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.

“Art” on Stage at O’Connell & Company

It’s so good to finally write these words after the longest intermission ever: welcome to a new theatre season, Western New York.

O’Connell & Company started the season with a surprise: a comedy and not the typical musical. “Art” was written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton. It was first performed in London and Broadway in the 1990s.

This three-hander has a curious plot: Serge (played by John Kreuzer) buys a pricey modern painting. It’s a tone on tone canvas which could easily be named” Polar Bears in a Blizzard Eating Marshmallows.” His friend Marc (Rolando M. Gomez ) doesn’t get it: to him, it looks like a “white piece of $hit” and he can’t get past his friend’s attraction to it. The third friend, Yvan (Joey Bucheker) tries to mediate his two friends’ verbal battle on this canvas, which later spirals into deeper conflicts.  Ah, but Yvan has his own drama-within-the-comedy: he’s about to be married and is also adapting to a career change, too.

Director Victoria Perez uses some clever and attractive stage devices at the very beginning and end of this one-act piece.  Here the characters shares their point of view in monologues in front of a projected white rectangle of light between the soft-focused muted floods of color.  It does just what it needs to do to direct your focus.

Between the effecti ve beginning and end motiffs, there’s a long and rather loud middle section that is mostly progressively higher pitched yelling. The barbs fly as Marc and Serge drag the canvas and their friendship through the mud. Regrettably their vocal pitch keeps rising, too, almost to the level of hausfrau chick-fighting. It’s easy to lose focus here and forget the bickering buddies are supposed to be professional men of means having an emotional and intense (and metaphorical) discussion.  The frenetic energy leads to a well-staged fist fight that felt almost too slapstick:  ratcheting down the shrill screeching might have brought more tension to this moment.

It’s the painting itself that helps settle the riff: Serge demonstrates his friendship and Marc steps up, too, in a surprising moment that would make any art collector shudder.  

There were a couple opening night distractions. An intermittent buzz in the audio will need to be worked out and there were a few dropped lines here and there that were artfully covered by this veteran trio. Costuming and set design (I didn’t understand that it was supposed to flip between three apartments until I read the playbill) were functional but not commanding: the painting itself (by artist Sara Jo Kukulka) and creative lighting by Reuben Julius grabbed attention.

O’Connell & Company has all the right protocol in place for making patrons feel comfortable coming back inside, including an online playbill. Executive artistic director Mary Kate O’Connell’s onstage greeting is verbal hug and ‘welcome home’ that we’ve been waiting for.

“Art” runs 90 minutes with no intermission until September 19.  Click here for details.

Love, Linda at MusicalFare is Wunderbar

In brief: It’s de-lovely.

That made-up contraction by the inimitable Cole Porter is the perfect way to describe “Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter,” on stage at MusicalFare Theatre  to July 18.

Debbie Pappas gracefully commands the stunning set with her elegant portrayal of Linda Lee Thomas Porter, Porter’s wife of 35 years,where she tells her story in words and selections from her husband’s songbook.  Pappas  is every inch the Art Deco-era social maven, in a satiny, sparkly gown, triple strand of pearls, Revlon red lipstick and just-so curled bob.  But oh it’s the music, whimsical (and sometimes plaintive) words, and her magnificent voice that make this experience so special. That’s what this show is: an experience where for an hour and five minutes, you’re immersed in a salon of storytelling and song in a period appropriate atmosphere.

The narrative is woven around the songs with compelling simplicity. Unlike the typical musical where the songs advance the storyline, the song selections – representing all parts of the Porter canon – mesh with her story in surprising ways.  For example, she speaks of her husband’s homosexuality and his dalliances with a forthright and gentle hand, punctuated by “Let’s Be Buddies,” written for “Anything Goes.” Perhaps a bit wistful  and not as jovial as the lyrics portend, it’s a poignant moment with a smile and a heart full of love.  

The narrative hits the high (and low) notes of their marriage, their social circle, mutual love for Paris, her disdain for Hollywood, and his passion for the good life. It’s the music, that glorious music, with familiar tunes like “I Love Paris,” “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine” and a dozen more that is so grand. Theresa Quinn is behind the screen at the piano and her interpretation is lush as ever.  Nick Corallo on drums is fun, albeit sometimes a distraction in the softer moments.  Pappas’ voice is clear and powerful in each number, giving each song its own distinct tone and mood.

