All is Calm is Elegant at MusicalFare

It’s odd to think that the true spirit of Christmas – a wish for peace on Earth and  goodwill to all peoples – can be found in a story about war. But that is the essence of  All is Calm, now onstage at MusicalFare Theatre.

It’s a real story taken from a moment in World War I history. In the first few months of the war (“we thought it would be over by Christmas,” is an oft-repeated line in the show), British soldiers were acclimating to life in the trenches in that most frightening location of The Great War: No Man’s Land. Something happened on Christmas night, 1914: British soldiers on the Western Front heard singing and saw flickering lights coming from the German troops.  They bravely crossed this chasm of battle and joined in with carols of their own. Weapons were laid down, beverages, snacks, and stories were shared, language and cultural barriers were set aside. The men declared their own unofficial Christmas truce that lasted but a few days and was ne’er repeated again.  Playwright Peter Rothstein captured the simple elegance of this snapshot of humanity with this script.

If the story sounds familiar, you’re either a student of world history, you paid attention to the stories told by your grandparents, or you were in the Subversive Theatre Collective Audience in 2014 to see local writer Gary Earl Ross’ take on the same story, The Guns of Christmas.(Hat tip to the Theatre Companion for reminding me.)

Rothstein’s script is built on a series of statements from soldiers with each quote closed out with their name and rank. I’m a big fan of epistolary writing, and using this tactic felt like we were reading a soldier’s letter to someone back home. Associating words to people gave the story its heart. The production also uses the power of music to support this (sometimes debated) moment in WWI history. Music Director Theresa Quinn’s magical piano playing is absent, but her church choral director skills are apparent. There’s a whole lot of ensemble singing going on, and it’s all done a cappella. At times it’s a little bit barbershop quartet harmonics, other times I hear full-fledged British boy choir-layered harmonies in the familiar WWI tunes, including “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Pack Up Your Troubles,” and “When This Bloody War is Over.”  It’s all so very good. Peppered between are stand out solos from the familiar voices of MusicalFare including Ricky Needham, Darryl Semira, Marc Sacco, and Louis Colaiacovo. It’s a tribute to the cast and Quinn’s direction to pull it off as successfully as they all did. There was no music to “help” the singer find his pitch: it’s all up to talent and skill that this cast has in abundance. If an occasional sound wasn’t quite as written, well, heck, blame trench acoustics.

Susan Drozd staged and directed this crew with military precision. There were beautiful moments when weapons were sharply, deliberately placed just so. Each actor held a firm gaze to the back of the house when delivering lines, speaking to everyone and someone else just beyond the backwall.  Chris Cavanagh’s dramatic lighting and battle noises were the perfect foils for designer Dyan Burlingame’s trench set. Kari Drozd managed costume design and it was fun to watch the men using simple leg wraps, hats, and coats to become other characters. This was an important detail in the story and signaled their transition from camp soldier to one in active battle. Actors represented multiple roles, too, and were adept at shifting accents and dialects as well.

All the elements come together to create a moving and powerful human experience.

The well-paced, one act (no intermission and just under 90 minutes) production ended with a reminder, from British poet Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem The Fallen: “We will remember them.”

All is Calm is onstage until December 12: tickets and details are at www.musicalfare.com.

Sidebar: MusicalFare, like every other space in our community,  has many protective policies in place. Vaccination cards and IDs are checked before you enter the theatre. Facemasks are required. There’s touchless ticketing, too. All good stuff that should encourage audience members to feel safe and welcomed. The one thing that irks me is the lack of the printed program. I totally get it: it’s another way to limit contact between patrons and volunteers, both of whom may be at risk. Digital programs may inadvertently cause a new epidemic: cell phones on during the production to follow the song list. Seriously. I was surrounded by multiple program perusers and even over heard one person comment about how convenient it was to ‘see’ the program now. Patrons, it’s OUR responsibility to manage our need to know during a show. Peruse before curtain, please, or when you get home. The Patti LuPone Rules still apply: phones off and away during a show, please. Theatres created digital programs to protect you, and not to give you a new way to distract actors and your fellow patrons. The pre-show video with actors demonstrating how (and how not) to wear a face mask, however, was a hoot.

