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

Theatre Review: ‘Elf The Musical’ at MusicalFare Theatre

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The cast of “Elf The Musical” at MusicalFare Theatre. Photo by Doug Weyand.

MusicalFare Theatre’s production of Elf the Musical opened last night on the Daemen College campus. Elf the Musical, which has a book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan and a score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, is based on the popular Christmas film that starred Will Ferrell and Bob Newhart. The musical version of Elf had a short run on Broadway during the 2010 holiday season and it has toured the country several times since then.

. . . a joyous production  – musically solid, bright and cheery, and a great way to get into the spirit of the season.

Elf is a light-hearted fantasy. It’s the story of Buddy, a human who crawled into Santa’s bag when he was a baby. Buddy has been raised by elves in North Pole, but now that he is grown up, he decides to find his roots and he travels to New York City to meet his biological family. 

MusicalFare has knocked itself out with this colorful and energetic production!

There is a rollicking and right on the money combo of musicians directed by Theresa Quinn and they add much to the proceedings. Director Michael Walline has done a great job.The show is long, but my attention never flagged. This is a polished, complicated production and opening night was flawless. Mr. Walline choreography is cute and fun. There are lots of dances – I especially enjoyed the inventive opening number with the elves.

Chris J. Handley, looking like a cross between Danny Kaye and Harpo Marx, is fine in the demanding central role of Buddy the Elf. He runs the gamut from pixilated to amusing to soulful and, Mr. Handley gives such an exuberant, effervescent performance that I’d be surprised if he isn’t nominated for an Artie Award.

Buddy’s New York family, Jennifer Mysliwy, Johnny Kiener, and Louis Colaiacovo as the frequently frenzied father – offer able support and I especially enjoyed a rare quiet moment when the wife and son sang their letter to Santa “I Believe In You.” Stevie Jackson is the petite blonde object of Buddy’s affection and her solo is well performed and provides us with a much needed break from the holiday hoopla. Nick Lama is a very capable Santa, the narrator of the show, and Alex Watts packs a punch as an employee who is utterly captivated by Buddy.

There is a high spirited and talented small chorus, and they are kept very busy all night – singing, dancing, skating, tapping, and changing costumes. Backstage must be a madhouse! They are the hardest working chorus I’ve seen on stage in a long time!

The spiffy all-purpose scenery, complete with convenient cubby holes, by Chris Cavanagh enables set changes to be quick and fluid, and there is prodigious and effective use of back screen projections. Sound and lightning by Mr. Cavanagh are also first rate.

Kudos to Kari Drozd for the extensive costume collection with some real winners including the girls’ 1950’s style white and gold full skirts in the finale and, in contrast,  Ms. Mysliwy’s chic, flattering modern wardrobe.

My only quibble is with the script, not the production.  The plot meanders, and, outside of Buddy, we really don’t get to know any of the characters well or feel for them. There is no time for character development because there are so many production numbers. They are all well performed but, after a while, it’s too much of a good thing. It’s like eating 10 desserts! 

A word of warning – I would think twice about bringing the youngest family members to this show as they’d be exposed to the disillusioning sight of the disgruntled drunken Santas who open the second act. It’s a funny scene but not for those who still believe.

All in all, however, MusicalFare’s Elf the Musical is a joyous production  – musically solid, bright and cheery, and a great way to get into the spirit of the season.

Elf the Musical runs two hours and 40 minutes including a 15 minute intermission.

“Elf The Musical runs until December 22, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: “Division Street” at JCC Centerstage

The cast of “Division Street” at JCC Centerstage.

I had the great honor of experiencing the world premiere of “Divisions Street”, written by Jason Odell Williams (“Church & State”, “Handle with Care”) who returns to Rochester to collaborate once again with JCC Artistic Director Ralph Meranto for this provocative three-actor show. The two previously collaborated on 2016’s “Church and State.” The three roles are played by David Andreatta (Rob), Esther Winter (Nia), and D. Scott Adams (Trey).

. . .enlightening. . .

The play is set in present day. The plot—in a nut shell—is about celebrity couple’s interracial marriage (Rob is a white Jew and Nia is black with no clear religious affiliation) and how their respective careers are hitting opposing inflection points. Rob has been nominated for a Golden Globe for a movie role as a racist cop who shoots an unarmed black youth. Nia’s career has gone from shooting start status to stagnant. The play takes place in real-time, in the 90 minutes before the limo comes to pick them up for the Golden Globes. The play is described as a bold comedy-drama about race, media influence and the Hollywood movie machine but it is so much more.

