

For more information on Starring Buffalo!, click here.

Escape To Margaritaville at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

Shelly Lynn Walsh as Tammy, Peter Michael Jordan as Brick, Chris Clark as Tully, Sarah Hinrichsen as Rachel in Jimmy Buffett’s ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE. © Matthew Murphy 

If you are a fan of the Hallmark channel formula for a love story, you will absolutely love “Jimmy Buffett’s Escape To Margaritaville.” A tropical island, lots of tequila, a vocanic eruption, four unlikely love birds, and a slew of Jimmy’s greatest hits, take to the stage in this feel good, no substance, musical that is perfect to use as a coping mechanism in 2021. Sometimes it is great to just sit back and be entertainined. Sometimes you don’t want to be an active audience member, you just want to tap your toe and smile. This show does that so well.

When Rachel (Sarah Hinrichsen) and Tammy (Emily Qualmann) decide to take a week vacation at the tropical Margaritaville hotel, they get a life changing vacation. Rachel meets island host and guitarist Tully (Chris Clark)) and after an afternoon of exploring the island, Tully discovers that for the first time, he has fallen in love. Well, usually the girls he dates stay on the island for a week and then he never sees them again. Rachel is special. Emily – who is getting married in a week – finds that she is not so keen on her fiance anymore after she meets Brick (Peter Micheal Jordan). The island allows magic to happen, until at the end of the vacation turns treacherous – when the volcano that sits on the island – has it’s own plans.

Overall this show is a feel good, goofy, silly, good time. If you are looking for hard hitting theatre, this isn’t it, but that doesn’t mean that it is not enjoyable. Chris Clark’s Tully is really fun to watch. His voice does wonderful justice to the Buffett songs and he is instantly an audience favorite. Sarah Hinrichsen’s Rachel is fun and feisty. Comic relief is produced by Qualmann’s Tammy and Jordan’s Brick. 

Greg Garcia & Mike O’Malley do a great job crafting a book for this jukebox musical. I never thought that I would hear a musical with songs by someone like Jimmy Buffett, but then again, I never thought Jim Steinman had a chance at writing for the stage, and boom there was “Bat Out Of Hell The Musical.”

Walt Spangler’s set design is a character all in it’s own. The goofyness of the story is captivated with the minimalistic set pieces. The main cabana is wonderful, and it is great seeing the band housed on stage behind the action. It has a true island vibe. 

If you want to have your heart warmed in the cold months again, get your ticket and find your escape. Just make sure that you got the volcano insurance.

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

“Escape To Margaritaville” runs until November 28, 2021. For more information, click here.

All is Calm is Elegant at MusicalFare

It’s odd to think that the true spirit of Christmas – a wish for peace on Earth and  goodwill to all peoples – can be found in a story about war. But that is the essence of  All is Calm, now onstage at MusicalFare Theatre.

It’s a real story taken from a moment in World War I history. In the first few months of the war (“we thought it would be over by Christmas,” is an oft-repeated line in the show), British soldiers were acclimating to life in the trenches in that most frightening location of The Great War: No Man’s Land. Something happened on Christmas night, 1914: British soldiers on the Western Front heard singing and saw flickering lights coming from the German troops.  They bravely crossed this chasm of battle and joined in with carols of their own. Weapons were laid down, beverages, snacks, and stories were shared, language and cultural barriers were set aside. The men declared their own unofficial Christmas truce that lasted but a few days and was ne’er repeated again.  Playwright Peter Rothstein captured the simple elegance of this snapshot of humanity with this script.

If the story sounds familiar, you’re either a student of world history, you paid attention to the stories told by your grandparents, or you were in the Subversive Theatre Collective Audience in 2014 to see local writer Gary Earl Ross’ take on the same story, The Guns of Christmas.(Hat tip to the Theatre Companion for reminding me.)

Rothstein’s script is built on a series of statements from soldiers with each quote closed out with their name and rank. I’m a big fan of epistolary writing, and using this tactic felt like we were reading a soldier’s letter to someone back home. Associating words to people gave the story its heart. The production also uses the power of music to support this (sometimes debated) moment in WWI history. Music Director Theresa Quinn’s magical piano playing is absent, but her church choral director skills are apparent. There’s a whole lot of ensemble singing going on, and it’s all done a cappella. At times it’s a little bit barbershop quartet harmonics, other times I hear full-fledged British boy choir-layered harmonies in the familiar WWI tunes, including “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Pack Up Your Troubles,” and “When This Bloody War is Over.”  It’s all so very good. Peppered between are stand out solos from the familiar voices of MusicalFare including Ricky Needham, Darryl Semira, Marc Sacco, and Louis Colaiacovo. It’s a tribute to the cast and Quinn’s direction to pull it off as successfully as they all did. There was no music to “help” the singer find his pitch: it’s all up to talent and skill that this cast has in abundance. If an occasional sound wasn’t quite as written, well, heck, blame trench acoustics.