Hand to God Returns to Road Less Traveled Theater

Sabrina Kahwaty and Dan Urtz

I saw Road Less Traveled Theater’s production of Hand to God for the first time on March 8, 2020. It was the last show I saw that season before The Long Intermission.   It was a complete production, full of heart, humor, hell, and hope. RLTP wisely re-opened its 18th season by bringing it back and – if that’s possible – it’s gotten even better.

Robert Askins  penned a modern-day horror story, set in a Texas church, with  grieving widow Margery (Jenn Stafford), her shy son Jason (Dan Urtz), their earnest pastor (John Kreuzer), bad boy Timmy (Henry Farleo), and sweet teen Jessica (Sabrina Kahwaty, replacing Maura Nolan Coseglia from the 2020 crew).  Pastor Greg advises Margery to work through her grief by organizing a teen-driven puppet theatre, aptly named The Christkateers. Timmy is there to avoid a less than happy home life. Jason’s engaged because, well, Mom is the leader, and Jessica admits to an interest in puppetry. As they build their puppets in preparation for their first performance at service, Jason’s puppet persona Tyrone becomes aggressively Satanic. Even an attempt at exorcism (“Do Lutherans even do exorcism,” asked a quizzical Jessica) can’t break Tyrone’s hold over Jason.  Yup, there’s plenty of power in a cast-off sock with fluffy yarn hair.

Kudos go to designer/puppeteer Adam Kreutinger for creating the sock-alter egos. Set designer Dyan Burlingame created a main space that brought back plenty of church basement memories (I loved the “time out” cornered tricked out with the hell on earth motif), with its inspirational posters, cheery colors, and kid-size accoutrements assembled by props master Diane Almeter Jones. Shelby Converse got to choreograph some pretty outlandish fight scenes, too.  Director John Hurley had an A-list team for sure.

Urtz earned a 2020 Artie Award (Outstanding Actor in a Play) for his portrayal of meek Jason and the devil Tyrone. The sheer physicality of the role was impressive enough, then layer on the expressive emotional shifts and his whole performance is amazing. Stafford is a repressed randy mama when she’s not the demure church goer: her range is extraordinary. Farleo’s Timmy is hard to like and just as he should be. Kreuzer brings a quiet strength to Pastor Greg (who lands one of the funniest lines of the show if you remember The Exorcist), and Kahwaty’s sweetness as Jessica (with some spiciness as puppet Jolene) help bring the needed turn-around to Jason. All told, it’s a fine ensemble.

My frequent theatre companion won’t see shows a second time: for him the experience is one and done. I disagree: sometimes the second go-round brings out things you missed or you just see differently. That’s the case with Hand to God; I saw Margery’s pain manifest itself more deeply, and Jason’s sense of loss and confusion over his dad’s death simmering under the surface. There are some fine laughs and absurdity, too, but the poignancy of this story prevailed even moreso the second time around.  Even if you were among couple 2020 audiences, Hand to God is well worth revisiting.

Hand to God runs two hours with a 15-minute intermission to December 5. All COVID policies are in place (your vax card and ID will be checked at entrance and masks are required): you will feel comfortable in a safe place…even when Satan speaks.  Visit www. roadlesstraveledproductions.org  for details and tickets.

Spirited Show at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

Legend has it that the D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre is haunted.  A fire in the original 1874 building took the life of one of  the Grey nuns who lived there and it’s thought that she’s still on campus. For the next month, she’s not alone. The Woman in Black, on stage now to November 21, is a haunting story in the grand British tradition. Based on a novel, the stage version has dominated London’s West End since 1989, making it the second longest running non-musical stage play in Brit history. (The Mousetrap still prevails).

The Woman in Black is a character-rich two hander where David Lundy (as the mature Arthur Kipps) and Peter Horn (as the actor and a younger Kipps) assume multiple characters to tell Kipps’ lived story. The Kipps family liked to share spooky stories on Christmas Eve, and after many years, older Kipps was ready to share his real life ghost story from when he was a younger man.  He hired the actor to help him tell his tale.  This is where the fun begins.  As the story goes, he was a young solicitor, charged with sorting the details of an eccentric dead woman’s estate. He finds the  skeleton in her closet. And in her hallway.  And in the nursery.  And on the marshes surrounding her remote home.  She’s not a friendly presence – a spinster dressed in classic widow’s weeds with a disfigured face – and mayhem follows wherever she goes. Family secrets have a way of doing that.