Chris Cavanagh created a beautiful set that’s reminiscent of a circa 1920 parlor. Images of Porter and production handbills fill two screens. The sisters Drozd – Kari and Susan – nail the attire and the look. Director Norman Sham is working with pure gold from the team to the material with his Wunderbar real-life wife. As the song says, “C’est Magnifique.”

“Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter” runs an hour and five minutes with no intermission, to July 18. COVID protocols are in place and the audience seating is thoughtfully spaced. Visit www.musicalfare.com for tickets. It’s so good to be back.

Hi Honey, We’re Home….Alleyway Theatre Starts Live Season

15 months is a long time to wait for a Quickie…even six quickies.

In this case, Alleyway Theatre ‘s 30th annual New Play Festival celebration Buffalo Quickies 2021 was worth the wait.  In an practically perfect post-pandemic stroke of theatre genius,  Alleyway’s new Executive Artistic Director Chris J Handley and his team created an inside-outside experience that is a production in itself. The audience was divided into small groups and each group rotated between Main Street store front windows for each Quickie. The actors were behind glass and the audience was outside, listening to crystal clear (except was the Light Rail roared by) audio through properly sanitized headsets. Ushers led you between performance settings and the printed program and color coded lights in your headset made the process flow easily. Intermission was staggered and there was no awkward ‘cross over’ time where groups crossed paths. The slow stroll between locations was easy and enjoyable.

It was a wonderful entrée back to in person Buffalo theatre.

On our night, the companion of choice and I were in Group A, and our first stop was the Shea’s Courtyard for  the world premiere of the 2020 Mazumdar New Play Finalist “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a musical version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story. (This was required reading for those of us who took Feminist Lit or Women’s Studies classes in college.) Kelly Copps plays the mother of a new born babe and her (likely) post-partum depression prompts her doctor to prescribe isolation and rest. Her shabby room overlooks a garden, but the shadows that haunt her from the torn yellow wallpaper command her attention. Copps’ real life husband is her stage hubby, too, and her sis Amy Jakiel is her sister-in-law. The Mrs. Copps’ torment is palpable, even under glass, as she tries to free her paper demon. It’s eerie and strangely beautiful.  A clever staging moment has Mr. Copps and Jakiel in a second floor window, looking down as Mrs. Copps struggle with the power of her mind. The only musical of the night, he trio’s sumptuous voices rose above the mediocre score. An early and not too well explained treat was the solo voice of Kristen Tripp Kelley reading  from the original story that was in our headsets before the show began. It set the stage for creepy.

Next up was “In Transit,” in front of Shea’s 710. Written by Rachel Lynett, it features Victoria Perez and Smirna Mercedes as ex partners who cross paths in an airport. The repartee, the memories, the questions, the heartbreak….it’s all here in under 10 minutes and it’s glorious to watch. Perez and Mercedes were a treat to watch: you could picture them as a couple, with their foibles driving each other crazy and their passion making their hearts soar. But is it meant to be? Director Josie DiVincenzo kept the action simple and poignant.  The ending left me wondering…just what good theatre is supposed to do.

After our just-right intermission, we move to 678 Main St. to meet “Grown-Ass Louis,” by Bruce Walsh. David C. Mitchell and Trevor Dugan are in side-by-side windows as Louis comes to terms with his father’s death. Mitchell shows his chops playing multiple gruff adult characters.

Next up was “Lily and Tessa’s Super Star Show, Episode 37,” by Devon Hayakawa, another world premiere.  What ‘tween girl hasn’t sung or acted into her hairbrush (or in this case, a curling iron) while performing to an adoring crowd of stuffed animals and celebrity posters? Jane Hereth is solid as the solo star who’s missing her co-host. There’s a subtle and disturbing twist here, coming from a one-sided phone conversation with the missing co-host’s mother.  This powerful plot twist leaves you wanting more of this story. Director Robyn Lee Horn created the ultimate in ‘tween chaos in the bedroom/set and even ‘broadcast’ it on the exterior wall to play on the TV show theme.

The Shea’s Smith window became the private lair in “Helen Mirren Takes a Day Off,” another solo show starring Shanntina Moore as Mirren. And oh what a life….there are relentless phone calls from Fifi the dog’s vet, Dame Judi Dench, Mirren’s pro…what’s a Diva to do?  It was funny and Moore as Mirren was charming, but this was a long 10 minutes.

