Theatre Review: ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ at The Stratford Festival

Brigit Wilson (left) as Mrs. Page and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Ford. Photography by David Hou.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” is traditionally viewed as one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. Perhaps because it carries neither the weight and depth of a “King Lear,” nor the grandiosity of “The Tempest,” nor the magic of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In its time I imagine it was regarded as something of a chick flick, an Elizabethan popcorn movie that you watched because there was nothing else on. And maybe that was the case historically, but the production of “Windsor” currently playing at the Stratford Festival plays like the ultimate comedic revenge comedy, led by two conniving and duplicitous wives who band together to put a cretin in his place. 

. . .roaringly funny. . .

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” tells the story of Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies), a stout and coarse knight who, because he’s short on money, attempts to dually seduce the married Misses Ford (Sophia Walker) and Page (Brigit Wilson) using identical love letters. After comparing the letters and realizing his ruse, these two women (the “Merry Wives”) engage in a series of double-dealing highjinx in order to shame and embarrass the fat knight. Concurrently, three different men are trying to win the hand of Mrs. Page’s daughter, Anne Page (Shruti Kothari). Mistress Page would like her daughter to marry Doctor Caius (Gordon S. Miller), a French physician, whereas the girl’s father would like her to marry Master Slender (Jamie Mac). Anne herself is in love with Master Fenton (Mike Shara). Most noticeably, this production of Windsor is set in the 1950’s.

All too common is the modernizing of Shakespeare, and equally common is the swing-and-miss of the modernized Shakespeare. Be it a 1920’s fedora-clad “Twelfth Night” or a “Hamlet” with machine guns or the Leo DiCaprio/Claire Danes “Romeo and Juliet” (which I personally think is an abomination, but does have a cult fanbase), the Bard’s works have been dropped into just about every period of human history imaginable, usually to the detriment of the original. Surprisingly, this doesn’t apply to Stratford’s “Merry Wives,” which is perfectly suited to the “I Love Lucy” backdrop that the audience is presented with. 

This can be chalked up to artistic choices, but also the text itself. “Windsor,” while originally set in a quaint Elizabethan town, has all the trappings of a “Leave it to Beaver” suburbia; the gossiping, the petty feuds, the romance. Comedically, the show’s biggest gags are delightfully sitcom-y, particularly the scenes featuring Falstaff, the wardrobe, and the laundry basket. Even the dueling romance of Anne Page /Doctor Caius/Slender strikes as something that could be plucked out of an episode of “Lucy” or “Beaver.” It’s a fresh, humorous take on a play that’s over 400 years old.

And speaking of humor, Stratford’s production of “Windsor” has plenty of it. With a cast that is top-to-bottom funny, standouts include Doctor Caius, the French physician with an absurdly exaggerated accent and a love for dueling; Mr. Ford (Graham Abbey), the perceived cuckold, who spends the bulk of the show red-faced with rage and spitting with jealousy; and of course, the timeless Falstaff, whose boundless self-deprecation throughout the Shakespeare cannon culminates in the “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Davies is surely one of the best Falstaffs the Canadian stage has ever seen, a master of boorish behavior, a sweaty and insufferable oaf who shuffles around the stage and uses his rotund physique as the butt of ceaseless physical humor. Admittedly the character hasn’t aged particularly well, with the barrage of fat jokes (albeit Elizabethan fat jokes) feeling decidedly cringy and his overall lechery toward women not vibing with the #metoo era. But the audience didn’t seem to mind on the afternoon I was in attendance, as there was nary a moment in which the Festival Theatre wasn’t filled with ringing laughter. 

The Stratford Festival’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is roaringly funny and will be a delight for both fans and non-fans of Shakespeare. It’s playing at the Festival Theatre until October 26th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Billy Elliot: The Musical’ at The Stratford Festival

Nolen Dubuc (centre) as Billy Elliot with members of the company in Billy Elliot the Musical. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I only knew three things about “Billy Elliot: The Musical” when I sat in my cushy Festival Theatre seat one Saturday afternoon. One, that a very talented young actor was about to do a lot of impressive ballet; two, that Elton John wrote the music and; three, that it featured a super catchy song called “Solidarity” that one of my college roommates got me hooked on nearly a decade ago.

With that same roommate by my side in the Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival, I spent the entire two hours and 41 minutes of “Billy Elliot” with my mouth agape at this truly stunning production.

. . .truly electrifying. . .

Billy Elliot is the son of a widowed miner during the 1984 miner’s strike in a northern English mining town. While his father and brother are out on the picket lines, Billy disdainfully attends boxing lessons. When he is forced to stay late one night to finish his reps, he is thrown into the ballet class that takes over the same gymnasium where he discovers his passion for dance and wows the instructor and students with his incredible raw talent.

As a dancer myself and knowing how central dance is to “Billy Elliot,” I was ecstatic to see Donna Feore at the helm as director and choreographer after being blown away by her work in “The Music Man” last year. This show was no different in terms of its impressiveness, featuring intricately powerful ballet sequences and tap combinations performed by both veteran Stratford actors and the incredible cast of young people.

Now, it was the only song I knew going in, but “Solidarity” was just unbelievable. The ballet class where Billy truly shines for the first time shares the stage with a standoff between the miners’ picket line and the police force. The juxtaposition is visually stunning, and makes for some great choreography opportunities that Feore was not shy about taking advantage of.

Nolen Dubac is Billy Elliot, marking his Stratford debut. He’s sassy, expressive and endearing, not to mention an outrageously talented dancer. He shines especially in “Angry Dance,” a charged number backed by loud music and cries of frustration, and “Electricity,” a beautiful song and dance describing what it feels like to dance.

Blythe Wilson is Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s ballet teacher. Wilson struts out in the ideal 80’s workout look complete with leotard and leg warmers complete with biting criticisms and a cigarette. Her convincing coldness is harsh enough to make us believe she’s nothing more than a bitter has-been and then Wilson truly shines, letting Wilkinson’s passion for dance re-ignite as Billy discovers his.

