“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.

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.

“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.

‘Hello, Dolly!’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

Carolee Carmello and the company of Hello, Dolly! PHOTOGRAPH JULIETA CERVANTES

Sometimes, the only exposure one has to a work of theatre is from a community theatre group’s best attempts at pulling it off. Big musicals usually get the short end of the stick when a group decides to pull out all the stops and present it. Not saying that the productions are poor, but just saying that subtleties and nuances are lost. It isn’t until you see a big splashy production, with a cast that fully understands the material, with direction that makes the jokes get all the laughs, that you can fully appreciate what you have witnessed. This is ‘Hello, Dolly!’ for me. After last evening’s opening night performance at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, I am now a fan!

A full size train, majestic sets, spectacular costumes, a powerful orchestra, and comedic delivery that keeps you in stitches, this production of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ is perfect. Carolee Carmello plays Dolly Levi to a tee. Yucking it up with the audience, filling the rafters with her beautiful voice, and bringing a sense of humor to the character that is always lost in many productions I have seen; seeing Ms. Carmello work is worth the price of the ticket itself.

‘Hello, Dolly!’ is the Jerry Herman musical, that tells the tale of the con-artist swindler Dolly Levi, who loves getting involved in everyone’s business, making things happen, and who is currently seeking a new husband, after her late husband passed away.

Supported by a fantastic ensemble, including John Bolton as Horance Vandergelder, Daniel Beeman as Cornelius, Sean Burns as Barnaby, and Karen Elliott as Irene Molloy, this show is strong from beginning to end.

John Bolton is fantastic as the cheapskate Vandergelder. Playing the over the top nuances and still grounding the character in reality, Bolton is loved by the audience. His act two song “Penny In My Pocket” is a great way to get you back into Dolly’s world after intermission. 

Daniel Beeman and Sean Burns are comedic powerhouses as Cornelius and Barnaby. The slapstick that they bring to the Hat Shop scene is heavily structured but so effortlessly pulled off by the duo. 

Karen Elliott also has the comedic chops to keep up with this cast and brings wonderful laughs to the Hat Shop Scene, as well as while the boys are wooing her to Harmonia Gardens for dinner.

Other highlights include the dancing waiter scene, which blows my mind and I cannot stop thinking about it, Vandergelder’s fantastic shop set, and the beautifully painting scrims that help tell this story. As an art teacher, I always appreciate a wonderfully painted backdrop!

I loved every second of this show, and you will too. The only downside is it is a little long, almost three hours, but it is so entertaining, you won’t believe how fast time flies! Get downtown and see it! You won’t regret it.

Running Time: 2 Hours 45 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

‘Hello, Dolly!’ runs until March 15, 2020 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

The Onion Game at Irish Classical Theatre

 Stan Klimecko as Onion and Louie Visone as Ogie.  Photo is by Gene Witkowski. 

A World Premiere by an award winning playwright has settled in for a run at The Irish Classical Theatre Company. “The Onion Game,” which is billed as a hilarious black comedy, was written by Bryan Delaney who flew in from Ireland to attend the opening night performance.

“The Onion Game” centers around an extremely dysfunctional family – each member of which has their own passions and eccentricities. Actually, “dysfunctional” is putting it mildly.  Think “You Can’t Take It With You” gone horribly horribly wrong. 

At the risk of sounding old fashioned and plebeian, I prefer plays where there is at least one character who I can identify with or at least care about. In “The Onion Game” each character is wilder and stranger than the next. “The Onion Game” reminded me of John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves” which also features a collection of off-center characters and also moves from dark humor to the macabre. Somehow, however, with Blue Leaves, the ending is strangely poignant and weirdly beautiful. There is nothing redeeming about the ending of “The Onion Game.” Act I is amusing in an audacious, “I can’t believe he said that” way, but Act II becomes just plain horrific.  Act II also felt over long. There are some surprising plot twists, but then the play continues for another grim 20 minutes or so. I found myself thinking, “Oh, destroy each other already and let’s get out of here.” It reminded me of a tedious production of Anthony and Cleopatra that I once saw where, by Act 5, I kept thinking, “Give her the asp!”