Adding to the tension of a pressure cooker of a night is Rob and Nia’s long-time friend and co-producer of the movie Rob has been nominated for, Trey. He was the character over whom I did the most head-scratching. He is a white man who has adopted all the affectations of a black hip-hop artist—not because he grew up in the culture but because he chose the culture. At first, I wondered if that was realistic. Then I harkened back to a friend from high school who was so into the Beatles that he adopted an English accent and the gentlemanly demeanor of Paul McCartney. Kind of strange for a kid in a suburb of New York City in the late 80s but he never wavered and continued that way into adulthood.  

This play takes on a lot of complex issues. It made my head spin trying to imagine how I would feel if I were participating in each of the tension filled conversations that were happening before my eyes. There were moments of humor interjected to lighten the mood but, as a privileged white woman, I held my breath through the humor. This play successfully does what theatre should do. It forced the audience to empathize with conflicting points of view and introduced ideas many of us have not previously explored. It is unapologetic as it puts a spotlight on racial identity, perception, and misunderstandings. This enlightening play gave my guest and I much to talk about afterward. And as one of Nia’s lines so simply and hopefully states, “It’s nice when people listen, learn, and change”.

“Division Street” runs approximately 90 minutes and is performed without an intermission.

The show runs through Nov. 17 at the JCC Centerstage in Rochester, NY. For more information, visit: https://jccrochester.org/centerstage

 

Theatre Review: ‘Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class’ by Rocking Horse Productions at The Meeting House

Sydney Perkins is Sister Robert Anne in “Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class.”

Rocking Horse Productions has recently moved to the charming Williamsville Meeting House for a season of Theatre in the Village. I attended the opening performance of Dan Goggin’s Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class: A One Nun-sense Musical Event. The Rocking Horse season will continue in March with the musical revue Forever Plaid.

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class is one of ten popular Nunsense musical shows which include a Christmas show, a country western show, a Hollywood show, and even Meshuganuns – an all faith show! This time around Sister Robert Anne has broken away from the other nuns for an evening to teach a class in how to create your own cabaret act. The many songs in this one woman show are a collection from the rest of the Nunsense series.

. . . a crowd pleaser and got a well deserved standing ovation from the enthusiastic opening night audience.

Sister Robert Anne is one tough cookie! She was born on the wrong side of Brooklyn and raised in a jazz club. Taking the veil hasn’t changed her a bit. She’s feisty, out spoken, and full of pep. The vivacious Ms. Sydnie Perkins plays the role in this production and she’s a powerhouse! Miss Perkins is full of energy – singing, dancing, working a puppet, getting a lot of milage out of her feather boas, and hobnobbing with the audience. She’s a keg of dynamite and her sparkly performance will put a smile on your face. She bounces through the novelty numbers and is very effective with the ballads.

Musical highlights of the production are “What Would Elvis Do” in which Sister is backed up on stage by a chorus line of audience volunteers and the ballad “I Left Him There” which is delivered with great heart by Ms. Perkins.  

John Szablewski is both the Musical Director and the jovial Father John who, in addition to providing spritely and steady piano accompaniment, is the evening’s unofficial MC. We all enjoyed his reactions to the proceedings, his little touches (including the funny glasses), and his occasional humorous ad libbing with Sister Robert Anne.

Direction is by Leigha Marie Eichhorn and choreography is by Mary Loliger. It’s hard to know who did what because the production is practically all musical, but Ms. Eichhorn and Ms. Loliger have put together a seamless and happy romp with lots of variety and never a dull moment.

The classroom set with desk, chalkboard, and St. Anthony is by Chuck Ziehl and costumes (including Sister’s sequined black sneakers – a fun touch) are by Janet Ziehl. Producer Douglas H. Kern has found a lovely new home for his theatre company and aptly selected a season of small scale shows to present in this pleasant, intimate setting. One word of advice for future audience members – bring a seat cushion with you.

There’s a lot of audience interaction in this show! When the house lights come up, be prepared to dance and sing with Sister. And, here’s a tip — if you volunteer to participate in the show, Sister Robert Anne might give you a prize. I got the key to heaven which, you have to admit, is a pretty darn cool thing to have!

The theme of the show is “every day of the week is a Saturday when you’re doing what you choose.” It was clear that both Ms. Perkins and Mr. Szablewski are happily doing what they chose and equally clear that the audience wouldn’t have chosen to be anywhere else. Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret is a crowd pleaser and got a well deserved standing ovation from the enthusiastic opening night audience.

