He’s Back!: Hamilton Returns to Shea’s

In a recent interview in Yankee Magazine, historian Jill Leppore said that a lot of what we call history is really folklore , myth, or tourism.  Perhaps that’s one scholar’s cynicism, but projects like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton book) puts a fired-up version of history at center stage.

Hamilton is onstage now at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre until January 2, and it’s still daring, dynamic, and very entertaining.  Miranda is a master storyteller, as good as any historian. Pile on the music, lyrics, and fresh interpretation of real people we’ve never met, and you have an amazing work, worthy of every accolade it earned. This is A. Ham’s second tour through Buffalo and it remains a hot ticket and great night of theatre.

Miranda’s nod to our Founding Fathers and the American Revolution is terrific fun. Maybe it’s history light and not everyone will love the beats and the racial and gender mashups, but based on casual observation only, the audience is just as eclectic as the cast.  And the abundance of loud applause and audible audience sing-alongs signal a hit: history is super cool with music and dancing. (Yes, sing alongs. A couple times on stage when the assembled cast is told to “sing along,” this audience chimed in, too. It was fun.)

To recap, Alexander Hamilton, “The Foxiest of the Federalists,” according to a t-shirt I saw, was George Washington’s right hand, a lead writer of the Federalist Papers, the founder of the Coast Guard and creator the U.S. financial system…and was a loving husband, father, and occasional philanderer. He wasn’t without his share of frenemies (being brash, brilliant, and full of himself will do that), among them his rival-for-notoriety Aaron Burr. The rest of the story er history is the crux of the plot, so no spoilers here.

History and its iterations aside, the production is astonishing. Miranda took the high notes from Chernow’s book, put a series of driving beats under them, and created a layered and nuanced experience rich with details.  If it’s rap that drives the music, the stage movement and choreography create a stunning visual. Dance moves are athletic and full out powerful, yet there are subtle gestures and bold poses that you can see from Shea’s back wall. A little flick of fingers gives enough emphasis to move this story.  This is a show based on details and no one skimps.

This is a large, rotating cast. The performance I saw had Pierre Jean Gonzalez as Hamilton, the smooth voiced Jared Dixon as Burr, and Marcus Choi as Washington. Dixon’s voice was like listening to velvet drape itself over you.  It was captivating. Up against Warren Egypt Franklin (Jefferson and Lafayette) with his quirky, edgy voice the songs like “What’d I Miss” were even more lively. The sweetest ensemble singing though belonged to the Schuyler Sisters (Meecah, Ta’Rea Campbell, and Paige Smallwood as Eliza, Angelica, and Peggy respectively). Campbell’s Angelica was fierce. Meecah’s Eliza has the sweetness that burns under the surface. Her finale – down to the oft-debated gasp and grasp – was heartbreaking and beautiful.

Buffalo native Neil Haskell as King George owns his stage time for sure. His snarly curled lip and well-enunciated words bring the requisite audience hoots and howls. Plus he’s one of our own, gotta love it.

Even if you saw the road show here three years ago, or in NYC, see it again. Each production team embellishes the goodness with some new twists and you’ll see new things that you missed the first time around. Sure, you know the story and how it ends, but it’s the way the story is told that is compelling.

Hamilton runs almost three hours with an 18-minute intermission. Bring your ID and vaccination card and please keep your mask on. Shea’s is doing its bit to keep audiences safe and comfortable:  we owe it to our fellow theatre lovers to respect the process.

When you go, there’s a slip-sheet in the program about the annual fund drive for Broadway Cares. Traditionally this was done with actors in the lobby after the performance: COVID contact has made this a quick QR code scan and e-gift.

Get details and tickets at http://www.sheas.org.

All is Calm is Elegant at MusicalFare

It’s odd to think that the true spirit of Christmas – a wish for peace on Earth and  goodwill to all peoples – can be found in a story about war. But that is the essence of  All is Calm, now onstage at MusicalFare Theatre.

