An 11 Year Tradition: The Nutcracker at Shea’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .this one is a winner. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Review: ‘Interrogation Room’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

 

John Vines as Det. Bremens grills Matt Witten as Gordon Peck as Nick Stevens as Det. Janetty listens in.

Interrogation Room written by local playwright and Road Less Traveled Theatre Productions co-founder Jon Elston debuted as RLTP’s second offering back in 2003.  It’s back in season 16, and remains a true edge-of-your-seat drama, very worthy of its 2004 Artie Award for Outstanding New Play. Frankly, it deserves more.

Set in (you guessed it) the interrogation room at the local police headquarters, this four-hander is all about the dialogue and the intense conversations between police and those accused (or not) of a horrific crime: an 11 year old girl is raped and murdered in her own home. Who would do such a thing? Her parents and older sister are white, and her older adopted brother is black. The family lives in refined neighborhood where murder doesn’t happen…and white parents adopting a black son may not always be embraced.

Mikey (played by Dave Tyrik) is the son in the interrogation room hot seat. Detective Bremen (John Vines and  Detective Janetty (Nick Stevens) are assigned to the case. Janetty is convinced that they have their man,  but Bremen isn’t sure. Mikey’s statement has some holes in it and while he’s cooperative, something isn’t coming together.

 But did Mikey murder his pretty little sister Ashley or not?

It’s all about the psychology of the investigation here; the proverbial good cop bad cop ballet where they dance to extract a confession from a question-weary subject. But Mikey has more to hide; he’s a young black man raised by white parents, afterall, and disappointing them is not something he is wont to do. But this white detective isn’t like his folks, there’s an animosity here that Mikey doesn’t understand, and the black detective – the authority figure who reminds him to sit up straight and dignified – commands his respect based on the race they have in common.

Neighbor Gordon Peck – craftily played by Matt Witten – insists on visiting the interrogation room; he  is sure that Mikey is guilty. He is certain beyond doubt that he saw the young suspect entering the home in a suspicious manner.  And he would know that declaratively, observing this on his carefully timed nightly walk around the neighborhood  he professes to love and wants to protect.

Director Scott Behrend had the winning combination here: a robust, relevant, layered  story and four solid actors who wrapped themselves around Elston’s words. Tyrick captures Mikey’s ‘I’m guilty of something but not murder’ nuances to a t. Stevens (last season’s Elvis in MusicalFare’s Million Dollar Quartet) balances Janetty’s love of family with his tough-talking streetwise need to have justice served now. Vines’ calm simmers low and slow throughout his performance. It’s amazing that he stepped into this role with only 17 days to prepare after two other actors bowed out. His occasional dropped lines and tiny fumbles are very forgivable and almost play into his character’s struggle to find the right words at the right time. His last scene is pure triumph – perfectly underplayed and extraordinarily powerful.

It’s Witten – who played Janetty in 2003 – that stands out. He is the smarmy guy you love to hate, with his entitled pedigree and smug attitude.  He’ll remind you of the way Jeremy Irons played Clau von Bulow in the 1990 film Reversal of Fortune. Like Claus, he has plenty to hide: watch his jumpy leg and twitchy pinky finger. That’s the kind of physical cues the cops observe when your words and your actions aren’t coming together.  Witten is deliciously wicked, cunning, contemptible.

Elston’s story is character- and dialogue-driven with intensity and fire. He creates a mood – against Dyan Burlingame’s stark set – that makes our need to live in a socially just world very real. We want to fight for it, like Bremen and Janetty so the Mikeys and Ashleys never have to be victims again. Interrogation Room runs until November 24. It’s an emotional two hours and some change (including intermission), and well worth it. Tickets and details here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Authentic Life Of Billy The Kid’ at Road Less Traveled Productions

The cast of ‘The Authentic Life of Billy The Kid’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Picture it: New Mexico, 1908. An old acquaintance knocks at your door. He brings his silent (at first) mysterious driver: could he really be someone who thought has been dead for 27years? 

From its very dramatic stop-action opening scene, ‘The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid’ which opens Road Less Traveled Productions’ new season, ignites you into a strange psychological drama. It’s indeed a dark and stormy night when the former sheriff Pat Garrett (Daniel Greer) opens his cabin door to welcome former newspaperman Ash Upson (Peter Palmisano).  Amidst plenty of thunder claps and lightning cracks, Garrett flashes back to the night he shot the Kid dead at the Maxwell ranch after the Kid escaped from prison. Well, that’s what Garrett thinks and what the history books tell us, but was that really what happened? What does this do to the former Sheriff’s identity? As he says “I spent the last 25 years trying to be the man I meant to be.”

. . . ignites you into a strange psychological drama.

