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.

BPO, ICTC, the Bard, and Mendelssohn…Oh My!

 Brendan Didio as Puck and Vincent O’Neill as Oberon.  Photo by Gene Witkowski.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Irish Classical Theatre Company will offer another collaborative program January 17-19 when “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” pairs a beloved William Shakespeare comedy with music composed by Felix Mendelssohn.

It’s a double duet – two world-class arts organizations and two classic bodies of work – creating a dynamic performance in Kleinhans Music Hall. This is the fourth performance coupling for the BPO and ICTC.

“It is an honor for the BPO to welcome the audience of the ICTC into our house,” says BPO music director JoAnn Falletta. “The Buffalo Philharmonic reached out to the company several years ago to explore a partnership combining  Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman with the music of Richard Strauss, and the result was so delightful, funny and felicitous that we realized we had to find other projects. Amadeus (with the music of Mozart) was also superb, and very different in character-probing, tragic and unforgettable.  The combination of two geniuses- Shakespeare and Mendelssohn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect marriage, and I think that it will be our best partnership.”

Fortunato Pezzimenti, ICTC’s associate director agrees: “It’s such a celebration for the theatre company to work with the orchestra. It’s wonderful for the company to perform with this magnificent orchestra behind them.”

Bringing two artistic organizations together takes some finessing, on stage and off. Pezzimenti said, “It’s not difficult but we have to be smart about it.” The actors will share the Kleinhans Music Hall stage with the orchestra, which is a completely different size and shape than the cozy  dimension of The Andrews Theatre,  ICTC’s Main Street home base. Pezzimenti said, “The stage is very, very wide and not very deep. There are limitations to the set design.”

Pezzimenti said the set (designed by David Dwyer) will be minimal and costumes designed by Lise Harty are “significant to create the beauty, wonder, and magic of the piece.”

Sharing the stage with the BPO will be: Vincent O’Neill  as Oberon/Theseus; (Falletta said it’s a “lovely detail” that ICTC Co-Founder and Artistic Director Vincent O’Neill played the starring role in the three previous productions, too);  Aleks Malejs aTitiana/Hippolyta; Brendan Didio a Philostarte/Puck; Chris Kelly as Egeus/Quince; David Wysocki  as Lysander;  Nick Stevens as Demetrius;  Kayla Storto Hermia;  Kit Kuebler as Helena;  Phil Farugia as Bottom;  Kevin Kennedy as Flute;  Dudney Joseph as Snout;  David Lundy as Starvling; and Gerry Maher  as Snug. Soprano Karen D’Angelo and Vocalis Chamber Choir alto Maria Parker will sing the fairy roles.

Pezzimenti said the actors are proud to be part of this collaboration. “It’s a tremendous honor to be cast in something like this,” he said. Actor David Lundy says the cast dynamic – a mix of seasoned stage actors and “some fresh young talent”  – with the BPO create a very special theatre experience. “It’s novel for experienced concert-goers and theater patrons alike” said Lundy. “They’re seeing one of Buffalo’s finest acting companies performing front of a world-class orchestra, with classical music composed directly for the play being shown. Both the audience and the performers are thrilled in a way that doesn’t happen for a typical play.”

Falletta agrees: “It is truly thrilling to come together with our actor ‘cousins’. Our art forms share so many similarities and values, and it is very inspiring to have the ICTC on the stage with us. We feel their energy and respond to it, and they tell us that having the music swirling around them is an amazing experience for them. It also is interesting for them to work in a house that seats 2400 people, and to project their artistry into a large space. We learn from the actors, and grow, and frankly have a spectacular time collaborating with these great artists. I am always astonished at how musical the members of the ICTC are – their flexibility, their open-mindedness, their enjoyment of music –  truly is an inspiration to us.”

