Ride That Magic Carpet to Aladdin

Well, after the week we’ve put in, isn’t it good to escape to a whole new world?

That’s what it felt like on opening night at Disney Aladdin on stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre until Sunday, November 27. It’s everything you expect a Disney stage production to be; dazzling costumes, lots of stage magic, a catchy score, and a high energy cast.

The story – if you missed the 1992 film – is a retelling of “Aladdin and His Magic Lamp” from the collection of Middle Eastern folktales “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights” albeit with a Disney spin.  It’s actually the perfect set up for practically every Disney story, where the kindly poor one encounters another one of privileged means, and while obstacles and meanies are thrown in their way, goodness and love will prevail. In other words, it could be Lady and the Tramp on two legs with two nasty humans instead of those wretched cats.

Cynicism aside, this Aladdin is everything you need it to be. From the opening number “Arabian Nights,” the Genie (Marcus M. Martin) completely endears you with his beguiling charm. You want to have a friend in him.  Martin’s rich and luxurious voice is the finest in this cast and his perfect articulation overcame some opening night muddiness in the sound mix. Aladdin (Adi Roy) is the heart-of-gold leader of his street gang-of four. They roam the marketplace, get in little bits of trouble, start their own boy band to earn some money, and will keep you laughing, even though the fat-guy-with-food-on-his-mind gags run their course pretty fast. Of course there’s Princess Jasmine (Senzel Ahmady), who’s disenchanted with her lot in life (marry a Prince, let him rule the kingdom) and wants to be the modern woman of her day. Jafar (Anand Nagraj) as the bad guy had the perfect spooky-evil laugh and his sidekick Iago (Aaron Choi) was as well-balanced and annoying sidekick.

Besides the Genie rightfully stealing every scene he is in (Martin really is THAT good), my other favorite part of the Aladdin experience is seeing how many kids were there with grown ups or with groups. That is how the next generation of theatre goers is built: one kid-appealing show at a time. And if it takes a Disney on stage extravaganza (with some well-placed ‘adult’ one-liners) to get them hooked, that’s OK. My parents started me with British light opera at Melody Fair (The Student Prince and Naughty Marietta when I was literally a babe in arm) and heck, it worked.

So yes, it’s pretty formulaic. The Menkin-Ashman-Rice-Begulein score is very familiar. It’s not the deepest of the deep plotlines. And yes, there is a marketplace of merch for sale and a lobby kiss and cry with Aladdin’s lap made for selfies. Embrace it. Get lost in the sparkle.  Take that magic carpet ride, just enjoy yourself. And don’t you dare close your eyes.

Disney Aladdin runs about two hours with a 15-minute intermission. There is no show on Thanksgiving and performances double-up for the weekend with rush priced tickets to boot. Get the details at www.sheas.org.

Guards at the Taj at Road Less Traveled Productions

I’ve always loved a good buddy story. Butch and Sundance, Thelma and Louise, Oscar and Felix…you get it. One is always solid, pragmatic while the other is more spontaneous, creative, free-falling through life because the other buddy is both the emotional safety net and soft place to land. Road Less Traveled Productions has the ultimate in buddy experiences onstage until December 11.

The two Guards at the Taj share that same rapport. Babur (Darryl Samira) and Humayun (Afrim Gjonbalaj) are on the lower rung of imperial guards gate-keeping the 22 year construction of the Taj Mahal.  They are to follow a strict protocol: they are to keep their backs to the construction site at all times with swords raised in their right hands; they are not to speak; and they are not to scale the wall to sneak a peek at the beauty that is being created behind them. No, they are not to see the work of 20,000 laboring men. But these young guards, who also shared military experience, are curious. Even through Humayun keeps reminding Babur to be quiet, stand tall, take this role seriously, they do fall into the easy banter of two guys on the job, until they realize that their work will include an unthinkable, unfathomable task. You see, the architect has asked the Shah to allow the workforce to view the completed Taj Mahal before it’s revealed to the rest of Agra and the world. This is an affront to the Shah, and there will be consequences. Babur can’t fathom that, nor can he zip his lip about his opinions, despite Humayun’s emphatic reminders. And this is where the buddy story takes a dark turn.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph’s award-winning script was inspired by myths, legends, and some history about how the Taj Mahal was constructed. The result is an intense and emotional experience that examines the boundaries of loyalty, honesty, and family responsibility.