This was a solid production.  Greg Natale has the always difficult task at the Irish Classical Theatre of directing in the round and it can be frustrating for audience members to miss significant facial expressions and even dialogue because of this challenge. Some plays just don’t lend themselves to this theatrical set up as well as other pieces do. The one quibble I have with the direction is that Natale let some of the minor characters go way over the top with their performances so that, instead of human beings, we saw interpretations akin to Tim Conway’s sketch characters on the old Carol Burnett show. In the program notes, the playwright indicates that the style of the play is heightened realism but, with these characters, any small semblance of realism was lost. The actors who played the roles are usually terrific but here their performances, although funny, felt indulgent.  Mr. Natale did a wonderful job of directing the central actors playing the family, however, and these are very demanding and provocative roles.

Stan Klimecko, one of the best actors in Buffalo, turns in another masterful performance in the meaty and difficult role of the father. He is superb throughout the play, but I especially enjoyed his lighter moments when he pranced and capered around the stage – sometimes on tiptoes and other times in demi plie. 

Kelly Meg Brennan is also fine as his formidable, tough as nails wife and Louie Viscone gives an equally strong performance in the extremely distasteful role of their nasty and hedonistic son. 

Rounding out the unhappy family circle is Ava Schara as their seriously neglected young daughter — appropriately intense, off beat, and wan. She makes Wednesday from The Addams Family look normal!

Technically, the production is of consistently high quality with special kudos to sound designer Tom Maker and a filmmaker for the quirky music and videos played during the scene changes.

The production runs three hours with one 10 minute intermission.
“The Onion Game” runs until March 29, 2020. For more information, click here.

Othello at SUNY Buffalo State

The work of William Shakespeare is elastic and enduring, crossing the boundaries of culture, language, ritual and time. Popular Shakespeare plays such as “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth”, and the “Merchant of Venice” have been translated into over 100 languages, and Shakespearian works are often reinterpreted into different time periods and reimagined for modern audiences. The theatre department at SUNY Buffalo State is continuing this tradition with their current production of “Othello”, the Bard’s classic story of revenge and deception, told through a modern sociopolitical lens. 

“Othello”, a tragedy believed to have been written by Shakespeare in 1603, revolves around its two central characters: Othello (Keion Abrams), a Moorish general, and his treacherous ensign Iago (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez). Othello marries a noblewoman, Desdemona (Lissette DeJesus), without the blessing of her family. Iago plots with Roderigo (Azarias Matthews) to essentially destroy Othello. Iago cites several reasons for his vengeance, including Othello overlooking him for a promotion and giving the position to Cassio (Stephen Weisenburger) instead, and Othello possibly sleeping with Iago’s wife, Emilia (Gabriella McKinley). Roderigo, who is used by Iago because he is rich, is in love with Desdemona and works with Iago because he is promised that he will win Desdemona if they are able to defeat Othello. Iago’s plans become progressively more manipulative and complex as he preys upon Othello’s insecurities and convinces him that his new wife is having an affair with Cassio. Notably, director Jennifer Toohey transplanted the story from its original setting in Venice and Cyprus, Italy, to the modern backdrop of the U.S/Syrian conflict. 

Modernizing Shakespeare is a tricky endeavor, and it flops as often as it succeeds. When done well, a modernized Shakespeare can breathe fresh air into centuries-old text and bring relevance to young audiences who haven’t yet been introduced to the themes and characters. When done poorly, the story often becomes lost and the characters overburdened. This production doesn’t squarely fit into either of those descriptions, but the retelling of the story against a modern foreign policy backdrop proves a bit unnecessary, mostly because the story, while told in a military context, isn’t really a military story; it’s a story of love, revenge, deceit, racism, and violence, and the elements of warfare are more a vehicle for the interpersonal machinations of Iago and Othello. Dressing the actors in modern camouflage perhaps provides a change of scenery, but doesn’t make any kind of meaningful thematic statement.   

Though retelling “Othello” through the modern lens of the U.S/Syrian conflict doesn’t add a lot of substance to the story, this production is still excellent, largely because of the standout acting performances from Abrams, Gomez, DeJesus and McKinley. Gomez perfectly captures the maniacal nature of Iago, his constant manipulations and treachery always present. Abrams is a subtle and thoughtful performer, acting as a perfect vehicle for Shakespeare’s words and the complexity of Othello, a character who’s full of both pain and rage. DeJesus has a wide emotional range, fully on display with her love of and devotion to Othello, and her anguish over his mistrust of her. Most impressive is McKinley, whose Emilia is cutting, fierce, and enormously powerful, delivering the character’s monologues—especially the monologue about adultery—completely magnetically. Kudos to Toohey for her world-building, and for helping to guide these young performers to such excellence.  

