Alleyway Theatre’s Current: 716 Reflects On Stage Online

March feels like such a long time ago, especially for our theatre community. That’s when we last set foot in a local theatre.  When it was clear that live theatre wasn’t coming back any time soon, theatre companies began planning  new iterations on alternative platforms. While nothing can take the place of a real live in-theatre experience, I’m glad and grateful for all that creative ingenuity.

This is a particularly poignant time for Alleyway Theatre. Last season it celebrated a landmark anniversary and its founder and leader – Neal Radice – stepped down, as did its grande dame Joyce Stilson. That in itself is a major transition for any theatre company. Add in the complication of COVID-19 and a theatre season interrupted and it’s another unprecedented event. Alleyway is coming back this month to launch its 2020-2021 season with a hometown theme. Currents: 716  is a series of 15 short monologues written by a variety Buffalo playwrights. The entire pastiche is videotaped and pieced together with no defined intermission. Consider this a new take on Alleyway’s iconic Buffalo Quickies. Only “The Box,” the opening vignette, uses Alleyway’s stage. Who needs the four walls of a theatre when you have a whole city full of neighborhoods and landmarks to use as COVID-friendly backdrops?

The whole production is a pretty wild romp with interstitial music by local musicians. Love the cross-genre support for all local performers.

Most of the plays have a corona virus theme while others focus on social justice. “What She Remembers on a Walk” by Gary Earl Ross is an outlier: Mary Craig portrays a woman reflecting and imagining her life as a caregiver pushes her wheelchair through east side neighborhoods. It’s sweet and heartbreaking.” Waste to Wealth on the Waterways of Western New York … Or,“Padon tells Parsifal How to Save the Planet” is a send up to environmental activism  Elizabethan-style.  Imagine if the Sierra Club wrote its call to action missives in rhyming couplets, the likes of “Without sustainability, there can be no more humanity,” or “You throw away this used once, is acting like a stupid dunce.”

There were some truly lovely moments. In “Close Up”the black girlfriend of woman clashes with her good ol’ guy Polish dad, and then bond over their shared connection with Buffalo’s Central Terminal. “Signs of the Divine” is performed in American Sign Language (and dubbed) and asks how you can hear the word of God? Ed  Taylor sums up Buffalo spirit perfectly in “Black Nikes” when his character – a ride share driver talking about his fares – says “In Buffalo hope f$*%ing springs eternal.”  In “Almost April,” Pamela Rose Mangus is banished to her basement to quarantine by her COVID-phobic husband and makes a video for their daughter while she endeavors to sort the clutter.  “Monologue #6”, set in on Carlton St. bench with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in the background  was focused and purposeful – a life lesson for the insidious forms of racism and judgment. This one is subtle and brilliant. Donna Hoke’s  “Same New Story” has Peter Palmisano on a perfectly-paced rant against COVID, like a more stylish and controlled Howard (“mad as hell and not going to take it anymore”) Beale from the 1976 film Network.

Admittedly there are things that are less appealing. There’s some (perhaps deliberately) shaky camera work that my eyes found tedious and the (almost) constant barrage of corona virus situations didn’t transport me to that delicious place away from the real world (like theatre is often wont to do).

There’s more virtual theatre to come this fall; get over your Zoom fatigue and take a chance on this alternative theatre permutation. You’re still supporting our creative class and you’ll see some familiar faces, too.

Currents:716 is online Thursday, Friday, Saturday to September 26. It runs just under two hours if you don’t pause for bio breaks or libations. While an occasional curse word doesn’t distract when we’re in the theatre for reals, there is some non-family-friendly language if there are little ones in your viewing parlor. Details at www.alleyway.com.

‘Hand to God’ at Road Less Traveled

The cast of “Hand To God” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Poor Margery. She’s dealing with the loss of her husband by using liturgical puppets as a ministry at her Christian church. She’s not a puppeteer by trade, and she can’t sing or preach, she says, so she will show her love for the church through the Christkateers puppet club and it will be her path to salvation. That is until her son Jason’s puppet Tyrone becomes possessed by Satan, and the church pastor comes on to her in a sweet and gentle way which is NOT the way the teen Lothario of the puppet club declares his desire for her. What’s a mother to do?