Both Semira and Gjonbalaj are exceptional  here. It’s easy to get caught up in Semira’s boyish curiosity and enthusiasm as he dreams out loud about inventing a flying machine and seeing the world. Yet Humayun’s respect for rules has its virtue, too. This is riveting theatre that will linger in your mind as you reflect on its content and pull away the layers of their words, their actions, and the consequences they will face. It’s good to see Semira in this role after playing Arthur is MusicalFare Theatre’s easy-to-forget staging of Camelot. Gjonbalaj has a penchant for rich, complex roles as his character in RLTP’s Disgraced in  2018 and last season in D’Youville Kavinoky’s fierce People, Places, and Things.

Dyan Burlingame’s set is austere: the façade of a construction site is pretty blasé, but add John Rickus’ vibrant lighting design and Kate Menke’s sound that you can almost feel and the whole effect is unified and powerful. Director Kate Mallinson had a rich palette here.

I’ll be blunt: there were some scenes that were hard to watch. And they were meant to be that way. The 17th century was a brutal time and a grieving, entitled monarch could make his own rules.

Guards at the Taj runs just under 90 minutes with no intermission. Find info and a link to tickets at http://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

Beehive Makes a Buzz at MusicalFare

Randy Kramer offered the best explanation as he welcomed the opening night audience to Beehive, now on stage at MusicalFare Theatre. He said the season was built during the pandemic and it’s all about forgetting about what is going on outside under all those facemasks and just having some fun. And for the most part, Beehive is all about putting fresh batteries in your favorite transistor radio and singing along with familiar Top 40 hits from yesterday.

Beehive is a send up to all the girl groups and girl singers of the ‘60s. It’s also a bit of a social history through fashion and hair styles (Kari and Susan Drozd must have had a blast working on the hair/wigs and fashions for this one) and a running commentary on selected events of the day.

Act 1 is all about the conventional world back then. Silly patter songs like “The Name Game,” tearful teen tunes like “It’s My Party,” and hopeful love songs like “Then He Kissed Me,” “Sweet Talkin’ Guy,” and “One Fine Day” had the audience singing along. The sextet of singers – Brittany Bassett-Baran, Stevie Jackson, Lily Jones, Sabrina Kahwaty, Kristen-Marie Lopez, and Timiyah Love were giving these songs their own treatment. They weren’t trying to imitate the songmakers of the day. It was indeed a jolly romp and the audience was eating it up.

Act II brought the second half of the decade. It started out with a lovely rendition of “Abraham, Martin, and John” by Jones, Lopez, and Love. It was a stunning, harmonic mesh of voices and a poignant lament on Mr. King’s and President Kennedy’s deaths plus a reflection on the lives lost in Viet Nam. Mores for women were changing, too, and so did the tenor and tone of the songs. The fashions were getting sassy as well,  as mini-skirts replaced the puffy crinolined skirts of a more modest length. As a society, we were moving from “My Boyfriend’s Back” to “You Don’t Own Me.” The cast cruised through a few British invasion tunes right back to the homegrown female voices. “The “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Pride Mary” medley did Tina Turner proud and the Aretha medley blew the roof off the house. Jones, Lopez, and Love did it again.  They even had a quick wardrobe change from slinky sequins to flowing chiffon. It was the highlight of the show. Then it was 1969 and time for Woodstock. Cottony fringed granny dresses and sandals replaced strappy sandals and sparkle. Kahwaty gave it her best as she tried to growl out “Somebody to Love.” But when Jackson came on stage in a send up of Janis Joplin, the audience laughed? Really? I was rather shocked. After an act and a half of well spun songs, for a couple numbers it felt like she was trying to parody (certainly not mock) Joplin and somehow some audience members found her performance amusing. The follow up trio turned “Me and My Bobby McGee” into a cheesy country tune without the signature bluesy soul.

Another thing that bothered me:  The trio ensemble pieces were as segregated as my Buffalo public grammar school, pre-Judge Curtain. It would have made a bold and beautiful artistic statement to mix it all up.

