Theatre Review: ‘Fun Home’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of “Fun Home.” Photo by Jesse Sloier.

If you want to quickly check this review to see if you should see “Fun Home” presented by Musicalfare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre, the answer is not only should you…you MUST.

. . .[a] must-see production. . .

Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron adapted Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel to create “Fun Home.” The Broadway production took home five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Direction of a Musical (Sam Gold). As Alison’s father Bruce, Michael Cerveris won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. The show is a modern memory play, narrated by 43-year old Alison and detailing her life journey, coming to terms with her sexuality just as her father struggles with his own complicated feelings.

I criticized Musicalfare’s production of “Ragtime” earlier this year for lack of orchestra, but this production of “Fun Home” has no trace of that flaw in it. A delightful 7-piece orchestra under the command of Musical Director Theresa Quinn plays the Tesori score to perfection, and that’s not a word I use lightly. She and director Susan Drozd have assembled a team of Broadway caliber actors; Drozd’s work here might fly under the radar because the structure of the show works so well on its own, but she is to be commended. Every moment has driving forward momentum and makes excellent use of the unique space at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Musicalfare’s cast is so good it’s almost unbelievable. Carrying most of the show’s load as the “present day” Alison, WNY transplant Robyn Lee Horn just flat out gets it. She understands Bechdel’s sense of style, sometimes interjecting a one-liner to lighten a mood, sometimes presenting the tragic moments of the tragicomedy by stating them simply. And yet, in the musical number “Telephone Wire” towards the end of the show, she shows an unbelievable range of emotion. As she stands observing Chris J. Handley’s master class “Edges of the World,” we watch her experience the turbulent moment ourselves, as she stands in the aisle.

I mention Handley’s performance in “Edges of the World” because it’s the culmination of an expertly crafted performance. Thank goodness In addition to his role as Associate Artistic Director at Alleyway Theater, he’s the head of Theatre School of WNY and imparting his exquisite technique to young actors in the area. I’m a big Cerveris fan, but I found Handley’s performance as Bruce to be even more captivating. The audience feels every challenge Bruce faces, and his penchant for honest delivery makes for an incredible performance.

Medium Alison, the manifestation of Alison’s college self, is here played with ease by Renee Landrigan. Landrigan is one of Buffalo’s most versatile actors, and she, Horn, and Young Alison (Jane Hereth) have obviously spent some serious time working to unify their mannerisms. Landrigan embarks on self-discovery with a delightful optimism, aided by her college girlfriend Joan (played ably in this production by LauRen Alaimo).

Hereth’s performance as Young Alison has a strength well beyond her years. It’s an extremely difficult role, vocally and in terms of acting, but Hereth has no trouble. 710 is a HUGE space for a young actress to fill, but Hereth’s “Ring of Keys” fills it no problem. As her brothers, Joseph Bielecki and Jasper Brown make the best of their limited stage time. Brown is especially excellent, though it’s in his blood (his mother is also a Buffalo actress and successful singer-songwriter, and his grandfather Music Directed Ring of Fire in the same auditorium when it was Studio Arena).

Rounding out the cast is Steve Copps, who moves character to character with ease. He’s an essential function of the storytelling and doesn’t make too much or too little of each moment.

The must-see production only runs through May 19th, so get your tickets now.

Run time: 1 hr 40 with no intermission

“Fun Home” runs until May 19, 2019, is produced by MusicalFare Theatre and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Me and My Girl’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild




The cast of “Me and My Girl” by Niagara Regional Players

The British musical comedy “Me and My Girl” has settled in for a three week run at The Ellicott Creek Playhouse with a production by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild.The show was written by Noel Gay, Douglas Furber, and L. Arthur Rose, and it opened in London in 1939. Over the years, “Me and My Girl” was best remembered for its hit song, “The Lambeth Walk.”

. . .a high-spirited and satisfying show. . .