So that’s the innocent set up of “Hand to God” the wickedly funny and very moving show on stage at Road Less Traveled Productions, now until March 29. It took a couple years for RLTP to finally get Robert Askins’ Tony-nominated show on stage in Buffalo, and – hand-to-God –  it will be one of the best shows you will see all season.  The script is both hilarious and deeply moving and the performances by Jenn Stafford as Margery and Dan Urtz as her son Jason are outstanding.

There’s a lot of love about this show. Dyan Burlingame’s set nails the typical church basement classroom and she cleverly drops in a concealed space that serves as two rooms in Margery and Jason’s home. Diane Almeter Jones was in touch with her inner child in searching out perfect props to add to the spaces. My favorite was the toy automobile console and steering while that Stafford “drove”  with deadpan perfection. Tyrone and Jolene – the puppets – were the work of designer Adam Kreutinger. Tyrone the sock puppet started out as a goofy gray sock dressed in child-friendly primary colors and evolved into the devil incarnate with teeth that draw blood and a demonic expression. Jolene is all woman with extra large sequin nipples. Hysterical.

It’s the acting that makes this wild ride of a script so sublime. Stafford is flat out amazing as the perfect Christian mom full of pent up sexuality covered in Southern charm. She’s exactly how you never want to imagine your mom. John Kreuzer is the slightly sweaty Pastor Greg who lusts in his heart for Margery while teaching the good word to his flock. Teen lover-boy Timmy is the kid you love to hate and Henry Farleo has the swagger to pull it off. Maura Nolan Coseglia is Jessica, the kind hearted girl in puppet club who is designing Jolene with a little bit of bad girl. It’s Dan Urtz as Jason that owns almost every scene. As Jason he’s soft-spoken and child-like; when he’s Tyrone, his voice is angry and evil and full of potty-mouth-puppet rage. He shifts gears between personae effortlessly. John Hurley’s direction keeps the show tight and on target. The funniest scene has to be when puppet Jolene tries to calm Tyrone’s inner beast with her womanly charms. If you had your fill of puppets enjoying sock-on-sock action in “Avenue  Q,” this is a whole different story. Urtz and Nolan Coseglia took this to the limit.

Underneath the loads of laughs and the twisted story of sock puppets with a mind of their own, the human story is poignant. Loneliness and isolation harm the human psyche. Dealing with loss and absent parents – through death or their own despair – have deep residual impacts. How we deal with the life we’re handed can be a painful struggle to survive, fit in, and find love. Role playing can indeed bring out our demons until our authentic selves take charge.

“Hand to God” is  great fun and an outstanding showcase for some of our region’s finest theatre talent. It run just two hours with a 15-minutre intermission to March 29. Find details and tickets at www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

“Indecent” is Sublime at Kavinoky

In 1906, Warsaw was a city in revolution. The Imperial Russian Army was terrorizing workers.  The city was in recession, a harbinger of things to come. Despite this grim reality, its Jewish community was creating art and celebrating its culture. Playwright  Sholem Asch was staring taboos  in the face with a provocative play of love, defiance, and unbridled sensuality. His ‘God of Vengeance’ told  the story of illicit love between a prostitute and the virginal young daughter of a brothel owner. It shocked the establishment, and enthralled a tailor who made it his life’s work to bring the production to the great capitals of Europe and then to New York where it met its demise.

This is the story within the story of “Indecent,” beautifully constructed by Paula Vogel and elegantly staged at Kavinoky Theatre now to March 29. Presented in collaboration with the Jewish Repertory of WNY, this marks the first theatre company partnership for the Kavinoky, and this is a perfect match stylistically and metaphorically, too.

In brief, this performance is stunning. The cast of 12 takes on multiple roles that make the experience even more robust than it is. Each character carries his own dignity in humbling, strong ways throughout the story that spans more than 50 years and many locations. In a blink, lives change as society struggles along.