The set had the bright colors of the Laugh In stage, with different levels perfect for doing the twist, the jerk, and the pony. Director/choreographer Carlos R.A. Jones kept his cast movin’ and groovin’ all over the stage, too.

The back up band was solid, led by keyboardist Phil Farugia with  Larry Albert on guitar, Jim Linsner on drums., Jim Runfola blowing a mean sax, and Jimmy Runfola on bass.

If you’re into musical nostalgia and like to sing along, this is the show for you. So rat your hair, rub another coat of Jubilee wax on your Nancy Sinatra go-go boots, and grab a ticket a www.musicalfare.com. The show runs a fast-paced 90 minutes with one intermission to December 11.

Misery is a Creepy Good Story at D’Youville Kavinoky

One of the late singer Helen Reddy’s hits songs (circa 1974) began with the lyrics “Lonely women are the desperate kind.” That’s a good thought to keep when you see Misery on stage now at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre.

Misery is based on the Stephen King novel which also became a film. The stage adaptation by William Goldman is just as eerie, creepy, and moody as one would expect of a story with King origin, and does a good job keeping you on the proverbial edge of your seat.

Our lonely, desperate, not-exactly a heroine is Annie Wilkes, an ex-nurse who lives alone in a secluded Colorado farm house. She’s the “number one fan” of novelist Paul Sheldon and his historical fiction series about Misery Chastain. Sheldon ironically stays at a nearby inn from time to time, and when Annie is not-so-ironically following him on a mountain road during a snowstorm and he skids off the road, she decides to nurse him back to health. In her home. Without calling for help. And that’s where it all gets weird. Wonderfully, psychologically, and thrillingly weird.

Loraine O’Donnell is Wilkes, Adriano Gatto is Sheldon together (with a couple visits from the Sheriff, played by Steven Brachmann), they take us on a journey of obsession and extreme fan-girl gone mad.

The emotional tone is established by David King’s set. It revolves to show three key spaces in Annie’s home; the bedroom where Paul is locked in; the hallway with a bookshelf tribute to Paul and his Misery books, and Annie’s kitchen. Each space is dreary with time-darkened wallpaper, old furnishings, and dowdy trappings with some religious displays, too. Props to prop designer Donny Woodward for creating a visual atmosphere of sadness from the start. (Shout out to the ‘50s vintage copper Jello molds hanging over the kitchen sink. Dear readers who have visited my home know that mine hang in the pantry.)

The Annie we meet is bubbly, excited to be caring for her captive idol, and devoted to his recovery. Or not. O’Donnell is the master of this transformation, from eager helpmate to captor….her eyes, her mannerisms, her demeanor shifts and morphs as our story unfolds.  Gatto as Paul does his share of shifting, too, as he regains physical strength and mental wherewithal. And as he heals, the fun begins. He wants to leave. Annie needs him to stay. And she’s determined. The mental calisthenics they play is so creepy good, bewitching almost. Director Brian Cavanagh coaxed power into the restraint here and it’s fine. The most visually arresting scene was as the set rotated counterclockwise as Paul propelled his wheelchair clockwise through the rooms looking for a way out. Gatto choreographed some chilling fight scenes, too, between Annie and Paul and some weapons, too.  

Misery is smart, sad, sharp, and scary. It’s a potent reminder that disappointment and life circumstances can change someone’s heart and soul, perhaps beyond repair, and even pop literature has power when the reader is very fully engaged. D’Youville Kavinoky is telling more than a story here.

Misery is on stage until November 20 and runs a little more than two hours with a 15-minute intermission. I particularly love the printed program and the “stand by” cast (Don Gervasi as Paul, Marie Costa as Annie, Kodi James as the Sheriff.) A good decision on the Kav’s part to have standbys at the ready. Too many productions were truncated or canceled the past couple years and this is a good plan. Book your reservation at http://www.kavinokytheatre.com.

Burst is Packed with Energy

In the 1967 Mike Nichols movie The Graduate, one of the most memorable lines was actually one word: “Plastics.” Back then plastic was the way of the future, a convenience, an economic driver, something on which a college graduate (or even a drop out) could build a successful career. Fast forward to now: plastic has infiltrated our lives and our environment in significant and life-altering ways. Perhaps its real future is in how to manage plastic’s more destructive properties.