Dan Chameroy is great as Billy’s father, shining especially during the beautiful and slightly heart-breaking “Deep Into the Ground.” Emerson Gamble is also hilarious as Billy’s best friend Michael, shining brighter than the sun in “Expressing Yourself.”

The explosion of dance and feeling that is “Billy Elliot” is also heavily supported by the incredible talents of lighting designer Michael Walton, projection designer Jamie Nesbitt, sound designer Peter McBoyle and set designer Michael Gianfrancesco. Those production elements need to fill a lot of space in the Festival Theatre and they all worked seamlessly to surround the cast, presenting the audience with stunning theatrical imagery.

Stratford’s “Billy Elliot” is a truly electrifying production. Grab your passport and head North to see this remarkable cast – you won’t regret it.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 41 minutes including a 20 minute intermission

“Billy Elliot: The Musical” runs through November 3 at the Festival Theatre at Stratford Festival. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Nine’ by Second Generation Theatre Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The cast of “Nine” at Shea’s Smith Theatre.

I’ve waited for this one all season.

Second Generation Theatre Company closed its sixth season with an electric production of ‘Nine. ‘ With a book based on Fellini’s film  8/12 and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, ‘Nine’ is the story of Guido Contini, star filmmaker who is facing his 40th birthday with an urgent need for a hit film. And an equally urgent need to charm every woman he meets while pledging undying love to his knowing wife. Just your typical Italian love story…with a chorus of nuns, one prostitute, and two giggling German visitors.

. . .another triumph for this company.

This is a woman-dominated cast and production team, which makes the subject matter – a philandering man melting down in the pre-#metoo 1960s – all the more poignant.  So good to see the women in Buffalo’s theatre community together like this. There’s no irony here: the production is a product of its time. SGT and company have elevated the conversation here.

Director Victoria Perez assembled a near-perfect cast for this. Ben Michael Moran is Guido, wiry, passionate, conflicted, and irresistible, and Moran plays this well. Aimee Walker is his wife Luisa, wise and faithful with a stunningly resonant alto voice, she shows her fierce love for Guido early on with a heartfelt performance of “My Husband Makes Movies.” Walker owns the stage as soon as she steps into the spotlight. Her range of emotion in this piece alone is wistful and protective,  and the power behind her voice is amazing. Director Perez had pure gold to work with here: Walker’s posture and stance in every scene is strong, from her walk to her sleek upswept hair, to her elegant attire.

Equally solid is Kelly Copps as Carla, the primary girlfriend. She commands one of the best scenes in the production: in “A Call from the Vatican,” her voice is perfectly controlled as she performs a sultry aerial ballet between two swaths of suspended flowing fabric. She shows her vulnerability in act two’s “Simple.”  

Lisa Ludwig is Liliane LaFleur, Guido’s chief investor for the film that he still hasn’t written. While he’s trying to pick a concept out of his head, she knows just what she wants:  a song and dance movie that captures the essence of her elegant “ Follies Bergere.” A duel-melody patter piece, Ludwig and Sabrina Kahwaty nail the complex rhythm and precise placement of each lyric. Kahwaty’s voice and articulation is perfection. I love the way she almost spits out the words “a film” as she shows her disdain for Guido’s style. She’s one woman Guido can’t charm.

Lise Harty’s costume choices reflect the era and the vibe, from Luisa’s sophisticated couture, to Carla’s barely there underwear, to Liliane’s Chanel-inspired layers of pearls. I wish she stuck with the black and white color scheme throughout, although the pops of colors in the mid-century costumes of the ensemble pieces were fun.

The solo and duet numbers are the better vocal performances: the all-female ensemble – alternately portraying spa staff, nuns, and town gossips – are so soprano-heavy it’s also shrill at times.  Charmagne Chi has some featured moments, rocking a turbin. Mary Gjurich is another standout as Guido’s mother. She’s the calm and pragmatic Italian mama with a killer voice.

A standout of the night was Guido’s duet with actor and former lover Claudia. Moran and Arianne Davidow’s voices meld beautifully in “Unusual Way.” Davidow pours her heart into the Yeston’s lyrics “you made me whole.” It’s liquid platinum.

Max Goldhirsch is the only other guy in the cast and is adorable as 9 year old Guido. One of his key scenes is his introduction to, ahem, the physicality of love, with prostitute Saraghina. Nicole Cimato gave this plum role her best shot, but I missed the inherent irony of a mature, robust actor with a richer and stronger voice lustily singing “Be Italian.” Yes, another irony would have been Perez sliding out of the director’s chair for this one. She would have nailed it.

There were a few opening night hiccups with music director’s Allan Paglia’s quintet (I loved the cello against the voices, so lovely) that I’m sure are already fixed. Chris Cavanagh’s tiered set works well to add dimension to this small stage, and the tiers are needed to give the audience some better sightlines. Shea’s Smith is an interesting venue but there aren’t many good seats in this house.

This company and this cast rise above built environment obstacles and ‘Nine’ is another triumph for this company.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 10-minute intermission.

‘Nine’ is onstage until June 30, 2019, is produced by Second Generation Theatre Company and is presented at Shea’s Smith Theatre. Find tickets are http://www.sheas.org.

Theatre Review: ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Kelli Bocock-Natale as Kath, Stan Klimecko as Ed and Anthony J. Grande as Mr. Sloane. Photo is by Gene Witkowski.

This is one dysfunctional family with a weird twist on sibling rivalry.

Brother and sister are love-starved and have a history of being attracted to the same men. DaDa has diminished vision and keen insights…when they’re to be believed. And the opportunist  boarder killed a man. And they live happily ever after?

Playwright Joe Orton occupies some weird space with ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane,’ presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, now to June 30.