Susan Drozd staged and directed this crew with military precision. There were beautiful moments when weapons were sharply, deliberately placed just so. Each actor held a firm gaze to the back of the house when delivering lines, speaking to everyone and someone else just beyond the backwall.  Chris Cavanagh’s dramatic lighting and battle noises were the perfect foils for designer Dyan Burlingame’s trench set. Kari Drozd managed costume design and it was fun to watch the men using simple leg wraps, hats, and coats to become other characters. This was an important detail in the story and signaled their transition from camp soldier to one in active battle. Actors represented multiple roles, too, and were adept at shifting accents and dialects as well.

All the elements come together to create a moving and powerful human experience.

The well-paced, one act (no intermission and just under 90 minutes) production ended with a reminder, from British poet Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem The Fallen: “We will remember them.”

All is Calm is onstage until December 12: tickets and details are at www.musicalfare.com.

Sidebar: MusicalFare, like every other space in our community,  has many protective policies in place. Vaccination cards and IDs are checked before you enter the theatre. Facemasks are required. There’s touchless ticketing, too. All good stuff that should encourage audience members to feel safe and welcomed. The one thing that irks me is the lack of the printed program. I totally get it: it’s another way to limit contact between patrons and volunteers, both of whom may be at risk. Digital programs may inadvertently cause a new epidemic: cell phones on during the production to follow the song list. Seriously. I was surrounded by multiple program perusers and even over heard one person comment about how convenient it was to ‘see’ the program now. Patrons, it’s OUR responsibility to manage our need to know during a show. Peruse before curtain, please, or when you get home. The Patti LuPone Rules still apply: phones off and away during a show, please. Theatres created digital programs to protect you, and not to give you a new way to distract actors and your fellow patrons. The pre-show video with actors demonstrating how (and how not) to wear a face mask, however, was a hoot.

Hand to God Returns to Road Less Traveled Theater

Sabrina Kahwaty and Dan Urtz

I saw Road Less Traveled Theater’s production of Hand to God for the first time on March 8, 2020. It was the last show I saw that season before The Long Intermission.   It was a complete production, full of heart, humor, hell, and hope. RLTP wisely re-opened its 18th season by bringing it back and – if that’s possible – it’s gotten even better.

Robert Askins  penned a modern-day horror story, set in a Texas church, with  grieving widow Margery (Jenn Stafford), her shy son Jason (Dan Urtz), their earnest pastor (John Kreuzer), bad boy Timmy (Henry Farleo), and sweet teen Jessica (Sabrina Kahwaty, replacing Maura Nolan Coseglia from the 2020 crew).  Pastor Greg advises Margery to work through her grief by organizing a teen-driven puppet theatre, aptly named The Christkateers. Timmy is there to avoid a less than happy home life. Jason’s engaged because, well, Mom is the leader, and Jessica admits to an interest in puppetry. As they build their puppets in preparation for their first performance at service, Jason’s puppet persona Tyrone becomes aggressively Satanic. Even an attempt at exorcism (“Do Lutherans even do exorcism,” asked a quizzical Jessica) can’t break Tyrone’s hold over Jason.  Yup, there’s plenty of power in a cast-off sock with fluffy yarn hair.

Kudos go to designer/puppeteer Adam Kreutinger for creating the sock-alter egos. Set designer Dyan Burlingame created a main space that brought back plenty of church basement memories (I loved the “time out” cornered tricked out with the hell on earth motif), with its inspirational posters, cheery colors, and kid-size accoutrements assembled by props master Diane Almeter Jones. Shelby Converse got to choreograph some pretty outlandish fight scenes, too.  Director John Hurley had an A-list team for sure.

Urtz earned a 2020 Artie Award (Outstanding Actor in a Play) for his portrayal of meek Jason and the devil Tyrone. The sheer physicality of the role was impressive enough, then layer on the expressive emotional shifts and his whole performance is amazing. Stafford is a repressed randy mama when she’s not the demure church goer: her range is extraordinary. Farleo’s Timmy is hard to like and just as he should be. Kreuzer brings a quiet strength to Pastor Greg (who lands one of the funniest lines of the show if you remember The Exorcist), and Kahwaty’s sweetness as Jessica (with some spiciness as puppet Jolene) help bring the needed turn-around to Jason. All told, it’s a fine ensemble.

