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.

‘The Mousetrap’ at Lancaster Opera House

It’s supposed to be hard to put your finger on the guilty party in a whodunit.  In the fashion of murder mysteries, the perpetrator could be any of the characters who take the stage.  And who done it becomes, by the end of the production, glaringly clear. The realization can be satisfying, bewildering, disappointing, or even painful in the end.   If you knew it all along, well, you get kudos after the performance for being some kind of armchair sleuth.   

Without giving too much away, in Lancaster Opera House’s current production of the Agatha Christie murder mystery, Mousetrap, pretty much everybody does it.

Matthew Rittler does it with an enthusiastic performance of the character of Christopher Wren, with an animation and flair that speaks not only to the mysteriousness of his character’s true identity, but also with a humor that brings fun to the play the other characters don’t get much chance to deliver.

Jaimee Harmon does it with poise and presence in her depiction of central character, Mollie Ralston, the better half of the married couple who are proprietors of the guesthouse where all the action takes place.  

Nathanial Higgins does it with his articulate and convincing portrayal of Detective Sergeant Trotter, whose scrupulous questioning of all the houseguests guides us down the varying pathways of finger-pointing guilt.

Jackson DiGiacomo, who plays the other half of the guesthouse proprietors, Giles Ralston, does it with and overtly proper being of a man who doesn’t exactly welcome opening his house to a band of transient guests, but is determined to make a go of it as a business.

That’s only four of the players in the total band of eight.  Yet all are guilty of realistic energy, of flowing through challenging dialogue with altogether fitting portrayals of their characters – to include the elderly and proper Mrs. Boyle played by Susan King; the youngish and purposefully strong Miss Casewell, played by Anne Roaldi Boucher; the stout and exacting military Major Metcalf, played by David C. Mitchell; and the unexpected and deceptively clever foreigner Mr. Paravicini, played by Monish Bhattachayya.   You can point your finger at any of them.   

And you can turn your gaze to the set – fully pleasing, realistic to the period and painstakingly rendered, complete with crown moldings, appropriate lighting, logs for the fireplace, velvety drapes and latched swing-open windows, and a great looking radio through which we first learn of murder, over the “wireless,” that happened not far from the guesthouse.   You even suspect the gifted Set Designer, David Dwyer, may have added the creaking wood floor to the Opera House stage, it’s all so well done, the detail is remarkable.  

The story finds the Ralston couple welcoming the cast of patrons to their home, which has been recently converted to a guesthouse for their new business venture.  The couple has been married only a year, still loving newlyweds, still learning about one another. It immediately becomes evident there’s been a murder not far from the guesthouse, but the fact goes largely unnoticed amidst a blizzard of a snowstorm and the stream of guests arriving.  

The characters are distinct, each idiosyncratic their own right, making them intriguing enough to bring suspicion onto them.  It’s not until the appearance of Detective Trotter that the plot gets rolling, the possibility of another murder becomes evident, and suspicion begins to fall everywhere. All the marks of a murder mystery are there.  The talent is a mix of seasoned local actors and crew, and very promising relative newcomers. Whether the audience finds the outcome satisfying, puzzling, or disappointing is hardly the matter. There’s a satisfaction in the journey given Mousetrap’s outstanding performances and Lancaster Opera House’s first-rate production for casual theatergoers or armchair sleuths.   

The Mousetrap is about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission, and is currently running through February 9.  More information is at http://lancasteropera.org/

Theatre Review: ‘The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes – Holiday Edition’ at the Cabaret at Alleyway Theatre

The cast of “The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes – Holiday Edition” at the Cabaret at Alleyway Theatre.

“The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes – Holiday Edition” by David Cerda is running through December 28 in the Cabaret at the Alleyway Theatre.

The show is based on the long running sitcom which starred Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan as seniors who share a home in Miami, Florida – becoming each other’s emotional support in their “golden” years of life. The show’s theme song was “Thank You For Being a Friend.”

The sitcom frequently used double entendres – usually flung at Rue McClanahan’s man crazy character, Blanche. The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes – Holiday Edition goes way beyond double entendres. This show is downright raunchy – definitely for an adults only crowd. The audience enjoyed it, and there were laughs and shrieks throughout the evening.

In reference to the audience, I was expecting the usual folks who go to see the Summer Camp BUA drag productions. Instead, the opening night audience was 98% female baby boomers – many of whom were ardent Golden Girls fans. And they got the opportunity to test their Golden Girls know-how in the audience participation quiz show segments of the evening which were fun for everyone. Incidentally, wine and beer are sold right in the theatre and this also contributed to the party atmosphere of the production.

Director Todd Warfield has kept things big, bright, and bouncy and his costumes are creative and colorful and certainly in keeping with the characters. 

Guy Tomassi stars as Dorothy, the Bea Arthur character, and he has mastered her mannerisms and facial expressions. Mr. Tomassi speaks the dialogue in basso profundo tones that are even deeper than Ms. Arthur’s. It’s an amusing performance that doesn’t go over the top.

