“Nice Work” at MusicalFare

As the Ralph Freed-Burton Lane song says, “I love a Gershwin tune. How about you?” So a whole show of Gershwin music sounds like absolute heaven to me. That’s what I loved best about Nice Work If You Can Get It, now onstage at MusicalFare Theatre.

This was 10 years coming to WNY, having a short run on Broadway in 2012. Overall reviews weren’t stellar there, but honestly, I don’t know why. It’s a kick of a show with an absolute killer score. MusicalFare put together an outstanding cast and crew that soared above the show’s paper-thin book.

MusicalFare embraced the show’s endearing hokeyness by just playing into it. It was brilliant. The show opens with onstage credit roll crafted to look like a black and white movie opening. Then the set is revealed and it’s perfectly Art Deco. Tone setting complete.

The story revolves around a rich playboy (Marc Sacco) ready to wed to country’s foremost interpreter of modern dance (Emily Yancey) who’s the daughter of a stuffy Senator (Jon May) and the niece of Prohibitionist (Charmagne Chi).  When the playboy falls for a bootlegger (Renee Landrigan) who secretly lifts his wallet and is storing hooch in his Long Island mansion’s basement, hijinks ensue.

But who cares about plot when you have the crème de la crème of Gershwin in your ears? Classic songs like “Sweet and Lowdown,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and “But Not For Me” are woven into the story, propping up the all-too-predictable plot and showcasing the cast’s considerable vocal talents. The real standout for me was Landrigan’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Who knew a tomboy bootlegger had that sweet and sensitive side?

Sacco is perfect in his role as playboy Jimmy. He looked and sounded every inch the musical-era screen star, too. He played well against bootlegger John Kaczorowski,  as Cookie McGee, not-so-bad-guy bootlegger who pretends to be the mansion’s butler. Bobby Cooke brings the best laughs as the chief of the Long Island Police Department, carefully spelling L.I.P.D. with emphasis. Every time. Nicole Cimato leads the corps de flapper with fringe and style. Chi is the ultimate scene stealer as the Prohibitionist leader of the Society of Dry Women: how she manages to fall on her back and sustain a high belt is beyond me. I loved Pamela Rose Mangus’ second act entrance, but my disappointment is that we didn’t hear her sing in this one.

Chris Kelly got to direct this frothy romp, with a great crew. Chris Cavanagh nailed the set, projection and sound mix. The sisters Drozd – Kari and Susan – created visual perfection with costumes and makeup respectively. Kristy Schupp choreographed some totally fun dance numbers…including real tap dancing, and one ensemble member on point shoes in a ballet sequence. Music director Theresa Quinn led the off-stage quintet in this s’wonderful score. Listen carefully and you’ll catch a few Gershwin riffs that aren’t in the program.

Speaking of program, my one quibble is the digital playbook. I get it. A digital program saves you paper and money. But it also creates a completely annoying situation in the theatre when cyber-savvy patrons ignore the pre-show message to turn off their phones and leave them on to read the song list. Yes, I’m talking to you, lady in Row F and two seats down from me in Row G. But I can’t go all Patti LuPone on y’all because the digital program sets you up for this behavior. Rant over.

Nice Work if You Can Get It is pure fun from start to finish. The music is superb, the visual and aural experience is a feast for eyes and ears, and you have no choice but to leave with a smile on your face. And as the Gershwin song says, “who can ask for anything more?”

The show runs two hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, until October 9. Book your tickets at http://www.musicalfare.com.

Mysterious Circumstances at Road Less Traveled

Mark Twain was right: Truth is stranger than fiction. In the case of Mysterious Circumstances, sumptuously presented now by Road Less Traveled Productions, an unsolved true crime (or was it?) might be solved by the iconic fictional sleuth who ‘died’ 113 years earlier.

Complicated? Not really. OK, maybe a little. Mysterious Circumstances is the true story Richard Lancelyn Green, a noted literary scholar and collector of Sherlockiana. Yes, he liked all things Sherlock Holmes and was particularly keen on some personal papers said to belong to Holmes’ reluctant creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In real life, Green died in 2004. Was it murder, or an elaborately staged suicide that may have been inspired by a Holmes plot? Therein lies the mystery…well, at least one mystery.