My frequent theatre companion won’t see shows a second time: for him the experience is one and done. I disagree: sometimes the second go-round brings out things you missed or you just see differently. That’s the case with Hand to God; I saw Margery’s pain manifest itself more deeply, and Jason’s sense of loss and confusion over his dad’s death simmering under the surface. There are some fine laughs and absurdity, too, but the poignancy of this story prevailed even moreso the second time around.  Even if you were among couple 2020 audiences, Hand to God is well worth revisiting.

Hand to God runs two hours with a 15-minute intermission to December 5. All COVID policies are in place (your vax card and ID will be checked at entrance and masks are required): you will feel comfortable in a safe place…even when Satan speaks.  Visit www. roadlesstraveledproductions.org  for details and tickets.

Songs For A New World at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The long-awaited in person performances of Songs for a New World were heralded all over Buffalo before it even opened; the success of the streaming production in June and advertising around the city gave the production an additional sense of promise. Second Generation’s production, directed by Amy Jakiel, delivers on the promise. From the opening piano chime to the final chords of “Hear My Song,” Jakiel’s assembled company, supported by Stephen Piotrowski’s music direction, are imbued with a spirit of hopefulness, determination, and strength. 

Three of the four performers from the summer streaming production return, while elements of the streaming production are incorporated into television monitors behind the cast. New to the cast is Genevieve Ellis, while Cecilia Snow is performing elsewhere (ironically, I think, just finishing up a different production of the show). This show only works if the cast can really act a song, which is why SGT has assembled some of the best singers and actors in Buffalo. The show functions more like a musical revue than a book musical, and Jakiel smartly directs the actors through the story without trying to force connection that lays outside the material. 
All four performers have excellent voices, and are finding the genuine emotion in Jason Robert Brown’s complex score. The moments where the four are singing together are incredibly powerful, and reminded me just how much I missed hearing the sound of live theater. As Man 2, Steve Copps has a rich and honest portrayal of his characters. I was particularly impressed with his performance in “The World Was Dancing.” Genevieve Ellis is a welcome newcomer to the Buffalo theater scene, and her clear and powerful mix makes the thematic repetition of the opening motif exciting every time it comes back around. You see just how much depth she possesses during numbers like “Stars and the Moon” and “Christmas Lullaby.” Michele Marie Roberts’ comedic talents are on display in a few numbers in the show (her “Surabaya Santa” is to die for), but the real shining moments are “Stars and the Moon” and especially “The Flagmaker, 1775.”

While all of these performances are fantastic, Brian Brown’s performance as Man 1 is beyond exceptional. His voice is smooth and gentle while still being strong and soulful. Every song he is featured on is a musical expedition, and it’s clear he’s been given liberty with the score. His performance seems equal parts measured and improvisational. I was very much compelled to give his and the company’s performance of “Flying Home” a standing ovation. Brown is versatile as an actor and singer, and I’m not sure enough people have or will witness his musical brilliance. Be prepared to hear his name countless times going forward.

I intentionally didn’t watch the acclaimed streaming version of this production because I knew that as theater recovered from a global pandemic (we’re not out of the woods yet, by the way) I would need to hear these words, songs, this music in person. My expectations were exceeded. I’m glad to see that Second Generation’s impressive new logo and branding hasn’t taken away their penchant for impactful theater. Thanks for ushering us into “the new world.”

For more information, click here.

The Band’s Visit at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The Company of “The Band’s Visit” North American Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

It’s a busy season at Shea’s Performing Art Center with three musicals running through November! First up is The Band’s Visit, based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, which tells the tale of some Egyptian musicians who get lost on their way to a concert in Israel. 

Going into this performance, all that I knew of The Band’s Visit was that it had a very successful year at the 72nd Annual Tony Awards where it was nominated for 11 awards and won 10, including Best Musical. However, I was not familiar with any of the music or the storyline which is a rare occurrence for me. The show oddly opens with a projected caption on the curtain stating, “Once, not so long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” On the surface level, this can basically sum up the entire show. The occurrences and conflicts onstage all take place within a 24-hour time span and focus on average, daily events. It is up to you as an audience member to read deeper into each interaction, connect with it, and discover personal take-aways. In this regard, I’m not sure this show is really meant for everyone. If you’re looking for show-stopping numbers with eye-catching costumes, choreography, and effects, this isn’t for you. This is for the audience member who appreciates music, people, and how the two seamlessly connect. 