Almost 50 years later, the show was revised by Stephen Fry and Mike Ockrent, and it became a hit in London and New York all over again. The tunes are peppy, and there are lots of amusing one-liners. I particularly enjoyed the Stephen Fry touches including “blank rhyming slang,” historical references, and the Pygmalion deus ex machina. Although this is a revision of the original material, “Me and My Girl” still retains the traditional British music hall flavor and it’s fun to watch.

This is a play about the gap between the aristocracy and the cockneys in England. It’s delightful when everyone discovers that, whatever their upbringing, rich people and poor people aren’t so different after all.

Joseph Fratello is strong in the leading role of Bill, a would-be Earl. Mr. Fratello is brash, funny, and good natured with lots of energy and a pleasant singing voice. His performance lights up the stage.

Playing opposite Mr. Fratello is Emily Plotkin as saucy Sally. She is endearing; you can see why Bill would be willing to forgo his new found fortune for her! Ms. Plotkin is a triple threat – creating a three dimensional character, giving the ballads her all, and even tap dancing.

Also noteworthy are Chris Andreana who has an adorable propensity for singing about being an attorney, statuesque Lauren McGowan as the scheming Lady Jacqueline, Adam English as the staunch butler, Dan Zerpa who shines in the Act 2 opening number, Dawn Marcolini Newton as the formidable Duchess, and Chuck Slisz as her stalwart companion.

Nicely rounding out the cast are Tim Goehrig in an amusing turn as an educated policeman, Joanne Perf and Eric Bloom as a doddering lord and lady, Kim Petersdorf giving a warm and believable performance as the cockney landlady, Gary Gaffney as a nobleman with an ear trumpet, and a large hard working ensemble of folks who have lovely singing voices. In the best tradition of community theatre, people of all generational groups are in the production. It’s nice to see a chorus with a diversity of people in it, as opposed to a chorus of look alike Barbies and Kens.

Incidentally, the English accents throughout the production are darned good!

Director Fran Newton keeps this long show moving at a spritely pace and choreographer Dawn Marcolini Newton’s Lampbeth Walk is (appropriately) the highlight of the evening. The number has everything that it’s supposed to have according to the annals of musical theatre history, including duchesses who are surprised to find themselves dancing and people playing the spoons!  It’s a real treat!

A side note: when the script calls for smoking, the actors use unlit cigarettes — a director’s choice that was much appreciated by the audience.

The six piece orchestra is led by musical director Ivan Docenko.

The sets, which were designed by Fran Newton, make prodigious use of a turntable, and the many set changes were well executed and speedy.

Kudos to costume designer Nancy Watts for literally hundreds of lovely gowns! Each member of the chorus must have had a half a dozen costumes! Costume wows include plaid suits and gorgeous wedding gowns. There are lighting quick costume changes, too, and everything went smoothly.

Although I don’t usually include the Stage Manager in these reviews, I want to congratulate Taryn Goehrig who is overseeing a massive production, technically, that was presented without a hitch.

This is a high-spirited and satisfying show, and it’s recommended for the whole family.

The production is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission.

“Me and My Girl” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Oklahoma!’ at JCC CenterStage

Oklahoma!,” written in the early 1940’s, portrays a small farming town in the Indian Territory before Oklahoma received statehood in 1906. It highlights old fashioned ideals such as men are brave, women have their place, and this social contract is the underpinning of a successful and strong country. As the territory marches toward the formal veneer of statehood amidst general lawlessness, the men and women are grappling with upholding a veneer of propriety amidst feelings of love and lust.

The singing was wonderful throughout.

The two main characters are a farm girl, Laurey Williams, and a young rancher, Curly McLain, who would like to be her beau. Laurey (Abby Rice), and her friend Ado Annie Carnes (Jennie Gilardoni) are of marrying age but have very different perspectives on relationships with men. Laurey is a bit naïve, and is charmed by a farmhand with a dangerous reputation, Jud Fry (Benjamin Pesce). Laurey feels Curly (Jordan Bachmann) is a little too cock-sure and agrees to go to the box social dance with Jud to spite him. Ado Annie has been playing the field a bit while her beau, Will Parker (Chris Martin), is away in Kansas City. A peddler, Ali Hakim (Drew Jensen), and she have been flirting to the point that Ado Annie’s father strongly suggests they marry. Will returns to town in time for the box social dance hoping to claim Ado Annie’s hand.