The plot is pretty twisted: Mr. Sloane is the young boarder in the home Kath (played by Kelli Bocock-Natale) shares with her DaDa Kemp (Gerry Maher).  The relationship quickly escalates to an intimate one as Mr. Sloane (Anthony J. Grande) ingratiates himself to Kath…or gloms on to her neediness…or acquiesces to her advances. Bocock-Natale is sweetly adorable in this sad role: one minute she’s coy and flirtatious, then she’s aggressive in seeking Mr. Sloane’s, ahem, attentions, and then she’s in a flight of fancy where  she’s his doting mother who also desires him. Jocasta, your complex is calling.

Enter Ed, Kath’s brother. He’s the businessman of the family, the fixer, the problem solver. Alas, he’s also in a pretty tightly closed closet and only seems to desire men when Kath is after them, too.

And then there’s the enigma Mr. Sloane. Is he really who he says he is, someone in need of lodging?  Or is he a grifter, a tease, a miscreant in search of another bad deed?

After two and half hours, I just didn’t get it.

I did love the casting, and the set…the two best parts of every ICTC show. Bocock-Natale celebrates the innocent/nefarious moods of Kath, with a lilt in her voice and a flash in her eyes. You believe that she believes she is the caring mum Mr. Sloane misses and the femme fatale he desires. Stan Klimecko as Ed  is the model of a slightly slimy stalker: he controls his family’s household without being in it and feels entitled to do so. Maher’s Dada is dotty enough and sharp, too: he’s the one – the only one – suspecting that Mr. Sloane is not who he says he is. Grande’s Mr. Sloane is one dimensional. Somehow director Greg Natale didn’t bring out any real fire or passion from Grande’s performance. Yes, Mr. S looked appropriately shocked when Kath put the moves on him, and he played up to Ed’s attentions, too, but there was something “phoned in” about his performance that didn’t help a sagging, dragging plot come to life.

Natale did, however, take full advantage of ICTC’s stage and Bocock-Natale’s range of expressions and nuances. The Natale family is very functional and beloved in this theater community for good reason. Vivian DelBello’s costumes were fine: Kath slipped from motherly muumuu to satin lingerie to a girlish floral frock that fit Kath’s fluctuating self-perceptions. Amanda Lytle Sharpe kept everyone’s accent consistent and level. David Dwyer’s set had the right look and feel  for a fine home that maybe isn’t aging as graciously as it should.

The ending left me wondering, too. The whole script was at a weak simmer below the surface. Nothing really bubbled up to be exciting or provocative (hey, even in the early 1960s, May-December romances happen, people were cruel and siblings rivaled), and the ending was pretty flat. I didn’t want “more” of this story after two and half hours, I did want it to end with more gumption. Regrettably, ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ didn’t entertain me.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes with one-10 minute intermission.

‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ is onstage until June 30, 2019 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’ at The Stratford Festival

Steve Ross (left) as Mr. Mushnik and André Morin in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I’ve seen “Little Shop” at least 5 times, I’ve been in it, and I am a huge fan of the movie. To say that I know the story inside and out would be an understatement. “Little Shop” is always a goofy good time, no matter where it is produced. The awesome thing about this show, is when a professional theatre organization produces it, it take the story to a new level, and creates an exciting theatrical experience for the audience. When The Stratford Festival produces it, a show that rivals a Broadway production is what you get.

. . .an exciting production. . .But remember, whatever you do, don’t feed the plants!

“Little Shop Of Horrors” is the brain child of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, you know, the two guys that brought Disney back into the black in the 90’s, and is based on the 1960’s cult classic film of the same name. When Seymour (André Morin) a young florist discovers a strange and interesting plant during a solar eclipse, fame and fortune find him and the little skid row flower shop where he works. Mr. Mushnik (Steve Ross) finds the once annoying good for nothing Seymour to be worth while now that his plant it bringing in the big bucks, and co-worker Audrey (Gabi Epstein) finds a spark of interest in Seymour, after her bully of a boyfriend Orin Scrivello, D.D.S (Dan Chameroy) mysteriously disappears. The plant’s mysterious growth, and the interesting disappearances of the denizens of skid row, cause for a zany and over the top story that is a bloody good time!

Having been so close to the source material, it was nice to see some of the changes, ad-libs, and an odd new song in act two, that The Stratford presented last night at the opening performance of the show. The energy, music, and singing is fantastic, and the visual aesthetic of the production is a treat for the eyes.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design is fabulous and is a character in it’s own right. Mushnik’s florist shop hits the nail on the head as a run down shop. So many times you will see productions of “Little Shop” where the shop is beautiful when in reality it should look like it is falling apart. Peeling wallpaper, broken shelves, and crooked letters on the facade all add the the illusion of the down on it’s luck shop. The brick walls that surround the proscenium are also fantastic and frame the story perfectly.

Jamie Nesbitt’ projections are fun. I love Nesbitt’t work, having been introduced to it last season during “The Rocky Horror Show” and in “Oh What A Lovely War” at the Shaw Festival. He has a tendency of putting little surprises in his work which, as an art teacher, I fully appreciate. Look for the people cleaning the windows on skid row, my God are they clean, and the fun advertisements that appear during the show. I love his style. It is very comic book like, and it fits the 60’s time period well.

André Morin leads the show as the lovable loser, Seymour. Morin is a powerhouse. His voice is fantastic, and his performance of “Feed Me/Git It” is stellar. He truly understands the idiosyncrasies that make Seymour tick, and he hits each one of them on the head. He is a perfect choice for this role.