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class runs 90 minutes including one intermission. 

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class runs until November 18, 2019. Click here for tickets.

Theatre Review: ‘Oh My God’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

The cast of “Oh My God” at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

This evening I attended the Western New York premiere of “Oh My God” by Anat Gov at the Jewish Repertory Theatre. Ms. Gov was one of Israel’s premiere dramatists with scores of plays and television programs to her credit. Like all Israeli students, Ms. Gov studied the Bible throughout her school years. As an adult, Gov founded a Bible study institute.

. . .a very careful and studied production of a philosophical play.

The play takes place in a therapist’s office in modern day Tel Aviv. God is feeling so depressed about His relationship with the people on Earth that He is considering suicide and needs psychological therapy.  Ella, the loving Jewish lady who He has selected for His therapist, has just one hour to convince God not to destroy Himself and all of creation. The therapist is the single parent of a preteen who has autism, and so she has lots of challenges of her own. The heart of the play is the therapy session that takes place in Ella’s office.

There is very little action in “Oh My God.” It’s cerebral – more like theological dialogue than a true play. Perhaps the translation from Hebrew to English is partially to blame. Many of the lines seemed stilted and were delivered in a stagey fashion that seemed odd in such an intimate setting.

This is a  confident and well oiled production of a wordy, difficult piece that has been mastered with aplomb by the cast, Todd Benzin and Lisa Ludwig, who obviously took this assignment very seriously and gave it 100%. For this, they are to be congratulated. Congratulations also to director Saul Elkin for this smooth and well paced production.

One challenge is in the casting. God is described in the play as being impressive and frightening with a deep voice. Mr. Benzin, although he gives this his best effort, just isn’t majestic or mature enough for the role. In fact, in this production, God comes across as younger and less powerful than Ella, the therapist. Ms. Ludwig plays Ella who the play describes as being warm and empathetic. Instead, in this production, Ella seems more enthusiastic about proving her points than she is about giving of herself to God and humanity.

There is a lot of yelling onstage – God is frequently exasperated and Ella is agitated. Potential moments of poignancy, amazement, connection, and humor were rushed through – perhaps in an effort to keep the pace brisk.

Max Goldhirsch does a lovely job as Ella’s son.

Production values are fine throughout. Perhaps if Ms. Ludwig has been costumed in slacks, instead of heels and a skirt, she could have been freer with stage movements. Ella’s office is part of her home, after all, so one wonders why she’s so dressed up. She looks more like Beaver Cleaver’s mom than like a modern day therapist. 

And, it’s quite possible that this is indicated in the script – but there were inexplicable short sudden schmaltzy musical passages throughout the evening. They were more distracting than atmospheric.

This is a very careful and studied production of a philosophical play.

“Oh My God” is 90 minutes with no intermission.

“Oh My God” runs until November 17, 2019 and is presented at Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Detroit ’67’ at Blackfriars Theatre

Set in July 1967, a time which would become known as the Long Hot Summer as race riots plagued American cities such as Newark, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee and of course, Detroit, Dominique Morisseau’s play Detroit ‘67 leaves the audience with a lot to reflect upon.

. . .an amazing performance. . .

The play opens in the basement of siblings Chelle and Lank’s house. They’ve buried their father six months prior and now that the will has been settled, are ready to start getting their lives back to normal. Normal includes after hours parties in their basement to help pay the mortgage as well as tuition for Chelle’s son to attend the Tuskegee Institute. They both agree the inheritance they received will be used primarily to pay for tuition, but once Lank’s friend, Sly informs him a local bar is being sold soon, Lank’s view of where this money should go to changes. As Lank and Sly try to convince Chelle the bar is a way to have a legitimate business of their own and a steadier income, tensions between the Detroit police and the African American communities continue to mount.While the violence in the streets rises to a fevered pitch, Lank and Sly bring more tension to the basement setting when they bring home Caroline, an unconscious white woman. Having found her disoriented and badly beaten in the streets, Lank insists on bringing her home in case whoever did this was coming back to finish the job. Chelle and Sly both argue this decision is foolhardy and will only bring trouble to the family, but Lank’s compassion for Caroline’s humanity eventually rules out and Chelle agrees to allow her to stay for a week if she helps them with their after hours parties. On the surface this proves to be a good idea since their revenue from parties increases significantly, but as more comes out about Caroline’s back story (some of which is provided by Chelle’s close friend, Bunny who has her finger on the pulse of the neighborhood’s information line) conflict continues to rise between the characters mirroring the violence that is increasing in the streets outside of the safety of the basement walls.