Buff State’s production of Othello is intense and captivating, one of the better collegiate theatre productions I’ve seen in some time. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover dozens of local, regional, and professional Shakespeare productions across New York and Canada, and the young people in this production of “Othello” are some of the finest actors I’ve seen to tackle the complexity of the Bard; we’ll surely be seeing more of them for years to come. 

Othello is playing at SUNY Buffalo State until March 14th; for tickets and more information, click here

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The national touring company of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The iconic rock opera, written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, graced the stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre as part of the 50th anniversary National Tour. “Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of Jesus Christ during the last seven days of his life. It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t push beliefs on it’s audience, it is a tale of the man. 

Timothy Sheader directs a unique production. Part interpretive dance, part rock concert. It isn’t for everyone, but I found it exciting, fresh, and contemporary. Taking material from the 70’s and mounting it for audiences that may never have been exposed to the material before. It is a 90 minute experience that I believe is what Rice and Lloyd Webber set out to create when they penned this material. 

“Jesus Christ Superstar” was never supposed to be a book musical. It was a concept album, telling the story through a rock and roll score. This production does just that, and seeing it live, will definitely make you see that this isn’t an ordinary staging. It’s not supposed to be an ordinary musical. 

Where the production falls a little flat is in some of the vocal prowess. Singing against tempo, breathing in strange phrases, and lagging with the band, seems to be a theme in this show. While not totally terrible, as a musician, I cringed hearing the singers delay, wondering if they were going to catch up. They always did, in-case you were wondering. The orchestra, a full band that includes all members of the various instrument families, delivers Lloyd Webber’s score with power, force, and brilliance. There are some artistic liberties taken, especially with a random screechy tenor saxophone solo, but after thinking about it for a while, I realized that it complemented the activity happening on stage, and I found it perfect.

Costumes are modernized in this production, including tank tops, baggy sweatpants, sneakers, zip up hoodies,  and lots of tattoos. This style reminded me of the “Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE” on NBC a few years ago. I really liked it.

James Delisco Beeks plays Judas, and let me tell you, his performance must cause him great exhaustion at the end of the night. He is a rock star, and he does well singing the demanding parts. “Heaven On Their Minds” needs to be amazing because it sets us up for the rest of the story. Delisco Beeks takes a few minutes to warm up, but once he gets going, he is a powerhouse. 

Jenna Rubaii sings her heart out as Mary Magdalene, and is an audience favorite. Her performance of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” (one of my favorite songs in the show) is beautiful, and she graces the notes with ease. Sadly, Mary’s part is not huge in the show, and I would have loved to see more of her. 

Somewhere in the last 50 years, it was decided that King Herod had to be portrayed as a flamboyant drag performer. I have seen this in at least three productions out of the last five I have attended. While I don’t hate it, it surely takes away from new interpretations as this seems to be the new normal. In any case, Paul Louis Lessard gets the laughs and makes quite the spectacle as Herod in this production. A flashy gold outfit, a machete, boots, it’s very entertaining. He sings the iconic “King Herod’s Song” to a tee. An audience favorite.

Finally, Aaron LaVigne plays Jesus. I always judge a production’s Jesus by how well they sing my all time favorite song in the show “Gethsemane.” Playing his own guitar accompaniment, and laying all the cards out on the table, LaVigne makes this song his own, including the Ted Neely-esk screeches, and I loved every single stinking second of it. 

This production chooses to exclude the intermission, which is fantastic. 90 minutes. Glitter. You can’t go wrong!

“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs until February 16, 2020 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

“Glorious!” at O’Connell & Company

Mary Kate O’Connell as Florence Foster Jenkins in “Glorious!” at O’Connell & Company

“Glorious!,” a comedy by Peter Quilter, is currently being presented by O’Connell and Company in their lovely new theatre in the Elmwood Commons, the former Philip Sheridan School In the Town of Tonawanda. It’s easy to find the new home of O’Connell and Company; it’s on Elmwood just north of Sheridan. There is plenty of free parking behind the building. In addition to the theatre, O’Connell and Company now have a rehearsal space, lots of room for costumes and props, a special all purpose room for parties and events that includes a kitchen, a box office, and a refreshment stand. It’s a very nice set up.