Dan Chameroy plays a slew of characters in this production, starting off with Orin the Dentist. I absolutely love the artistic choices that Chameroy brings to this character. Most of the time you see Orin portrayed as a very nasty, very overly mean and abusive man. This happens because you want to see Seymour feed him to Audrey 2, but Chameroy goes for the more goofy route here, and while I really like it, I don’t feel that his Orin deserves to be fed to a hungry plant, but this production aims for kitsch and meets it! During “The Meek Shall Inherit” Chameroy plays three different characters in the same song, implementing quick costume changes, and nodding that he is doing so to the audience, as he runs away taking off costume pieces. This part is very entertaining.

Gabi Epstein does a wonderful job as Audrey. There is a unwritten rule that those who play Audrey need to sound just like Ellen Green, the original Audrey from the 80’s. Epstein breaks the convention slightly, and it is fantastic. She makes Audrey new, and I loved it! Her performance of “Somewhere That’s Green” is wonderful, even if it is my least favorite song in the show.

Steve Ross is very funny as Mr. Musnik. His accent is humorous, his mannerisms are perfect, and his comedic delivery is very dry. You will not be disappointed.

Matthew G. Brown does a great job as the voice of Audrey 2, that man-eating plant.

Starr Domingue, Vanessa Sears, and Camille Eanga-Seienge, play the three Do-Wop girls who act as the greek chorus in this show, keeping the story flowing, and provide fantastic vocals. They start the show on a high note, and keep it rolling all throughout.

Overall, this is an exciting production, and does the material justice. You will not be disappointed! You’ll want to go back! But remember, whatever you do, don’t feed the plants!

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

“Little Shop Of Horrors” runs until November 2, 2019 and is presented at The Stratford Festival in Ontario. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Memories and Martinis’ at O’Connell & Company

Anyone who grew up loving music and stories and plays will admit to the same truth: their bedroom was a theatre, their bed was a stage, stuffed toys and dolls were members of the audience, and heartfelt solos were sung into hairbrushes.  For Mary Kate O’Connell, these early days spent singing, dancing, and acting with her beloved sister Patti became the roots of her career and the foundation of ‘Memories and Martinis,’ her first cabaret show onstage at O’Connell & Company.

. . .a delight. . .

Yes, it’s her first cabaret (not counting the ensemble piece ‘ DIVA by DIVA: A Celebration of Women’ which she writes and produces  and is now in its 17th season) show that reflects on her life, both on stage and off. With her dear friend and musical director Chuck Basil and her dog Rosy sharing the stage, it’s all Mary Kate, her warmth, her wit, and her stories. Very fitting – and maybe a bit surprising – that she opens the show with a Beatles classic, “In My Life.”  It’s poignant and a perfect place to start a life ‘til now story.

She takes you back to her family’s North Buffalo home and her bedroom productions with Patti, and the bond they shared as the youngest (and only girls) in a house full of five older brothers. Patti, “my best birthday present ever,” Mary Kate says wistfully, recalling the day her parents put baby Patti into Mary Kate’s arms and she was allowed to stay home from school to meet her only sister.

She reflects on loving the movies and music of Doris Day, and meeting Rosemary Clooney, and her first trips to New York City with her parents and sister, having dropped the boys off at West Point along the way, and the rush of her first Broadway show and seeing Carol Channing on stage.  Fast forward to 1971 and her teen years, getting her first pair of blue jeans and listening to Carole King’s album ‘Tapestry.’ From there it was time to launch her professional career, doing theatre in downtown Buffalo, meeting Buffalo big band leader Irv Shire and songwriter son David Shire.

There are plenty of stories like that in this show, some universal reflections, and some that are deeply personal. You feel the love she has for the family she was born to and the families she creates within the context of her work. You see their faces, too, on the walls of the set Matt Myers designed.

She and Basil have great rapport on stage, and his accompaniment is a glorious constant, sometimes barely there as a cozy music bed. He is a tremendous talent and he lends his voice to some fine tunes, memorably the Donald O’Connor track to “You’re Just in Love” from ‘Call Me Madam.’

Rosy, Mary Kate’s miniature poodle and constant companion is at her side  – and sometimes in her arms – throughout the show. Dressed in sparkling canine couture, Rosy dozes and wiggles and whimpers at times and it’s hard not to love someone so darn cute. She has her own story, as a 2.6 lb rescue who came to Mary Kate needing nurturing and a home.

Each performance has a guest friend who joins Mary Kate on stage: Annie de Fazio, a cast member from ‘1776’ was there for night two to swap some stories. I would have loved to hear a song or a duet.

Myers’ set design is simple, almost like the walls of a family room, with plenty of photos of Mary Kate’s family and friends, a stunning baby grand piano, a couple of stools and a bar for the martini glasses (her first one was over lunch with Buffalo’s grande dame of theatre, Blossom Cohan, who said a dry martini with three olives on the side was like lunch, another tale from Mary Kate’s canon). There are framed quotes on the wall, too, an homage to her late mother the quote-a-holic and a reflection of her DIVA by DIVA scripts.

Also on stage – but never mentioned – was a collection of awards. Several Artie Awards (one from just this year, for O’Connell & Company’s all-female production of ‘1776’), Arts Council awards, and Mary Kate’s Athena  Award from a few years back. Because when you’re the real deal and you live your life as an exemplar, you don’t need to come out and talk about it.

‘Memories & Martinis’ is a delight of a show. With plenty of heart, lots of music and stories,lots of laughs, and just a few tears, it’s gentle and sweet with a whole lot of heart, like Mary Kate herself.

Running Time: 2 hours with a 10-minute intermission,

“Memories and Martinis runs through June 23, 2019 and is presented at O’Connell & Company. For more information, click here.

BroadwayHD brings Broadway into your living room

Netflix led the way in the digital streaming revolution. Bringing films and TV into the living rooms of millions of viewers allowed for that instant gratification of being able to see content on demand. Hulu followed, bringing new TV shows to viewers who missed the original broadcast of them. Prime tied in the powerful online retail giant, Amazon, to enter the entertainment world and proved that it is a force to be reckoned with. These entities have provided awesome entertainment, but there was one area that was being underserved. Live theatrical productions. There were those who said that live theatre should stay on the stage, but if you are unable to attend a live show due to the rising costs of tickets, difficulty traveling to a major urban theatre town, or you just didn’t have the time to take a trip, you were not able to witness the magic of live theatre.