It’s a real story taken from a moment in World War I history. In the first few months of the war (“we thought it would be over by Christmas,” is an oft-repeated line in the show), British soldiers were acclimating to life in the trenches in that most frightening location of The Great War: No Man’s Land. Something happened on Christmas night, 1914: British soldiers on the Western Front heard singing and saw flickering lights coming from the German troops.  They bravely crossed this chasm of battle and joined in with carols of their own. Weapons were laid down, beverages, snacks, and stories were shared, language and cultural barriers were set aside. The men declared their own unofficial Christmas truce that lasted but a few days and was ne’er repeated again.  Playwright Peter Rothstein captured the simple elegance of this snapshot of humanity with this script.

If the story sounds familiar, you’re either a student of world history, you paid attention to the stories told by your grandparents, or you were in the Subversive Theatre Collective Audience in 2014 to see local writer Gary Earl Ross’ take on the same story, The Guns of Christmas.(Hat tip to the Theatre Companion for reminding me.)

Rothstein’s script is built on a series of statements from soldiers with each quote closed out with their name and rank. I’m a big fan of epistolary writing, and using this tactic felt like we were reading a soldier’s letter to someone back home. Associating words to people gave the story its heart. The production also uses the power of music to support this (sometimes debated) moment in WWI history. Music Director Theresa Quinn’s magical piano playing is absent, but her church choral director skills are apparent. There’s a whole lot of ensemble singing going on, and it’s all done a cappella. At times it’s a little bit barbershop quartet harmonics, other times I hear full-fledged British boy choir-layered harmonies in the familiar WWI tunes, including “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Pack Up Your Troubles,” and “When This Bloody War is Over.”  It’s all so very good. Peppered between are stand out solos from the familiar voices of MusicalFare including Ricky Needham, Darryl Semira, Marc Sacco, and Louis Colaiacovo. It’s a tribute to the cast and Quinn’s direction to pull it off as successfully as they all did. There was no music to “help” the singer find his pitch: it’s all up to talent and skill that this cast has in abundance. If an occasional sound wasn’t quite as written, well, heck, blame trench acoustics.

Susan Drozd staged and directed this crew with military precision. There were beautiful moments when weapons were sharply, deliberately placed just so. Each actor held a firm gaze to the back of the house when delivering lines, speaking to everyone and someone else just beyond the backwall.  Chris Cavanagh’s dramatic lighting and battle noises were the perfect foils for designer Dyan Burlingame’s trench set. Kari Drozd managed costume design and it was fun to watch the men using simple leg wraps, hats, and coats to become other characters. This was an important detail in the story and signaled their transition from camp soldier to one in active battle. Actors represented multiple roles, too, and were adept at shifting accents and dialects as well.

All the elements come together to create a moving and powerful human experience.

The well-paced, one act (no intermission and just under 90 minutes) production ended with a reminder, from British poet Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem The Fallen: “We will remember them.”

All is Calm is onstage until December 12: tickets and details are at www.musicalfare.com.

Sidebar: MusicalFare, like every other space in our community,  has many protective policies in place. Vaccination cards and IDs are checked before you enter the theatre. Facemasks are required. There’s touchless ticketing, too. All good stuff that should encourage audience members to feel safe and welcomed. The one thing that irks me is the lack of the printed program. I totally get it: it’s another way to limit contact between patrons and volunteers, both of whom may be at risk. Digital programs may inadvertently cause a new epidemic: cell phones on during the production to follow the song list. Seriously. I was surrounded by multiple program perusers and even over heard one person comment about how convenient it was to ‘see’ the program now. Patrons, it’s OUR responsibility to manage our need to know during a show. Peruse before curtain, please, or when you get home. The Patti LuPone Rules still apply: phones off and away during a show, please. Theatres created digital programs to protect you, and not to give you a new way to distract actors and your fellow patrons. The pre-show video with actors demonstrating how (and how not) to wear a face mask, however, was a hoot.

Hand to God Returns to Road Less Traveled Theater

Sabrina Kahwaty and Dan Urtz

I saw Road Less Traveled Theater’s production of Hand to God for the first time on March 8, 2020. It was the last show I saw that season before The Long Intermission.   It was a complete production, full of heart, humor, hell, and hope. RLTP wisely re-opened its 18th season by bringing it back and – if that’s possible – it’s gotten even better.