The play is subtitled The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins the Worst Singer in the World. Ms. Jenkins was a wealthy turn of the twentieth century socialite who loved to sing opera although she had absolutely no vocal ability. Ms. Jenkins thought that she had talent galore, however, and gave a series of recitals which culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall. The members of her audiences were personal friends who cheered for her (and laughed as discretely as possible) and helped her maintain the illusion of being a great soprano. Her “fans” included celebrities like Harold Arlen and Cole Porter, and she was the toast of New York City.

Ms. Jenkins’ life has been the subject of five plays, a feature film starring Meryl Streep, and a documentary. Glorious! is light weight material. The characters aren’t fleshed out and we don’t being to understand the why’s or wherefores of Florence Jenkins, her part-time paramour St. Clair, or the other significant people in her life. The storyline takes some odd twists and turns. This play touches on some of her life’s more memorable moments including the traffic accident that enabled her to hit a high C and her performances as Carmen which included throwing flowers to the audience. What the play does best is give us one-liners which are peppered throughout and affords us plenty of opportunities to hear Ms. Jenkins sing. And the theme of the piece, reach for the stars, is inspiring.

Mary Kate O’Connell is effervescent as Florence and she clearly has a ball playing the opera star who lives in a dream world or her own design. Ms. O’Connell is bright, bouncy, and beautiful. Her three opera performances are lots of fun, true to Florence’s real life, and the highlight of the production. Her high pitched yelps are hysterical and are not to be forgotten!

Ms. O’Connell is ably supported by three talented actors — Roger VanDette plays St. Clair, a flamboyant, down and out thespian of the old school. Greg Gjurich plays her accompanist and Mr. Gurwich is particularly captivating in Act 2 when, at last, he is smitten and falls under Florence’s spell.  And Anne Gayley is delightful is as Florence’s buddy – a giddy, sherry-swilling society lady and patron of the arts.

Rounding out the cast are Kate Olena as an angry realist who refuses to pretend to see the emperor’s new clothes, Smirna Mercedes as a disgruntled Latina maid, and Mira Haley Steuer as the Bellhop.

There is solid direction by Steve Vaughan. The array of lovely period dresses and Florence’s amusing costumes are by Adam M. Wall. The stage is full of gorgeous flowers by Julianne Panty, and the masterful sound design is by Tom Makar. Kimberly Pukay did the lights; sets are by Bill Baldwin. To keep the audience’s attention during scene changes, there are interesting videos by  Brian Milbrand.

The production runs two hours, including one intermission.

For more information about showtimes and dates, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Hitmakers: Origins of Classic Rock’ at JCC CenterStage

The team at the JCC CenterStage Theatre has done it again with Hitmakers: Origins of Classic Rock! Picking up where last year’s British Invasion tribute left off, this year’s production explores what happened to rock and roll from the late ‘60s through the ‘70s. The cast delves into the spirit of this genre, belting out songs that were the anthem to so many of our lives. I may be a decade short from truly “growing up” during this time, but these were the songs of my childhood. By the time I came around to truly knowing this genre, it’s name had changed from Rock (having dropped the roll when it became much edgier) to the Classic Rock we all know and love today. The cast, both new and returning members, does not disappoint in their renditions!

As the audience makes their way to their seats, songs like “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles and “Crazy on You” by Heart play in the background, prepping us for the awesomeness that is about to ensue. The band makes its way on stage, followed closely by the performers giving us a background into the show. We find out how after the British Invasion, American rock and roll changed from the single performer to the group, Americans taking their cue from the success of bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Rock and Roll dropped the “roll” and as returning cast member Rich Steele tells us, it became a “time to be Wild!” He breaks out into a fantastic Steppenwolf tribute of “Born to be Wild” and this heady ride begins, keeping the audience rocking right up to the final song. The lineup explores music from The Doors, Jethro Tull, The Doobie Brothers, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and so many more.