“We have been trying to expand to new audiences for years,” says Stewart Lane, one of the co-founders of BroadwayHD, an online streaming service that delivers live Broadway productions to audiences in their own living rooms. “We had this idea to stream shows online, but the technology just hadn’t been able to catch up.”

Lane and his wife Bonnie Comley, two longtime Broadway producers, have spearheaded this effort to bring live theatre to other medias, with the goal of filling the appetite of hungry theatre lovers who might not be able to travel to New York to see a Broadway show.

“Currently the demographics for live Broadway shows are those who are 45 years old or older, but on BroadwayHD, we are able to captivate the 18 years and older age group,” says Lane.

Before BroadwayHD, there was only a few options outside of going to New York City to see a Broadway show. “There was PBS, that showed a few productions here and there, and there were DVD’s that could be purchased, and there was pay-per-view, but we are able to reach so many more people, who might actually want to buy a ticket to see a live show down the road. It is a digital gateway,” says Lane.

The Broadway Leauge, the organization that represents producers, theatre owners and operators, has been tracking demographics for years. In the 2018-2019 season, Broadway experienced the greatest season ever, selling 14 Million tickets, and bringing in just under two-billion dollars, with sixty percent of all tickets being purchased by people coming in to visit New York. It is safe to say, that Broadway is a viable industry.

“Broadway content is luxury content,” says Lane, “BroadwayHD is able to open it up to the rest of the world.”

By creating a streaming service of content, one needs to acquire the content to deliver to the consumer. “We started having to figure out how we could get content,” says Comley, “we were filming shows over the years and we had 10 of them ready, we needed to make our service the destination for Broadway streaming, so we had to figure it out.”

Comley says that BroadwayHD works with many producers in securing the rights to their productions, writing up the proper contracts to stream the shows, and works diligently to grab the content that will be exciting to the audiences. “We are happy that just over 4 years into our service, we have over 300 titles available,” says Comley. Luckily, many producers see the value in this operation.

It should be said that BroadwayHD is not just a platform for shows that are filmed with one camera in the back of the auditorium while the show is happening, true production quality is put forward. “At Lincoln Center there are digital archives of performances that were originally intended for educational use,” says Comley, “they were stripped down versions of shows. We didn’t want that, we wanted to give the audience the true experience. We have quality.”

Comley says that attention to detail is given to all the productions they film. “We use three to fourteen cameras in the productions, and we want to match the eye experience that you would have if you were actually sitting in the theatre.”

Lane and Comley are very proud of their newest acquisition for BroadwayHD, the UK tour of “42nd Street.” “We read about the production, and we went after it,” says Comley, “we did everything we could to track it down.”

“42nd Street” is arguably the first backstage entertainment story. Telling the tale of a young Peggy Sawyer who comes to NYC to attempt to start her career as a song and dance girl, “42nd Street revived Broadway back in the 80’s,” says Lane, “before that we didn’t even have enough shows for the ‘best musical’ category at the Tony’s.”

Lane discussed how “42nd Street” also was a big victory for America. “We were going through the British invasion on Broadway, we had ‘Cats’, and ‘Phantom’ and ‘42nd Street’ was an American created musical for families. Before Disney, there would only be one family musical a decade.”

Lane and Comley have set the bar high for themselves and for their product. “We are excited about the new material we have coming out,” says Comley, “and we know that our audiences will too.”

Theatre Review: ‘Dearly Departed’ at Aurora Players

The cast of ‘Dearly Departed’ at Aurora Players.

With a dull thud, Mr. Turpin drops dead on the kitchen floor.

According to his wife, Raynelle, the man had all but stopped breathing for the better part of their thirty-plus year marriage.  Besides, he was a mean and surly man.

. . .off-the-map funny.

So goes “Dearly Departed,” the current comedy by Aurora Players running now at the Roycroft Pavilion.

Soon after the not-breathing patriarch of the Turpin family bites the linoleum, his Southern relatives set about planning his memorial services.  To say the man’s brood is going to struggle pulling together the resources to do it is an understatement.

Enter his sister, Marguerite, aptly played by Lillian Edmunds, whose performance as the scripture-quoting, elderly southern lady whose major disappointment in life is just about everybody.   But her son, Royce, played by Thomas Videon, is her biggest disappointment. Royce is unemployed and has no intention of being employed. He’s a sort of couch philosopher who’s unaffected by life, let alone his uncle’s demise.  Edmunds and Videon address their characters with southern drawls, but skillfully keep them in check. The longer you listen, the more natural they become so as to disappear.

But there’s more.  Set changes come fast and efficiently.  Scenes change from kitchens to living rooms to back yards to funeral parlors, to the front seat of cars over the course of the play.  But the action is well paced and holds interest seamlessly. The sets are mid-sparse, with just enough to make sure we know where the action is taking place.  David Hall’s hand as stage manager and set designer is well played and gives room for the characters to grow on us.

And they do grow.  The prodigal son, Ray-Bud and his wife, Lucille — played by Daniel Keith Barone and Madeline E. Allard — ground the characters as the couple who mostly seem to have their act together.  Being the eldest son of the deceased, Ray-Bud is also the responsible one, and Lucille has enough sense for both of them even when he does not. Together Ray-Bud and Lucille are the two characters who, by default, are holding the family on track, emotionally if not financially.   As a result, their own closely-held sorrows and disappointments go almost unnoticed by the rest of the family. They’re not quite the complainers the rest of their family is. Barone and Allard melt into their roles and ground the plot with them.