The whole show is creepy good fun.  Lundy is marvelous as the senior Kipps and multiple supporting roles as, adopting a variety of accents, and affectations. Horn as the actor assumes the role of the young Kipps living out the solicitor’s youthful reality while coaching the senior Kipps to breathe life into…death. Horn is fine transforming himself from haughty actor/storyteller coach to the younger, more affable Kipps. Lundy and Horn play off each other very well.

Director Kyle LoConti must have had a blast with two outstanding actors and their extraordinary adaptability. Designer David King built a spooky and sparse black set with a few furnishing to push about. Brian Cavanagh and Geoffrey Tocin – lighting and sound design respectively – had the heavier lift and created enough gloomy spookiness to let our imaginations take over. Creaky doors, distant screams, footsteps, and the usual things that go bump in the night are all there. Set, lights, and sound created that perfect balance of actual theatre and theatre of the mind.Exquisite.

Cynics will breathe a ho-hum and call it all pretty predictable. But when you give yourself up to the experience of being in a haunted Edwardian theatre and spending a couple hours in Victorian England on a dark and stormy night, it’s a pretty perfect experience.

The Woman in Black runs just under two hour with a 15-minute intermission. Touchless  ticketing, new cozy seats, vaccinations and masks required, make the evening totally comfortable, until the ghosts waft by. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and tickets, if you dare.

Patience is Indeed a Virtue for All for One Productions

For the cast and crew of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the past 19 months must have been pure agony. The show was shut down opening night (thank you, Covid) after months of prep by All for One Theatre Productions, (the collaborative comprised of Shea’s 710 Theatre, MusicalFare Theatre, Irish Classical Theatre Company, Theatre of Youth, and Road Less Traveled Productions). Imagine the agony of sitting on this exquisite production. It was truly worth the wait.

Based on British author Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, playwright Simon Stephen’s script  begins with a neighborhood tragedy: a teen discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed. The distraught owner is quick to blame the teen. Thus begins a two-hour journey of a painful truth, deliberate deception, and a young man’s search for order in a very disorganized world.

Samuel Fesmire gives a mesmerizing performance as Christopher, the accused neighbor. While not specifically called out, Christopher appears to live on the autism spectrum, high-functioning and brilliant with mathematics, and sometimes childlike in his need for routine and order. He walks in straight lines and turns at precise right angles, marks his steps as he walks (“Remember your rhythms,” says is teacher Siobhan played by Sara Kow-Falcone), and cubes prime numbers to reduce stress. Fesmire’s movements capture the tics and quirks of someone whose mind is always racing.  Kow-Falcone’s carefully measured passion and commitment to her student paint the perfect picture of an ideal teacher.

While searching for Wellington the dog’s killer, Christopher learns some hard truths about his dad (Anthony Alcocer),  his mom (Candice Kogut) and Wellington’s owners (Wendy Hall and Ben Michael Moran).   Moran and Hall also do double duty as part of the ensemble, too, playing minor characters and set pieces. That’s actually a pretty cool part of the production. People are often miming walls and doors on the Spartan grid set. Even in the opening scene, lighting outlines Wellington’s dead body along with the murder weapon. 

No surprise that a collaborative performance has a super-size production team. Director David Oliver and assistant director Lucas Lloyd built a good team with Lynne Koscielniak doubling up on scene and lighting design, Christopher Ash and Brian McMullen on the projection (there’s plenty of that, too, against the grid set), Gerry Trentham as movement director, and Jean Toohey as dialect coach to keep the British accents on point and in check.  It this was a band, it would be described as tight.

Overall, it’s a fine interpretation of the novel and a good depiction of what it’s like to live in a world that you often don’t understand when you’re otherwise abled. Fesmire as a Christopher will win your heart as you empathize with his daily challenges. I was less focused on the parental lying and infidelity: the acting quartet handled that well. It’s a tribute to the production company and its choice of show to see marquee actors like Pamela Rose Mangus and David Marciniak in ensemble roles here, too.

The show’s timing may feel uneven at times (the first act felt long and a trusted colleague felt act two dragged) but like Christopher, once you feel the rhythm of the story, it makes sense.