There are only three performances – Friday and Saturday evenings, January 17 and 18 and a Sunday, January 19 matinee. Plan to arrive an hour earlier to attend the pre-concert talk: Ms Falletta and members of the cast will give you an insider’s look into the production. Tickets are available at http://www.bpo.org

State Grant Supports Kavinoky Improvements

The Kavinoky Theatre received a special 40th anniversary present:  a $145,000 grant awarded from New York state’s Regional Economic Development Council (REDC).

The grant will fund some capital improvements for the theatre, including a Broadway-style covered entryway, new theatre seats, and an updated projection system.

“We are thrilled to receive this award,” said Loraine O’Donnell, executive artistic director of the

theatre. “This grant will breathe new life into the theatre and provide our audience with an

even more enjoyable experience. The awning will make our guests feel like they are taking in a show in New York City and the projection equipment will enhance future productions.”

Senator Tim Kennedy, a D’Youville College alumnus (Kavinoky is the 250-seat jewel of D’Youville’s urban campus) said, “This state investment will support Kavinoky Theatre’s mission to foster creativity and offer Western New Yorkers immersive experiences into all genre of theatre. By supporting the Theatre’s efforts to preserve the Kavinoky’s charm, we’re ensuring that this City of Buffalo icon will continue to inspire future artists, actors, and writers for generations to come.”

Senator Kennedy’s family is no stranger to the Kav: his cousin, Kevin Kennedy is a local actor who most recently in the Kav’s production of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Of the 54 grants awarded to Erie County organizations in this funding cycle, this was one of two in the arts and cultural facilities improvement program. All told,  $67.3 million was awarded to 109 different projects in Western New York.

REDC grants support organizations and programs that help boost our regional economy and began in 2011 as a centerpiece of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s s strategy to jumpstart the economy and create jobs.

The state’s investment in the Kav is another demonstration of the power of the arts to be an economic driver. In The Arts and Economic Prosperity Report “The Arts Mean Business” prepared by ASI of WNY, it showed arts and culture sector is a$352.1 million industry and generates$40.3 million in local and state government revenue.

 “This grant from the Regional Economic Development Council will allow The Kavinoky Theatre to continue to play an essential role in Buffalo’s vibrant arts community, as it has for the past 40 years,” said Pamela Say, vice president of institutional advancement at D’Youville.

The Kav’s next production – “The Bridges of Madison County” – opens Friday, January 10. Based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel, it was adapted for the screen and later for the stage in 2014 with a sumptuous score by Jason Robert Brown. The Kav’s production features Michele Marie Roberts, Steve Copps. Tickets and details at http://www.kavionkytheatre.com.

An 11 Year Tradition: The Nutcracker at Shea’s

The 11th annual production of The Nutcracker (Nov. 30 and Dec. 1) is a delightful collaboration between Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Neglia Ballet Artists, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

It’s a triple win for the value of cultural partnerships: Buffalo’s most beautiful venue, our world-class orchestra, and a ballet program that features local students and has enough star-power to attract a stunning line up of guest artists is the best of all possible worlds.

If that isn’t enough, the production is lovely from the moment we hear the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s luscious score to the moment the gilt-fringe curtain falls.

Then there’s the whole Christmas spirit going on, too. Shea’s carefully curated elegance is tastefully decked out in white lights and pine bough. The audience is full of families with little ones in their holiday best.  The whole vibe is wonderfully infectious and a harbinger of the holiday month to come.

The story is familiar: it’s Christmas eve at the Stahlbaum house and friends and family members gather for gifts. The mysterious (read: slightly creepy) Herr Drosselmeyer (Paul Mockovak) arrives with life-size toys and magic tricks, and a special gift for the Stahlbaum daughter Marie (Director Sergio Neglia opts to call her Marie as his mentor George Balanchine did; most other productions call her Clara.) It’s a nutcracker and Marie is entranced. Brother Fritz breaks it in a jealous moment and Drosselmeyer repairs it post haste. Marie falls asleep with her gift and is awakened by a frisky mouse…and a room full of rats. The Nutcracker comes to life and with an army of soldiers (and some help from Marie) he slays the rat king and his band of vermin. More Drosselmeyer magic saves the Nutcracker as a handsome Prince and fast-forwards young Marie to young adulthood. They dance their way around the world through heritage soloists and sweets.