That’s what is at the heart of Burst, a new play by Rachel Bublitz on stage now at Alleyway Theatre. What else is surrounding that heart? Betrayal, lies, bravado so intense that if it was indeed masking insecurity, the root cause would never see daylight, and a polyester zip-front vest.

Yes, Burst has a lot going on for a 90-minute three-hander. And it is good. Scary good. Tracie Lane is Sarah Boyd, the marketing maven of Tactix, a burst-on-the-scene company she founded with college pal Jennifer Weaver (Aleks Malejs) when they met at UC/Berkley (natch). They raised some of their start up capital selling a Shark Tank-worthy gimmick: a pair of socks called the 50/50. You sent in 50 plastic bottles to recycle and $50 and you received a pair of socks, allegedly made from the recycled plastic bottles. Brilliant, huh? Well, in hindsight, maybe not practical and certainly not accessible ($50 for a pair of socks?). This is the kind of sizzle that gets you on the cover of Forbes. It’s also the fodder for a plan that can also flame out when something goes awry. It’s Sarah’s drive that launched the biz while Jennifer used her science skills (albeit Sarah snarls “Nobody cares about science” when the two rumble) to create the process that would change the molecular structure of plastic from the oh-so-‘70s recycled biodegradable stuff of Earth Day fame to something new and very well…saleable. Except…maybe it isn’t there. Or even possible. Or is it? And who knows the truth?

This is the sheer brilliance of this story: it’s a friendship gone bad story. It’s an ambition obfuscates authenticity story. It’s zeal couched in marketing story. And like I said, it’s scary good.

From the very start of the show, when her character is practicing a presentation, saying, “The problem is plastic,” Lane is on fire. She shifts from angry to ecstatic to cunning and charming. She never leaves the stage and she commands your attention every moment that she paces the set. Malejs is just as intense in her way; she’s a scientist, bound by integrity but caught in a whirling orbit manufactured by her business partner. She is focused, quietly righteous, probably intimidated as all get out. When Christine Turturro enters as Alexis the reporter – who Sarah thinks will crank out a puff piece – the dynamic is already volatile. Alexis’ questions test Sarah and Jennifer…and more layers of this fascinating story are exposed.

I really like this group of actors here. This is a different role for Malejs as the docile friend in the shadow of a big personality. She steps back well. I had only seen Lane’s performance in Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Stage Kiss last season and frankly, I wasn’t bowled over by the production at all. This was a delight and a relief to see her so engaged. Turturro never disappoints; she gives Alexis the wisdom of a veteran reporter and the ferocity someone looking for her breakout story.

Director Daniel F. Lendzian manages this trio by keeping the pace fast and rhythmic. Malejs and Lane bounce off each other perfectly in their roles: the more rivetingly intense Sarah is, the more quietly, righteously Jennifer retreats. Turturro brings a new spark to this dance. As the reporter, she’s done her scrubbing (newsroom jargon for deep background research) and she knows the flaws and is ready to go public. And this is where the real fun begins.

Collin Ranney’s set – Sarah’s mid-century office – was clean and sleek. It was a curious design choice (a retro ‘60s vibe from when plastic was less evil) and the back wall filled with empty plastic bottles was the perfect counterpoint. Emma Schimminger kept the lighting bright, almost fluorescent. Shifting the colors of the plastic bottles on the back wall made it seem like performance art.

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting this when I saw the show description. It wasn’t the “let’s fix the environment” tale I had anticipated. It’s a character study of ambition taking a wrong turn, and a constructed college relationship detouring where personal passions collide with integrity. The characters you don’t see – Lee, the gatekeeper, Nina, the assistant, and the college professor/mentor – are still vivid in how Sarah and Jennifer discuss them. Dang, it’s good.

Burst runs 90 minutes with no intermission, to November 12.  Tix and info at http://www.alleyway.com.

The Secret Garden at Second Generation

Gardens traditionally symbolize renewal, new life, and growth. Tending to a garden is emotionally tied to nurturing, empathy, and change. All good things. Second Generation Theatre’s production of The Secret Garden Spring Edition, embraces the very best of these positive attributes in an elegant and lush production on stage now at the Shea’s Smith Theatre.