Playwright Lee Blessing’s story takes us down a different path. What if the Kid had master-minded a fake death with a stand in, and he’s lived an OK life under a new identity? With a little bit of Agatha Christie-esque intrigue (think ‘The Mousetrap’) and a dash of urban legend (“Elvis is alive and working at a McDonald’s in Michigan”) the story plays some mind games on Garrett while his old buddy Ash spins out his own plan to make some money on this sideshow.

Dave Mitchell is a perfect enigma as Billy the Kid. He has that cunning, haunting look about him, and he gives a little side-eye as Ash directs and coaches him along with the show he’s scripting. The interaction between these two is wild: “I’m am impresario,” Ash proclaims as he silently coaches the Kid how to illustrate a night of passion on a wooden chair and how to deliver his lines with equal passion.  Garrett is skeptical, and even though he acknowledges that “the west is what you make of it,” he’s not ready to join this circus. Yet. Ash tries to prove the Kid is the real deal, and even asks him to drop his trousers to reveal the wound Garrett caused to the Kid’s hind (“you’re staring in the face of history here,” proclaims Ash). Enter Jim P. Miller (Patrick Cameron), a surprise guest and a visitor from Texas who’s ready to buy Garrett’s property, until he gets caught up in the story. Funny how the thought of making a little extra cash can change someone so fast.

While Blessing’s story had some slow-to-emerge parts, this ensemble – directed by Road Less Traveled’s leader Scott Behrend is great.  Mitchell as the Kid lets his character delectably, slowly roll out from servant to gunslinger. Palmisano plays Ash with gusto: even when Ash nods off his chair, he’s dreaming of his next money making scheme. Greer as Garrett is solid, a force, the rock who wants what history told him he did….but some money would be good, too. It’s Cameron as Miller that is captivating: he’s all Texas charm until he weaves himself into the narrative.

Once again Dyan Burlingame’s set is dead-on, from the plank walls to the glowing kiva in the corner. Special effects, fight scenes, and ambiance are all there, bringing a little bit of outback New Mexico to downtown Buffalo. RLTP begins this season with a literal bang.

Opening night may have had a stumbled line or two (totally forgivable), but the woman next to me who whipped out her phone a few times – lights and all – to check the time…not so much. Seriously.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 10-minute intermission.

 “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid” runs until October 6, 2019 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Nine’ by Second Generation Theatre Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The cast of “Nine” at Shea’s Smith Theatre.

I’ve waited for this one all season.

Second Generation Theatre Company closed its sixth season with an electric production of ‘Nine. ‘ With a book based on Fellini’s film  8/12 and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, ‘Nine’ is the story of Guido Contini, star filmmaker who is facing his 40th birthday with an urgent need for a hit film. And an equally urgent need to charm every woman he meets while pledging undying love to his knowing wife. Just your typical Italian love story…with a chorus of nuns, one prostitute, and two giggling German visitors.

. . .another triumph for this company.

This is a woman-dominated cast and production team, which makes the subject matter – a philandering man melting down in the pre-#metoo 1960s – all the more poignant.  So good to see the women in Buffalo’s theatre community together like this. There’s no irony here: the production is a product of its time. SGT and company have elevated the conversation here.

Director Victoria Perez assembled a near-perfect cast for this. Ben Michael Moran is Guido, wiry, passionate, conflicted, and irresistible, and Moran plays this well. Aimee Walker is his wife Luisa, wise and faithful with a stunningly resonant alto voice, she shows her fierce love for Guido early on with a heartfelt performance of “My Husband Makes Movies.” Walker owns the stage as soon as she steps into the spotlight. Her range of emotion in this piece alone is wistful and protective,  and the power behind her voice is amazing. Director Perez had pure gold to work with here: Walker’s posture and stance in every scene is strong, from her walk to her sleek upswept hair, to her elegant attire.

Equally solid is Kelly Copps as Carla, the primary girlfriend. She commands one of the best scenes in the production: in “A Call from the Vatican,” her voice is perfectly controlled as she performs a sultry aerial ballet between two swaths of suspended flowing fabric. She shows her vulnerability in act two’s “Simple.”  

Lisa Ludwig is Liliane LaFleur, Guido’s chief investor for the film that he still hasn’t written. While he’s trying to pick a concept out of his head, she knows just what she wants:  a song and dance movie that captures the essence of her elegant “ Follies Bergere.” A duel-melody patter piece, Ludwig and Sabrina Kahwaty nail the complex rhythm and precise placement of each lyric. Kahwaty’s voice and articulation is perfection. I love the way she almost spits out the words “a film” as she shows her disdain for Guido’s style. She’s one woman Guido can’t charm.

Lise Harty’s costume choices reflect the era and the vibe, from Luisa’s sophisticated couture, to Carla’s barely there underwear, to Liliane’s Chanel-inspired layers of pearls. I wish she stuck with the black and white color scheme throughout, although the pops of colors in the mid-century costumes of the ensemble pieces were fun.