Director Kristen Tripp Kelley uses every inch of Kavinoky’s space, from the wings to the house itself; the audience is literally wrapped in this performance. Set designer extraordinaire David King created a multi-layered canvas that transformed the Kav’s stage to the worn and weary European stage houses and war-torn buildings where Jewish culture was kept in secret.  Diane Almeter Jones did magical things with simple props; suitcases were vessels for travel that also became table supports and sign holders. The metaphors aren’t lost, they’re center stage. She dressed the set with scarves that wrapped, concealed, and transformed the actors. Brian Milbrand’s projections used a timeline in English and Yiddish that helped the audience keep pace with change in venue and the span of time. The silent movie-style narration on the projection is engaging, too. All these elements worked silently and seamlessly.

But it’s the cast constantly moving (carefully choreographed by Lynne Kurdziel Formato) cast against a vintage screen backdrop that was tasked to tell Vogel’s intense adaptation. Jordan Levin (last seen as Leo Frank in “Parade”last season at ART of WNY, another intense performance) is on fire as Lemml, the tailor-turned stage manager. His cast mates shine in their multiple roles. Arin Lee Dandes, Aleks Malejs, Adam Yellen, Peter Palmisano, Debbie Pappas Sham, Saul Elkin, and Matt Witten flex as ‘Vengeance’ cast members and others who  are both beguiled and outraged by immorality and expressions of love. The musicians are on stage, too, and weave into the cast as well. Watch the arch of violinist Maggie Zindle’s brow as the works her way around the stage, and the playfulness Megan Callahan has in toodling  klezmer tunes on her clarinet. Musical director Joseph Donohue III doubles as the accordionist, and Bassist Benjamin Levitt rounds out the sound.

There are some gorgeous moments here; some repeat for effect, like when fine ash falls from under actors’ coat sleeves in key sequences, and a soft fall of rain welcomes spring and a new day.

Good things happen when the right partners come together in strength and shared vision. The Kav and and JRT prove this, on stage and off. The Kav’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell and JRT’s founder Saul Elkin set the bar a little higher for theatre company collaboration with this one.

Before the show, O’Donnell previewed the Kav’s 41st season. Two musicals (“Something Rotten” and “Rock of Ages” ) light up the season. The British mystery “The Woman in Black” returns to this stage. The classic “Pride and Prejudice” will take a new spin (if you liked Irish Classical Theatre Company’s treatment of “Sense and Sensibility” last season, this adaptation was penned by the same playwright), and “People, Places, and Things, a powerful story about addiction closes out the 2021 season. O’Donnell knows how to keep an audience engaged while taking some calculated chances, too. All good.

“Indecent” runs 95 minutes without intermission and is onstage until March 29. Find tickets and details here.

A Sure Sign of Spring: Shea’s Announces Next Season’s Schedule

Shea’s Buffalo Theatre is going back to its roots as a movie house with the M&T Bank 2020-21 Broadway Series. Six of the seven mainstage offerings either began their lives on the silver screen or have already been made into films. Venerable producing partner Albert Nocciolino joined Shea’s  President  Michael G. Murphy to announce next year’s season at a subscriber’s event held Tuesday night.

An exciting kick off to the season – and another economic boon for Buffalo – are two national tours are launching on Shea’s stage. This also means that Shea’s will host the tech and stage crews for extended stays, with an estimated $3 million in regional economic impact for the region, says Murphy, along with creating work for local theatre technicians.  This is made possible by a New York State program that incents Broadway productions to launch from an upstate – in our case a Western New York – theatre, an opportunity enjoyed by our city coffers for five years.

The first of these productions is “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Richard Thomas, August 15-22. This is Aaron Sorkin’s script which was produced this season at the Kavinoky Theatre. Thomas – long remembered for his TV character John Boy Walton – will star as Atticus Finch.

Next up and the second national launch is the stage version of the 1982 comedy “Tootsie,” October 3-10. It’s the same fun story: an out of work actor wins roles when he dresses in drag, with a score written by David Yazbeck who also the score for “The Band’s Visit” coming to Shea’s this April, along with “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

The next movie on stage in “Pretty Woman The Musical,” where the hooker with a heart of gold wins over emotionally remote rich dude. All the scenes you loved in the 1990 movies are tied together with a score by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime song writing partner Jim Vallance.

