It’s a Hoot at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of From Honky Tonk To Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

I’ll put this right upfront: I’m not a country music fan. That didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying From Honky Tonk to Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music onstage now at D’Youville Kavinoky Professional Theatre (note the new variation on the name, please).

Conceived by the theatre’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell, this show is part juke box musical, part survey of the genesis of American country music, and part women’s history retrospective with a healthy dose of social justice. And it is just plain fun.

This was a pandemic passion project for O’Donnell who spent part of that time in her hometown of Boonville, NY, with her dad in his last months of life. More time spent in rural Adirondack foothills drew her to country music. She began to appreciate the deeper nuances of the lyrics and the people who penned them. She learned, too, that women played a relevant role in the genre…even when they were marginalized by good ol’ country boys.

O’Donnell  assembled a stellar production team to unite many moving parts, plus a great line up of musicians, actors, and dancers to bring her vision to stage.  There is a lot going on here.

First, the band.  Dee Adams – musical director, singer, guitarist, and mandolin player – has a great, tight group. Kathryn Koch (guitar, harmonica), Helen Butler Ceppaglia (violin, accordion),  Elton Hough (drums, a real kit, mind you),  John Martz (steel guitar, banjo, dobro),  and Charlie Gannon (stand up bass, electric guitar) have the sound.  I loved how costume designer Andrea Letcher drove home one of the shows key messages by dressing the men in black and the women in vibrant traditional cowgirl fringed dresses. Her recreations of Shania Twain’s decidedly non-traditional Country costumes were spot on, too.

Then, the singers. O’Donnell is the narrator and lends her big beautiful voice to Dolly Parton’s iconic “Jolene” and the wistful  “I Hope You Dance.” Adams and Koch come center stage to perform country standards “Crazy” and “Harper Valley PTA.”  Renee Landrigan, doubling on keyboards and melodica, is a kick singing Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill.”  But my oh my, it’s Annette Daniels Taylor who gives these country tunes their soul.  She’s both powerful and tender in her storytelling and singing and her “Down to the River to Pray” was passionate and moving. Drummer Hough stepped out from the kit and picked up an African drum to accompany her.

Lynne Kurdziel Formato is the director/choreographer, and she had folks moving to and fro on stage and a trio of dancers on videotape in a variety of local places. Dancers  Aurora Hastings, Christina Tribo, and Evan Matthew Stuart share Zodiaque Dance Company roots among their bone fides. They rock the Company’s  angular, contemporary frame  that gave an interesting juxtaposition against the show’s contemporary Country pieces especially in the second act. Brian Milbrand used the stage screens to full advantage with some historic photos and lots of interpretive dance interludes. Regrettably, some of the dance numbers that were “green screened” to appear happening in rushing waters looked a bit odd and not well connected to the narrative.

While there were some gaps in the history – notably missing was Tammy Wynette, often called “The First Lady of Country Music,” June Carter and Mother Maybelle Carter, and the entire 1980s decade (O’Donnell acknowledged this and said it’s coming in the sequel) – the personal storytelling and musical selections really drive home O’Donnell’s key points about women in the industry and social justice.

Most importantly, this was a love letter to O’Donnell’s late parents and a poignant reminder that sometimes the music we hear in our youth will sound very different to us again as time marches on.

It’s worth noting that D’Youville has invested in some truly lovely upgrades to the theatre over the past few seasons and it looks spectacular. New seats are bright and cozy. No more physical tickets or playbills (find it online here) and required face mask on campus) should make all theatre goers feel comfortable. One more thing: if you wear one of those over-sized signal watches that illuminates every time you get a text or an email, please tuck it under your sleeve or turn it off. It’s as bright as a cell phone and is super distracting to those around you. (And I mean you, lady who was in the middle of my row the other night.)

From Honky Tonk to Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music is on stage until October 3.  It’s a toe-tapping two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and reservations.

Road Less Traveled Productions and Big Foot – A Killer Combo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

wales-publicity-1.jpg

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.

New Phoenix Rising in Sterling for 25th Season

New Phoenix Theatre will celebrate its 25th anniversary season with four shows that represent its hallmark eclectic appeal.

Founder Richard Lambert says,” After 25 years I feel lucky to still be doing this, and as a small alternative theatre we’re still glad people are interested.”  

The season begins September 20 with ‘Izzy,’ written by local theatre and radio legends Grant Golden and Jim Santella. Previous stagings were 19 years ago at MusicalFare and 27 years ago at the former Calumet Café. Like all good theatre, this heartwarming message of ambition and tenacity (Izzy is a fictional Buffalo songwriter that almost was something) is timeless. Lambert loves opening his sterling season with local playwrights and a musical review at that. Pianist/singer Chuck Basil steps out from behind the piano to center stage for this show, and is joined by Renee Landrigan, Nathan Miller and Brett Klaczyk. Lambert says Basil’s  voice “ just anchors and shines and when he hits some of those notes the theatre just shakes.”  