Detroit ‘67 covers obvious topics of race relations, police violence and class struggles, but also delves into topics of love, family connections, the desire to make a better life for oneself, make your mark on the world and keep those around you safe. Chelle and Lank struggle with their conflicting viewpoints – Chelle wanting the safety of what she has and only willing to look as far as tomorrow; Lank wanting something more for himself and to have a future more secure than it’s been. Chelle is the realist, viewing things as they are. Lank is the dreamer, seeing things as what they might be. Throughout, the one constant is their deep love for one another as family and their commitment to stand by one another no matter what. “We stuck together at the root.” as Chelle says to Lank at one point. 

Punctuating the play and enhancing the underlying themes is a steady stream of Motown music. With such well known groups as The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and Martha and The Vandellas, the music helps to set the atmosphere of the time. Lyrics which many of us sing without a second thought, become so much more poignant when set against the action on stage. 

As powerful as Ms. Morisseau’s play is, it’s the actors in this production who truly bring it to life, forcing the audience to confront the harsh truths which are presented. Ashona Pulliam as Chelle puts on an amazing performance bringing the full range of emotions of the character to the stage. Chelle’s internal struggle with the desire to support her brother’s dreams and the need to keep him safe in the reality of the world they are living in and the violence that is erupting around them is palpable to the audience. Pulliam’s talent shines as the audience watches Chelle fight to keep her heart safe from further hurt while being pulled toward the love that Sly offers. Tahina McPherson as Bunny offers the audience a much needed comic relief in a play filled with heavy, emotional topics and helps bring the self-assured character to life. McPherson’s Bunny acts as a softening in some ways to the intensity of Pulliam’s Chelle. The two actors work well together on stage, building off of each other’s emotions and creating an ebb and flow the audience can relate to. Aceyon Owens’ Sly, much like McPherson’s Bunny often adds an element of comic relief to a scene. In addition, Owens helps bring to life the struggle Sly experiences trying to make a living for himself as an African American man living in the ghetto of Detroit – trying to make ends meet, the struggle to get a foothold in life and the intense frustration at being blocked by white authorities (often crooked police) at every turn. Laron Dewberry’s Lank and Melanie McBride’s Caroline provide an idealistic view of what the world could be. Dewberry brings an intensity to Lank’s desire to make a better life for himself as well as a softness to Lank’s view that maybe the world can be a different place than what currently exists if we can see the humanity within each other. McBride’s Caroline brings the conflict of the streets into the family dynamics of Chelle and Lank, and forces the audience to question their own beliefs of what reality is.

Detroit ‘67 runs at Blackfriars Theatre until November 3rd. See it while you can. It truly is an amazing performance, and make sure to leave some time after for much needed discussions on the many topics this play brings up which continue to be relevant today.

Run time: 120 minutes with one intermission

Deals with adult themes and topics

Detroit ‘67 is playing at Blackfriars Theatre until November 3rd. Get your tickets at www.blackfriars.org

Theatre Review: ‘Come From Away’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The National Touring Cast of “Come From Away.”

I was in 5th grade on that day that the world stopped. I remember that no one told us anything in school, but the teachers in the hallway were all talking. There was some crying. There were some screams. My friends and I sat there wondering what was happening. We were 10, so we were not the first ones to get information. Even if we did get information, we wouldn’t have understood. It wasn’t until later that night when I got home from school that I learned about the tragic events that occurred in New York and Washington. Years later, I have had the opportunity to visit memorials at the World Trade Center and at The Pentagon. I can’t even imagine witnessing those events first hand. 

. . .the best story ever told. . .

“Come From Away,” the Broadway smash hit, tells the story of a small town in Newfoundland called Gander.  In it, there is a huge dilapidated airport where planes coming from Europe would stop to refuel at. Since the jet engine was created, planes can cross the ocean on a single tank of fuel, so there really isn’t much need for the airport anymore. That is until the US Airspace is closed on September 11, and 38 planes from all over the world land there. Seven-thousand people from around the world are brought to Gander against their will, and those on the planes have no idea where they are. What happens? People open their doors to their own home to help these people who are stranded for five days. Humanity at its finest.

This is the second time I have seen this show, and it will definitely not be the last. The last time I saw it was at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto in 2018. I was blown away by this production, and since then, the show has been extended two or three more times. It’s pretty much printing money at this point. It’s not a phenomenon. It is just fantastic storytelling and I believe that this might be the best story ever told. The music, the blocking, the vocals, and the pacing keep this story rolling. There is no intermission, and at no point are you bored or itching to get out of your seat. 