Thanks to All for One for bringing this powerful show to the 716 and not giving up on it when Covid  was threatening, This is good stuff.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a solid two hours with intermission and is onstage at Shea’s 710 Theatre to November 14.  Details and tickets at www. sheas.org.

Photograph 51 Holds the Secret of Life at JRT

One of my favorite James Taylor songs begins with these lyrics: “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time…”

Sometimes we’re robbed of time. Sometimes we’re robbed of opportunity. Part of the human condition. For real-life British scientist Rosalind Franklin, the focus of Photograph 51, presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre, her early death (at age 37 from ovarian cancer), robbed her of both, and so much more.

Franklin was a ground-breaking researcher with a fascination for shapes, images, and patterns. In fact, the show begins with her monologue as she reminisces about looking through a camera for the first time at an arrangement of fallen leaves. She wasn’t creating art, she says, she was fascinated by the shapes refracted through the lens. This curiosity led her to the field of xray crystallography, the study of molecular and atomic cellular structure. The repeated and organized patterns that make up cells hold the secret of life and all its creations. She was hooked.

One quick sidebar: the study of crystallography may spark resonance with Buffalonians, as downtown Buffalo is home to the National Crystallization Center (a national resource for crystallography research) located in the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute. Ironically, the Institute’s founding in 1956 was funded  by the largesse of a woman, Helen Woodward Rivas, whose family wealth came from the Genesee Pure Food Company, the makers of Jell-O…crystals of an entirely different ilk.

Back to the show.  In short, it’s riveting. Kristen Tripp Kelley is focused and fiery as Franklin. She makes the visceral passion and determination of a scientist incredibly real and palpable. You can see Franklin’s intensity through every movement of Kelley’s pencil in her journal or the turn of her head. You feel her anger when she’s marginalized by her peers. The supporting cast – a group of five male scientists in pursuit of their own scholarly work – orbit around Franklin with varying levels of dismissive disdain and vague fascination. Could this 1950s-era woman of all things really be on the cusp of a discovery that would change how we view the building blocks of life and cure disease, too? It was that chance glimpse of an image – the infamous Photograph 51 – that held the proverbial key.  Jacob Albarella as Francis Crick, Ray Boucher as Don Casper, Dan Torres as Ray Gosling, Adam Yellen as James Watson are each fine in their roles. It’s John Profeta’s portrayal of Maurice Wilkins, the biophysicist who ‘assumed’ Franklin was joining his Kings College lab to support his work, is captivating – first in his arrogance and later in his veiled admiration – and is a perfect foil for Kelley as Franklin.

Staging is sparse and spare thanks to designer David Dwyer’s deft hand and elegantly lit by Brian Cavanagh.  They create a mood here that’s nuanced enough to have subtle power. Your focus is oh so meant to be on words by playwright Anna Ziegler and purposeful stage movement orchestrated by director Katie Mallinson. Sublime.

There’s a lot to unpack in this production. Franklin knew her work was leading to major breakthroughs, yet her peers didn’t honor her contributions. Cancer took her life before she could make further professional strides. Even the Nobel Prize committee – which lauded the work of her peers with the prize in Chemistry  in 1962 and later awarded another colleague the same prize for advanced crystallography work in 1982 – didn’t grant her posthumous recognition.   

In reading about Franklin’s real life, she did indeed travel to the U.S., albeit not to Buffalo, where a woman’s support was quietly developing a facility where researchers (many who happen to be women) have made – and are still making – life changing discoveries in crystallography and other fields of science. Dr. Franklin, they are grateful for your bold manner and solid work.

Photograph 51 is 90 minutes long (one act) with no intermission, onstage at the Maxine and Robert Sellers Theatre in Getzville, until November 14. Visit https://www.jccbuffalo.org/jrt/ for tickets and details.

Tootsie – Now on Stage at Shea’s

Full disclosure: I generally don’t enjoy productions that morph from screen to stage.

I prepared myself to embrace Tootsie, now on stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, with an open mind, and pushed my 1982 movie memories to the back of my brain. So a show with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (writing for screen to stage shows is his thing, having done so for The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrel, Women on the Verge…, and The Band’s Visit which is next on stage at Shea’s), seeing Buffalo gal Dominique Kempf in her first national tour, and the opportunity to be back in Shea’s again after a long intermission, how can it be bad?