Mysterious Circumstances was written by Michael Mitnick who was inspired by a New Yorker article written by David Grann following Green’s death. Director John Hurley, the production team, and the cast created a tight, fast moving, and clever treatment where the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” was never spoke.

It really is a fun show with some clever stage movement and lots of layered and well-nuanced details. There are lots of little throwbacks to Holmes and the Conan Doyle oeuvre. I do love a show where all the actors – not just the ensemble – take on multiple roles. It must make the backstage operation well-orchestrated havoc, and it certainly keeps the audience on their proverbial toes, but that’s the fun of it all. The story also time hops from 1894 to 2004, using two neon lit portals (remember The Time Tunnel from 1960s TV?) to mentally escort you hither and yon.

The Cast

Ben Michael Moran is both Green and Holmes. Both characters are focused and intense in their unique ways and Moran makes this work splendidly. As Holmes, he captures all the Basil Rathbone quirks from the movies and as Green he’s a charming geek when talking all things Holmes and awkward and uncomfortable in social situations.  Peter Palmisano is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a properly brogued police officer. I loved his change in posture: proud, tall, and strong as Conan Doyle and stoop-shouldered and unkempt as the cop. David Marciniak’s two main roles are as Watson and one of Green’s personal admirers. It’s a great morph from buttoned-up gentleman to slightly skeevy sales guy on the road and on the make. Greg Howze is a Green admirer in a bar scene and then a competitive American Holmes collector. I loved Nicholas Lama’s first entrance as a cabby and the smart use of two standard office chairs as the cab in a well-choreographed scene with some fun deductive reasoning, too.  Jeremy Kreuzer – in maybe the smallest roles of the cast – has some of the most critical scenes, as Jean Conan Doyle’s protective butler (his eyes and his hands are equally expressive) and as “dead” Green when Moran is Holmes. He pulls comic just back from slapstick to make this scene absolutely work.

It’s Wendy Hall’s transformations that are most startling. She’s the Victorian-sickly (first) wife of Conan Doyle, a competitive Sherlockian, a police officer, and Conan Doyle’s daughter, Jean. As Jean, the tilt of her head, her trembling right hand, the decline of her disposition and demeanor is disciplined, precise. This was a superb performance.

The Crew

I loved the sophisticated stagecraft that brought this all together. Dyan Burlingame’s set design incorporates puzzle outlines as art in an interesting way. Production Stage Manager Stephen Brakey and Assistant Stage Manager Tiffany Jaramillo kept the action moving. Sound, costumes, props are on point.

Mysterious Circumstances is the real deal: a true story steeped in fiction created by an author who didn’t want to be known as the father of crime fiction. It’s a fine production and a great way for RLTP to launch season 19.

Mysterious Circumstances runs a full two hours with a 15-minute intermission until October 15. Tickets and details at https://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org/. BYOD – bring your own deerstalker.

Rock of Ages Still Rocks Today

Looking for a deeply serious night of thought-provoking theatre? Well, better head to some place other than D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre this month because there it’s all ‘80s rock as the 2022-23 season kicks off with lots of music and even more sequins and spandex.

Rock of Ages had a Los Angeles and off-Broadway run before arriving on the Great White Way in 2009. While nominated for a handful of Tony Awards, it didn’t earn any. Nothing wrong with that: the distinguishing factor in this production is the fun familiarity of the music – all juke box favorites – from icons of ‘80s glam-rock and hair bands.

Kavinoky’s Rock of Ages production is extra fun because – from the get go – seeing a full-out rock band on stage between lots of lights and a neon 97 Rock logo in that gorgeous Edwardian setting is visually startling in a fine way. As the lights go down, the mood is set with 97 Rock’s Carl Russo welcoming you and reminding you to silence your cell phones (‘don’t be douchebag,” he growls). I love it and of course, I double checked my phones.