At the beginning of the show, band member Haled (Joe Joseph) is tasked with purchasing bus tickets for the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra’s trip to Petah Tikvah for their performance the following evening. When communicating with the ticket clerk, his Egyptian accent causes a misunderstanding, and the tickets are instead purchased for the isolated desert town of Bet Hatikva. The group’s leader, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (Sasson Gabay), and the rest of the band don’t realize this error until they arrive in Bet Hatikva and get an introduction to the town from local restaurant owner, Dina (Janet Dacal), and two café employees, Papi (Coby Getzug) and Itzik (Clay Singer). Since there are no more busses available until the following morning and the small town doesn’t have any hotels, Dina suggests the band divide and spend the night with her, Papi, or Itzik at their respective homes. 

The audience is able to experience three different lives and environments alongside the band members including Dina’s lifestyle, Itzik’s home and life with his wife, their baby, and his father-in-law, and Papi’s double-date experience at a roller-rink. The evening is filled with getting acquainted, supporting each other, and of course: music! Most of the instrumental music is created onstage with a variety of instruments and sounds. The talent of the band is truly incredible and provides a constant heartbeat to the show. Many pieces of music are about music itself like “The Beat of Your Heart”, “Something Different”, and “Itzik’s Lullaby”. I thoroughly enjoyed the all the elements of humor throughout the show like Getzug’s hilarious rendition of “Papi Hears the Ocean”. Similarly, Dacal’s comedic timing as Dina is perfect and Joshua Grosso’s commitment to his role as Telephone Guy is fantastic.

While the show may feel slow-moving at times, it’s definitely an interesting and unique production that causes you to reflect on the ability of music to bring people together and the power of a simple change in one’s routine. If you’re a music-enthusiast, you can’t miss this thoughtful and heartfelt production. The show runs through November 7th, is 90 minutes in length without an intermission, and includes 15 musical numbers.

For more information, click here.

Spirited Show at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

Legend has it that the D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre is haunted.  A fire in the original 1874 building took the life of one of  the Grey nuns who lived there and it’s thought that she’s still on campus. For the next month, she’s not alone. The Woman in Black, on stage now to November 21, is a haunting story in the grand British tradition. Based on a novel, the stage version has dominated London’s West End since 1989, making it the second longest running non-musical stage play in Brit history. (The Mousetrap still prevails).

The Woman in Black is a character-rich two hander where David Lundy (as the mature Arthur Kipps) and Peter Horn (as the actor and a younger Kipps) assume multiple characters to tell Kipps’ lived story. The Kipps family liked to share spooky stories on Christmas Eve, and after many years, older Kipps was ready to share his real life ghost story from when he was a younger man.  He hired the actor to help him tell his tale.  This is where the fun begins.  As the story goes, he was a young solicitor, charged with sorting the details of an eccentric dead woman’s estate. He finds the  skeleton in her closet. And in her hallway.  And in the nursery.  And on the marshes surrounding her remote home.  She’s not a friendly presence – a spinster dressed in classic widow’s weeds with a disfigured face – and mayhem follows wherever she goes. Family secrets have a way of doing that.

The whole show is creepy good fun.  Lundy is marvelous as the senior Kipps and multiple supporting roles as, adopting a variety of accents, and affectations. Horn as the actor assumes the role of the young Kipps living out the solicitor’s youthful reality while coaching the senior Kipps to breathe life into…death. Horn is fine transforming himself from haughty actor/storyteller coach to the younger, more affable Kipps. Lundy and Horn play off each other very well.

Director Kyle LoConti must have had a blast with two outstanding actors and their extraordinary adaptability. Designer David King built a spooky and sparse black set with a few furnishing to push about. Brian Cavanagh and Geoffrey Tocin – lighting and sound design respectively – had the heavier lift and created enough gloomy spookiness to let our imaginations take over. Creaky doors, distant screams, footsteps, and the usual things that go bump in the night are all there. Set, lights, and sound created that perfect balance of actual theatre and theatre of the mind.Exquisite.

Cynics will breathe a ho-hum and call it all pretty predictable. But when you give yourself up to the experience of being in a haunted Edwardian theatre and spending a couple hours in Victorian England on a dark and stormy night, it’s a pretty perfect experience.

The Woman in Black runs just under two hour with a 15-minute intermission. Touchless  ticketing, new cozy seats, vaccinations and masks required, make the evening totally comfortable, until the ghosts waft by. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and tickets, if you dare.

