‘Next to Normal’ at Blackfriars Theatre

Next to Normal was the musical that changed modern perception of theater. The harrowing story of a mother plagued by mental illness and its effect on her family garnered Tony wins for Original Score, Orchestrations, and Lead Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley, the original Diana. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, and paved the way for the commercial success of musicals like Dear Evan Hansen. It’s one of my personal favorites.

I made the snowy trek to Blackfriars Theatre from Buffalo, and my first thought upon arrival was how impressed I was by the endurance of this downtown Rochester staple; they’re celebrating their 70th anniversary! And as far as this production goes, the company proved exactly why they’ve continued to be successful.

Janine Mercandetti brings a unique approach to Diana, the story’s troubled matriarch. She’s an accomplished singer, and could out-sing even the healthiest Alice Ripley. Her vocal quality is clear, her notes are precise, and her phrasing is excellent. I personally felt that either because of the direction of the piece or Mercandetti’s own choices, her early Act One seemed a little presentational. I saw a marked change, however, at the pivotal moment in Act One. From that point on, Mercandetti takes control of the show, and it’s an award-worthy performance.

J. Simmons plays Dan, Diana’s husband, who’s holding on hope of a life where his family can be free of the mental illness and grief they’ve suffered. He’s Diana’s perfect foil, and Simmons plays the extremely difficult role with aplomb. Dan is an architect, and Simmons’ interpretation is very architectural: he deals in absolutes. There’s no grey area. I truly enjoyed his work in “Why Stay/A Promise.”

As the Goodman children, Gabe and Natalie, rising professionals Zachary Jones and Haley Knips both possess an impressive amount of raw talent. Both are juniors at Nazareth College, and the school should be proud of the representation by the two young actors. Jones has a remarkable vocal instrument, a clear tenor with a sweet falsetto that’s likely the envy of his classmate. More impressive was his navigation of what sounded to be a voice not at 100%. His role is complicated, and his nuance and relationship with Mercandetti made for an impressive evening. Knips has a difficult job as the source of much of the evening’s humor, and for the most part she handles the role of Natalie well. Her singing voice is her best asset, and she adds some delightful touches as Natalie. There were moments, however, where she had a tendency to speed through lines, especially punchlines, resulting in a lack of clarity in some essential story moments.

In supporting roles as Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden and Henry, respectively, Carl Del Buono and Evan Miller Watelet add to the well-rounded narrative. Del Buono is delightful in his roles, especially Dr. Madden. He’s accomplishing something really impressive: driving the story without ever touching the wheel. It’s not an easy task. Miller Watelet plays Natalie’s boyfriend Henry with a genuine innocence and has an excellent voice to boot.

The ENTIRE production staff, especially Director Kerry Young and Musical Director Andy Pratt, deserve commendation. What an impressive use of playing space, what a careful treatment of the delicate issues in the piece, what clear and concise storytelling! Young is also to be celebrated for her blind casting. Next to Normal has a tendency to (until the recent Kennedy Center production starring Brandon Victor Dixon as Dan, Khamary Rose as Gabe, and Maia Reficco as Natalie) be whitewashed. Pratt’s band was extremely talented, with a few opening night hiccups in this difficult score.

I’ll leave readers with this thought: I hate standing ovations as the accepted “standard.” They should be reserved for excellence, performances that exceed expectations. I was one of the first to leap to my feet at this production, and if you are lucky enough to see it, I’m sure you will too.

Running through February 23rd, the show was 2 hours and fifteen minutes with a fifteen minute intermission.

For more information, click here.

‘Cookin’ at the Cookery’ at Musicalfare

Ember Tate and Zoe Scruggs in ‘Cookin at the Cookery.’ Photo by Bethany Burrows.

The more I see musical revues, the more I really enjoy the style. Cookin’ at the Cookery, playing at MusicalFare through March 8th, is no exception.

I wasn’t really familiar with Alberta Hunter going into the show, and shame on me for saying so. She’s a Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Hall of Fame member, began performing in her early teens in Chicago after leaving Memphis to become a singer. After almost twenty years away, she came back and began a residency at the Cookery.

The show is told through vignettes, with Zoe Scruggs playing “adult” Alberta and also Alberta’s mother, while Ember Tate plays “young” Alberta and a slew of other characters. The Albertas share the narrative duties, as George Caldwell’s magnificent band carries the audience through the story.

To say that Scruggs is a little young to play 82-year-old Alberta Hunter is an obvious understatement, and yet, for 2 hours I believed every second. Scruggs is rare in her vocal prowess, she’s truly a jazz singer and handles the material and persona with ease. Her comedic timing is also excellent, and the sparse audience by MusicalFare’s standards were nonetheless engaged immediately. Tate has a difficult job to her role, as she portrays a very young Alberta. While Tate’s other characters are magnificent (including an unbelievable Louis Armstrong) and her turn as Hunter on a USO tour stops the show (Hunter would be proud), I found she took a little time to settle in to her portrayal of Hunter as a child.

A few line flubs did nothing to take away from the sheer magnitude of the stage presence of these two women, telling an important story about a truly remarkable woman. Without being overtly politic, I felt queasy listening to Scruggs as Hunter describe the perils of the pre-Civil Rights South and recognizing just how little we’ve learned. An especially poignant line comes when Scruggs and Tate co-narrate about segregation and make a statement about just seeing people as people, regardless of race.