Then the band kicks in, promising “Nothin’ But a Good  Time” as you “Cum on Feel the Noize.” The thin plot reveals itself pretty quickly, and trust me,  you’ve seen it all before: “Just a small town girl” arrives in LA, suitcase in hand, ready to be an actress. Of course her name is Sherrie, a great set up for some reiterations of “Oh, Sherrie.” (OK, if this was the ‘70s, it would have been Springsteen’s “Sherry Darling,” but I digress.) She meets Drew, an aspiring rocker, who helps her land her waitress gig at the Bourbon Room, a legendary LA music club. Little do they know that a foreign developer wants to level the neighborhood for more modern stores and high rise, and that the LA mayor is seeing dollars signs, and that a hippie chick city planner will go rogue and stage a protest and that a veteran rocker will come between our two rising stars. Yup, it’s a familiar story, or you might say “Here I Go Again.”

In between the tunes you loved when you hair was well sprayed, your clothes were sherbet colored and the plotline you’ve see a bunch of times, this production has an all-star cast of local actors singing like you’ve never heard them before. Seriously, the absolute best part of this production is seeing the actors reaching way out of their usual wheelhouses. Director/choreographer Lynne Kurdziel Formato must have had an absolute blast with this cast.

Dan Urtz is Lonny. the Bourbon Room lackey and the show’s sardonic narrator: he breaks the ‘fourth wall’ to share witty asides to  the audience to keep it all unreally real. Urtz’s breadth as an actor – from Satan-possessed puppeteer in Road Less Traveled Productions’ Hand of God in 2020 to last season’s Cliff in Second Generation Theatre’s Cabaret – is already well-established. This role takes him to new places: totally loveable goofball house-tech guy.

Then there’s Ricky Needham, fresh from MusicalFare’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, as aspiring rocker Drew, hittin’ the high notes like nobody’s business.

Bethany Burrows, the winsome mermaid from Second Gen’s Big Fish a few seasons ago, is Sherrie, this show’s version of the ingenue/waitress/Drew’s love interest and she’s a charmer.

What floored me was seeing Anthony Alcocer as Stacee Jax, the rockstar starting his downward spiral. He’s leaving the band that made him a heartthrob and Alcocer brings a real swagger here.  He sings, he growls, he can’t remember names, he’s a riot.

Arin Lee Dandes (last seen at the Kav in Indecent) is Regina the Berkley-educated city planner who plans to protect the City Built on Rock ‘n’ Roll from destruction-by-chain store. Her flouncy gauze skirts and au natural hair are the perfect contrasts against the glitz and glam of the nightclub set.

Loraine O’Donnell and Gregory Gjurich are the adults in the room, first as Sherrie’s parents and then as Justice and Hertz respectively. O’Donnell’s rich voice is perfect for these tunes and times. Gjurich is the quintessential comic actor with the dead-on perfect German accent as the bad-guy developer. His son Frantz is played by Jamil Kassem-Lopez to comic perfection. (Wardrobe note: if you’re doing the double Polo shirt thing, the inner collar needs to be popped. Trust me, it’s an ’80s thing. I have pictures.)

Christopher Guilmet (loved him a few seasons ago in the Kav’s Bridges of Madison County) is Dennis, owner of the Bourbon Room and maker of rock stars and memories.

Finally, Lorenzo Shawn Parnell is the money-grubbing mayor, a buxom reporter (I swear I didn’t know it was him), and a boy-band promoter, changing persona as easily as sliding off a pair of jelly sandals.

There’s a great ensemble on stage, too, along with a mighty band led by Allan Paglia. Lots went into the production, too, with Dyan Burlingame’s set, video on three screens by Nick Taboni, lighting by Brian Cavanagh, Andrea Letcher’s dead-on costumes, and Mary McMahon’s hair and makeup. It was full-on immersion and it was fine. I felt 25 all over again.

Admittedly, it’s not my favorite genre, but Rock of Ages is just so much fun, I wondered why the audience wasn’t on its feet and dancing along with the final number. I couldn’t wait to get home and crimp my side ponytail one last time.

Grab your ‘80s boyfriend (sadly, mine was unavailable) and see Rock of Ages. It’s just what we need to release and relax. Rock of Ages runs a full two hours with a 15-intermission. Face masks are required in the theatre-proper where it is sadly still COVID year three 2022. The show runs to September 25. Book your tickets at kavinokytheatre.com, a totally rad website. No $hit.