The 2019 Tony award winning revival of “Oklahoma” is on stage January 26-31. The New York Times called it the “the coolest production of the year is from 1943” because of its inventive restaging of an American classic and the fresh arrangements of the lovely Rodgers and Hammerstein score.

Another classic,  the Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” follows March 23-28.

The season’s juke box musical is “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Life and Times of The Temptations,” dances on stage May 11 to 16.

Closing out the season is another hit from the snowy silvery screen, “Frozen,” June 16-27.

Two special engagements round out the season: “Hamilton” returns November 3-20. Season subscribers may opt to include this as part of their season; and “Dear Evan Hansen,” April 13-18.

Murphy also announced the new seasons for Shea’s other theatre properties.  For the third season, O’Connell & Company will be in residence at Shea’s Smith Theatre. This season begins with “Nunsensations A-Men,” January 8-17, followed by “SUDS: The Rocking ‘60s Musical Soap Opera,” March 5-14, and the return of “Betsy Carmichael’s BINGO PALACE, “ April 29-May 2. Also in residence at Shea’s Smith is Second Generation Theatre. This company’s season begins October 16 with the play “Constellations,”  until November 1, followed by Jason Robert Brown’s lush musical “Songs for a New World” February 5-21, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel adapted for stage “The Secret Garden,” May 21-June 6. 

At Shea’s 710 Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions will stage “Slow Food, “a comedy, September 10-27. MusicalFare Theatre follows with the musical “In the Heights,”December 3-20. The theatre collaborative All for One Theatre Productions (MusicalFare Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions, Irish Classical Theatre, Theatre of Youth) bring love and comedy to the stage with “Shakespeare in Love,”February 11-28. Irish Classical Theatre brings” Farinelli and the King,”a drama, to this stage April 8-18. Finally MusicalFare Theatre returns with the regional premiere of Kinky Boots, May 6-23.

Full descriptions and ticket information is online at www.sheas.org.

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When Life Gives You Onions…

 Stan Klimecko as Onion and Louie Visone as Ogie.  Photo is by Gene Witkowski. 

People are quirky. Relationships are complicated. Life isn’t all sunshine and unicorns. Onions can either be really sweet and deeply flavorful if they are sautéed low and slow or sharp and bitter if they’re left raw and unadulterated. And sometimes Onion is just a name.

“The Onion Game,” next up for the Irish Classical Theatre is a drama with darkly funny moments…and it’s also a comedy with moments of drama. Just like real life.

The Onion Game will enjoy its world premiere on the Andrews Theatre stage March 6 through 29.

“The Onion Game” is the story of Pearl and Onion, two people unhappily married, with children they don’t understand, and aspirations they most likely won’t reach. And they’ll be together until they aren’t. Which could be sooner or later.

Director Greg Natale says directing Bryan Delaney’s production is a different experience from the last Delaney show he directed for ICTC. “I directed “The Seedbed” a couple seasons ago,” he said. “It wasn’t as humorous as this is meant to be. This show is written to be funny on top of some bizarre stuff.”

Delaney agrees. “It is quite different from “The Seedbed.”I wanted to write a full on comedy to make a boisterous night in the theatre.”

Boisterous, with some very human and raw moments. The comedy actually comes from these moments and how the characters handle their humanity. Natale says the show is “not Eugene O’Neill kind of bleak where everything is bleak. It’s more like a situation comedy, where all points of view are taking to the extreme level and therein lies the comedy.” He says that it’s “challenging for the actors, too. There’s a seriousness to the characters, a sense of purpose, but we need to allow the humor to come out.”

Delaney says this story of married and misunderstood life  can be “disturbing with difficult themes. There will be laughter, but it will be uncomfortable laughter,” he says.

Delaney says he finds it challenging to write sustained comedy, and that’s why he’s so fascinated by the intersection between comedy and tragedy in “The Onion Game”, and “that blend of dark and comedic. It’s a demented prism of life.” The satisfaction for both the playwright and the director will come from the audience reaction. Both are prepared to observe how different audience personalities will ‘take’ the show. “Every night will be different,” Delaney says.

Tickets and more information on “The Onion Game” are online here.