Joey Bucheker is delightful as Rose, the goofy, naive transplant from Minnesota who was played by Betty White on TV. Mr. Bucheker is known around town for another drag role, the vibrant Betsy Carmichael, and it’s to his credit that his Rose is nothing like his Betsy. He is a performer with range!

Blanche, the libidinous Golden Girl, is played with great verve by Michael Blasdell, and Jessica K. Rasp gets a lot of laughs as the sarcastic Sophia, Dorothy’s mom from Sicily. Rounding out the cast are Tim Goehrig and A. Peter Snodgrass both of whom play multiple roles. I liked them best as MC’s and quiz show hosts where they proved that they are comfortable with improv and audience interaction.

The production includes sitcom music and TV commercials. And, speaking of commercials, here’s a warning to any audience members sitting in the front row – you may find yourself in the splash zone!

The show is dedicated to long time Buffalo actor Timothy Patrick Finnegan who was cast as Sophia but passed away this fall. Mr. Finnegan appeared in many shows at the Alleyway and many BUA productions and the theatre community mourns and misses him.

“The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes – Holiday Edition” is a wild and zany production with ribald humor. The audience enjoyed the holiday hijinks and gave the show an enthusiastic standing ovation.

The production runs 90 minutes which includes a 15 minute intermission.

‘The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes – Holiday Edition is presented at the Cabaret at Alleyway Theatre until December 28, 2019. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Raging Skillet’ at JCC CenterStage

Set in an on-stage kitchen at the book launch of Chef Rossi’s same titled memoir, Raging Skillet is a raucous good time that pulls at the heartstrings. Both a story of a chef’s professional journey as well as a tale of mother daughter relationships, this production will have you laughing and singing along one minute, and missing your mom the next.

As the audience makes its way into the theater they’re greeted by Rossi’s partner,  DJ Skillet (played by Laron Dewberry) setting up the kitchen, prepping ingredients and spinning tunes. Right before Rossi (played by Stephanie Roosa) enters the stage, DJ Skillet invites a handful of audience members to come and sit on stage in the pop-up restaurant he’s set up. If you can, take him up on the invitation. You’ll get to be part of the action, grooving out with Rossi at various points, as well as sample some of the food being prepared (such delectable treats as Rossi’s first ever recipe – pizza bagels, shiitake tacos, a Manischewitz spritzer as well as, gasp, chocolate dipped bacon (actually vegan bacon prepared by the Grass Fed Vegan Butcher Shop). Rossi enters, greeting the audience and “restaurant” goers. She immediately launches into introductions of herself and DJ Skillet, peppering her stories and descriptions with expletives, showing the audience that the stereotype of the foul-mouthed, cursing chef holds a bit of truth to it. Titling herself HBIC (Head B***h In Charge), she gives the audience the definition of what makes a great caterer as opposed to just a good one, “We head bang your taste buds!” 

Rossi makes her way into the on-stage kitchen to begin preparing some treats for the audience when she is interrupted by her mother (played beautifully by Davida Bloom) making her way on stage. Rossi is stunned but keeps up her banter, “Mom, What are you doing here? You died in 1992!” To which Mom replies, “Jewish mothers never die!” What follows is a trip down memory lane – delving into Rossi’s childhood, her beginnings as a chef and her often tumultuous relationship with her mother.

We dive in and out of Rossi’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing, although Rossi and Mom acknowledge it wasn’t always “Orthodox.”  “Mom was the queen of finding loopholes in being Jewish,” Rossi states at one point, followed by a shrug from Mom. Occasionally the memories are tender, but often they are filled with strife and explode into arguments on stage, opening old wounds for both. Throughout the exchanges, DJ Skillet takes on supporting roles – Rossi’s first girlfriend who was chased out of her apartment at knife point by Mom, a sales lady in a southern discount department store on the day Elvis died, a distraught neighborhood mother who doesn’t want Rossi influencing her daughter, Rossi’s father, a Russian mobster who gave Rossi her first big break. We see glimpses of the experiences that formed Rossi, and chuckle at her irritation towards her mother’s naivete and intrusive ways, knowing that parents (and often specifically mothers) can bring a sense of embarrassment, frustration and outright anger throughout our lives. It isn’t until Mom storms off after Rossi explodes in an expletive rant about her mother’s meddling that we start to realize we may not have the full picture. (Do we ever?) DJ Skillet starts to lay into Rossi about how maybe she should have a little more respect for Mom. Mom storms in, thrusting a book into Rossi’s hands, “I wrote a book too!” she yells. Quickly turning on her heels to leave again. It’s then we, and Rossi, see who her mom was before she was Mom. Often the voice of reason throughout, DJ Skillet implies that maybe Rossi needs to take a step back in her judgment of Mom and realize for all her faults, she loved Rossi dearly and did her best to make sure she had a good life. As Rossi states, and I’m paraphrasing “As I was running away, I didn’t realize that maybe Mom wanted to come too.”