The plot follows these two lovers’ triangles through darkness, fear, bawdiness, laughter, and one long and strange laudanum-induced dream sequence that was a little like how I imagine an acid trip might feel. The classic songs we all know, even if you have never seen “Oklahoma!,” weave through the show accompanied by lively dancing and exciting, acrobatic fight scenes. The singing was wonderful throughout. Mr. Bachmann and Ms. Rice performed beautiful renditions of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” The live musical accompaniment—including banjo, guitar, and violin—was just the right touch to bring this musical down on the farm. Go see it and absorb the optimism of young people marrying and states being formed amid the chaos of life.

Approximately 2 hours, 45 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission).

“Oklahoma!” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at JCC CenterStage Theater in Rochester. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Threepenny Opera’ at the Center For The Arts

There’s a fascination with Bertolt Brecht, especially in times of political…shall we say…absurdity. His theater of alienation is rooted in lack of formula; he desired to pull the audience into the story and then yank them out of it. It’s almost like Brecht’s work aimed to point out the absurdity of theater. Pair that with Kurt Weill’s iconic score and a brand-new English adaptation by Simon Stephens, and the UB Department of Theatre and Dance has a raunchy and engaging work on their hands. UB is to be commended for their continued mission to challenge and educate, and this production challenges. There are signs AND a pre-show announcement alerting the audience to the mature language and simulated situations that will appear.

Immediately, the company enters and is seen in a frozen tableau, and then disappears. Then, a balladeer enters and sings “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” Yes, we all know the song, but have we ever listened to the lyrics? Right away, we’re thrust into the seedy world of contrast. The rich are rich. The poor are poor. They both know it. As the King of the Beggars JJ Peachum, Thomas Evans introduces us to the hypocrisy of the rich. His wife stumbles in, and its clear she’s hardly faithful. The morality is on its side, and that’s the point. Evans is fabulous in his foppishness, and he’s well paired with Kelsey Marlowe Jessup as his wife Celia. There’s one thing they agree on, however; they cannot lose their daughter Polly to immorality. And yet, she’s lost, married to the notorious Macheath. He and his merry band of men are celebrating Mack’s honeymoon with Polly at the Savoy Hotel, and it’s clear there’s mischief intended. The gang sings a very vulgar marriage song to Polly but are surprised (as are the members of the audience) when she has a dark and murderous answer in the form of “Pirate Jenny.” Hannah Keller is delightful as Polly, but not in the way you’d expect. She understands the subtleties of the material, and she’s an excellent singer to boot. As her counterpart Macheath, Nathan Roberts grasps the maniacal nature of the character, but it’s not until Act Two that we’re delivered the full scope of his charm. He’s vocally proficient, but his opening night performance is marred slightly by the wear of tech week on his vocal cords.

The rest of the ensemble supports these leading players well, aided especially by the choreography by John Fredo. Camille Cappello is a gritty Jenny whose diction sometimes works against her, especially in an otherwise effective “Solomon Song.” Anna Fernandez, as Lucy Brown, is spot on in her portrayal. It’s almost Velma Kelly-esque. Rory Tamimie, as “Tiger” Brown, stole the show for me. He’s making the best of a difficult role, hitting all the right moments. Kudos to his beyond-his-years portrayal.

My only qualm with the production comes in its Americanization. Perhaps there’s something indicated in this new production (which premiered at the National Theatre in London to mixed reviews) that allows the performers to use their natural accents, but it made little sense to me that with a script full of British colloquialisms the performers used their American accents. The story takes place in London, there are British jokes and references, it just didn’t seem to make sense and actually worked against the pacing of the script. It’s a minor detail, but Brecht’s style is so specific that everything pace related should be considered.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.

“The Threepenny Opera” runs this weekend only and was presented at The Center For The Arts at the University at Buffalo. For more information, click here.


Theatre Review: ‘The Book of Mormon’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The second national touring cast of “The Book Of Mormon.”