Truth be told, it wasn’t horrible. Nor was it the best thing I’ve seen in this venerable house. Yazbek’s score was lively and clever, albeit not terribly memorable, beginning with an overture (a wonderful throwback that most musicals skip nowadays…there was an ent’racte, too) and a bright and snappy opening number. Straight up we meet Michael Dorsey (played by Drew Becker), a struggling stage actor and waiter who has high-minded opinions about the roles he is offered – and regrettably loses –  thanks to his passion for truth and depth. His roommate and aspiring playwright Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant) is his deadpan sidekick. Grant has some of the best lines with perfect delivery, too. He even cleaned up Bill Murray’s iconic observation of his roommate’s dual persona ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38lkRCedEys).

Up next is Michael’s ex girlfriend Sandy Lester (Payton Reilly), a whirlwind of neuroses and emotions as she clamors for acting roles, too. Her repeated “What’s Gonna Happen” theme song is a study in rapid fire words and feelings in a funny sort of jumble. Sandy is pursuing a role in a sequel to Romeo and Juliet, and she when isn’t cast, Michael decides to audition, too…in the persona of Dorothy Michaels, a good ol’Southern girl who speaks her mind and by golly don’t people start listening. He wins the role and influences a plot pivot and title change. Michael as Dorothy is admired and liked and heard…and is falling in love with his leading lady (Ashley Alexandra) who thinks Dorothy is her new mentor. But the cast dumb-as-a-post hunk Max (Lukas James Miller) is falling for Dorothy, too. What’s a girl/guy to do?

In between all this, there are lovely costumes (the ‘50s styles glam gorgeous billowy ball gowns), some wonderful choreography, and plenty of funny bits. There is some meat behind the plot, too: self-realization and the value of true friends and digging deep to do what’s right all will prevail. It was also great to see Ashley Alexandra in her leading role: she’s a full figured woman cast in a part that – in a less inclusive world – might have gone to someone else. Brava. What I didn’t love were the overly long pregnant pauses to milk the laughs for an extra beat or two.

This is the first national tour for the Tony Award-winning show and the cast projects a strong ensemble vibe. It was wonderful to see Kempf on this stage, after enjoying her outstanding work at MusicalFare Theatre’s Ragtime, and West Side Story.

The story may be ho-hum but the energy is high and overall it’s entertaining. And Shea’s, it’s just good to be home.

Tootsie runs a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission; it is onstage until October 16: visit sheas.org for details.

All Through the Night Opens Varlets’ Season

The cast of “All Through The Night.”

Those of us of a certain age may remember watching “Fractured Fairy Tales,” one of Jay Ward’s staples in weekend morning TV cartoons. Each installment put a different spin on a traditional fairytale that –truth be told – was probably meant to appeal to the adults watching with their kids.

All Through the Night  by Shirley Lauro is staged by the 15 years-fabulous Brazen-Faced Varlets at Alleyway Theatre and it uses a chillingly fairytale set up to tell the story of a group of German Gentile woman in the never-idyllic days of Nazis and World War II.

Scripted as a series of vignettes (complete with fairytale titles displayed on her work table) with  Ludmilla – the village baker – as the moderator, All Through the Night is painfully, poignantly, all too real account of how Nazism manipulated and brainwashed its followers to spew hate and pain on any person who didn’t fit the party’s idea of perfection.

Ludmilla (Kaeli McGinnis) starts the show with lots of cheery smiles and vocal animation as she reflects on the girls she knew and the village girl’s school. School is changing, jah, as the “man on the hill” is promising a new society. And change it does. We meet Angelika (Jessie Miller) a devout Catholic who dreams of running a clinic in Africa, Friederike (Sarah Emmerling), the wealthy rebel who skips school to listen to American jazz at a verboten cabaret, and Gretchen (Stefanie Warnick), the good girl who wants to please authority thinking it will help her family.  Kathleen Rooney appears in multiple roles identified as the The Fraus, first as the school’s new headmistress, then the nurse at a Third Reich-run hospital, and finally as the sadistic leader of the women’s tent in the village square.  The story leads the ensemble from school girl innocence to shrewd, cunning women doing what they can to survive. Frederike’s wealth doesn’t elevate her from humiliation. Angelika’s faith doesn’t deliver her from suffering. Gretchen’s party loyalty doesn’t lead her to the perfect life. Each actor is strong and tight in their role. McGinnis’ Ludmilla and Rooney’s Frau roles are at opposite end of the spectrum: Mc Ginnis’ Ludmilla grows wiser in adversity and Rooney’s Frau just gets more evil. You have to love Ludmilla’s optimism: she’s a survivor to the core and McGinnis plays her just right. It was interesting to note that the ensemble actors are all  brunette and dark eyed while Rooney’s natural blonde hair and blue eyes were solitary reminders of the Aryan goal. While she may look like the kind-hearted Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life sitcom, she was cold to the bone.  Good casting across the board.