That’s because the rest of the characters have troubles of their own, and they have no trouble putting them on display.  Younger brother Junior, played by Joshua Leary, is the not-so-smart, broke, bad decision-making southern boy. Suzanne, played by Brooke Bartell Goergen, is his wife, whose one mistake in life is that she married Junior.  She knows this, and speaks of it often. But the two of them have hearts on their sleeves, and Suzanne does what she can to get a rise out of Junior, or get done with him. She’s a woman who loves her man, and has no trouble giving fair warning that he’s close to losing it.   And Bartell Goergen’s performance of Suzanne lets us know she’ll do well regardles ofs the outcome, no matter the stage and role. She plays this strong and convincing, with sharp admonitions in early scenes and then breaching wonderfully unexpected emotions later.

The supporting cast, likewise, give stellar moments.  Parker Reed as Reverend Hooker is hugely entertaining in a role that is both televangelist and solemn reverence to the Lord.  In the final scene of Act One, Parker puts on a sermon that is hilariously funny as a man of the cloth whose life is just as mired in frustration as his flock’s.  His sermon is backed up by a chorus of minor supporting actors that play multiple roles – most notably Christopher Rimes who does double duty as the hysterical and terminally-ill Norval, and as Ray-Bud’s boss.   And Shelby Ebeling, who offers up a precisely high-quality performance of her lowly noble character, Juanita — a small but distinguishing role, in her first regular-season production for Aurora Players.

“Dearly Departed” could have easily slipped into an exercise in southern, stereotypical caricature.  It may seem to flirt with it, at times, as characters such as these may appear familiar at first glance.  Adding to that, this is comedy, making it a possibly greasier descent.

But audiences can take heart — the wittiness, amusement and poignancy coming from the script and these characters make it a solidly entertaining trip into southern humor, mixed with a tinge of tragedy and heart that truly has no geographic locale.   The southern spin makes it and even more worthwhile production, and it’s also off-the-map funny.

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

“Dearly Departed” directed by Chris Fire runs through June 16, 2019 and is presented at the Roycroft Pavilion in Hamlin Park in East Aurora. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Sister Act’ at Lancaster Opera House

“Sister Act” is one of my favorite movies. It is a film that my family cherishes and one that I watch as many times as I can. It just has a feeling of nostalgia that takes you to a good place when you might be feeling low. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to review the national tour of the Alan Menken musical adaptation that took Broadway by storm. There are subtle changes, but it works, and the music is great. When I saw last year that the Lancaster Opera House was going to produce the show, I was excited.

. . .audiences will find something that they really enjoy in this production.

“Sister Act” is the musical adaptation of the Touchstone Pictures film of the same name, and tells the story of Delores Van Cartier (Zhanna Reed) a lounge singer who is dating a mobster, Curtis Jackson (Preach Freedom) and who witnesses a violent murder. After running to the police, Officer Eddie Souter (Lorenzo Shawn Parnell) puts Delores into the witness protection program to save her from meeting her maker. The best place to send her? A convent, where she has to pretend to be a nun, but after getting to know the ladies in the convent, and finding that her talents as a singer can help them save their church, Delores’  cover is compromised.

The opening night performance of this run had its fair share of bumps in the road, but I like to focus on the positives. The ensemble, and the orchestra, helped carry a show that sometimes could not count on it’s leads to keep the story driving forward. It is some of the supporting cast that have the most memorable of performances. David Bondrow is hilarious as mobster Joey. Along with Joe Russi’s Pablo and Brian Brown’s TJ, the trio is the highlight of the production, getting laugh after laugh, and quite possibly having the best songs in the show. They help keep the energy high and the audience engaged.

Lorenzo Shawn Parnell is a crowd favorite as Officer Eddie Souter. Parnell plays the lovable loser, turned hero in the end, well, and instantly gets the audience on his side. His performance of “I Could Be That Guy” stops the show.

Mary Rappl Bellanti is fantastic as Mother Superior. The character is quite different than the Maggie Smith character we know so well from the film. Bellanti makes it her own. She is stern, she is rough, but she is also loving. You will definitely enjoy her performance.

Preach Freedom is the perfect choice for mob boss Curtis Jackson. Freedom’s voice is so powerful and deep, you are scared for your own life in the audience. He will be back on the Opera House stage soon, I guarantee it.

Madalyn Teal is the sweetest Sister Mary Robert you could ask for. Teal nails the character’s arc right on the head, and gives a heartwarming and powerful performance. When she stands up to Mother Superior in act two, a tear comes to your eye.

John Kreuzer is fantastic as Monsignor O’Hara, the head of the church that is on it’s way to be shut down. He has the best comedic chops, and delivers every one of his jokes with perfection.

And so we come to Delores, played by the young Zhanna Reed. Miss Reed is new when it comes to practicing her craft. She has a great voice, and a big personality. Her performance of “Raise Your Voice” is great and will be the song you find yourself humming as you leave the theatre. For the most part, she does an adequate job as Delores, but has much room for growth when it comes to the subtle parts. The one that stands out to me the most is when Delores walks into the room as Curtis is shooting his victim, and she nonchalantly keeps talking as if this did not phase her one bit. If she was so accustomed to seeing Curtis whack his victims, there would be no story for this musical to tell! Perhaps this is an area for Director Kevin Leary and Miss Reed to revise, but other than some opening night jitters, I think Miss Reed has wonderful potential to be a mainstay in our theatre community!

All in all, the show is a take it or leave it for me, but I think that audiences will find something that they really enjoy in this production. The orchestra  and the ensemble alone are worth the price of admission!

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

“Sister Act” runs until June 23, 2019 and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

2019 Arties Wrap Up

The 29th Annual Artie Awards presented by WNED/WBFO at Shea’s 710 Theatre on Monday night was a spectacle of sparkles and selfies in celebration of Buffalo’s theatre community. Theatre practitioners and those who love them packed the space to honor outstanding achievements from this year’s theatre season, and share a laugh or two…or many.