Four times. I have seen “The Book Of Mormon” four times, and let me tell you, the level of quality only gets better. A show that is going on 5 years of entertaining audiences is anything but old and stale, quite honestly, this production is like a fine wine, better with age, not that I am condoning a 5 year old to drink. . .you see, the show is 5 years old. . .anyway.

. . . bring a change of pants. . .you’ll need them.

“The Book Of Mormon” is the brain child of “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with music by Robert Lopez of “Frozen” frame. Telling the tale of two mormon missionaries as they embark on their two year mission in Africa, the show is quite honestly the best written musical in the modern era. In an interview with Parker and Stone, they say that they studied the work of classic musicals, and the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein. This homework sure paid off because the pacing in this show, the music, and the story, all work together to create a show with no down time or dull moments. Sure there is some foul language and suggestive content but this is a fantastic show, and this touring production is spectacular.

There are those who believe that this show bashes the faith of the Latter Day Saint religion and that cannot be further from the truth. There is no bashing. If anything, this show puts it’s leading characters into a real world, where everything isn’t rainbows and butterflies. There are fantastic themes of questioning faith, finding one’s purpose, and understanding that sometimes life isn’t everything we are promised growing up. It is real, and it is relatable. The best theme of the show, friendship can be found in the most unlikely of places.

Leading the show as Elder Price is Liam Tobin, and he is perfect. He encapsulates the character and gives a hilarious performance. He hams it up on stage, and possesses all of the quirky, campy, mugging that is expecting in a show that is completely aware of itself. His voice is rather cartoony in this production, and at first I thought that it was a little strange, but as the performance continued, I really started to appreciate it.

Elder Cunningham is played the comedic genius Jordan Matthew Brown. Brown is just absolutely everything you could ask for in an Elder Cunningham. No fear, not hesitation. He puts it all on the line, and the audience absolutely falls in love with him. His performance of “Man Up” is more than anyone could ask for in a comedy of this caliber.

Kayla Pecchioni’s performance as Nabulungi is spectacular. Her voice is a joy to listen to and she has wonderful comedic timing. Out of the four Nabulungi’s that I have seen, she is by far the best, and she does not disappoint.

This is an ensemble heavy show, and every one of the cast members are incredibly talented. Whether you have seen this show four times, or it is the first time seeing it, you should just bring a change of pants. . .you’ll need them.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult language and suggestive content

“The Book Of Mormon” runs until May 5, 2019 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Hamlet’ at Irish Classical Theatre

The cast of ‘Hamlet’ at Irish Classical Theatre. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

As the audience around me affirmed, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet overflows with quotes we use every day. Maybe that’s why Irish Classical has picked this piece to foray into Shakespeare, and it certainly seems like they should stick to it. Kate LoConti Alcocer, recently named the successor to ICTC Founding Member and current Artistic Director Vincent O’Neill, helms this streamlined production running through May 19th. The adaptation is expertly done, clear and concise in its presentation, and entertaining to the last. If you’re one of 4 people who hasn’t seen, read, heard of, accidentally come up with the plot of, haven’t seen The Lion King, or otherwise don’t know the plot of Hamlet, “spoilers” ahead.

. . .[a] well oiled machine. . .

As the damaged prince Hamlet, Anthony Alcocer begins in earnest mourning. He has just lost his father, after all. As the play progresses, Hamlet’s madness takes him over, making it hard to tell when he’s in his right mind. Alcocer finds the honesty in Hamlet, equal parts vengeful and calculated. He’s best in the final scene, as he shows range of honest emotion most actors would be jealous of. It’s a breakthrough performance for him.