Director Lara D. Haberberger wisely kept staging, props, and costuming intentionally simple to allow focus to stay fixed on the script. Rachel Maggs used reversible aprons to transform school to-prisoner-to worker uniforms. Heather Fansgrud’s set was tiered platforms against a lit stockade fence. Props were simple or suggested.  While the director’s notes in the program state that Haberberger had this show on her RADAR for a time, now is the right time to see this production. Admittedly at times it’s not easy to watch: and it’s a startling reminder of inhumane cruelty, yet there are moments of hope and goodness.

There were a few moments when the German words sprinkled into the dialogue were more distracting than evocative, and the attempts at an affected accent were just too phony. (I heard some upper East side New York City socialite in one of Rooney’s speeches.) 

Ludmilla does indeed get her ‘happily ever after’ in this grown up fairytale, even at great expense to humanity. Or in the words of conceptual  artist Jenny Holzer, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.”

All Through the Night runs a long two and quarter hours with one 10-minute intermission, until October 24. Visit www.varlets.org for details.

“To the New Girl…” at New Phoenix Theatre

Sarah Emmerling as Elissa

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

And if that woman has your address  – physical or email – there’s a good chance you’re gonna hear from her.

Sharing pearls of personal wisdom between the about-to-be-ex and the trade-in is the premise behind To The New Girl from the Former Mrs. ___: Sound Advice for my husband’s new wife or mistress on stage now at the New Phoenix Theatre. Playwright and filmmaker Samantha Macher wrote the stage version in 2011 (she later adapted it to a film) with 10 different women actors delivering epistolary monologues. The one thing they all have in common:  they have something to say to the person who now is the proverbial apple of her husband’s eye.

Each monologue is a story onto itself and the actors range in age, marital (or not) commitment, and social status. Infidelity is the great equalizer here.

The staging is simple: maybe one or two set pieces are moved to a dark stage with as many props per scene. It’s stark which adds extra emphasis on the works and the delivery.

It starts off innocent enough, with even a bit a humor. Zoe (Jessie Miller) is a former internet dominatrix whose beau has an adult baby fetish (yup, he’s the baby) and she aghast that there’s another woman in town willing to play mama. Next up is Miriam (Kathleen Recchione), a Jewish grandmother whose husband announces at Seder that he’s starting over…with a Catholic woman. Bethany (Vanessa Shevat) is calculating as she is charming as she plans how to manage her televangelist husband’s fling with…a man. Davida Tolbert is Sheila, a woman who can’t bring a pregnancy to term who learns her husband’s  new interest gave birth to twins. Her anger fierce, her disappointment in her body is palpable, and she manages to land some of the only purely funny lines of the night (“I hope your baby is as fat as Oprah in the ‘90s…”).  Ciara Davie is Faye, the youngest of the team, whose ex is a felon holding her engagement ring hostage. Alexis (Kari Becker) is the wealthy social climber, who coldly tells her daughter’s nanny that her husband’s abuse is part of the gig. Karen (Kathryn Schneider) is the teacher who finds a former student is her husband’s new study buddy.  Melanie (Pandora Kew, also the co-producer) is completely enraged as she offers strong warnings to her replacement, as sheshares horrific details of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. Elissa (Sarah Emmerling) dons her bridal gown as she reflects on her husband’s admission of longing for his high school sweetheart. Mary Craig ends the show on wistful, bittersweet note as Give ‘Em Hell, Harriet, whose loving husband Harold lives his final days in a nursing home as his withering capacities direct him to a fellow patient.