Lots of Laughs at Alleyway Cabaret

Babuska can mean an older woman if you’re in Poland or Russia or a headscarf tied under your chin (if you’re the American descendant of that older woman) or it’s a 1980 Kate Bush song (spelled as Babooska). But if you’re in the Theatre District on the fourth weekend of the month between now and the end of the year, Babuska! is an improv duo with a pretty darn funny hour-long show.

Todd Benzin and Don Gervasi are the two comic actors of Babuska! They started the act several years ago as a Buffalo Infringement Festival performance. It’s now found a (perfect) home on stage Alleyway’s Cabaret space.

Full disclosure: I had never been to a live improv show before and was prepared to, as a friend commented, “likely be at the mercy of the dullest wit in the audience.”  Mercifully, that wasn’t the case.

They open the show nicely wearing dress pants and collared shirts with ties (always a nice touch) with a request: they want an audience member to shout out a line from a recent social media post. This is what will spark the show’s plot and dialogue.

Hmm. This could be wild or mild.

The night we saw the show, they were charged to riff around a statement about the virtues of the pre-planned potty. Hmm. Being it’s summertime and outdoor concerts abound and porta-potties are ubiquitous there, the opening scene they contrived was set outside a porta-potty at a concert. Benzin and Gervasi’s skills as actors and comedians didn’t go down the toilet. Their sharp wit is more about word play and conversation and yeah, a few well pantomimed sight gags, too.  The set up is that these two old friends got together:  Gervasi is the ‘live in the moment’ guy and Benzin is the pre-planned, pre-pared (riffing on the pre from the social post) guy with a loaded fanny pack and a rain suit on an 80% sunny day. The visible-in-the-mind’s-eye only porta potty may or may not be occupied and there’s indecision about the right was to, ahem, proceed. The scene drifts to the concert entrance when Gervasi becomes the ticket taker and buttoned-up, pre-planned Benzin left his ticket in the rain suit that he doffed outside. More clever word play. More spontaneous and snappy dialogue. More character exposition. This constant volleying is fun to watch and I have to imagine that it’s fun to play, too. The scene shifts backstage with Benzin as the roadie and Gervasi as the British rocker with performance anxiety and lots of demands, including warm vodka and a hot hooker. And just like that, Benzin is the hooker…relying on a softening of his voice and a slack in one wrist as it rests on his hip to convey this slightly sultry role. I gotta say it: I roared.

The hour flies by, with plenty of laughs and some more poignant moments, too, that leave you with the lingering feeling that elements of comedy, indeed, are serious things. Gervasi and Benzin play off each other well. Remember the iconic “Carol Burnett Show,“ back when sketch comedy was king? Watching Gervasi and Benzin reminded me of the show’s Harvey Korman and Tim Conway: while their sketches started out scripted, they often became more off the cuff, and two actors were renowned for tempting each other to break character and laugh. I caught a few moments like that between Gervasi and Benzin and it was fun to watch.

Babuska!  runs one full hour, no intermission, and is onstage at Alleyway Cabaret the last Friday and Saturday every month, the website says, until 2075. Tickets and info here: https://www.alleyway.com/show/babushka

Keep an Eye on Your Family with “A Gentleman’s Guide…”

Who knew that plotting to bump off your family members could be so much fun?

That’s the essence of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, killing it on stage at Musicalfare Theatre until August 7.

This outrageously funny musical takes us to Edwardian England as Monty D’Ysquith Navarro (deliciously played by Ricky Needham) is sitting in a jail cell writing his memoir. What brought him there? Flashback to a time when he’s reflecting on his mother’s passing when he learns that he is technically the Ninth Earl of Highurst and is part of a family of high ranking. His late mother was disowned by the family when she married a Castilian (gasp!) musician (encore gasp!) for love (gasp times three!) They lived a poor but humble life, with Mum telling Monty this his father’s name was the only one that mattered.

Well now.

Monty endeavors to meet this family and when his first overtures are shunned, he takes action. Many actions. No more spoiler alerts. Just get yourself to the theatre to see what happens next…and how.