The entire rest of the cast deserves to be individually commended. As Claudius, the usurper of the late Hamlet’s throne, Matt Witten is terrific. He carries himself with regal authority, and yet allows us a window into a guilty conscience rather effectively. His counterpart is Kristen Tripp Kelley, as Queen Gertrude. She’s commanded the ICTC stage before, but this is a role she’s almost born to play. She brings strength to Gertrude, a quiet dignity. She’s written to command and obey her second husband, but LoConti Alcocer and Tripp Kelley have obviously coordinated to strengthen her resolve. It’s a 2019 take without being in your face about it. Another pillar of female Shakespearean resolve comes in the form of Anna Krempholtz as Hamlet’s one-time lover Ophelia. The language comes easily to Krempholtz, and so it lets her work wonders in little stage time. It makes for an even more heartbreaking “get thee to a nunnery” scene. Expect continued big things from Krempholtz in the future. As Horatio, Adam Yellen’s performance might just steal the show. There aren’t many people Hamlet can count on, and so Yellen’s performance is expertly crafted; he’s the model of a true friend, protecting his dear Hamlet to the end. As Hamlet’s light dims, and “all the rest is silence,” we see Horatio clutching his lifeless friend. We believe Yellen’s Horatio would drink the poisoned cup.

In supporting roles, Chris Kelly is a simple and elegant Pelonius. He’s another that very easily functions with the heightened language. He also serves as the Gravedigger, a rather hilarious modern take. Ever the face of versatility, Kelly is up to the task. Jake Hayes and Peter S. Raimondo show a similar versatility; they play six characters among themselves, most notably Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, respectively.  Rolando Martin Gomez is a stoic and troubled Ghost, with a very corporeal feel. It’s an interesting take by LoConti Alcocer, and it certainly adds to the hurt Alcocer’s Hamlet must feel. Finally, Patrick Cameron is well suited for his role as Laertes, a man who is always sure of what he wants and with an excellent sense of right and wrong.

The entire artistic team on this production is to be commended for aiding this well-oiled machine, but Costume and Set Designer Jessica Wegrzyn’s work stands out, especially when it comes to costumes. I’m a bit of a Shakespeare enthusiast, but it appears so is LoConti Alcocer. It’s a good thing, too, because what says “classical” better than the Bard?

Run time 2:45 with a 10 minute intermission.   

“Hamlet” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Equivocation’ at Kavinoky Theatre

Arianne Davidow, Darryl Semira, Chris Avery, Adriano Gatto, Chris Guilmet, Guy Balotine. Photo by Diane Almeter Jones.

Those 17th Century British Catholics: in an attempt to overthrow the (Protestant) government and monarch, they thought if they could just pack the Parliament with gunpowder and blow the dickens out of the place, the faith could rule. King James I was not amused.  He also knew he wanted to control the spin. Since social media was 400 years in the offing, perhaps the most eloquent commentator of the day – William Shakespeare – could be commissioned to write a play that would (pardon the pun) blow the lid off this conspiracy and make Great Britain Safe Again.

. . . a worthy night of theatre. 

But the King and his minions had one script in mind, while the Bard and his social conscience wanted to depict something with more authentic with fewer alternative facts.  When your head (literally) is at stake, what’s a Bard to do?

That’s the gist of Equivocation, the drama that’s closing this season at Kavinoky Theatre. I’ll be blunt: I struggled with playwright Bill Cain’s script. Most roles – except for the Bard himself (played by Guy Balotine) and his daughter Judith (Arianne Davidow) – were double cast, and this added to my confusion with the storyline that jumped from backstage, onstage, and offstage.

That’s not to say the production wasn’t well executed. David King’s set was – as usual – evocative and eye-attracting. Hearty hewn faux stonework on the Kav’s luscious Edwardian stage was just right, and using two levels of staging kept the action brisk. I loved how director Katie Mallinson used the whole house to create a surround-sound setting. Actors entered from the back of the house, jumped down off the stage for some scenes, and even used the sideboxes. This is a great effect in smaller houses and puts the audience in the middle of the story. It’s just the story itself was so nonlinear and disjointed, it was a challenge to stay focused.

There were plenty of good moments: hearing Shag (as Shakespeare is called by his peeps) reference his other works – so familiar to us – the same way we might talk about the daily grind of our own workplaces is a hoot. When the King’s staffer says His Maj wants something “with witches,” there were plenty of knowing snickers from the audience. There were some “Hamlet” references, too, and other familiar moments that made the audience engage. It’s Judith who gets her father on track with fulfilling (some) of the King’s wishes when she saves a discarded script the Bard intended to chucked away.