Our final show was “Pay Your Ferryman” by Lauren Davenport, another world premiere, directed by Handley himself with Victor Morales in the solo role. This was the only inside (mask it up) show and the scant audience seating was well spaced and just right.  Morales is commanding as always, this time portraying Charon, the figure from Greek mythology, the cruise director on the boat of Hades.  The faux gilt bars on each seat must be paid – or not, in the case of my rebel companion – to Charon cross you across Styx. Morales is scary and hysterical as he grumbles in his workaday life.

What’s notable is that the cast and crew repeat their magic as many as five or six times each performance, as new groups saunter up to their windows. Kudos to the six assistant stage managers and the tech team who keep the proverbial train on track. There’s a new position in the Production Staff – COVID Compliance Office – who made sure all rules were followed and all headsets and chairs and touch points were properly sanitized. So welcome back to a new season of theatre:  Alleyway’s clever and inventive staging makes  this a great way to begin.

Buffalo Quickies runs an easy two hours with a 15-minute intermission, now until July 10. Visit www.alleyway.com for tickets and details.

Road Less Traveled Productions and Big Foot – A Killer Combo

It’s a production almost a century in the making, combining aural tradition of AM radio (first heard in WNY in 1920) and the ubiquity of Zoom, the 21st century answer to human relations during a pandemic.

Playwright Jon Elston admits to being intrigued by the late radio show host Art Bell and his call in show “Coast to Coast AM” that’s an homage to unexplained phenomena everywhere. Elston said, “I appreciate the opportunity he would get people to come on his show and given them a forum to say wild things. He let people come on his show and say whatever they wanted.   He was a right leaning libertarian with broad views.” One mystery in particular – Big Foot – is a topic, Elston said, that is “near and dear to my heart for close to 40 years.”

Elston’s fear and fascination with this creature was the inspiration for his play “Big Foot, A Live Virtual Theatrical Experience,” presented by Road Less Traveled Productions for two performances on October 2 and 9.

Yes,  Big Foot. Myth? Legend? Beast? Hoax?  Well, even science isn’t really sure.  There’s even a branch of pseudoscience – cryptozoology – devoted to the study of the existence (or not) of Sasquatch and his brethren, For Elston, the mystery (or is it suspended reality?) is part of the allure that makes for interesting theatre during these unprecedented times.

“I wanted to write about this,” Elston said, “and Scott Behrend (RLTP’s artistic director) knew this, and he has been amused by it as most people are. But desperation is the mother of invention, so he offered me the opportunity to write the play and see it become a reality online.”

For director John Hurley, that was the key: Elston wrote the play to be produced in the online environment.  “Jon wrote the play for Zoom,” said Hurley, “so we’re not trying to adapt the play to this format.”

Running only 35 minutes, the actors – Jake Hayes, Lisa Vitrano (veteran of other Elston world premieres), Robyn Horn and Peter Horn – will perform from the safety of their homes. There was only one scene shot on location. Sara Foote, stage manager, will be in the theatre, calling the show, give the prompts, and – from her position at the computer – controlling what the at-home audience will see on screen. Elston said, “I don’t think it would have been possible to do this show in the live theatre environment.

The story is set in Niagara County, as married couple Charlie and Bea (the real life married Horns) listen to a late night radio program on the paranormal hosted by Wild Doug Wilford (Hayes) with paranormal expert Earlyne Harvest Smith (Vitrano) as his subject matter expert guest. But wait? Is that….Sasquatch himself roaming the woods surrounding Charlie and Bea’s home? Elston adds to the nuance of the story by building a twist of conflict. “There’s a nice debate in the shows,” he said. “ It’s funny, there’s a kind of humor and real situation and it’s serious, too,” Elston said. If writing about giant man-animal-being isn’t surreal enough, creating theatre to be performed for an online audience, viewing it on a screen and not on a stage like the rest of our current situation: unprecedented. Elston said, “This is an exciting time and a scary time. People haven’t done this before. We’re learning in real time from each other. There’s a lot at stake here: do we just go without theatre for six months or a year or longer?”

“Big Foot, A Live Virtual Theatrical Experience,” presented by Road Less Traveled Productions for two performances on October 2 and 9, 8pm and runs a brisk 35-minutes, possibly shorter than any Zoom. Reservations at $15 and should be made prior to two hours before show time. Find details at https://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org/bigfoot-a-live-virtual-theatrical-experience