The show is an ensemble piece, where the actors seamlessly portray numerous characters. Newfoundlanders, Plane People, and other characters are all present in this story. The actors are so incredibly talented, and they give this story their absolute all. To name anyone specifically would be a disservice to the entire cast because each one of them is just absolutely captivating. It is also great to see a veteran cast of all shapes and sizes. This isn’t one of these shows where the cast is young, ripped, and all similar. This cast is full of character actors who give strong and enjoyable performances. I could watch them perform all day. 

The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt is so brilliant for this show. It would appear to be a minimal set, but with a story like this, you will have no problem filling in the blanks. Your imagination will run wild.

Christopher Ashley has directed a production that will live on in the memories of all those who see it, just like the memory of 9/11 stays with all of us who were there. Irene Sankoff and David Hein have crafted a musical that takes all the wonderful aspects of humanity and shows that people are truly, inherently, good. It has also put Gander on the map. My girlfriend and I are talking about going to visit!

Do yourself a favor, go see this show. 

Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

“Come From Away” runs until October 20, 2019 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more info, click here. You can also see it in Toronto, running until March 1, 2020. Click here for info.

Theatre Review: ‘Superior Donuts’ by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

To start its 2019/2020 season, Shea’s 710 Theatre has partnered with Road Less Traveled Productions to present “Superior Donuts”, a show from acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts (of “August: Osage County” fame) that tackles topical sociopolitical issues like race and gentrification, but more importantly, spotlights a friendship between an aging hippie who’s stuck in his ways, and a young black man desperately trying to bring him into the 21st century. 

. . .funny and touching. . .

“Superior Donuts” tells the story of Arthur Przybyszewski (Steve Jakiel), the owner of the decrepit donut shop from whence the play gets its name; it’s a staple of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, which has been in Arthur’s family for 60+ years. Finding himself in need of a new assistant, Arthur hires Franco (Jake Hayes) a young college-aged African-American man who, as we come to learn, is desperately in-need of a job in order to continue supporting his mother, and to pay off steep gambling debt to a local bookie.  With the donut shop struggling financially, Franco makes suggestions for improvement and modernization to the often-reluctant Arthur, who punctuates the story with regular monologues about his daughter, ex-wife, and past as a draft-dodging hippie.

Jakiel and Hayes absolutely shine in the leading roles of Arthur and Franco, with Jakiel masterfully playing the grumpy curmudgeon who is surprisingly educated and open-minded, and Hayes playing the enterprising young Franco who has a gift for writing. The chemistry between these two actors is organic and palpable, one that either comes naturally or was honed through hours and hours of intense rehearsal (or both). Regardless, it’s completely magnetic and is the foundation of this production. 

Rounding out the cast are a handful of smaller supporting roles, all of which add color and context to the setting of “Superior Donuts.” Most notable are Max Tarasov (John Profeta), the flamboyant Russian owner of the DVD shop next door, Lady Boyle (Tina Rausa), the bag lady who frequents the shop, and Officer Randy Osteen (Lisa Vitrano), the neighborhood cop with a sweet spot for Arthur. 

Even though it’s only 10 years old, it’s striking how remarkably well “Superior Donuts” has aged. Our culture is awash with well-intentioned plays and films that attempt to heavy-handedly address important racial themes, and end up coming across as a little too “white savior-y” (one need look no further that 2018’s Oscar-winning “Green Book” for a prime example). Tracy Letts had the foresight to not lead “Superior Donuts” down that road; there are no white saviors, and at the end of the show’s two acts our main characters haven’t tidily solved racism. “Superior Donuts” gently explores themes of class and, yes, sometimes race (there’s an impactful moment where Arthur actually concedes that he probably harbors some implicit racism), but it’s mainly about two new friends who learn to challenge and protect each other.

I listened to a podcast recently in which the hosts were discussing the film “The Shawshank Redemption”, and they described it as “not so much a prison movie as a romance movie about two best friends.” At the time it struck me as a curious description, but upon further reflection I realized that it was absolutely spot-on. Fans of “Shawshank” know that prison is certainly the backdrop, but the movie is really about the deep, meaningful friendship that unfolds between Andy and Red over the course of their years behind bars together. The podcasters were making the point that this storytelling format is more common with romance movies than in prison thrillers, and it occurs to me that “Superior Donuts” could be summarized the same way; “a romance movie about two best friends.” Sure, “Superior Donuts” flirts with issues like race, gentrification, and even the protest movements of the 1960’s, but the real thematic weight lies with the friendship that develops and grows between Arthur and Franco during the course of the play, and how that friendship becomes a saving grace in both of their lives. To Arthur, Franco becomes an adopted son of sorts, someone to encourage and protect, but also to help pull him and his shop into the 21st century. 