It’s the local kids as the mice, rats, snow flakes, angels, cupcakes, baker, and soldiers with  the impressive cast in the featured roles;  they meld perfectly as storytellers and interpreters of Neglia’s choreography.  Neglia himself is the Nutcracker, an imposing figure. Standouts were youth dancers Zoe de Torres Curth, (Marie) a Buffalo Seminary student who moved here from her native Argentina to study with Neglia, and Nardin Academy senior Ava DiNicola,(one of the three Mirlitons) both dancing in featured roles.

Dancers are athletes, artists, and storytellers; to convey a story without words is an art in itself. Neglia and this troupe remind us of this graceful and powerful complexity.  It’s easy to be drawn into the story and be swept away by the music and the dance.

The scenic design is exceptional: Lynne Koscielniak is responsible for the original renderings and Dyan Burlingame (the resident set designer for Road Less Traveled Productions) with Jon Shimon, Michele Costa (her theatreFiguren skills created character masks and the toys, too) and Roger Schroeder created additional imagery in the first act. Burlingame also designed the lighting which featured some lovely hues that highlighted Donna Massimo’s jewel toned costume designs.  It’s all well balanced, like a painting come to life.

An act one glitch: during a lovely duet, the gentle fall of on-stage snow became a Lake Effect squall for a moment as too much faux snow fell in a big flurry.  Like good Buffalonians, the pair danced on.

Buffalo is ballet starved for sure: those of us of a certain age remember the days of yore at ArtPark when a ballet company was in residence each summer. We were treated to traditional and contemporary works as regularly as the current regime brings in ‘70s and ‘80s rockers.  Times changes and companies like Neglia Ballet Artists help keep dance accessible to a broad albeit niche audience.  Neglia is also training tomorrow’s dancers and dance audiences that will keep the art form alive here. Bravo!

The Nutcracker is a full and well-paced two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Details at http://www.negliaballet.org.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales: Third time is a charm for ICTC

Tyler Eisenmann as Young Dylan, Brandon Barry, Music Director Joseph Donohue III and Nicole Cimato. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

Long before there were hours of football on TV and the ubiquitous electronic devices in the hands of teens at the dinner table, families made Christmas memories by spending time together. They would sing songs, tell stories, indulge in the art of conversation, and help rescue various kitchen catastrophes. You know, like when your new-fangled gas stove blows up and makes a foul (fowl?) mess of Christmas dinner.

” Thank you, ICTC, for this early gift.”

These moments are at the heart of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company now to December 15. Based on the prose of Dylan Thomas, his 1952 reflections were adapted for the stage 30 years later by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell.

It’s a simple work, really. Thomas’ stories about his boyhood Christmas celebrations could be anyone’s stories. The happy sounds from a houseful of relatives, those memory snapshots of racing around outside with cousins and pals, poignant thoughts of the older generation now passed…all part of the Christmas canon. ICTC does this show really well.  Director Chris Kelly has the dream team of local actors on stage for this, starting with Joseph Donohue III and Brandon Barry (from The Albrights)  providing the music. They give a contemporary nod to some Christmas classics, starting with the plaintive sweetness of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  Vincent O’Neill is grown up Dylan; his reminiscing is wistful, almost ethereal. Young Dylan is Tyler Eisenmann, totally in the moment enjoying his youth and family foibles.  Michele Roberts as Mother; Ben Michael Moran as Father; Nicole Cimato as Hannah with her ever-present flask; Christian Brandjes as Gwyn; Karen Harty as Nellie; Brittany Bassett as Brenda; Renee Landrigan as Glenda; Gregory Gjurich as Tudyr; Charmagne Chi as Bessie; and Megan Callahan as Elieri wear their roles like perfectly knit woolen mittens. Highlights are Chi’s rendition of “The Holly and the Ivy” in its pure loveliness and Roberts’ comic chops when she’s coping with that new-fangled gas stove in her kitchen.