As always, the cast is fantastic, but before I get to them, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the band. Headed up by conductor, piano and keyboards player Casey L. Filiaci the musicians in this production bring down the house! Mark Balestra on guitar, Dave Cohen on drums, Mark Terranova on bass and Leah Zicari on guitar, banjo and mandolin are phenomenal! They all played off each other well, are cohesive and collaborative. Without them, this show would not have been as kickin’ as it was.

Now onto the cast! Newcomers Melissa Boyack, Sarah Del Favero, Courtney Weather Schutt and Eric Schutt enhance the voices of returning members Marc Cataldi, Darren Frazier, Rich Steele and Josh Wilmot. Although each rendition/tribute feels like it’s better than the last, there were a few stand out pieces for me. Boyak’s, Del Favero’s and Weather Schutt’s rendition of The Weight has a soulfulness in it that adds to The Band’s original version. Cataldi’s Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers Band was spot on and his and Frazier’s Your Song by Elton John was phenomenal. Wilmot’s version of Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love was awesome and I LOVED Schutt’s version of The Door’s People are Strange!

Last year’s show was phenomenal and I think this year’s is even better. Bring a friend and rock out to the perfect way to heat up a cold February evening!

Run time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

Hitmakers: Origins of Classic Rock  is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre until February 16th. Get your tickets at https://jccrochester.org/events/special-events/centerstage-theatre

‘Nunsense: A-Men!’ at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The musical comedy ‘Nunsense: A- Men!’ is at the Smith Theatre weekends through February 2. This is an O’Connell & Company production. ‘Nunsense A-men!’ is the original ‘Nunsense’ show with all the characters portrayed by male actors, instead of the usual female actors.

The original ‘Nunsense’ is a musical by Dan Goggin that opened off-Broadway in 1985 and ran for over 3,000 performances – making it the second longest running off-Broadway show in history. Only ‘The Fantasticks’ had a longer run. ‘Nunsense’ is so wildly popular that there have been six sequel shows and five spin-offs. The different versions have been performed in 26 languages with thousands of performances world wide.

As in all the ‘Nunsense’ shows, the storyline is slight and goofy, but the tunes are bouncy and the lyrics are wickedly funny. The thin plot is about a small band of nuns in Hoboken, New Jersey who are putting on a musical review to raise the money to bury four sisters who are currently in the freezer! Poison stew, leprosy, and a production of ‘Grease’ all come into play. Don’t worry about the story – just sit back and enjoy!

Director Mary Kate O’Connell has mounted a pleasant, seamless production. Incidentally, Ms. O’Connell was the very first person to play the Reverend Mother in ‘Nunsense’ here in WNY – starting a long tradition in our community of revivals and sequels of the show. O’Connell & Company break the fourth wall many times and they have thrown in a healthy dose of audience participation. Ad libs  are okay, too, and it all adds to the merriment of the production.

The cast of five are all strong musical theatre performers and, as much as possible, they are playing it straight. This is not campy – it’s Nunsense and the actors happen to be male, not female.

Michael Starzynski is primly commanding as the mother superior until the end of the first act when she is flying high – that’s when Mr. Starzynski has a chance to let loose and he really shines! Free Willy!

As Reverend Mother’s ambitious assistant, Jake Hayes gives a peppy, good-natured performance. He leads the finale with great energy and gave the cheering audience a rocking good time.

The rank-and-files nuns are also solid. Daniel Lendzian is a powerhouse as starstruck, streetwise Sr. Robert Anne. Nick Lama is appropriately sweet and vacant as Sr. Mary Amnesia and his crackerjack  puppetry is one of the highlights of the show. Joey Bucheker is ebullient as the Donna McKechnie of the convent. His performance is topped off with an impressive tour jete on toe shoes! 

There is spritely choreography by Mr. Bucheker and all the production values – including the set by Bill Baldwin and lights by Kimberly Pukay are fine. The top notch musical direction and keyboard accompaniment is by Joe Isgar and Robert Mazierski on the drums.

Once in a while, the dialogue is a bit risqué, but this is essentially a family show for preteens on up.

‘Nunsense A -Men!’ is a solid and entertaining production that is sure to warm your heart on a cold January night.

The show runs 2 hours including intermission.

‘Nunsense: A-Men!’ runs until February 2, 2020, and is presented at Shea’s Smith Theatre. For more information, click here.