The evening began with an acknowledgment to the Arties’ charity of choice, ECMC HIV/AIDS and Immunodeficiency Services, which benefits from the annual Red Ribbon collection. To date the theatre community has contributed almost $500,000 to support the agency’s important work.

Next up was the opening number, gloriously delivered by Amy Jakiel and Charmagne Chi. “Welcome to Arties Night in Buffalo,” sung to the tune of Fun Home’s  “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue,” the tune was a witty homage to this year’s nominees, and even poked fun choreographer-director Michael Walline’s multiple nominations.  Co-host, founder and producer Anthony Chase announced the traditional first award of the night (Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play) to newcomer Augustus Donaldson, Jr. for his role in Native Son at the Paul Robeson Theatre.

In a playbill and menu couture crinolined skirt, Lisa Ludwig paid tribute to Jay Desiderio, recipient of this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award. His revisioning of his family’s restaurant into dinner theatre destination quality cuisine and productions is beloved by audiences and actors alike. Desiderio’s acceptance speech gave the evening it’s unofficial theme: family. He talked about his birth family and his theatre family, and that sentiment pervaded the rest of the evening celebratory vibes. Later on when Louis Colaiacovo accepted his Artie for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Musical for Second Generation Theatre’s production of “Big Fish,” he cited his mom – a school nurse whose work doesn’t always result in a room full of love – for her support and encouragement. This earned her a standing ovation. Arin Lee Dandes, a founder of Second Generation Theatre whose production of “Big Fish” won the Artie for Outstanding Production of a Musical, remembered her late mother. Dandes says “Big Fish” was the first show after her mother’s passing which added poignancy and reflection to the moment.

Yes, the Buffalo theatre community is indeed a family. It’s heartening to hear the cheers theatre folk have for their peers and the support they show, even with good natured ribbing on the side.

There were other bright spots, too. O’Connell & Company’s spirited rendition of “Sit Down John” from “1776” (winner for Outstanding Ensemble of a Musical), and Melinda Capeles’ number from Raices Theatre Company’s La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny brought down the house.

The winners are highlighted and there are links to Buffalo Theatre Guide reviews sprinkled in:

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY
Augustus Donaldson, Jr., Native Son, Paul Robeson Theatre
Al Garrison, King Hedley II, Paul Robeson Theatre
Adriano Gatto, Equivocation, The Kavinoky Theatre
Dudney Joseph Jr., Angels in America, Second Generation Theatre
Patrick Moltane, Sive, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Adam Yellen, Frost/Nixon, Irish Classical Theatre Company

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Charmagne Chi, Silence! The Musical, Buffalo United Artists
Arin Lee Dandes, Spamalot, The Kavinoky Theatre
Dominique Kempf, Ragtime, MusicalFare Theatre

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2019/02/18/theatre-review-ragtime-at-musicalfare-theatre/
Victoria Perez, Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre
Michele Marie Roberts, Spamalot, The Kavinoky Theatre
Emily Yancey, 1776: The Musical, O’Connell & Company

OUTSTANDING TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT
Tom Makar, sound design, Hamlet, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Brian Milbrand, video design, 1984, The Kavinoky Theatre

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2019/03/16/theatre-review-1984-at-kavinoky-theatre/
Chester Popiolkowski, sound design, The Jungle Book, Theatre of Youth
John Rickus, lighting, The Illusion, Road Less Traveled Productions
Brett Runyon, puppet design, Little Shop of Horrors, O’Connell & Company
Bob Van Valin, video design, Fahrenheit 451, Subversive Theatre Collective

 

KATHARINE CORNELL AWARD
Chris Hatch, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare in Delaware Park
Tom Dudzick, Christmas Over the Tavern, MusicalFare Theatre
Alphonso Walker, Jr., Native Son, Paul Robeson Theatre
Edward G. Smith, King Hedley II, Paul Robeson Theatre

OUTSTANDING CHOREOGRAPHY
Carlos R.A. Jones, Purlie, Paul Robeson Theatre
Lynne Kurdziel Formato, Spamalot, The Kavinoky Theatre

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2019/01/13/theatre-review-spamalot-at-kavinoky-theatre/


Carly Luksch, Heathers: The Musical, American Repertory Theater of Western New York
Michael Walline, Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre
Michael Walline, Ragtime, MusicalFare Theatre
Michael Walline, Late in the Evening, MusicalFare Theatre

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Cassie Cameron, Golden Boy, Irish Classical Theatre Company

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2018/09/16/theatre-review-golden-boy-at-irish-classical-theatre/
Diane DiBernardo, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, Road Less Traveled Productions
Kiana Duggan-Haas, Sive, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Janae Leonard, Native Son, Paul Robeson Theatre
Maureen Anne Porter, The Ladies Foursome, Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre
Renita Shadwick, King Hedley II, Paul Robeson Theatre

OUTSTANDING LEADING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Louis Colaiacovo, Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2018/10/14/theatre-review-big-fish-by-second-generation-theatre-at-sheas-smith-theatre/
Philip Farugia, Murder for Two, MusicalFare Theatre
Greg Gjurich, Spamalot, The Kavinoky Theatre
London Lee, Purlie, Paul Robeson Theatre
Jordan Levin, Parade, American Repertory Theater of Western New York
Lorenzo Shawn Parnell, Ragtime, MusicalFare Theatre

EMANUEL FRIED AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING NEW PLAY

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, adapted by Torn Space from original screenplay by John Cassavetes
King John (adaptation), Larry Smith
Late in the Evening, Michael Walline
Once In My Lifetime: A Buffalo Football Fantasy, Donna Hoke