The Secret Garden – the book –  is a classic in the young adult literature canon, written by British born author Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911. The source work is dark and dour sometimes, and frankly, as a young reader, it scared the bejeebers out of me. Think of Jane Eyre meets Wuthering Heights with a side of Rebecca written for girls. The moors are keening, the housekeeper is evil, the orphan is in a state, and the master is aloof in his sadness.  And there are secrets, plenty of secrets. Movies and made for TV versions were made through the years. In 1991, it was made into a Tony Award-winning musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, starring Mandy Patinkin and the late and luminous Rebecca Luker.

Second Generation is presenting the ‘spring’ version, shortened to 90 minutes in two acts for a family audience. It’s a little gem of a show. Michael Oliver Walline’s direction and choreography create and sustain a mood of hope over gloom in a way that elevates the core story to a dreamy, wondrous place.

The production is also a showcase for the next generation of Buffalo theatre, featuring two youth actors. Ella Hinklin is young Mary Lennox. Yes, she foot-stomps with spoiled brattiness and is petulant as all get out. But heck, her parents just died of cholera in India and she was shipped off to her uncle Archibald Craven’s (Louis Colaiacovo) manse on the moors. Her uncle’s brother Neville Craven (John Panepinto) is a creepy doctor and the head housekeeper (Anne DeFazio) isn’t exactly a warm hug. Who wouldn’t pitch a fit or two? Hinklin wraps herself in this role; when she announces to Martha the chambermaid (Amy Jakiel} that “you can dress me now” and shoots her arms into the air, the expressions on both their faces is priceless. As all good characters – and garden roses – do, she blossoms with extra attention and plenty of love from Martha and her brother Dickon (Joe Russi), Ben the gruff gardener (John Kreuzer), and her secret cousin Colin (Clark Garvey).

And then there’s the rest of the cast: ghosts of Lennox and Craven family members and the long neglected garden is a ghost, too. The ensemble is dressed in white and dancing – almost floating – on and off the stage, using the tiered stage and house to full advantage as they weave through this story. Mary’s parents (Bob Mazierski and Leah Berst) and her Aunt Lily (Kelly Copps) are among the no longer living and bring an eerie comfort to the story; they’re here to haunt with hope. The other key character in our story is the robin who sings to Dickon and the gardener and who guides Mary to the key that unlocks the over grown gate of the secret garden.  Maria Pedro is as expressive as a real bird as she flutters a faux feathered friend from her fingers. This was charming. Jenn Stafford – real life mother to Hinklin – steps out of the ensemble for a small moment as Mrs. Winthrop, head of girls school where young Mary is determined not to attend. She’s wonderfully haughty and uppity with a glimpse of the signature Stafford sass.

The show is full of beautifully powerful performances: when the two Craven brothers sing “Lily’s Eyes” about Archibald’s late wife (yup, Neville was crushin’ on his sister in law), it’s wistful and poignant. Copps as Lily is exquisite: her lilting soprano is lovely and her rendition of “How Could I Ever Know” is filled with love and longing. It’s Russi as Dickon who absolutely delights: remember his simpering and then his snarling performance as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret last season? His Dickon is sprightly yet strong in his conviction that the garden is “Wick,” (Yorkshire slang for alive).  He’s a charmer wrapped in an aura of quirky kindness. Jakiel as the chambermaid is endearing and her second act song “Hold On” is a powerful anthem to hope.

This company never disappoints. Walline’s production team – Allan Paglia, music director, Chris Cavanagh, lighting/sound/technical director, Jenna Damberger, costume design and their teams – built the infrastructure for an exceptional experience with this show. Every element supports Mary’s transformation from lonely, spoiled little girl to nurturing and caring young woman.

It’s no secret: The Secret Garden is a delight, from the music and staging to the evocative story of hope against melancholy. It’s a short run (to October 30) and its 90 minute (15 minutes for an intermission) make it just right for older kids to enjoy with their families. Find details at www.secondgenerationtheatre.com.

My one kvetch: the lack of a printed program. I get it…printing is expensive. Younger audiences don’t revel in turning real paper pages. But there are some of us who don’t love waiting until we get home to visit a website and I’m a rule follower so my phone is turned off before I cross the theatre threshold.

“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