It’s a New Camelot at MusicalFare

“Camelot” at MusicalFare. Picture courtesy of the theatre.

Sometimes the simple joys of maidenhood are experienced in a comfortable theatre watching a classic piece of American musical theatre re-imagined on stage. Who thinks that? C’est moi, of course.

MusicalFare Theatre opened its 2021-22 season on a resonant high note with Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot taking a fresh new spin.  If the title conjures up imagines of President John F. Kennedy and his bride listening to the album with the voices of Richard Harris, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet (le sigh), fie on those 1960s memories! This re-imagined version still has all the chivalry, passion, and infidelity you love with a lively new beat and a more casual vibe.

Co-directors Carlos R.A. Jones and Victoria Perez set the show in a tropical setting, with a group of beachy-clad friends hanging out and putting on a show. Outside of Ex Calibur, swords became wood poles and shields are pieces of found driftwood. King Arthur’s crown was a fedora with a bird of paradise rising from the hat band. The call to battle was sounded from a seashell. Music director Theresa Quinn matched the mood with Latin and island rhythms for every tune.  Chris Cavanagh’s set was sandy-perfection, complete with a waterfall and a boardwalk. Camp shirts, neon rompers, and floral prints replaced armor and flowing chiffon gowns.  The whole effect was oddly reminiscent of early stagings of Godspell (without the clown clothes and street setting). It was fun and inviting after our 18 month intermission.

Jones and Perez couldn’t have found a better cast. Gabriella McKinley is stunning as Guenevere. Her voice is incredible: rich when she’s in her lower register and lilting and controlled when her soprano soars. Her duets with both King Arthur (Darryl Semira) and Lancelot (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez) are lovely and Quinn’s arrangements graciously accommodate the vocal shifts for each pairing. Semira’s King Arthur is disarming and charming, boyish at first glance and rooted and mature in both conviction and confusion. Gomez’s  take on Lancelot is earnest and his gentle passion in the role’s signature song “If Ever I Would Leave You” is beguilingly beautiful.  

The ensemble is fun, with gender-crossing double roles for every member. Arin Lee Dandes is at her best as the cunning Mordred. Every movement and stage cross is a dance and it’s so fun, you almost forget to despise Mordred’s scheming.

Jones and Perez created something very special; they asked us to suspend our memories of past stagings or the movie and see past those images. What if Camelot was created in a different space by different people? Does that make the musings and vision of a King any different? Quinn’s interpretations brought a  freshness to the score that was lovely to hear, too. Her band – Joe Donohue on guitar and violin, Jim Runfola on reeds, and Jim Linsner on drums – was just right and fine.

If you have any qualms about coming inside for theatre, MusicalFare diligently checked vaccine cards/Excelsior passes and required facemasks, there are no more physical tickets, and playbills are irksomely online only. Relax and escape to this most congenial spot.

Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is onstage now until October 15; the show runs a good two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets, playbill, and temptingly lovely videos are online at www.musicalfare.com.

“Art” on Stage at O’Connell & Company

It’s so good to finally write these words after the longest intermission ever: welcome to a new theatre season, Western New York.

O’Connell & Company started the season with a surprise: a comedy and not the typical musical. “Art” was written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton. It was first performed in London and Broadway in the 1990s.

This three-hander has a curious plot: Serge (played by John Kreuzer) buys a pricey modern painting. It’s a tone on tone canvas which could easily be named” Polar Bears in a Blizzard Eating Marshmallows.” His friend Marc (Rolando M. Gomez ) doesn’t get it: to him, it looks like a “white piece of $hit” and he can’t get past his friend’s attraction to it. The third friend, Yvan (Joey Bucheker) tries to mediate his two friends’ verbal battle on this canvas, which later spirals into deeper conflicts.  Ah, but Yvan has his own drama-within-the-comedy: he’s about to be married and is also adapting to a career change, too.

Director Victoria Perez uses some clever and attractive stage devices at the very beginning and end of this one-act piece.  Here the characters shares their point of view in monologues in front of a projected white rectangle of light between the soft-focused muted floods of color.  It does just what it needs to do to direct your focus.