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2018/09/02/theatre-review-once-in-my-lifetime-a-buffalo-football-fantasy-at-sheas-smith-theatre/
The Sidewalk Stageplay (adaptation), Paulette Harris and Edreys Wajed
Tales of the Driven, Kurt Schneiderman

OUTSTANDING LEADING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Melinda Capeles, La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny, Raíces Theatre Company
Maria Droz, Silence! The Musical, Buffalo United Artists
Melissa Leventhal, Mother Jones in Heaven (and Hell), Subversive Theatre Collective
Pamela Rose Mangus, 1776, O’Connell & Company
Jenny Marie McCabe, Little Shop of Horrors, O’Connell & Company
Michele Marie Roberts, Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre

 

OUTSTANDING SET DESIGN
Paul Bostaph, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Dyan Burlingame, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, Road Less Traveled Productions
David Dwyer, Talley’s Folly, Jewish Repertory Theatre
Bethany Kasperek, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, Road Less Traveled Productions
Lynne Koscielniak, The Illusion, Road Less Traveled Productions

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2019/01/26/theatre-review-the-illusion-at-road-less-traveled-theatre/
Kenneth Shaw, The Jungle Book, Theatre of Youth

 

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
Jacob Albarella, Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre
Kyle BaranRagtime, MusicalFare Theatre

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2019/01/30/first-look-ragtime-at-musicalfare-theatre/
Steve Copps, Spamalot, The Kavinoky Theatre
Tim Goehrig, Parade, American Repertory Theatre of Western New York
Alejandro Gabriel Gomez, Desde el Puente: Musical Edition, Raíces Theatre Company
Peter Palmisano, Sweeney Todd, The Kavinoky Theatre

 

OUTSTANDING LEADING ACTOR IN A PLAY
Ray Boucher, Sive, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Chris J. Handley, Talley’s Folly, Jewish Repertory Theatre
Jack Hunter, Frost/Nixon, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Jimmy Janowski, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Buffalo United Artists
Stan Klimecko, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Torn Space
Ben Michael Moran, Angels in America, Second Generation Theatre

OUTSTANDING COSTUME DESIGN
Jenna Damberger, The Illusion, Road Less Traveled Productions
Kari Drozd, Frost/Nixon, Irish Classical Theatre Company
A. Lise Harty, Sense & Sensibility, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Dixon Reynolds, The Three Musketeers, All for One Theatre Productions
Kenneth Shaw, The Jungle Book, Theatre of Youth
Jess Wegrzyn/Kelly Copps/Sarah Bos, Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre

 

OUTSTANDING FEATURED ACTOR
Charmagne ChiRagtime, MusicalFare Theatre
Jake Hayes, Little Shop of Horrors, O’Connell & Company
Kevin Kennedy, Spamalot, The Kavinoky Theatre
Marc Sacco, Sweeney Todd, The Kavinoky Theatre
David Spychalski, Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre
Christopher Standart, Philosophus, Alleyway Theatre

OUTSTANDING LEADING ACTRESS IN A PLAY
Kristin Bentley, Angels in America, Second Generation Theatre
Bethany Burrows, After the Fall, Subversive Theatre Collective and Post-Industrial Productions
Marie Costa, King John, New Phoenix Theatre
Lisa Ludwig, Annapurna, New Phoenix Theatre
Aleks MalejsSive, Irish Classical Theatre Company

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2018/11/05/theatre-review-sive-at-irish-classical-theatre/
Christine Turturro, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, Road Less Traveled Productions

OUTSTANDING DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL
Randall Kramer, Ragtime, MusicalFare Theatre
Lynne Kurdziel Formato, Spamalot, The Kavinoky Theatre
Victoria Pérez, La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny, Raíces Theatre Company
Steve Vaughan, 1776, O’Connell & Company
Michael Walline, Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre
Doug Weyand, Murder for Two, MusicalFare Theatre

OUTSTANDING DIRECTION OF A PLAY
Brian Cavanagh, Frost/Nixon, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Paulette D. Harris, Native Son, Paul Robeson Theatre
Vincent O’Neill, Sive, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Fortunato Pezzimenti, Golden Boy, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Dan ShanahanThe Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Torn Space
Todd Warfield, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Buffalo United Artists

OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLE OF A MUSICAL
1776, O’Connell & Company

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2019/04/28/theatre-review-1776-at-oconnell-company/


Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre
Desde el Puente: Musical Edition, Raíces Theatre Company
Late in the Evening, MusicalFare Theatre
Parade, American Repertory Theatre of Western New York
Silence! The Musical, Buffalo United Artists

OUTSTANDING ENSEMBLE OF A PLAY
Equivocation, The Kavinoky Theatre
Golden Boy, Irish Classical Theatre Company
The Jungle Book, Theatre of Youth

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2019/03/17/theatre-review-the-jungle-book-at-theatre-of-youth/

The Life and Death of King John, New Phoenix Theatre
Sense & Sensibility, Irish Classical Theatre Company
Sive, Irish Classical Theatre Company

OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION OF A MUSICAL
1776, O’Connell & Company
Big Fish, Second Generation Theatre
La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny, Raíces Theatre Company
Ragtime, MusicalFare Theatre
Silence! The Musical, Buffalo United Artists
Spamalot, The Kavinoky Theatre

OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION OF A PLAY
Between Riverside and Crazy, Road Less Traveled Productions
Equivocation, The Kavinoky Theatre
Frost/Nixon, Irish Classical Theatre Company

https://buffalotheatreguide.com/2019/03/03/theatre-review-frost-nixon-at-irish-classical-theatre/
The Jungle Book, Theatre of Youth
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Torn Space
Sive, Irish Classical Theatre Company


Doug Weyand curates this fun look at the big data behind the Arties, too.

https://artieawards.webs.com/artiestatistics.htm?fbclid=IwAR2gQG26m00hRfimNnjF_d5QfyaKOGxyEJYRQs9IkbxO4ahmc3HrHXfE1LI