Everything about this production, exquisitely directed by Doug Weyand, is point perfect. First of all, the casting. Needham’s previous appearance on MusicalFare’s stage was in the elegant and poignant All is Calm earlier this season. As Monty, he has the timing, the expressions, the cunning, the charm, the everything else Monty needs and more. He learns about his lineage from the gifted Jenn Stafford who as Miss Marietta Shingle sprays biscuits bits like nobody else. His original love interest is Sibella, (Solange Gosselin), more motivated by money than love, until he meets Phoebe (Emily Yancey) who selects him as her betrothed in the decidedly funny “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” Gotta love a woman – or women –  with a plan.

The ensemble collectively fills a myriad of roles and makes artwork come to life (literally…portraits of presumed deceased family members start to sing) on stage. Jon May, Michelle Holden, and John Panepinto fill in the gaps with so many roles that move the story along.

And then there’s Marc Sacco. Oh. My. Goodness. He plays the about-to-be deceased members of the D’Ysquith family. Every single one of them. Male and female. Lots of great costuming by Kari Drozd and some incredibly quick hair and makeup transformations designed by Susan Drozd support Sacco’s unmistakable talent for shifting from cleric to early feminist to cranky old guy. He’s the consummate character actor.

A good night in the theatre is more than the story and the cast. Technical creativity knits it all together. Chris Cavanagh created a set and sound/visual experience that skillfully plays modern stage technology off good old fashioned site gags. Watch as the cleric tumbles to his death with a colorful splat. Theresa Quinn leads a small but mighty back up band: Jim Runfola, Jimmy Runfola, and Peggy Scalzo do the music justice from behind the scrim.

A Gentleman’s Guide….is a hoot and the 2 ½ hours fly by with lots of laughs, quirky characters, and a fine showcase for the best talent our community has to offer. There’s a 15-minute intermission where the smile won’t leave your face. Get your tickets at http://www.musicalfare.com.

Islena is a Celebration!

Islena means islander. For Victoria Perez, being an islander is part of who she is and always will be. It’s in her soul.

Islena is also the perfect title for her original one-woman show, a glorious celebration of her life as an islena transplanted at a young age to Buffalo.

This is exuberant, boisterous celebration, a collaboration between Victoria and her sister Maria Perez Gomez (who directs the show), includes a quintet of musicians and a rotating cast of musical guests. Victoria uses her considerable stage chops to portray all her family members in this fast-paced hour: with a tilt of her head and a change in her voice, she wraps you in the circle of love that is her family.

The show begins in her feast-for-the-eyes kitchen. Victoria is about to celebrate her 40th birthday and while she dances around cooking up a favorite family dish, she’s telling her story about her family’s move, from home to here. As you would expect, it wasn’t easy. She was different. She didn’t speak the same language. The local food had no flavor! But her twin brother made her laugh at his little boy antics and she had the love of her big sister to help her through. For this special birthday, her husband is surprising her with a trip home. Home! She’s grown comfortable here, built a beautiful life, launched her Raices Theatre Company…but her island, Puerto Rico, is in her heart.

It’s hard not to love this show. It’s full of Victoria’s natural energy. I don’t speak or understand Spanish or Spanglish even, so some of the dialogue was lost on me, but I felt her joy and (and sometimes her pain) with every word. There are plenty of fun little bits, too, like the song her uncle would sing about her bland food complaints, and the sound of island frogs, how her brother taught her the proper salsa rhythm for dance. Tiffany Jaramillo designed a dream kitchen set with lots of red accents, that shares the stage with her floral, peaceful bedroom. It’s the perfect backdrop for a woman with a foot in two places.

You’ll walk out smiling. Maybe you’ll even dance a little…try a salsa…just remember, 1-2, 1-2-3.

Islena is a fast hour performance, no intermission, at Road Less Traveled Theater’s Main St. home, to July 3. Find more info at http://www.raicestheatercompany.com.

Come to the Cabaret – a Second Generation Triumph

What I love best about Second Generation Theatre is the company’s commitment to make bold artistic choices. Company partners Kristin Bentley, Kelly Copps, and Arin Lee Dandes make thoughtful and interesting choices that successfully blend familiar and newer works to make a dynamic season.