I always appreciate ICTC’s artful and minimal staging; it’s elegant to suggest a living room, the streetscape and countryside with almost very few set elements. Set Designer Primo Thomas feeds our imagination with this beautifully. Director Kelly then has to lead his cast through imaginary spaces and places under a canopy of flickering lanterns suspended overhead. These small touches, with sparse pine bough and buffalo check bows suggest countryside and homemade décor. Perfection. With a cast this talented, it looks effortless.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is all about sentiment and nostalgia in the season where heart-felt memories ground us and remind us that hearth and home are best. Thank you, ICTC, for this early gift.

The show runs slightly over two hours with one 10-minute intermission. Find details and tickets at www.irishclassical.com.

Theatre Review: ‘Jersey Boys’ at Shea’s Performing Arts Center

(l to r) Jon Hacker, Eric Chambliss, Corey Greenan and Michael Milton. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Full disclosure: I love jukebox musicals…and I hate the song “Sherry.”

Yes, I know “Sherry” is the song that catapulted Frank Valli and The Four Seasons to fame in 1962 and that it’s an early indicator of songwriter Bob Gaudio’s immense talent. It’s not the song’s fault that my ears have suffered more than their share of off-key falsettos warbling “Sherry Baby” to me through the years.

. . .this one is a winner. 

The dreaded song, however, has a starring role in “Jersey Boys” now stage at Shea’s Performing Art Center only until Sunday… and deservedly so. This is a super-slick, entertaining show packed with pop hits from the 1960s to the late 1970s with a wee bit of pop music history thrown in for good measure.

This production (not part of the regular Shea’s subscription package) is a blast. It’s bright and the right amount of loud, with a tight on-stage band, and a great cast of singers.  Jon Hacker hits the right high notes as Frankie Valli with his tenor and tremulous signature falsetto. Eric Chambliss as songwriter-keyboardist Bob Gaudio is the perfect combination of talented erudite and pop music talent wrapped up in a good guy package. Corey Greenan as band organizer-bad boy Tommy DiVito has a laughably bad downstate Italian-American-Bronx accent, but he has the swagger and charm that goes with the real deal. Michael Milton as bass player Nick Massi has great deadpan delivery as the quiet guy in the back. Near the end of the show, he lands ‘the’ line of the night: listen for it to fully appreciate what it’s like to be the one out of four who is the easiest to overlook.

If you tuned your transistor radio to WKBW 1520-AM back in the day, these are the songs you heard in what disc jockeys called ‘heavy rotation.’ They were the hits that sold records and concert tickets and inspired other guy and girl groups to give it a go. Great pop tunes like ‘Rag Doll,’ ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry,’ ‘Walk Like a Man,’ ‘Dawn,’ and ‘C’mon Marianne’ were the leaders in the Four Seasons canon and live on today in our hearts and oldies stations everywhere.  You’ll hear some full songs and some stripped down versions in this production and this cast delivers them well and leaves you wanting more.

The downside of some  jukebox shows is the script. “Jersey Boys” is the life story of band itself (yup, four guys from New Jersey) and this script is the Cliff’s Notes version of their lives and careers together, with a couple dashes of personal biography tossed in. This script is pretty much a few maybe-almost-true words to knit the song list together. In this case, it’s OK: it’s the music I came to hear. You only need a passing familiarity of their history to connect with the ‘it’ factor that made them the icons they are. Legend has it that Valli and Gaudio formed their partnership with a handshake only…no lawyers, no paperwork, New Jersey style…and even in the litigious 21st century, their deal is still solid.  If the backstories area little manufactured to make good theatre, well, here it’s forgiven. Just give me another chorus of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.’