It is an emotional roller coaster with 10 different highs and lows of heartbreak, disappointment, anger, and a twist of revenge planning, too.  With only a few minor quibbles (Elissa’s bed might have been angled differently and Karen’s story seemed a bit disjointed) , each actor does a solid job telling their character’s story, from Alexis’ frosty facts of privileged life  to Zoe’s kitten-with-a-switch outrage. It’s Kew and Craig who make you sit a little straighter in your seat. Kew is visibly trembling with anger from the moment her light comes up. Her jaw is tensed so tightly the words growl from her lips. Two scenes later, Craig is tender and loving as her memory is fading from her husband’s mind. They were married 57 years (58 in August), she says, and as he turns his affection to someone else, he is still her great love. This was the perfect way to end this often biting and bitter show. Sometimes love shouldn’t, couldn’t fade away, even in the ultimate betrayal.

Permit me one minor rant here: I love everything there is about WNY theatre, from big to small, Theatre District across town to the ‘burbs. All live theatre is good (even when it’s not) and deserves support and engagement. That’s my main reason for volunteering as a reviewer (I’m the first to admit I’m not the theatrical authority, I’m just a Buffalo gal who wants to encourage others to support local theatre). It’s not lost on me that the house at New Phoenix was pretty light in its second weekend, while a few blocks east, another theatre was packed and enjoying a stunningly presented fantasy about two other less than real women. There is room for fantasy and reality in life and on stage. It’s my hope that the fantasy seekers also make the time and allocate personal resources to see locally produced shows, too, whether it is another musical, drama or comedy.  Rant over.

“To the New Girl…” runs a tight 90 minutes with no intermission until October 3. Visit www.newphoenixtheatre.com for details and tickets.

It’s a New Camelot at MusicalFare

“Camelot” at MusicalFare. Picture courtesy of the theatre.

Sometimes the simple joys of maidenhood are experienced in a comfortable theatre watching a classic piece of American musical theatre re-imagined on stage. Who thinks that? C’est moi, of course.

MusicalFare Theatre opened its 2021-22 season on a resonant high note with Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot taking a fresh new spin.  If the title conjures up imagines of President John F. Kennedy and his bride listening to the album with the voices of Richard Harris, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet (le sigh), fie on those 1960s memories! This re-imagined version still has all the chivalry, passion, and infidelity you love with a lively new beat and a more casual vibe.

Co-directors Carlos R.A. Jones and Victoria Perez set the show in a tropical setting, with a group of beachy-clad friends hanging out and putting on a show. Outside of Ex Calibur, swords became wood poles and shields are pieces of found driftwood. King Arthur’s crown was a fedora with a bird of paradise rising from the hat band. The call to battle was sounded from a seashell. Music director Theresa Quinn matched the mood with Latin and island rhythms for every tune.  Chris Cavanagh’s set was sandy-perfection, complete with a waterfall and a boardwalk. Camp shirts, neon rompers, and floral prints replaced armor and flowing chiffon gowns.  The whole effect was oddly reminiscent of early stagings of Godspell (without the clown clothes and street setting). It was fun and inviting after our 18 month intermission.

Jones and Perez couldn’t have found a better cast. Gabriella McKinley is stunning as Guenevere. Her voice is incredible: rich when she’s in her lower register and lilting and controlled when her soprano soars. Her duets with both King Arthur (Darryl Semira) and Lancelot (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez) are lovely and Quinn’s arrangements graciously accommodate the vocal shifts for each pairing. Semira’s King Arthur is disarming and charming, boyish at first glance and rooted and mature in both conviction and confusion. Gomez’s  take on Lancelot is earnest and his gentle passion in the role’s signature song “If Ever I Would Leave You” is beguilingly beautiful.  

The ensemble is fun, with gender-crossing double roles for every member. Arin Lee Dandes is at her best as the cunning Mordred. Every movement and stage cross is a dance and it’s so fun, you almost forget to despise Mordred’s scheming.

Jones and Perez created something very special; they asked us to suspend our memories of past stagings or the movie and see past those images. What if Camelot was created in a different space by different people? Does that make the musings and vision of a King any different? Quinn’s interpretations brought a  freshness to the score that was lovely to hear, too. Her band – Joe Donohue on guitar and violin, Jim Runfola on reeds, and Jim Linsner on drums – was just right and fine.