Robert Askins  penned a modern-day horror story, set in a Texas church, with  grieving widow Margery (Jenn Stafford), her shy son Jason (Dan Urtz), their earnest pastor (John Kreuzer), bad boy Timmy (Henry Farleo), and sweet teen Jessica (Sabrina Kahwaty, replacing Maura Nolan Coseglia from the 2020 crew).  Pastor Greg advises Margery to work through her grief by organizing a teen-driven puppet theatre, aptly named The Christkateers. Timmy is there to avoid a less than happy home life. Jason’s engaged because, well, Mom is the leader, and Jessica admits to an interest in puppetry. As they build their puppets in preparation for their first performance at service, Jason’s puppet persona Tyrone becomes aggressively Satanic. Even an attempt at exorcism (“Do Lutherans even do exorcism,” asked a quizzical Jessica) can’t break Tyrone’s hold over Jason.  Yup, there’s plenty of power in a cast-off sock with fluffy yarn hair.

Kudos go to designer/puppeteer Adam Kreutinger for creating the sock-alter egos. Set designer Dyan Burlingame created a main space that brought back plenty of church basement memories (I loved the “time out” cornered tricked out with the hell on earth motif), with its inspirational posters, cheery colors, and kid-size accoutrements assembled by props master Diane Almeter Jones. Shelby Converse got to choreograph some pretty outlandish fight scenes, too.  Director John Hurley had an A-list team for sure.

Urtz earned a 2020 Artie Award (Outstanding Actor in a Play) for his portrayal of meek Jason and the devil Tyrone. The sheer physicality of the role was impressive enough, then layer on the expressive emotional shifts and his whole performance is amazing. Stafford is a repressed randy mama when she’s not the demure church goer: her range is extraordinary. Farleo’s Timmy is hard to like and just as he should be. Kreuzer brings a quiet strength to Pastor Greg (who lands one of the funniest lines of the show if you remember The Exorcist), and Kahwaty’s sweetness as Jessica (with some spiciness as puppet Jolene) help bring the needed turn-around to Jason. All told, it’s a fine ensemble.

My frequent theatre companion won’t see shows a second time: for him the experience is one and done. I disagree: sometimes the second go-round brings out things you missed or you just see differently. That’s the case with Hand to God; I saw Margery’s pain manifest itself more deeply, and Jason’s sense of loss and confusion over his dad’s death simmering under the surface. There are some fine laughs and absurdity, too, but the poignancy of this story prevailed even moreso the second time around.  Even if you were among couple 2020 audiences, Hand to God is well worth revisiting.

Hand to God runs two hours with a 15-minute intermission to December 5. All COVID policies are in place (your vax card and ID will be checked at entrance and masks are required): you will feel comfortable in a safe place…even when Satan speaks.  Visit www. roadlesstraveledproductions.org  for details and tickets.

Spirited Show at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

Legend has it that the D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre is haunted.  A fire in the original 1874 building took the life of one of  the Grey nuns who lived there and it’s thought that she’s still on campus. For the next month, she’s not alone. The Woman in Black, on stage now to November 21, is a haunting story in the grand British tradition. Based on a novel, the stage version has dominated London’s West End since 1989, making it the second longest running non-musical stage play in Brit history. (The Mousetrap still prevails).

The Woman in Black is a character-rich two hander where David Lundy (as the mature Arthur Kipps) and Peter Horn (as the actor and a younger Kipps) assume multiple characters to tell Kipps’ lived story. The Kipps family liked to share spooky stories on Christmas Eve, and after many years, older Kipps was ready to share his real life ghost story from when he was a younger man.  He hired the actor to help him tell his tale.  This is where the fun begins.  As the story goes, he was a young solicitor, charged with sorting the details of an eccentric dead woman’s estate. He finds the  skeleton in her closet. And in her hallway.  And in the nursery.  And on the marshes surrounding her remote home.  She’s not a friendly presence – a spinster dressed in classic widow’s weeds with a disfigured face – and mayhem follows wherever she goes. Family secrets have a way of doing that.

The whole show is creepy good fun.  Lundy is marvelous as the senior Kipps and multiple supporting roles as, adopting a variety of accents, and affectations. Horn as the actor assumes the role of the young Kipps living out the solicitor’s youthful reality while coaching the senior Kipps to breathe life into…death. Horn is fine transforming himself from haughty actor/storyteller coach to the younger, more affable Kipps. Lundy and Horn play off each other very well.