As touring shows go, this one is a winner. Be prepared to get on your feet at the end and sing along a bit. It’s just one tune (the show needed a longer ending mega mix), but you’ll leave the theatre with a smile on your face.

“Jersey Boys” runs a little longer than two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Get online quickly for tickets for this limited run, http://www.sheas.org.

First Look: ‘A Child’s Christmas’ in Wales at Irish Classical Theatre Company

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Tyler Eisenmann as Young Dylan, Brandon Barry, Music Director Joseph Donohue III and Nicole Cimato. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

There was the time when it was snowing in Wales, and Dylan Thomas recollected it as a beautiful, memorable moment, because “it always snowed at Christmas.”

From these sweet memories, Thomas penned “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a work of short prose that was later retooled for the stage. Irish Classical Theatre Company’s latest production of this Christmas classic opens on Friday, November 22.

Ironically director Chris Kelly admits that he never saw this show on stage. “In fact, I never read it until Vincent (O’Neill) approached me about directing it,” Kelly says. He was immediately taken by the story’s warmth and universal appeal. “We all have families, biological or chosen,” he said, “And we gather to celebrate regardless of our religious beliefs. Often, we find our families are a delightful and maddening cast of characters. It is a heart based patchwork of different Christmas memories stitched together.”

Some of the region’s most familiar stage actors are in the cast, including O’Neill as the mature DylanThomas, Michele Marie Roberts, Ben Michael Moran, Christian Branjes, Charmagne Chi, and Greg Gjurich. And they are ready to embrace the spirit of the season with a pine-cone-covered vengeance. Chi – cast as Aunt Bessie -, says, “ I love theater and I love Christmas so doing a Christmas show was a no-brainer. Christmas is magical and so is this show. It’s this simple, rustic, intimate, family Christmas that the audience gets to peek into. Like those ornaments that are houses but when you turn them around, you can see all the adorable things happening inside? That’s this show, if this show was an ornament.”

Gjurich (Uncle Tudyr) agrees, saying,“This production is oh-so-special for a couple of reasons. The whole sense of nostalgia of family gatherings during the holidays brings back such fond memories of my own Christmases, and (and most especially) the privilege to work with old friends and new!  Everyone (management, tech crew, actors) is just so dang talented, collaborative and FUN.”

For Michele Marie Roberts (Mother),  she “adores every relatable holiday moment that’s played onstage. Arriving to dinner, gifts, dozing off after dessert, singing carols around the piano. It’s a truly beautiful, nostalgic piece of theatre that allows you to experience the magic of Christmas through the eyes of a child. And yes, I can’t wait to share this one with my kids.”

ICTC has staged “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” three times previously, and O’Neill says this production sticks with a traditional approach. But be prepared! O’Neill says, “Chris Kelly is such an inventive director (as audiences discovered in his brilliant and playful ‘Sense and Sensibility’last season ) that we can expect a very fresh and creative staging of the piece, without losing an iota of the Christmas spirit which infuses the play. The cast has for the most part worked closely with Chris in past productions, and is very open to improvisation and to adopting a refreshingly physical approach to the production. And with the musical expertise of Joe Donohue and Brandon Barry in the mix, audiences can expect a vastly entertaining experience.”

It is Thomas’ words – so elegant in their simplicity – that makes this collection of stories so vivid, real, and heart-felt. O’Neill says, “Thomas is a consummate word-magician and shares (James) Joyce’s Celtic delight in word-play as he weaves a musical tapestry of language which captures the very essence and spirit of Christmas. It is a privilege to play the role of Dylan Thomas himself.”

Sounds like the perfect way to transition from fall into the spirit of the season. Share it with someone you love.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” opens Friday, November 22 and runs until December 15. Tickets and details at http://www.irishclassical.com.