The ensemble has lot going on with this show. Christopher Avery, Christopher Guilmet, Adriano Gatto, and Darryl Semira are changing tunics, crowns, skirts, and wigs to keep up with the flow of characters. Gatto pulls extra duty as the fight director, too, as plenty of punches were thrown, and a there was a pretty good sword fight, too. They handled the fluctuations of their roles well, often doffing robes and tunics on stage as their personae changed.

The two most used words were equivocation (yes, there’s plenty of evasiveness spoken here) and soliloquy which Judith says she hates, but she delivers a couple fine ones. As the only woman on stage, Davidow commands her scenes easily. It’s so good to see her in a straight acting role again, after several (exceptionally fine) musical performances in “The Producers,” “Mamma Mia!” on this stage and most recently in “Million Dollar Quartet” at Shea’s 710.

Brian Cavanagh’s lighting got to catch glints of steel off those dueling swords, and even got to create a couple pretty impressive lightning storms, too.

Before you head out to the Kav, take Cole Porter’s advice and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”  to get the most out of this one. It’s a worthy night of theatre, but be prepared to give it all of  your attention.

The Kavinoky took its share of licks this season, and had some pretty grand moments, too. Next season – its 40th – is packed with promise, drama, and two musicals, too. I can’t wait.

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

“Equivocation” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Undeniable Sound Of Right Now’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

Those of us of a certain age still sigh when we remember going to the Belle Star out in Colden. Or Central Park Grill. Or the original Tralf on Main Street.  These were places where live music was king, but it was the atmosphere, the company, the whole gestalt of it all that made it more than just a destination with a great sound. That’s the essence of Hank’s, the dive bar with live music in “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” on stage at Road Less Traveled Productions.

. . . ends RLTP’s season on a high note. . .

Dyan Burlingame’s set pulls you in before playwright Laura Eason’s endearing story begins. Hank’s has a warm, rundown vibe of a place packed with memories, with  just a dash of stale beer. Lots of framed prints on the walls, a Teddy Bear over the bar signed by The Clash’s Mick Jones, a string of twinkle lights above the bar surrounded by a collection of mismatched stools. Only one thing was missing, noticed one keen observer: there should have been a few holes in the wall around the dartboard. But it’s all perfect. It creates a sense of place, a feeling, something meant to linger and stay with all whom cross the threshold.

Eason’s story is a little bit Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” meets “You’ve Got Mail.” Hank’s is a 25 year institution in 1992-era Chicago. It’s the place indie bands play on their way from the garage to the big time. Hank has the ear for it, too.  Music is his life and this dive bar he built is his world. That world’s about to be rocked by the by DJs who liked to mix it up at the turntables and keep a vacant warehouse full of 20-somethings dancing all night. This is a track Hank isn’t willing to play in his place. “Too produced, processed, and soul-less,” he grumbles. The neighborhood is poised to change, too, as the next generation landlord is selling off old properties for new uses. Yup, sometimes even the best tunes resolve to a minor key.

Director David Oliver’s well-chosen cast give life to Eason’s story. Hank (perfectly portrayed by Peter Palmisano) is irascible, funny, and philosophical, too. His monologue about music (“it’s some kind of magic,” he says) is both wistful and powerful. Christine Turturro (a graduating college senior in Niagara University’s legendary theatre program) is Hank’s daughter Lena. She was raised to love live music just like her dad, but her peers are the ones dancing in the warehouse. Turturro is a fine actor and picks a mean guitar, too. I loved the scenes when Hank and Lena grab their guitars and just pick and talk, thinking through their fingers. Listen closely to these small moments: your ear will catch some familiar riffs, a little Hendrix, some early Beatles. In my head, I finished the line of the Beatles tune, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead…”  Like Hank says, it’s magic.