This season’s finale production, Cabaret, was a prescient (more than three year ago) choice, against our country’s – and more recently – our community’s realities. A brief deep background if you haven’t seen it on stage, screen, or the source document book: Germany in the late 1920s was seeing its golden days tarnish as Nazism was on the rise. Clifford Bradshaw, an aspiring novelist from America, travels the Berlin for inspiration and is caught up in the country’s changing socio-political times.

SGT’s production is earthy and intense, well-cast, perfectly executed, and meticulously presented. From its simple set expertly designed by Primo Thomas and appointed by Diane Almeter Jones, to the stark lighting schema by Chris Cavanagh, the technical elements visually and aurally pull you into this world immediately. And then comes Allan Paglia’s orchestra, and the Emcee, Joe Russi in a true tour de force performance. Sly and sassy, furtive and cunning, he’s the human barometer we see change with Germany’s political climate.  Russi’s performance is downright brilliant start to finish, from his sweet-sexy smiles to his chilling interpretation of “I Don’t Care Much.”

Next up are the ‘ladies’ of the Kit Kat Club, the seedy social center of the story. This rough and tumble kick line is the backdrop for the most (IMHO) detestable character in the Broadway canon, Sally Bowles, the British chanteuse who steals Clifford’s ambiguous heart. Cassie Cameron has this role. She half speaks, half growls her songs from the delectable Kander and Ebb score which punctuate her character’s “I’m all about me” personality.

Adding to the cold heart club is Frau Kost, wickedly played by Amy Jakiel. The across the hall neighbor of Clifford and Sally in Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house, she’s a busy prostitute who embraces New Germany politics: her off-hand remark to Herr Schultz at an engagement party is a revealing moment in the story. Her fierce “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is rage on stage set to music.

So much anger…but there’s heart-warming moments of love in this sad story, too.  Pamela Rose Mangus is a delight as Fraulein Schneider, boarding house owner who has the heart of Herr Schultz, the local fruit shop owner, played by Steve Jakiel. For me, theirs was the real heart of this production. They were a couple caught in two worlds; their love of home and heritage, Fraulein’s fear for the future, Herr ‘s naivete that this Nazi thing is a political whim. Jakiel and Mangus share a lovely, charming on-stage connection. Their tender duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More” was sweet and loving. Mangus has two other pivotal moments: her act one song “So What” countered against her wistful second act song “What Would You Do” is Kander and Ebb magic. Her passion, her confusion, her love for a fine man whose country is about to betray him…all spot on.

The other stand out is Dan Urtz as Clifford. He blew us all away last season in Road Less Traveled Productions’ Hand to God as the Satan-possessed teen puppeteer…and now he’s the American who is witness to a changing world. Another dynamic performance at the other end of the spectrum, including a showplace for his wonderfully rich voice.

Director Kristin Bentley got it all right with this production, as did choreographer Kelly Copps. They create a whole little world on that small Shea’s Smith Theatre stage. It works. The stage movements they created are stunning and beautifully detailed. Despite all the goodness, it’s not an easy show to watch. You know what’s coming for these characters. You know it’s not good. You know it’s inevitable.

Spoiler Alert: it’s the final moment that grabs you and lingers As an audience member, it’s disconcerting. You want to applaud wildly. Call the cast back for more appreciation. But you can’t. And they won’t come out again. The impact is strong, palpable. And it’s completely by design.

Cabaret is a full two hours with a 15-minute intermission. It runs until June 26. Find details at http://www.secondgenerationtheatre.com.

Facts Are FACTS at Kavinoky

The Life-Style of a Fact, on stage now at the Kacinoky Theater, is a play based on a series of events that happened one night in Las Vegas. There were lap-dancers, game-playing chickens, and people who are living with depression mentioned in this dramatic story that was based in truth. With facts. And nothing made up at all. Because words matter…and so does the story behind them.

So…what do you think? Pretty intriguing, huh? Except, that paragraph is replete with errors. Starting with the title of the play (actually, The Lifespan of a Fact, and the name of the theatre (D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre), and very brief description of this thought-provoking script, that is based on a book that was written because of an essay that was rejected by one magazine and published after a lengthy review process by another. And it’s billed as a comedy. The real truth of that paragraph was the last sentence: Because words matter…and so does the story behind them.

