Here’s what I love about local theatre here in WNY: there is plenty of it, there’s something for everyone, it’s across the region, in all communities, and at every price point.
While some of my reviewer brethren may give a haughty air sniff at the thought, community theatre plays an important role for both actors and audience.
. . .hits all the right notes for community theatre production.
The Springville Players’ production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” hits all the right notes for community theatre production. It features a local cast that represents a mix of ages and a wide array of day jobs. It’s in a great setting in the heart of the village. And it is packed with passion, commitment, and fun.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is based on playwright Simon’s life experience as a junior writer on NBC’s “Your Show of Shows” when Sid Caesar was the king of prime time television. The crew did a fine job replicating 1953 in its one-room set – the writer’s room – where the team gathers to write the bits and gags for The Max Prince Show, back when TV was live and highly anticipated. First out is Lucas, (Arron Fisher making his acting debut). He’s the new guy on the team, hoping and trying to fit in. Wise-cracking, beret-wearing Milt Fields is well played by Cory Golabek. Matthew Walter wears the part of ‘genius’ Kenny Franks well, with boyish charm and a joke at the ready. Charles R. Weber is Brian Doyle, the New Yorker with Hollywood on his mind. Rick Manzone commands the stage as comedy star Max Prince, sporting a mop of a toupee (a nod to the Allen Brady character on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” no doubt, also about a team of comedy writers for a TV show). Mark J. Mendola is the complaint-a-minute Ira Stone. Brian Kujawa is Val Slotsky, the Russian immigrant who struggles with English words. Erin Bellavia is the only woman on the writer’s team who keeps up with the guys when it comes to writing gags.
Director Matt Boyle picked a good group here. They played off each other well and the stage chemistry was real. There was good rhythm to their pacing and it was easy to believe they were a group that thinks as one when it comes to creating a new script every week. Even so, there were some minor missteps. Casting a theatre newbie as the guy who opens the show takes great trust. While Fisher captured Lucas’ enthusiasm perfectly, sometimes his delivery felt rushed and stilted. Kujawa’s overly heavy Russian accent was hard on the ears and too many good jokes were lost in his over-exuberance for sounding Russian.
There were some truly fun moments. When Ira Stone bursts into the room at the end of act one with a full script on a big pile of paper, it’s an absolute hoot when he chucks the paper in the air. What a great shower of jokes. In the second act, one lone paper flutters past the window on the back of the set. Yes, it wasn’t supposed to happen, but in that one little moment, you could imagine it was chucked out an upper floor window by an irate writer or show host. I loved it.
The show touches some serious moments of the era, too. Senator Joe McCarthy was blacklisting entertainers and others for un-American activities. Politics makes networks nervous which trickles down to the writer’s room. The golden era of live television was transitioning, too, and networks were struggling to find the formula that worked. While these concerns were present in the script, these subtle pivots in tenor and mood were a challenge. This cast handled the laughs more handily.
What I liked best about this trek to Springville was the experience of the Springville Center of the Arts. It’s a former Baptist church with some original windows in the art gallery portion of the building. The auditorium is versatile and is used for concerts besides theatre. This show’s co-producer Jennifer Weber is enthusiastic about its arts programs and other offerings. It’s a community treasure and it’s good to see the space well used and appreciated.
My only other beef: the audience member in my row who felt the need to check his cell phone and scan his newsfeed during the production. More than once. Seriously. There was an announcement to silence all cell phones at the start of the show. This dude missed the – do I really need to say this – part about keeping the phone in his pocket until intermission. Where art thou, Patti LuPone?
If you loved “The Dick Van Dyke” show on TV or the 1982 movie “My Favorite Year” (and the less than successful Broadway version 10 years later), you’ll love this look back at early television. Overall, this is fun theatre, the kind that makes you want to see more. Or as Kenny says, “Maybe we’ll never have this much fun again in our entire lives.”
Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15-minute intermission.
Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” runs until March 17, 2019; For more information, click here.