If you have any qualms about coming inside for theatre, MusicalFare diligently checked vaccine cards/Excelsior passes and required facemasks, there are no more physical tickets, and playbills are irksomely online only. Relax and escape to this most congenial spot.

Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is onstage now until October 15; the show runs a good two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets, playbill, and temptingly lovely videos are online at www.musicalfare.com.

It’s a Hoot at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of From Honky Tonk To Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

I’ll put this right upfront: I’m not a country music fan. That didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying From Honky Tonk to Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music onstage now at D’Youville Kavinoky Professional Theatre (note the new variation on the name, please).

Conceived by the theatre’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell, this show is part juke box musical, part survey of the genesis of American country music, and part women’s history retrospective with a healthy dose of social justice. And it is just plain fun.

This was a pandemic passion project for O’Donnell who spent part of that time in her hometown of Boonville, NY, with her dad in his last months of life. More time spent in rural Adirondack foothills drew her to country music. She began to appreciate the deeper nuances of the lyrics and the people who penned them. She learned, too, that women played a relevant role in the genre…even when they were marginalized by good ol’ country boys.

O’Donnell  assembled a stellar production team to unite many moving parts, plus a great line up of musicians, actors, and dancers to bring her vision to stage.  There is a lot going on here.

First, the band.  Dee Adams – musical director, singer, guitarist, and mandolin player – has a great, tight group. Kathryn Koch (guitar, harmonica), Helen Butler Ceppaglia (violin, accordion),  Elton Hough (drums, a real kit, mind you),  John Martz (steel guitar, banjo, dobro),  and Charlie Gannon (stand up bass, electric guitar) have the sound.  I loved how costume designer Andrea Letcher drove home one of the shows key messages by dressing the men in black and the women in vibrant traditional cowgirl fringed dresses. Her recreations of Shania Twain’s decidedly non-traditional Country costumes were spot on, too.

Then, the singers. O’Donnell is the narrator and lends her big beautiful voice to Dolly Parton’s iconic “Jolene” and the wistful  “I Hope You Dance.” Adams and Koch come center stage to perform country standards “Crazy” and “Harper Valley PTA.”  Renee Landrigan, doubling on keyboards and melodica, is a kick singing Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill.”  But my oh my, it’s Annette Daniels Taylor who gives these country tunes their soul.  She’s both powerful and tender in her storytelling and singing and her “Down to the River to Pray” was passionate and moving. Drummer Hough stepped out from the kit and picked up an African drum to accompany her.

Lynne Kurdziel Formato is the director/choreographer, and she had folks moving to and fro on stage and a trio of dancers on videotape in a variety of local places. Dancers  Aurora Hastings, Christina Tribo, and Evan Matthew Stuart share Zodiaque Dance Company roots among their bone fides. They rock the Company’s  angular, contemporary frame  that gave an interesting juxtaposition against the show’s contemporary Country pieces especially in the second act. Brian Milbrand used the stage screens to full advantage with some historic photos and lots of interpretive dance interludes. Regrettably, some of the dance numbers that were “green screened” to appear happening in rushing waters looked a bit odd and not well connected to the narrative.

While there were some gaps in the history – notably missing was Tammy Wynette, often called “The First Lady of Country Music,” June Carter and Mother Maybelle Carter, and the entire 1980s decade (O’Donnell acknowledged this and said it’s coming in the sequel) – the personal storytelling and musical selections really drive home O’Donnell’s key points about women in the industry and social justice.

Most importantly, this was a love letter to O’Donnell’s late parents and a poignant reminder that sometimes the music we hear in our youth will sound very different to us again as time marches on.

It’s worth noting that D’Youville has invested in some truly lovely upgrades to the theatre over the past few seasons and it looks spectacular. New seats are bright and cozy. No more physical tickets or playbills (find it online here) and required face mask on campus) should make all theatre goers feel comfortable. One more thing: if you wear one of those over-sized signal watches that illuminates every time you get a text or an email, please tuck it under your sleeve or turn it off. It’s as bright as a cell phone and is super distracting to those around you. (And I mean you, lady who was in the middle of my row the other night.)

From Honky Tonk to Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music is on stage until October 3.  It’s a toe-tapping two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and reservations.