In brief, real life essayist John D’Agata authored an essay about life in Las Vegas; the center of the piece was a teen who took his life. The other things – the mention of lap-dancers, the chicken playing checkers, and a million little details about appearance and perception – were woven into this work, too. D’Agata was going for a specific rhythm and cadence in his writing, using a numeric count down to emphasize key points while overemphasizing some details and underplaying others, all for the sake of flow and nuance. Was he intentionally bending facts and manipulating what is real? Or was he just cleverly re-arranging ‘truth’ to make reality more readable?

Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell adapted this work from the book co-authored by real-life D’Agata and Jim Fingal about the seven year ordeal of actually bringing the essay to publication. Ironically, it was following some well-publicized articles on fictionalized news and a bit before the advent of what we now call “fake news.”

Director Kyle LoConti and her team did a fine job peeling back the pages of a magazine and revealing the review and publication process. She cast Peter Palmisano as the writer/essayist D’Agata; he’s properly passionate and a wee bit surly about the craft of writing itself. Brian Brown is Fingal, the fledgling fact-checker, an intern looking to prove his worth under a tight deadline. Their exchanges make the show. From Brown’s subtle bits of physical comedy as he struggles to don and doff a backpack that’s heavier than his slight frame, to their verbal dueling, these bits are best. We see Fingal’s determination to be absolute in the pursuit of facts and D’Agata’s desire to weave a compelling story, subtly weighted against a generational conflict. If Brown is tentative and stiff in the first act, he’s fiery in the second act during this war of words. These two are the perfect foils; you sense that a deeper understanding will ultimately develop here, too.

Loraine O’Donnell is the fictional editor, Emily Penrose.  She’s the one who selected Fingal as the fact-checker for this piece and she’s the one who literally breaks up their fight and gets them on the path to publication. O’Donnell plays her with a furrowed brow and no-nonsense air.

In the end, is literary non-fiction held to the same standard as journalism when it comes to the fine points of accuracy? That’s the point this trio appears to ponder in the enigmatic closing moment, which reminds me of the final scene of Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention from Kavinoky’s 2009 season.

The Lifespan of a Fact runs two hours with a 15-minute intermission until June 26. Mask wearing is still required to keep us all safe and healthy. Visit http://www.kavinokytheatre.com for tickets and details.

Head for The Oregon Trail at Alleyway

Full disclosure: I never played The Oregon Trail videogame. Not being much of a gamer (except for my Pac Man and Ms Pac Man obsession in the ‘80s), I actually never heard of the game. If you had asked me what was The Oregon Trail, I might have guessed something that fur traders used to get from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean. So color me surprised that it turned out to be a pretty thoughtful, pretty funny show now onstage at the Alleyway Theatre.

Renee Landrigan is Jane, a typical ‘90s middle schooler who dramatically flops herself on the floor in embarrassment, dials up her mom on a flip phone with an antenna, and can’t quite keep up with big sister Mary Ann (Sue McCormack). Jane has a secret crush on class hunk Billy (Ben Caldwell) and another secret: a disc that sends her imagination back a century to The Oregon Trail where she can pretend she’s packing the covered wagon for a ride across the prairie, circa 1848. It’s all pretty harmless fun….until the day the computer talks back to her.

The stage action cleverly shifts between today Jane and 1848 Jane (maybe her great great grandmother, perhaps) with Elise Vullo in the vintage Jane role. Jane from the days of yore is struggling with her mother’s death and her father’s decision to go west. She adores her accomplished older sister Mary Ann (McCormack in a bonnet) who has stepped up into the caregiver’s role. But then Jane struggles with the rough, slow road and the threat of death by dysentery and other things. We time-hop forward and today Jane is an adult, of sorts. She is struggling to find her place in the world while big sister Mary Ann has a tiring but rewarding medical career. Jane manifests classic signs of depression, not caring for herself, devoted to screens (both computer and TV), unable to hold a job or find a career pathway. Tough love doesn’t seem to work. Even a chance meeting with ex-crush Billy isn’t shaking her out of her reverie. Mary Ann decides a wilderness day, some sage to burn, and some journaling might help Jane find her path.