Director Kyle LoConti must have had a blast with two outstanding actors and their extraordinary adaptability. Designer David King built a spooky and sparse black set with a few furnishing to push about. Brian Cavanagh and Geoffrey Tocin – lighting and sound design respectively – had the heavier lift and created enough gloomy spookiness to let our imaginations take over. Creaky doors, distant screams, footsteps, and the usual things that go bump in the night are all there. Set, lights, and sound created that perfect balance of actual theatre and theatre of the mind.Exquisite.

Cynics will breathe a ho-hum and call it all pretty predictable. But when you give yourself up to the experience of being in a haunted Edwardian theatre and spending a couple hours in Victorian England on a dark and stormy night, it’s a pretty perfect experience.

The Woman in Black runs just under two hour with a 15-minute intermission. Touchless  ticketing, new cozy seats, vaccinations and masks required, make the evening totally comfortable, until the ghosts waft by. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and tickets, if you dare.

Patience is Indeed a Virtue for All for One Productions

For the cast and crew of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the past 19 months must have been pure agony. The show was shut down opening night (thank you, Covid) after months of prep by All for One Theatre Productions, (the collaborative comprised of Shea’s 710 Theatre, MusicalFare Theatre, Irish Classical Theatre Company, Theatre of Youth, and Road Less Traveled Productions). Imagine the agony of sitting on this exquisite production. It was truly worth the wait.

Based on British author Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, playwright Simon Stephen’s script  begins with a neighborhood tragedy: a teen discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed. The distraught owner is quick to blame the teen. Thus begins a two-hour journey of a painful truth, deliberate deception, and a young man’s search for order in a very disorganized world.

Samuel Fesmire gives a mesmerizing performance as Christopher, the accused neighbor. While not specifically called out, Christopher appears to live on the autism spectrum, high-functioning and brilliant with mathematics, and sometimes childlike in his need for routine and order. He walks in straight lines and turns at precise right angles, marks his steps as he walks (“Remember your rhythms,” says is teacher Siobhan played by Sara Kow-Falcone), and cubes prime numbers to reduce stress. Fesmire’s movements capture the tics and quirks of someone whose mind is always racing.  Kow-Falcone’s carefully measured passion and commitment to her student paint the perfect picture of an ideal teacher.

While searching for Wellington the dog’s killer, Christopher learns some hard truths about his dad (Anthony Alcocer),  his mom (Candice Kogut) and Wellington’s owners (Wendy Hall and Ben Michael Moran).   Moran and Hall also do double duty as part of the ensemble, too, playing minor characters and set pieces. That’s actually a pretty cool part of the production. People are often miming walls and doors on the Spartan grid set. Even in the opening scene, lighting outlines Wellington’s dead body along with the murder weapon. 

No surprise that a collaborative performance has a super-size production team. Director David Oliver and assistant director Lucas Lloyd built a good team with Lynne Koscielniak doubling up on scene and lighting design, Christopher Ash and Brian McMullen on the projection (there’s plenty of that, too, against the grid set), Gerry Trentham as movement director, and Jean Toohey as dialect coach to keep the British accents on point and in check.  It this was a band, it would be described as tight.

Overall, it’s a fine interpretation of the novel and a good depiction of what it’s like to live in a world that you often don’t understand when you’re otherwise abled. Fesmire as a Christopher will win your heart as you empathize with his daily challenges. I was less focused on the parental lying and infidelity: the acting quartet handled that well. It’s a tribute to the production company and its choice of show to see marquee actors like Pamela Rose Mangus and David Marciniak in ensemble roles here, too.

The show’s timing may feel uneven at times (the first act felt long and a trusted colleague felt act two dragged) but like Christopher, once you feel the rhythm of the story, it makes sense.

Thanks to All for One for bringing this powerful show to the 716 and not giving up on it when Covid  was threatening, This is good stuff.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a solid two hours with intermission and is onstage at Shea’s 710 Theatre to November 14.  Details and tickets at www. sheas.org.

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.

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.

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.

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.

At long last: To Kill a Mockingbird at Kavinoky Theatre

“To Kill A Mockingbird” plays at The Kavinoky Theatre until December 8.