Here’s where I get on my soapbox; I mentioned the sparsely attended performance because Buffalo audiences as a whole have a habit of only attending shows where there is “title recognition.” Not enough people witnessed these incredible performances Wednesday evening, and it’s disappointing. Support this production, which is MusicalFare at its best. Support local theater as much as you clamor to get Shea’s tickets or go see all the Oscar nominated movies. There are so many local companies to choose from, and its a shame to see even a single empty seat at MusicalFare’s astounding production of Cookin at the Cookery, running through March 8th.

For more information, click here.

Miss Nelson is Missing at Theatre of Youth

If you were a kid after the 70s, it’s likely you read Miss Nelson is Missing in school. Theatre of Youth looks to capitalize on this name recognition with their new production, which opened January 25th and runs through February 9th. With an incredible set designed by Kenneth Shaw and a cast of TOY regulars, the Meg Quinn helmed production makes the very best of an uncharacteristically weak adaptation, to the delight of the non-theater critics in the audience.

TOY is well-established as Buffalo’s only theater for young audiences, and the work is always top-notch. Miss Nelson is Missing is no exception. TOY newcomer Lily Jones handles the dual roles of Miss Nelson and Miss Viola Swamp, the Jekyll/Hyde of classroom 207 with as much dichotomy as she can provide and a voice to bring down the rafters. As the story’s narrator, a wizened janitor, Jacob Albarella gives us a hilarious turn. Those familiar with Albarella know his versatility knows no bounds, and he makes exceptional use of that versatility playing supplemental roles as the school’s principal Mr. Blandsworth (complete with some unbelievable singing by Albarella) and the forgetful Detective McSmogg (complete with a hysterical accent by Albarella). And as the aforementioned class in 207, Mike Benoit, Daniel Torres, Sabrina Kahwaty, and Christine Seshie start the show with a strong a capella alma mater and carry the show with well-choreographed hijinks throughout.

The only thing potentially harmful to the TOY production was the material. Kids might not notice just how bad the lyrics that accompany the relatively good music are, but it’s jarring enough to the adult ear that it had to be mentioned. I’d like to make two things clear: 1) I’m not here to criticize the lyrics to a children’s musical, but 2) a lesser director/organization might have some trouble. In steps Quinn and an adept cast of performers, and voila, I’m almost convinced! Jones is victim to bad writing the most, and she makes the best of what she’s given with a confidence that is not easy to come by. And I know I mentioned it in the beginning of the review, but Shaw’s set is truly magnificent. His work at TOY frequently goes underappreciated, but his inventiveness and ingenuity frequently better the productions at TOY, and Miss Nelson is Missing is no exception.

Despite the adaptation’s weaknesses, the terrific cast (and crew…I see you Chester Popiolkowski, Brittany Wysocki, and Gabe Gutierrez) make for an enjoyable production of Miss Nelson is Missing that kids and nostalgic adults like me will be happy they saw.

Run time 1 hour, no intermission

‘Miss Nelson is Missing’ runs until February 9, 2019. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Freaky Friday’ at Niagara University

Freaky Friday is one of those story people don’t realize they know. For my generation, the movie starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis brought the story to life. For this generation, we have the Kitt, Yorkey, and Carpenter tuner that starred Emma Hunton and Heidi Blickenstaff which became a Disney Channel Original Movie.

I feel badly about this, but my generation had a significantly better version. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have already won their Tonys, so if Freaky Friday doesn’t necessarily live up to the lyrical brilliance of Next to Normal, we can forgive them. The show is a little clunky despite numerous rewrites, but the Niagara University production is anything but.

It’s refreshing to see young actors play so honestly, and that’s what we have in this production. Director Steve Braddock and choreographer Terri Filips Vaughan have given the outlines, but they’ve left it up to the cast to color inside them. An expertly directed band by, sequestered down the hall, is directed by Dr. Bridget Moriarty. Both her musical ensemble and the ensemble on stage sound terrific.

As angst-ridden and misunderstood teen Ellie, Lindsey Pastuszynski ably illustrates the difficulties of being a modern-day teen. As her busy bread-winning mother Katherine, Sonia Angeli manages to keep the “plates all spinning” (that’s a Next to Normal reference). It’s when the infamous “switch” happens that these two performers shine. Both ladies are great in their roles, but Angeli in particular shines. The book is thoughtful enough that it gives Angeli’s character an emotional act two moment which she does not take lightly. It’s an incredibly mature and aware turn for her.

I’ve mentioned the strength of the ensemble, but the real standouts come by way of Caleb Paxton, Ricardo Garcia, and the young Teddy Hibbard. As Katherine’s soon-to-be-husband Mike, Paxton delivers a touching performance, particularly in Act One’s “Vows.” Garcia is a special surprise; I had the pleasure of his talented older brother Alex as a classmate. He brings a very human touch to the criminally underdeveloped Adam, Ellie’s love interest and the high school’s hero. He also brings a dynamite singing voice. Finally, Nichols eight-grader Teddy Hibbard is an unbelievable treat. He’s handling a very difficult role with ease, puppets and all. It’s a real pleasure to watch, and I’m sure he has a bright future in performing if he so chooses.

All in all, this is the type of show a college should tackle. It should, and I believe did, teach valuable lessons about bringing truth to performances while keeping the integrity and spirit of the script intact. Instead of ad-libbing lines they thought were funnier, or winking at the material for a cheap laugh, the entire cast as a whole chose to embrace the piece, warts and all. And that’s fitting, because the show has a similar message. So excuse me while I wipe the tears from my eyes; it may be cheesy sentimentalism, but this excellent Niagara University production of a slightly below excellent piece has heart and truth to spare.

Freaky Friday  runs until November 3, 2019 and is presented at Niagara University. For more information, click here.