Sylvia Howls Along at Niagara University

I’m putting this right up front: “Sylvia” on stage at Niagara University’s William P. and Marie Leary Theatre in the Elizabeth Ann Clune Center for Theatre is a completely student run production.

NU’s theatre department is indeed the stuff of legends and I respect that. All our regional stages and beyond are all the better by having NU alumni engaged.

That in itself begs me to assess this production at a higher level.

The production itself is fine: A.R. Gurney (another local legend) penned this comedy in 1995 (set in the 1980s) and –regrettably – like many Gurney scripts, the intent  may stand the test of time, but most of the nuances date themselves by the end of its respective decade. Case in point: the Manhattan skyline backdrop includes the Twin Towers. A note in the playbill that place-sets the production would have helped give this context to the audience. Speaking of the playbill, it’s a tradition to include a bio of the playwright here: this one didn’t. Gurney is only mentioned in the director’s notes, and sadly, it’s a direct lift from a Wikipedia citation about the play. Seriously. Google “AR Gurney Sylvia” and the first hit is Wikipedia and this ‘quote’ is in the second paragraph. Note to director: dig deeper, please.

The small cast – a quartet of undergrads – do a fine job telling the story of a man in search of his midlife crisis, his career-focused wife, and the stray dog who comes between them. The fourth actor has a hoot of a time flipping between three characters who are male, female, and decidedly binary. Julia Miskines is adorable as Sylvia, cocking her head just so, frisking around, and using words as barks and whimpers to communicate her love for Greg, disdain for Kate, and her everyday doggy needs. She’s expressive and funny as heck. Andrew Salamone as Greg is fine in the role intended to be bland. Ditto Isabel Merkel as Kate the spurned-for-fur wife. Justin Durrett is Tom the pal from the dog park who later dons a dress as Phyllis Kate’s snooty friend (Sylvia gives a dog’s highest endorsement to this one), and Leslie the androgynous-by-design therapist.  This gives Durrett a nice stretch as an actor, particularly since he’s a mere freshman.  He’s the one to watch. The tech crew did fine work, costumes were spot on, and the over-all look of the show was just fine.

A major distraction was the use of stage crew as improv comedy devices. They roamed the stage to give it a soft opening, posing as dog wardens searching for a stray. They were mercifully not miced up, so their comments were sotto voce and limited. They had a loud cheering section in the audience; this peanut gallery whooped and hollered every time they performed their real tasks changing out set pieces. Yeah, I know; they’re students who want to support and appreciate their friends. And it was a Friday night on a college campus. But actors take their roles and their craft seriously; be there, be supportive, show appreciation, but carrying on like you’re at a little league game makes you an annoying audience member. 

Supporting student productions is essential to help build the next generation of artists: for that, I will keep going back.

Sylvia pants along for two hours with 15-minutes to take yourself for a walk. It runs for three performances on  Feb. 28-29; details at https://theatre.niagara.edu/shows/current-shows/show/198

Looking Life Square in the Eye: What I Thought I Knew

Josie DiVencenzo in “What I Thought I Knew.” Photo by Ali Lewis

Jewish Repertory Theatre’s production of “What I Thought I Knew” packs a lifetime of emotions,  decisions, and dilemmas into 90 minutes.  Based on writer Alice Eve Cohen’s memoir, the story is deeply reflective at times and slyly funny, too. Josie DiVincenzo is the soul teller of this story as she portrays 40 characters without leaving the stage.

DiVincenzo’s first character is the writer, who – in Jewish tradition – curses herself by proclaiming her happiness. After coping with infertility in her first marriage, she’s a single mom of an adopted daughter and is now the cougar partner of a hip and cool musician. She is…happy.  That is, until the day she detects a lump in her abdomen and has enough non-specific symptoms to send her to various doctors who can’t pinpoint a cause. Finally tests reveal that she is pregnant. And over 40 years old. Without health insurance. And without the first six months of careful prenatal care that she would have practiced if an earlier doctor wouldn’t have cavalierly told her that she didn’t need birth control. Oy vey.