Jeff Coyle as Toby, Hank’s bar manager, Diane DiBernardo as Bette his ex-wife who is still drawn to the man and the place that has her heart,  Johnny Barden as Nash, Lena’s beau with ulterior motives, and Nick Stevens as Joey, the son of the landlord with little respect for a handshake and tradition round out the cast well. Coyle and Stevens are fresh from MusicalFare’s last iteration of “Million Dollar Quartet” at Shea’s 710 Theatre as Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley respectively.  It’s Palmisano and Turturro who have the real chemistry here: their father-daughter dynamic is both fierce and sweet.

On the production side, John Rickus has some fun lighting key scenes, when the adjoining warehouse is packed with a couple thousand writhing dancers. He creates visual depth looking into a briefly opened door that’s stunning. Katie Menke’s sound design includes some fine tunes in scene changes. I couldn’t help myself: I started singing along with Janis Joplin at one point, and noticed the audience member next to me joined in. That’s another thing music does: it creates community.

“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” ends RLTP’s season on a high note, but like a great music set, I want to hear it all again.

Running Time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission.

“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” runs until May 19, 2019 at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company

The cast of ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company.

“Hamilton” may be the buzzy American origin story that everyone has been talking about since its premiere in 2015, but did you know that a different—albeit much less flashy—musical forged that path almost 50 years earlier? While “political procedural with the occasional chorus line” might be a more accurate description than “musical” for “1776,” it undeniably gets O.G status when it comes to Broadway depictions of the founding fathers. “1776” doesn’t have “Hamilton’s” cannons and rap battles, but O’Connell & Company found a different way to infuse this dusty, decades-old musical with life: cast it with all women.

. . .a unique, fresh take. . .

“1776,” the 1969 musical by Sherman Edwards and by Peter Stone, is a large ensemble show featuring all of the founding fathers you’ve heard of–and likely some that you haven’t–as they toil over many months to craft a Declaration of Independence that appeases the varied priorities and interests of delegates from all across the 13 colonies; particularly, whether or not to continue the practice of slavery. The show is largely seen through the eyes of John Adams (Pamela Rose Mangus) as he struggles to persuade his colleagues to vote for independence.

If you talked to 100 theatre lovers, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find more than one or two who would name “1776” as their favorite musical; I certainly wouldn’t be one of them. For a musical there’s shockingly little music (it actually holds the record for the longest time in a musical without a single note of music played or sung – over thirty minutes pass between “The Lees of Old Virginia” and “But Mr. Adams”, the next song in the show). There’s not a great deal of romance, action, or even meaningful conflict between the delegates. Truthfully, it’s more-or-less three hours of voting. But given how dull the source material is, O’Connell & Company manages to squeeze laughter from the audience through well-honed individual character development and comedic timing from this cast of talented women.

All 21 women in this production of “1776” bring a unique, fresh take to their as-written male character. From Edward Rutledge (Emily Yancey), the syrupy southern gentleman from South Carolina, to the Pennsylvania firebrand John Dickinson (Mary Craig), it’s easily evident that each member of this cast took the time to research their character, develop relevant mannerisms, and distinguish themselves from their fellow delegates, avoiding the common pitfall of less-talented “1776” casts: not enough deliniage between characters.

It also helps that, rather than 21 crusty old white dudes who all look and sound the same (as is often the case with lesser-quality productions), this cast of “1776” features a cohort of witty, sharp, diverse women who breathe some life into the show. While they’re all great, Pamela Rose Mangus’ John Adams and Mary Kate O’Connell’s Benjamin Franklin are standouts, both frequently eliciting raucous laughter from the audience and getting lost in the peculiarities of their characters.

While “1776” is one of the less musical musicals out there, this production features talented singers who excel at both the large ensemble numbers like “Sit Down, John”, as well as the slower ballads such as “Till Then.” They’re aided by an economically-sized on-stage orchestra that also sounds quite good.