‘Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ starts its run November 22. Lambert pondered this on Facebook a couple years, wondering if the show (about a James Dean fan club in Texas called the Disciples) would still work. Famous for not being on Facebook, Lisa Ludwig caught wind of this and was eager to be part of it. Betsy Bittar, Kerrybate Abel (“with that big bawdy laugh as big as Texas,” Lambert says), Stephanie Bax, Jenn Stafford, Mary Moebius, and Dylan Brozyna are in the cast, and Lambert will direct.

Opening March 6  is ‘Kiss of the Spiderwoman,’ and Lambert has a soft spot for this show. “It’s a bittersweet, romantic show,” he says, and he’s delighted that Victoria Perez has agreed to direct it “She’s a good luck charm wherever she goes, he says. Rolando Martin Gomez and Richard Lattimer will share the stage.

The seasons ends with Edward Albee’s classic ‘Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’ with Lambert and Pamela Rose Mangus as George and Martha and Pandora Liane Kew and Brett Klaczyk as Honey and Nick. Lambert is particularly excited about this production: “I’m already working this, and getting into  Richard Burton’s voice,” Lambert says referring to the 1966 film. The show opens April 22, and he’s confident that all will go off without a hitch, even though it opens on Broadway a month earlier. “We got in under the wire,” Lambert says. “No one else in the country can do this, it’s kismet, but our fingers are crossed that (Broadway producer) Scott Rudin won’t pull the plug,” referring to Kavinoky Theatre’s situation last season when the same production company forced the cancellation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

For Lambert ending the 25th season with this production is a highlight for the actors and the audience alike.  “This is the last show of the season and I want the pay off to be rewarding night of theatre. The time was right to accept the challenges.” he says. He’s enthusiastic about this cast, too.  “If anyone in our city is lucky enough to hangout with Pam, you’ll know she’s wanted that role for some time. Pandora Lianne Kew came in to audition and was already completely off book. She made  such an impression. Her ‘Honey’ isn’t light and feathery; she’s dominant and strong. She renewed my faith in how seriously young people take their passion for theatre.”

For details about ticket, click here.

First Look: ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company

The cast of ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company.

Long before Hamilton took the musical theatre stage by storm, there was “1776 The Musical.”Winner of the 1969 Tony Award for Best Musical, this retelling of how John Adams convinced our Founding Fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence returns to Western New York thanks to O’Connell & Company, and this time it  will have a special spin. This production, opening April 25, will have an all female cast.

“We’re not doing it as women playing men,” says Mary Kate O’Connell, executive director who also portrays Benjamin Franklin in the cast. “We are all actors playing characters. The gender is not as critical as the words.”

O’Connell heard about an all-female concert version of the show, and decided to take the concept one step further and create the production with a full set, original costumes, and a cast of “strong and amazing women,” she says.

The true power of the show is in the script and score and how it depicts  the history lessons we learned long ago. It was no easy feat to convince a disparate group of stakeholders that this was the right time for independence. This mindset  – in some ways – is a metaphor for more contemporary challenges, and hearing these words spoken and sung by women will make an unique impact. O’Connell says “There’s a level of moral civility and respect that you get from a staged version of a historic event. It lets you see the person behind the words. As actors, we try to give these people and their words dimension. I’m not playing a man, I’m portraying the voice of history.”

The cast fully embraces the significance of this work. Pamela Rose Mangus will portray John Adams.  “It’s daunting and humbling to play a man who was so pivotal in the creation of the United States,” she says. “He, along with the rest of the Continental Congress, sacrificed so much to ensure our liberties.” Playing this role, she says, is “a challenge and a damned good role. Plus it gives me the opportunity to come full circle from when I played Abigail Adams in summer stock in 1976.”

O’Connell has assembled a strong production team to match the gravitas of the women on stage, notably Steve Vaughan,  director and Don Jenczka, music director. There will be three members of the production team taking line notes at every performance, too, according to O’Connell.  “We’ve never had that before. This show demands it and deserves it,” she says. These notes will inform the cast and crew about nuances, reactions, and the finer points of staging a show that has more than its usual share of moving parts to it. As O’Connell says, “This show is an opportunity to give women a voice about a critical part of our history.”

“1776 The Musical” is onstage at The Park School in Amherst – where O’Connell & Company is in residence – from April 25 to May 19. Visit www.oconnellandcompany.com for ticket and details.

First Look: ‘Annapurna’ at New Phoenix Theatre

Michael Lodick left a legacy to Buffalo’s theatre community in many ways. Before he passed away last year, he added another regional premiere to the New Phoenix Theatre season.

“Annapurna,” the dramedy by Sharr White, opens on Friday, April 26. Lodick selected the show and cast it before his untimely death, and was to direct it, too. “He was such an eclectic, eccentric and weird person,” said his friend and New Phoenix executive director Richard Lambert. “It’s his good instincts and his seeing out what isn’t readily available or popular, with an eye toward making something popular and understandable. That was him.” This season is dedicated to Lodick’s memory.

Lodick cast Lisa Ludwig and John Profeta for the two-person cast: Terry Kimmel will direct. “Megan Mullalley played the role on Broadway ,” Lambert said. “Lisa is perfect for this. She’s acerbic yet sweet and funny, exactly right.”