The moments when DiVincenzo is flipping between doctors, nurses, off-hand receptionists, and vague diagnosticians are the funniest in their own dark ways. No costume changes or props, it’s the power of her voice and her countenance that make these other ‘cast’ members so vivid, thanks to Saul Elkin’s direction. Who needs a set (save for two lightweight chairs) when you can suggest the dreaded stirrup-strung examining table with posture (and toned and controlled abs), or arch an eyebrow and tilt your head to speak volumes without words?

She adopts solid personae for the recurring characters in the writer’s life:  her beau with his soft New Orleans accent, and her nine-year-old daughter’s overly dramatic “I want to die a moment” writhings and one rip-roarin’ doctor are evocative and just right.

DiVincenzo shares the stage with two other non-speaking co-stars: Brian Cavanaugh’s lighting design and Tom Makar’s sound design add to the performance. Both are subtle and gracefully applied.

“What I Thought I Knew” isn’t every woman’s journey, yet we’ve all dealt with life-defining and life-changing situations that caused us to examine our priorities and make hard decisions. The ethereal combination of faith – regardless of formal religious belief – and relief when things feel right are universal truths. Cohen’s honesty in sharing her journey is laudable. She’s neither maudlin or preachy.  There were spots where the long-one-act program dragged a bit, but DiVincenzo’s energy never flagged. In the end, Cohen reminds us that happiness is our best gift.

“What I Thought I Knew” runs 90 minutes without intermission to March 1. Visit www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com for tickets and show days and times.

No One’s Out of Order in the Court Room

The cast of “The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women” by Brazen-Faced Varlets.

Nobody likes the highly-principled bossy one. Or the rich daddy’s girl. Or the show stealer. Or the snarky one. Yet when you put them all together in a show-within-a-show production, you want every last one of them to be your new best friend.

The Brazen-Faced Varlets’ production of ‘The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women’ is a play about a play that’s a courtroom drama. It’s even interactive. In brief, it’s a hoot.

The show in Alleyway Theatre’s Cabaret stage starts just before curtain for the The Emma Goldman Theatre Brigade. To be ever egalitarian, cast members learn all the roles and character assignments are literally pulled names from a hat. Marie the idealist (Jamie Nablo)  is adamant about the process and its inherent fairness.   Donna the snark (well played by Kathleen Rooney) is confident that collective founder Diane (Priscilla Young-Anker) palms the best role to keep it for herself. Stagehand Betty (Heather Fansgrud) is tossed into the mix, a reluctant thespian who prefers to be off stage,  with her angst about having to learn so many lines. Melissa and Amy (Jessie Miller and Emily Pici respectively) just want to get on with it, because the critics are coming! Jenny (Jennifer Arroyo) is eager for her big break but is sick as the proverbial dog. Athena (Stefanie Warnick) wants to stretch her acting chops with a juicier role. Then the playwright (Caroline Parzy-Sanders) walks in with – gasp! – changes, and –gasp encore!! – a whole NEW character which she will portray.

And this is how we meet the cast, as they finagle their way into the role they want…or least dread.

It’s where Carolyn Gage’s script is at its best: it’s the people who make a relationship story, whether they are good or self-absorbed.  The Emma Goldman Theatre Brigade is a sisterhood, after all, based on equality, and the show they’re staging is about a woman in need and her female tribe who is supposed to help. Well, sometimes equality and support go right out the window when it’s inconvenient and messy. The Varlets play this angle to the hilt. And – like the best theatre – it gives you a bit of mental pause on the ride home, too.

The court battle is a history-mystery mash up:  five women are on trial for turning their backs on woman who may be Anastasia, the only person to survive the the murder of Russian Czar Nicholas’ family.

But it’s the actor-women and their frustration with their troupe and each other that bring the laughs. Rule-follower Marie breaks from the script to make her personal points. Diane the director floats in and out of character to defend her authority on stage.  It’s like good slapstick: you wouldn’t tolerate these behaviors if they really happened onstage, but you almost really want them to happen because this is where the veneers lift away and someone’s true colors show.

The audience interaction helps decide on court decisions and we have responsibility for the final verdict, too. That’s empowering and a lot of fun, too.