Patience is Indeed a Virtue for All for One Productions

For the cast and crew of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the past 19 months must have been pure agony. The show was shut down opening night (thank you, Covid) after months of prep by All for One Theatre Productions, (the collaborative comprised of Shea’s 710 Theatre, MusicalFare Theatre, Irish Classical Theatre Company, Theatre of Youth, and Road Less Traveled Productions). Imagine the agony of sitting on this exquisite production. It was truly worth the wait.

Based on British author Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, playwright Simon Stephen’s script  begins with a neighborhood tragedy: a teen discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed. The distraught owner is quick to blame the teen. Thus begins a two-hour journey of a painful truth, deliberate deception, and a young man’s search for order in a very disorganized world.

Samuel Fesmire gives a mesmerizing performance as Christopher, the accused neighbor. While not specifically called out, Christopher appears to live on the autism spectrum, high-functioning and brilliant with mathematics, and sometimes childlike in his need for routine and order. He walks in straight lines and turns at precise right angles, marks his steps as he walks (“Remember your rhythms,” says is teacher Siobhan played by Sara Kow-Falcone), and cubes prime numbers to reduce stress. Fesmire’s movements capture the tics and quirks of someone whose mind is always racing.  Kow-Falcone’s carefully measured passion and commitment to her student paint the perfect picture of an ideal teacher.

While searching for Wellington the dog’s killer, Christopher learns some hard truths about his dad (Anthony Alcocer),  his mom (Candice Kogut) and Wellington’s owners (Wendy Hall and Ben Michael Moran).   Moran and Hall also do double duty as part of the ensemble, too, playing minor characters and set pieces. That’s actually a pretty cool part of the production. People are often miming walls and doors on the Spartan grid set. Even in the opening scene, lighting outlines Wellington’s dead body along with the murder weapon. 

No surprise that a collaborative performance has a super-size production team. Director David Oliver and assistant director Lucas Lloyd built a good team with Lynne Koscielniak doubling up on scene and lighting design, Christopher Ash and Brian McMullen on the projection (there’s plenty of that, too, against the grid set), Gerry Trentham as movement director, and Jean Toohey as dialect coach to keep the British accents on point and in check.  It this was a band, it would be described as tight.

Overall, it’s a fine interpretation of the novel and a good depiction of what it’s like to live in a world that you often don’t understand when you’re otherwise abled. Fesmire as a Christopher will win your heart as you empathize with his daily challenges. I was less focused on the parental lying and infidelity: the acting quartet handled that well. It’s a tribute to the production company and its choice of show to see marquee actors like Pamela Rose Mangus and David Marciniak in ensemble roles here, too.

The show’s timing may feel uneven at times (the first act felt long and a trusted colleague felt act two dragged) but like Christopher, once you feel the rhythm of the story, it makes sense.

Thanks to All for One for bringing this powerful show to the 716 and not giving up on it when Covid  was threatening, This is good stuff.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a solid two hours with intermission and is onstage at Shea’s 710 Theatre to November 14.  Details and tickets at www. sheas.org.

Heathers at SUNY Buffalo State

The Heathers story has existed as a cult classic since the movie starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater was released in 1988. The Off-Broadway musical, written by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy in 2014, restored interest in the dark comedy. It’s not often we can laugh at bullying and murder, but that’s what this script encourages the audience to do.

The production at Buffalo State, running through October 30th, has all the right pieces to create a solid production. As Veronica, Lexus Hale possesses an incredible vocal instrument, which might have been a little tired during the production I saw. The Heathers, played by Carolyn Freeman, Link Hagerty, and Kathleen Dunne, are certainly embracing the popular girl cliche. Freeman’s strongest moment comes in “The Me Inside of Me,” but I don’t want to reveal why in case you’ve somehow never seen anything Heathers related. The performance of the night for me came from Jake Grear in “My Dead Gay Son.” Act One ends a little heavy, and Grear’s performance does all it’s intended to. It’s a true show-stopper.

While the vocal talent in the production is on display and the choreography is terrific, I felt like the energy at the performance I attended was a little low. Much of Heathers depends on fast-paced humor to diffuse the darkness of the material. I felt that the pacing and delivery sometimes took the audience out of the performance. That kind of problem generally disappears as performances continue, so it didn’t overshadow the aforementioned standout performances.

Overall, the Buffalo State production of Heathers is an ambitious attempt at material that is very nuanced, with excellent vocal performances abounding. 

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.