I had the interesting experience of being in the audience for this production of “1776” exactly 24 hours after seeing “Hamilton” at the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, and while they’re vastly different musicals with little more than their historical time period in common, it’s refreshing to see such bold, artistic, and progressive spins put on the story of America’s founding. And while not exactly an edge-of-your-seat thriller, O’Connell & Company’s production of “1776” is funny, features a talented cast, and maximizes the good aspects of what is otherwise a pretty dry piece of theatre.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“1776” is produced by O’Connell & Company and is playing at the Park School of Buffalo until May 19, 2019. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Late In The Evening: The World According To Paul Simon’ at MusicalFare Theatre

The cast of “Late In The Evening: The World According To Paul Simon” at MusicalFare Theatre.

You might have large expectations for “Late in the Evening,” a MusicalFare production based on the works of Paul Simon, if you are a fan of Simon the musician and songwriter.  And MusicalFare, with its cozy close proximity seating to the stage is a venue that holds even more promise.

. . .an absolute banquet for the eyes and ears. . .

And you might be justified.  Billed as a world premiere play pulled together from music of, arguably, one of America’s greatest songwriters of the modern era — the initial draw is there.  The music, that is, and how a catalog of songs spanning decades can be fit to a story of some unified account. And even if you don’t like Paul Simon, the upside, you know at least some of his tunes.

Expect to be introduced to some rarely heard songs from Simon’s catalog, some memorable gems, and some critically acclaimed hits.  Expect the rhythms of a devout and gifted band, the guitar and gravelly haunting voice of the main character, Duncan, sung by the accomplished and talented local musician, Zak Ward.  Expect some interpretive choreography by an experienced troupe, highlighted by lighting that is, at times, austere and vibrant to the ever-changing moods of the music. Expect a talented cast committed to this production and their craft.  

Just don’t expect a story to carry you along.  Michael Walline, who directs, choreographs, and by circumstance was tapped late in the creative process to craft the play’s premise, had his work cut out for him.  How to put one of popular music’s most inventive wordsmith’s to a singular narrative flow. Walline sets the story in the main character of Duncan, a homeless veteran who is taken on a journey through the back story of his life by a young boy.   Using pictures that the audience never sees, hung about the set, the boy (Noah Bielecki) gives them to the down and out Duncan, which prompts the songs into being.

The account of Duncan’s life, however, is never really apparent.  And the songs, at times, seem misplaced in trying to grab any narrative flow.  

At one point, midway through the first set, we’re presented with Duncan recalling apparently being drafted into the service with – oddly — the song “You Can Call Me Al,” which seems like trying to tie together a manuscript with a dried up rubber band – a stretch too far, and the thing snaps and scatters.  There’s more than one instance where this happens.

To be fair, the play, like most great music, is open to interpretation – purposefully so, on both accounts.  And a truly engaging performance, in this case by Dudney Joseph, Jr. as Al, softens the sting just a bit.

In Act Two, we’re taken on a piecemeal journey of Duncan through relationships with the women in his life good, bad, and indifferent.  These sequences are highlighted by truly stellar duets between Ward and Emily Prucha in “You’re The One” and Ward with Dominique Kempf in “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.   These and several other tunes through Act Two seem to bring a more narrative flow to the piece. Even if one or two break the flow, there’s more of a foothold helped along by even more stylized choreography and ambiance.   But is it enough.

Essentially, if you see MusicalFare’s Late in the Evening, you can expect an absolute banquet for the eyes and ears.  There are some beautifully rendered scenes, creative and at times surprising song renderings.   More than that, the production boasts stunning scenic and transitional moments of sound and light by designer Chris Cavanagh.   

You can also expect the promise of the expected — a vast array of Paul Simon songs that can be often about spirituality, longing, pain, joy, and humor.  It’s the nature of the beast for viewers to want to put such a presentation into a narrative context, after all, there’s a story here, somewhere, is the implied promise. Overall, to borrow a line from a Simon tune: it just don’t work out that way.

Whether there’s too much room left open to interpretation may not even matter, because you can decide to sit back and relax and enjoy the music, the affect of each, on its own, and the songs as they come at you, one at a time, for what they are individually – masterful interpretations.   

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

Late in the Evening: The World According to Paul Simon  is currently running through May 26, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre.  For more information, click here.