“Superior Donuts” is a funny and touching production, and a thoughtful collaboration between two of Buffalo’s finest theatre institutions. It’s also an important play to revisit, given the cultural and political backdrop of 2019. 

“Superior Donuts” is playing at Shea’s 710 Theatre until October 27th. For tickets and more information, click here

Theatre Review: ‘The Firebugs – A learning-play without a lesson’ at Niagara University

Why would Gottlieb Biedermann allow arsonists to stay in his attic?   

Because Biedermann, with his eager desire to do good and help seemingly less fortunate souls can’t seem to see into those souls.  He’s philanthropic to a fault, at the edge of noble, the guy who’s accommodating to those less fortunate than his own middle-class self.  He ignores what seem the obvious truths. He’s not an altogether nice guy, but there’s a blind faith-guilt tugging at him that says he needs to be.  

Well intentioned though he is, Biedermann, played by Ashton DeCaro in Niagara University’s production of The Firebugs, possesses all of the needed characteristics of a person who would allow firebugs to live in his attic, and believe that it would turn out well.  He’s a well-meaning sort, and DeCaro touches the simplicities and intricacies of Biedermann in a charmingly flowing, matter-of-fact ease.  

What Biedermann is not is a subversive, yet there’s something engagingly subversive going on in The Firebugs.  With its frequent presence of a chorus of firefighters in the wings, warning us that that there is trouble on the horizon, the play treks forward through Biedermann’s series of bad moves. 

It’s the two would-be arsonists, a former wrestler and a former waiter, played by Tyler Olson and Andrew Salamone respectively, who are the ones bringing all the trouble to Biedermann’s house.  They come off as a pair down on their luck, so Biedermann allows them in. He’s his own worst enemy.  

But the pair of troublemakers have charm.  They’re friendly, worldly in their own ways, and seemingly amiable.  Salamone, plays his waiter/firebug with a captivating wickedness, the zeal of carnival barker with a smoke and mirrors edge.  But more than that, his persona is animated and purposefully funny, and not-so deceptively evil.  

So there’s that space between where you think: I get this, and then: No I don’t.  There’s allegory in that space, the unclear clues, faintly shone at both sides of the space, but not in a definitive this-thing or that-thing sort of light.  The choruses’ leader, played by Marley Judd, gives hints at what’s afoot, and where Beiderman is going wrong, what’s the matter with Biedermann’s decisions, signaling the impending woe.  Judd delivers her lead with the surety of a firefighter captain, knowingly experienced and dramatically convincing, amusingly attempting to warn us of an inescapable conclusion.

But while the answers to Biedermann’s folly might be in there, the play itself is even more animated, purposefully and amusingly unconventional like Biedermann’s actions, while at times surprisingly entertaining in its overall character.  Niagara University’s production aims to capture its playbill subtitle — “A learning-play without a lesson” – and it does so. Having been written in mid 1900’s, its apparent intent was a jab-like statement about a rising middle-class. But if there’s a “lesson” or statement being made, that’s a moving target at best.  The temptation may be to label the play a simple statement to a naïve middle-class to beware the flashy, deceptive hucksters. But that would not be full disclosure.    

As a “learning-play” it fits its billing to a tee, and it’s a success on every level.  It leaves you thinking a bit about its “lesson,” or lack thereof depending on your bent, and so you leave with a feel for the redeeming quality of the experience, and it’s the production itself.  Because what Niagara’s student cast and crew put on display this night was seemingly without troubles, not a single miscue, zero botches of any kind. A learning-play? Perhaps. And perhaps if there were any particular details of delivery or inflection or stage movement, that’s for the students and their instructors to work out.  None could be found from the environs of NU’s Leary Theatre.  

What was found was a dedicated, well-learned and enthusiastic cast and crew at every level.  It’s impressive execution on display — from the choruses’ flawless execution and pitch, to a stage with its pleasingly lit scheme and nicely crafted single set, to a group of both promising and already accomplished actors.  It seems the production could not have been more finely tuned and learned.  

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“The Firebugs” is almost two hours minutes with its 15 minute intermission. It runs through Monday, October 7.  More information is at https://theatre.niagara.edu/shows/current-shows/show/193