‘The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women’ is a fast couple hours with a 10-minute break, and runs until February 2. Visit www.varlets.org for details.

Opposites Attract and Repel in “The Antipodes”

The cast of “The Antipodes” at Road Less Traveled Theatre. Photo by Gina Gandolfo.

The art and process of storytelling is the central theme of ‘The Antipodes’ on stage now at Road Less Traveled Productions.

Storytelling is a cross cultural tradition that spans the ages. It’s a form of communication, level setting, and oral history gathering. It’s as natural as sunshine and can be as processed as a rectangle a bright orange cheese. And sometimes it’s just a bit creepy.

Finding the next ‘big’story is the goal for a group of storytellers that comprise this cast. The head of the project is Sandy, (South Buffalo’s Sean Cullen), and he is where the creepiness gets in. Sandy is a glad-hander, the lover of all, the hugger, the one who seems nervous about pleasing the mysterious boss on the VR screen. He comes, he goes, he returns a hot mess. As the group sits around a corporate board room table kicking around ideas for apparently no reason, you’re left to wonder why. Movie script? TV show? Vainglorious exercise in futility with a regular paycheck (for some) and  a catered free lunch?  Nice gig.

We meet Eleanor (Kristen Tripp Kelley), the only woman storyteller who knits are she spins her personal yarns. Dave (Dave Hayes) and Danny 1 (John Hurley) revel in their roles as the only repeaters on Team Sandy. Danny 2 (Dave Marciniak) is handsomely shallow as he steals one of Eleanor’s tales as his own (her glower is worth the price of admission alone). Shy guy Josh (Ricky Needham) is tricked out as a young exec and he stands alone as the one whose payroll isn’t processed and whose ideas aren’t recorded by hero-worshipper Brian (Adam Yellen). Sarah (Cassie Cameron) is the perky admin who makes sure lunch is ordered and that Sandy’s wishes are fulfilled. Cameron channels a younger Sarah Jessica Parker, down to her quirky hair tosses, side glances, and punchy delivery Carrie Bradshaw-style.

Annie Baker’s script is more character study than storytelling as it depicts everything bad about corporate brainstorming sessions. Personalities emerge and are thwarted. Weak leadership curry favor, earn praise, and retreat into their self-absorbed worlds. Earnest participants get shot down and are defeated. What starts out feeling fresh and interesting seems to spin itself into unresolved circles. Perhaps that was Baker’s intention:  a look into a world of joyless striving where the resolution is an enigma.

Lynne Koscielniak’s set is sleek and clean: corporate America with no clutter. Maura Price’s costumes fit the personalities perfectly, from Eleanor’s soft coziness to Brian’s disheveled duds. Director Scott Behrend’s direction nails the timing of ins and outs of a corporate meeting and the give-and-take around the conference table, practiced to nonchalance perfection.

‘The Antipodes’ is onstage until February 9: visit www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org. The show runs a long-feeling two hours with a 15-minute intermission and a fun opportunity to snap a selfie with the cast around the corporate table.

“The Bridges of Madison County” Cross Love and Infidelity

Pamela Mangus, Karen Harty, Arin Dandes, Robert Cooke, Chris Guilmet, Michele Marie Roberts, Ian Hayes, Kelly Copps, Paul Maisano, Ben Moran, Laryssa Petryshyn. Photo by Gene Witkowski

“The Bridges of Madison County,” making its regional premiere at the Kavinoky Theatre now until February 2, is lush with outstanding vocal performance and imagery. It will also spark some interesting conversation with your theatre companion of choice…and maybe some self-reflection, too.  Infidelity is wrong, but where is your heart’s desire? Friends who keep your secrets and spouses who button up their feelings: are they loving and loyal or living a lie? Yup, it’s an interesting night at the theatre.

Full disclosure: when “The Bridges of Madison County” was the novella everyone  was reading in 1992, I wasn’t impressed.  A decade-ish later, when it was made into a movie, I had to see it because of Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, but once again…nothin’. When I heard it was being made into a musical, I may have rolled me eyes in a ‘not again’ moment. And then I heard Jason Robert Brown’s haunting, elegant score. Gorgeous.