Landrigan is a delight as Today Jane, both  young and grown up. She’s a great twitchy ‘tween and a lost soul 20-something. McCormack’s Mary Ann is equally solid: as today’s Mary Ann she’s both weary and wise and just wants her kid sister to find her way. Caldwell’s Billy is the middle school jerk who hasn’t grown up (we all know him). It’s John Profeta as Clancy, the 1848 dad and Nicholas Lama as the voice of the game who provide the wisdom of the Trail….actual and electronic. Profeta is determined that he’s made a good decision to ford the streams and hike the hills to a new life for his family. Lama’s resonant voice reminds us that outside forces can oddly, wickedly control you when you least expect it. It’s a clever device by playwright Bekah Brunstetter. Director Chris J Handley and Tim McGrath, scenic designer made good use of the stage that took use from classroom to wilderness to the gals’ apartment. Todd Warfield had some work cut out for him sourcing a full size-looking wagon and some ancient greige computers (memories of my vintage 286!) I loved some of Nicholas Quinn’s music choices for audio transitions, too.

All told, the earlier scenes and the waaay earlier flashback scenes were more satisfying than the ending. I would have liked to have seen a glimpse of Today Jane and Yesteryear Jane one more time, and maybe heard more creepy shout outs from the game himself to knit it all together.

The Oregon Trail is onstage to May 28. It runs a solid two hours+ with an intermission to enjoy Alleyway’s lovely lobby.  Get tickets and info at www.alleyway.com. Bring a mask. You’ll be OK.

It’s Tradition vs Modern at Jewish Repertory Theatre

We all know that person. He’s chronically late and eternally apologetic. He’s completely annoying and utterly charming. He swears he’s your best friend but given the opportunity, he’d shatter your trust.

That pretty much sums up Hershel Klein (“My friends call me Hersh,” he says), the diamond dealer who can’t shut up in Modern Orthodox, the current production of Jewish Repertory Theatre.

Hersh is traditional and proud of it, peppering his patter with plenty of Yiddish interjections, notably Baruch Hashem (blessed be the name of the Lord). He’s 45 minutes late to sell a diamond to Ben (RJ Voltz) who is finally ready to pop the question to his live-in doctor girlfriend Hannah (Kayla Storto). Hersh is curious about Ben and Hannah, who are Jewish and modern and breaking all the rules that Hersh holds so dear. Ben is less curious about Hersh’s life, even to the point of mocking his faith. So it’s a rather weird circumstance that lead Hersh to Ben and Hannah’s door where he passes out, then moves in, and an odd kinship develops. And it becomes clear that Hersh is settling in for the long haul. Hersh is content to be there…but only after the kitchen and items can be kosher, and some of Hersh’s treasures are on the walls, and there’s a mezuzah on the entrance doorframe. To get him out of their hair and lair, Ben and Hannah use an internet dating site (oy gevalt!) to find Hersh to Rachel (Robyn Baun), his b’shert…his perfect mate.

Adam Yellen is using his very best deadpan chops as Hersh: he has Hersh’s shtick down pat, from his earnestness to his overall twitchiness. Voltz and Storto are perfectly suited as the affianced Ben and Hannah. It’s the Hersh and Rachel combination that is so endearing. Baun is laugh out loud hysterical as they kibbitz away their first date. She’s that proverbial ray of sunshine with a brash and loud chutzpah; still she’s the zaftig girl of his dreams. You almost hope for a second act so you can see their marriage emerge.

Director Steve Vaughan had a good eye for this cast; they roles fit them like gloves.  Playwright Daniel Goldfarb has a real gift for banter and fast-paced conversation: if there are some holes in the plot, they are quickly forgotten.

Give yourself a few minutes before the show starts to scan the program’s pullout of Yiddish-Hebrew words: there’s a lot of them and it will come in handy (all these years, I thought Shlemiel and Shlemazzel were just the first few years of the Laverne and Shirley theme song…who knew!)

Modern Orthodox is onstage to May 29. The show runs 90-ish minutes with no intermission: tickets and details are at www.jccbuffalo.org. We’ve had a frightening and heart-breaking week…give yourself a night out to laugh and lose yourself in the blush of young love.