Between the effecti ve beginning and end motiffs, there’s a long and rather loud middle section that is mostly progressively higher pitched yelling. The barbs fly as Marc and Serge drag the canvas and their friendship through the mud. Regrettably their vocal pitch keeps rising, too, almost to the level of hausfrau chick-fighting. It’s easy to lose focus here and forget the bickering buddies are supposed to be professional men of means having an emotional and intense (and metaphorical) discussion.  The frenetic energy leads to a well-staged fist fight that felt almost too slapstick:  ratcheting down the shrill screeching might have brought more tension to this moment.

It’s the painting itself that helps settle the riff: Serge demonstrates his friendship and Marc steps up, too, in a surprising moment that would make any art collector shudder.  

There were a couple opening night distractions. An intermittent buzz in the audio will need to be worked out and there were a few dropped lines here and there that were artfully covered by this veteran trio. Costuming and set design (I didn’t understand that it was supposed to flip between three apartments until I read the playbill) were functional but not commanding: the painting itself (by artist Sara Jo Kukulka) and creative lighting by Reuben Julius grabbed attention.

O’Connell & Company has all the right protocol in place for making patrons feel comfortable coming back inside, including an online playbill. Executive artistic director Mary Kate O’Connell’s onstage greeting is verbal hug and ‘welcome home’ that we’ve been waiting for.

“Art” runs 90 minutes with no intermission until September 19.  Click here for details.

Love, Linda at MusicalFare is Wunderbar

In brief: It’s de-lovely.

That made-up contraction by the inimitable Cole Porter is the perfect way to describe “Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter,” on stage at MusicalFare Theatre  to July 18.

Debbie Pappas gracefully commands the stunning set with her elegant portrayal of Linda Lee Thomas Porter, Porter’s wife of 35 years,where she tells her story in words and selections from her husband’s songbook.  Pappas  is every inch the Art Deco-era social maven, in a satiny, sparkly gown, triple strand of pearls, Revlon red lipstick and just-so curled bob.  But oh it’s the music, whimsical (and sometimes plaintive) words, and her magnificent voice that make this experience so special. That’s what this show is: an experience where for an hour and five minutes, you’re immersed in a salon of storytelling and song in a period appropriate atmosphere.

The narrative is woven around the songs with compelling simplicity. Unlike the typical musical where the songs advance the storyline, the song selections – representing all parts of the Porter canon – mesh with her story in surprising ways.  For example, she speaks of her husband’s homosexuality and his dalliances with a forthright and gentle hand, punctuated by “Let’s Be Buddies,” written for “Anything Goes.” Perhaps a bit wistful  and not as jovial as the lyrics portend, it’s a poignant moment with a smile and a heart full of love.  

The narrative hits the high (and low) notes of their marriage, their social circle, mutual love for Paris, her disdain for Hollywood, and his passion for the good life. It’s the music, that glorious music, with familiar tunes like “I Love Paris,” “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine” and a dozen more that is so grand. Theresa Quinn is behind the screen at the piano and her interpretation is lush as ever.  Nick Corallo on drums is fun, albeit sometimes a distraction in the softer moments.  Pappas’ voice is clear and powerful in each number, giving each song its own distinct tone and mood.

Chris Cavanagh created a beautiful set that’s reminiscent of a circa 1920 parlor. Images of Porter and production handbills fill two screens. The sisters Drozd – Kari and Susan – nail the attire and the look. Director Norman Sham is working with pure gold from the team to the material with his Wunderbar real-life wife. As the song says, “C’est Magnifique.”

“Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter” runs an hour and five minutes with no intermission, to July 18. COVID protocols are in place and the audience seating is thoughtfully spaced. Visit www.musicalfare.com for tickets. It’s so good to be back.

‘Hand to God’ at Road Less Traveled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Indecent” is Sublime at Kavinoky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sylvia Howls Along at Niagara University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One’s Out of Order in the Court Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opposites Attract and Repel in “The Antipodes”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Bridges of Madison County” Cross Love and Infidelity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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