 Kav’s production completely swept away me across that Iowa plain. This production is the epitome of romance, conflict, love, and loss, anchored by that stunning score and the incredible artistry of our local actors.

In an Midwestern corn kernel, this is a love story between Francesca, a World War II war bride from Italy who married American soldier Bud and moved to his Iowa farm, and Robert, a no-rest-in-his-soul traveling photographer from National Geographic magazine. He’s passing through town on assignment to photograph those ironic covered bridges.  In a “in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to come in to mine” sort of moment, Robert ambles up Francesca’s driveway for directions. Sparks fly: Francesca’s husband and two kids are away showing cattle at a competition (spoiler alert, Stevie the steer nails it), and with only two nosy neighbors to spy and speculate, Francesca and Robert share stories, meals, a bed, their secret passions.

Yes, we’ve seen this plot before in several variations. “Same Time, Next Year” is appointment infidelity. “Brief Encounter” (or “Still Life” on stage) is love on a train. But “Bridges” has a different feel, deeper nuance. What if the stranger holds some clandestine key to pure happiness?

Michele Marie Roberts is stunning as Francesca. She opens the show with her brave anticipation in “To Build a Home,” leaving war-torn Naples, familial competition with her sister, and the broken dreams of lost love, to journey to America.  Husband Bud is Christopher Guilmet,  a soldier turned farmer who knew Francesca was “Something From a Dream” the moment he saw her.  SUNY Fredonia junior Ian Hayes is son Michael (so good when college students stretch into professional roles with a cast of new mentors), and everyone’s favorite child-adult actor Arin Dandes grows into teen-hood as daughter Carolyn. Steve Copps is the lanky, sexy, man with the camera, Robert Kincaid. A loner, a vegetarian where meat-eaters roam freely, he’s recently returned from Italy and has stories to share with Francesca as they drive to the bridge he couldn’t find on a map. And share an impromptu dinner. And grow into a four-day intensity they didn’t expect.

Roberts and Copps capture something here. Their voices in their duets are impeccably matched – note for note – with clarity, with passion, with wonder. The audience feels this, too: the moment of their first kiss, the sold-out theatre on opening night was absolutely quiet.  Even in my seat, in the back of the balcony…you heard their kiss.

It’s the music that makes this production. Allan Paglia is the lead pianist and conductor of Brown’s signature keyboard/violin/viola/cello ensemble.  Brown’s style (“Parade” and “The Last Five Years”) manages to be spare and lush at the same time. With voices as rich as Roberts’ and Copps’ the cello and viola in particular support their sound beautifully. I’ve heard both actors in their many roles through the years, but Paglia (and vocal coach Michael Hooker) brought out something in their voices. Powerful, wistful, hard to describe, as accomplished singer/actors, Roberts and Copps found something new here.

The show is more than romance between two: there’s plenty of funny scenes with Pamela Rose Mangus and Paul Maisano as the neighbor couple.  They both get their turn at song, too, Mangus with “Get Closer,” a perfect ‘60s slow dance tune, and  Maisano with the good ol’ country gospel “When I’m Gone.”

Another showstopper is ensemble member/choreographer Kelly Copps’ flashback appearance as Robert’s first wife. “Another Life” applies Brown’s style to a Joni Mitchell-esque story song. This Copps is in magnificent voice in this quick moment.

Like we’ve seen in other Kav musicals, the ensemble is full of some of the region’s finest actors, moving set pieces and adding voice and movement to key moments.

The other ‘star’ is the video and photos captured by Brian Milbrand: he and director Loraine O’Donnell with S. Copps and Roberts traveled to Iowa to pose at the storied bridge and other locations. This element that the Kav is elevating to higher art form grows on me each time I see it so artfully done on this stage. It complemented Dyan Burlingame’s set nicely.

Director O’Donnell and her team has a stellar cast and fabulous music here. If the script and story are still only so-so, the Kav cast and crew soar above it to create a great escape to a place where time can stand still for a moment and where “love is always better.”

Tickets will fly for this one: visit kavinokytheatre.com to secure your tickets. Running time is a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission to fan yourself and splash cold water on your face. (Yes, the show is that hot.) For more information, click here.