Throughout the awesome ‘80s soundtrack, hilarious stories and celebrity sightings, one thing that comes through loud and clear in Raging Skillet is Rossi’s love for her mother, Mom’s never ending influence upon her life and a longing of sorts to have her criticism and complaining back. Bravo to the cast and crew for an uproariously good time that leaves you wanting to go home and call your mom, and Brava to Rossi for being such an amazing story teller!

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Raging Skillet is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre until December 22nd. Get your tickets here.

Theatre Review: ‘Come Back To The Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ at New Phoenix Theatre

The New Phoenix Theatre production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean opened on Friday.

Even though this story has history, having made a Broadway run and adapted to film with what may have been a stellar cast, I entered Friday with zero familiarity.  Arguably, you might quarrel that a fair review of any play would require one to perform a little research, if not have some actual experience with the story, be it from stage, screen, or text.  Otherwise, how to gauge its success? Or, you might squabble that going into a play with zero experience with it makes for zero expectations. The production rises or falls on its basic merits as entertainment value.  

Either way, Jimmy Dean never makes an appearance.  Neither does James Dean. Not really a surprise. Even with zero expectations, a play about pure pork breakfast sausage or 50’s film icons was never anticipated.

It’s basically about broken lives come together.  Set in a small town in Texas at, you might guess, a Five and Dime store where not only are sundry goods sold but also coffee shop food and drink at a lunch counter.  The set of New Phoenix is meticulously rendered, with throw-back appropriate swivel stools, hanging lights and fan, corded wall phone and yes, a life-sized cut-out of the 50’s heart-throb, James Dean.

The occasion taking place is a meeting of a group of friends who were coming of age when Dean was alive, around the time of his filming of the movie, Giant.  The movie had apparently been filmed all those years ago just outside of the town where the play’s action takes place.  Those 30 years earlier, this group of friends had formed their own fan club, “The Disciples of James Dean”. They had agreed to meet 30 years later, at the Five and Dime where they had spent much of their adolescence.

Enter the 40-something Mona, played by Lori Haberberger, whose admiration for Dean is extreme.  So much so that she’s named her only child Jimmy Dean. In fact, we learn, that from the time of her son’s birth Mona has claimed she was seduced by James Dean himself during the filming of Giant, and that Jimmy Dean is his child.   

It’s not true, of course, but you would not know that by Haberberger’s portrayal.  She plays the character with a hint of disturbing over-the-deep-end drama that keens us into thinking something is wrong here.  Yet everybody knows it but her.

The rest of the characters let it play as a fact of Mona’s life, 30 years in the making.  Mona’s mother Juanita, played by Mary Moebius, the God-fearing proprietor of the Five and Dime, chooses to remain blissfully ignorant of the un-truth.  The rest of the Disciples have all moved on.   

Their comeback to the Five and Dime is lead by Sissy, expertly played by Buffalo theatre mainstay, award-winning actress, Lisa Ludwig.  Sissy is, in a word, sassy. And Ludwig plays her with an outstanding command of the stage, dialogue, and physical prowess, complete with an affecting southern accent and swagger.

Nearly matching Ludwig’s stage presence is Kerrykate Abel as the well-to-do Stella May, whose confidence and simple truth wisdom is a fantastically thick disguise of Stella May’s discomfort with her outwardly successful life.

The Disciples are a group of six companions, whose truths and confessions come out across the stage, veiled in uncomfortable lies and long held blissful assumptions about just what those 30 years have meant and what happened and who they came to be, 30 years after James Dean held their fancies.  

The play uses flashbacks from those days of the Disciples of Dean  – a young Mona being played by relative newcomer Jessie Miller, and a youthful Sissy being played by the accomplished Jamie Nablo.   As the young and adult Sissy, Nablo and Ludwig’s command are expertly meshed. The two performances bridge the 30-year gap of the character so convincingly you’d think they were mother and daughter in real life.   Sissy’s 30-year gap of young to old is packaged with care by these two stellar performances.

The actual stage flashbacks to 30 years earlier are not quite as seamless.   In the opening minutes of the play a flashback occurs and, still establishing a purchase on the play, it presents some unsure footing.   That is partly because the flashback mingles the younger actors from 30 years earlier with the very same older actors in the real time of the play, without an obvious visual transition.  The first time we see the young Mona, it’s presented as such a matter of fact walk-on that, at first, one might assume she is just another character in the present action of the play.  

Whether that’s a matter of stylized storytelling or production limitations —  early on it’s bewildering as the present action moves forward. Later in the play it becomes an integral, recurring approach.  But early on it takes a little time to gain one’s footing because of it, but once you’re grounded in the story and characters, the impact lessens and the seam closes.  

What you’re left with is a sometimes poignant, sometimes raucously fun look at how a group of small town folks reconnect to find their lives diverted, yet remain irrevocably bound by their early years of common ground and truths come to light.  The folks at New Phoenix have brought together a group of excellently seasoned performers to the stage, managed by some inventive newcomers managing the stage. Together they bring an altogether vigorous, entertaining show as filled with vibrant performances as it is with uncommon twists.   

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is two hours with a 15 minute intermission. It runs now through December 21.  More information is at https://www.newphoenixtheatre.org