It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Some may think it’s also a sin to script-tamper with a Pulitzer Prize winning novel’s oft-staged theatrical adaptation, but that’s exactly what Aaron Sorkin did in his 2018 adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s currently playing on Broadway and in a unique twist of fate, it’s also on stage at Kavinoky Theatre to December 8.

. . . this cast shines like the Alabama moon at its brightest.

If you missed the story last season, the Kav was all set to stage the 1963 Harper Lee-approved adaptation. Kavinoky’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell had what she thought was the iron-clad permission to open the show, despite the opening of its new Broadway adaptation. Due to some legal squabbling between Lee’s estate and the Broadway producer, O’Donnell received a ‘cease and desist’ order within days of opening night, which even made it to the front page of The New York Times. Because, as the adage decrees, ”the show must go on” O’Donnell, Production Stage Manager Norm Sham, and Director Kyle LoConti and the cast quickly, agilely and expertly mounted a stunning version of George Orwell’s 1984 in just 19 days. Within a couple weeks, the Broadway producer had a change of heart and offered O’Donnell the opportunity to add the Sorkin adaptation to the theatre’s 40th anniversary season.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong story, beloved space in American literature, and compelling messages prevail. Sorkin’s staging is different from the ‘original’ stage version that closed Studio Arena Theatre’s 2008 (and final) season.  There’s an adjusted point of view here that actually brings even more relevance to 2019 audiences in a sad and compelling way. It’s very worthy, and the Kavinoky cast  members– mostly the same as last season, minus the children – are powerful in their roles.

Sorkin gives a stronger voice to some key characters which add new depth to the story. The family housekeeper Calpurnia is –in the 1930s southern tradition – a black woman who has served this family for decades. Because Lee wrote this in the late 1950s, (before the Civil Rights Movement) her head would have bowed and her comments were to herself. This Calpurnia shares her point of view clearly and it’s not lost on her employer Atticus Finch. Sorkin brings a different sensibility to Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black man, too.  Sorkin has nuanced Atticus; he’s still his children’s hero but his very human flaws reflect other conflicts.

Under LoConti’s direction, this cast shines like the Alabama moon at its brightest. While this reviewer is not a fan of adult actors portraying children, Aleks Malejs as Scout, Michael Seitz as Jem, and Jacob Albarella as Dill are feisty and fidgety perfection. Malejs in particular dug deep into her inner child to surface the body language and affectations of a six-year-old tomboy. Albarella is charmingly irritating as Dill, the neighbor’s nephew. Watch his expressive face as he admits some painful truths of his childhood. Chris Avery as Atticus Finch is stalwart, kind, and seeks the justice that needs to be served from a world that hasn’t quite gotten over the Civil War, 70 years prior. Sorkin/Avery’s Finch isn’t an ideologue, per se, although you sense from him a yearning for something more. He has his match in Shanntina Moore as Calpurnia. Moore’s Calpurnia has a dignity that makes me want to know more about this character’s story than anyone else. When Scout’s later monologue talks about law school, who was her exemplar?: her father and his law career or Calpurnia and her need for social justice? Robyn Baun’s performance as Mayella Ewell was captivating; she turned from defensive, to fearful, to ‘don’t tread on me’ daughter of the true south effortlessly. She was the teenage victim of abuse whose hand was forced to lie about what happened in her home. She nails it.

There are wonderful pops of Sorkin dialogue sprinkled throughout, particularly some of Judge Taylor’s waggish remarks expertly delivered by Peter Palmisano. Kevin Kennedy as the southern sheriff Heck Tate and Xavier Harris as the accused Tom Robinson, David Lundy has landowner Link Dees, and John Profeta as Boo Radley delivered solid performances. It was Patrick Moltrane as Mayella’s drunk and angry pappy that makes you remember what a scared and scarred society this small southern town really was.

My one disappointment was the constant movement of set pieces. Last season’s set looked solid and stunning in the style of the Kav’s resident set designer David King. King also is credited with this set design of elements moved about by the actors themselves on a fully lit stage; this was loud and at times frenetic.

O’Donnell said on opening night that ticket sales are very brisk with several shows approaching sell out status. Get online now and book your seats: you won’t be disappointed.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs a little over two hours with a 15 minute intermission until December  8. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and tickets.