“Annapurna” is the story of a couple, 20 years divorced. The wife comes back to challenge her husband and to discuss their child who he hasn’t seen in 20 years.  The couple has to come to terms with their past in order to move on. Lambert says the show is quite dark and actually very funny.

Putting this show in this season and the carefully selected cast – always a challenge for a two-hander that’s dialogue-heavy – has Lodick’s handprint all over it.  When it comes to casting a show, Lodick’s instincts and choices were solid, even though it’s speculative art. Lambert said, “You rely on other people’s talents to make it a draw.   It’s always a crapshoot when you’re putting a season together. “

In “Annapurna,” it’s the force of personality in the characters that build the story. It’s a plot based on their interaction as a family 20 years ago, with unresolved conflict. Lambert said, “Both characters have a heart. They’re articulate and smart and caring, and they had their past differences. Now their present situation is different.”

In the end, it’s a leap of faith – along with trusting your gut and knowing your audience – that the show and casting you select will deliver the production you expect. “Every element of the theatre is a gift, “ said Lambert. “You’re lucky to cast a play and find the cast and the director that makes it work. It’s a lot of baby gifts wrapped up in a big box.”

But Lambert paused as he reflected on the work that Lodick prepared for this season and “Annapurna” in particular, and said, “But I think this one is going to work.”

“Annapurna” opens April 26 and runs over four weekends to May 18. Visit www.newphoenixtheatre.org for details and tickets.

First Look: ‘1984’ by George Orwell at Kavinoky Theatre

In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells his young son, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

Loraine O’Donnell, Kavinoky Theatre’s executive artistic director has lived with this sentiment the past week, since another production company sent her a ‘cease and desist’ email which pulled the plug on Kav’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” a scant two weeks before opening night.

To recap, there is a legal dispute brewing over the rights of the stage adaptation of this beloved American novel. Kavinoky had a signed contract to mount the 1969 Christopher Sergel production. Even though this is not the adaptation currently on Broadway, the production company who owns those rights has threatened legal action against any theatre company – professional and community, around the world – if other productions are mounted during the Broadway run. Read the full story here.

O’Donnell and director Kyle LoConti had to pivot. Quickly.  Pulling a production from the season schedule was not an option.

“It’s very frustrating,” O’Donnell sighed.  “We started thinking about what show can we do with this existing, beautiful set?”  Then she had a brainstorm: why not stage the 2013 adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian drama “1984.”  It’s a classic drama, it’s in schools’ curricula (this is important as many local schools had already booked weekday ‘Mockingbird’ performances), it would be a regional premier, and its brief stay on Broadway ended in October, 2018. And the content couldn’t be more timely: fake news, propaganda, corrupt government, and Big Brother watching over all. “I’ve had this in my thoughts for years,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell and LoConti made the decision to push the start date back a week to March 15, too, which will allow an extra week of prep without throwing the balance of the season off kilter.

This version of “1984 by George Orwell” was adapted by two Brits, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, “who became entranced with the novel’s appendix, which hardly anyone reads,” says O’Donnell. “The play begins when the year 1984 ends and it continues to 2050 in flashes.” Much of the script was developed in rehearsal, from improvisation by the first cast.

LoConti was on-board as director. Almost every member of the ‘Mockingbird’ cast would have roles too, except for the six children (originally cast in two teams of three) and two cast members whose schedules couldn’t accommodate the new run dates.

This sparked another inspiration: instead of tasking the uber-talented Kav set designer David King to start from scratch and build out the stage again, Kav could use its high-tech LED screen panels to full advantage, stretching 20-feet across the entire width of the stage.

Kavinoky’s LED screen is unique in the region, too. The theatre purchased the panels in 2017  (The purchase of the LED curtains are supported by a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo with funds from its J. Warren and Charles Donald Perry Memorial Fund) and O’Donnell said at the time that this innovative technology would be a game changer for the theatre. So far the panels were used as accents or complements to full out sets, particularly in “Mamma Mia!” last season and “Sweeney Todd” this season. This time the curtains will be the focal point. “Brian Milbrand, our video guy, is so excited about this, it’s right up his alley,” said O’Donnell.

The plan is to display the propaganda that is central to the story on the LED curtain, and to depict some of the more graphic elements of the script in creative ways. The six children and two adult actors who couldn’t participate in this production, will be seen in cameo videos this way, as well.  There will be live feed cameras on stage, too, to show the characters’ point of view, and screens in the audience, to give an authentic “big brother is watching” you feel to this immersive experience. O’Donnell said the audience “will have the idea of being constantly watched and monitored.”

O’Donnell is quick to praise the commitment and devotion of the cast and the Kav crew, with particular props to LoConti as the director. “Kyle went from directing a beautiful piece of theatre on her bucket list to something she probably didn’t want to direct. And in a very few days, she’s done a lot of research and preparation. She is amazing.”

O’Donnell is enthusiastic. “This will be a quick three week rehearsal period,” she said, “And it’s spectacular play.”

And that, Atticus Finch, takes courage, and the ability to see it through to the very end.

“1984 by George Orwell” is onstage March 15 to April 7. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for tickets and details.