The solo and duet numbers are the better vocal performances: the all-female ensemble – alternately portraying spa staff, nuns, and town gossips – are so soprano-heavy it’s also shrill at times.  Charmagne Chi has some featured moments, rocking a turbin. Mary Gjurich is another standout as Guido’s mother. She’s the calm and pragmatic Italian mama with a killer voice.

A standout of the night was Guido’s duet with actor and former lover Claudia. Moran and Arianne Davidow’s voices meld beautifully in “Unusual Way.” Davidow pours her heart into the Yeston’s lyrics “you made me whole.” It’s liquid platinum.

Max Goldhirsch is the only other guy in the cast and is adorable as 9 year old Guido. One of his key scenes is his introduction to, ahem, the physicality of love, with prostitute Saraghina. Nicole Cimato gave this plum role her best shot, but I missed the inherent irony of a mature, robust actor with a richer and stronger voice lustily singing “Be Italian.” Yes, another irony would have been Perez sliding out of the director’s chair for this one. She would have nailed it.

There were a few opening night hiccups with music director’s Allan Paglia’s quintet (I loved the cello against the voices, so lovely) that I’m sure are already fixed. Chris Cavanagh’s tiered set works well to add dimension to this small stage, and the tiers are needed to give the audience some better sightlines. Shea’s Smith is an interesting venue but there aren’t many good seats in this house.

This company and this cast rise above built environment obstacles and ‘Nine’ is another triumph for this company.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 10-minute intermission.

‘Nine’ is onstage until June 30, 2019, is produced by Second Generation Theatre Company and is presented at Shea’s Smith Theatre. Find tickets are http://www.sheas.org.

Theatre Review: ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Kelli Bocock-Natale as Kath, Stan Klimecko as Ed and Anthony J. Grande as Mr. Sloane. Photo is by Gene Witkowski.

This is one dysfunctional family with a weird twist on sibling rivalry.

Brother and sister are love-starved and have a history of being attracted to the same men. DaDa has diminished vision and keen insights…when they’re to be believed. And the opportunist  boarder killed a man. And they live happily ever after?

Playwright Joe Orton occupies some weird space with ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane,’ presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, now to June 30.

The plot is pretty twisted: Mr. Sloane is the young boarder in the home Kath (played by Kelli Bocock-Natale) shares with her DaDa Kemp (Gerry Maher).  The relationship quickly escalates to an intimate one as Mr. Sloane (Anthony J. Grande) ingratiates himself to Kath…or gloms on to her neediness…or acquiesces to her advances. Bocock-Natale is sweetly adorable in this sad role: one minute she’s coy and flirtatious, then she’s aggressive in seeking Mr. Sloane’s, ahem, attentions, and then she’s in a flight of fancy where  she’s his doting mother who also desires him. Jocasta, your complex is calling.

Enter Ed, Kath’s brother. He’s the businessman of the family, the fixer, the problem solver. Alas, he’s also in a pretty tightly closed closet and only seems to desire men when Kath is after them, too.

And then there’s the enigma Mr. Sloane. Is he really who he says he is, someone in need of lodging?  Or is he a grifter, a tease, a miscreant in search of another bad deed?

After two and half hours, I just didn’t get it.

I did love the casting, and the set…the two best parts of every ICTC show. Bocock-Natale celebrates the innocent/nefarious moods of Kath, with a lilt in her voice and a flash in her eyes. You believe that she believes she is the caring mum Mr. Sloane misses and the femme fatale he desires. Stan Klimecko as Ed  is the model of a slightly slimy stalker: he controls his family’s household without being in it and feels entitled to do so. Maher’s Dada is dotty enough and sharp, too: he’s the one – the only one – suspecting that Mr. Sloane is not who he says he is. Grande’s Mr. Sloane is one dimensional. Somehow director Greg Natale didn’t bring out any real fire or passion from Grande’s performance. Yes, Mr. S looked appropriately shocked when Kath put the moves on him, and he played up to Ed’s attentions, too, but there was something “phoned in” about his performance that didn’t help a sagging, dragging plot come to life.

Natale did, however, take full advantage of ICTC’s stage and Bocock-Natale’s range of expressions and nuances. The Natale family is very functional and beloved in this theater community for good reason. Vivian DelBello’s costumes were fine: Kath slipped from motherly muumuu to satin lingerie to a girlish floral frock that fit Kath’s fluctuating self-perceptions. Amanda Lytle Sharpe kept everyone’s accent consistent and level. David Dwyer’s set had the right look and feel  for a fine home that maybe isn’t aging as graciously as it should.

The ending left me wondering, too. The whole script was at a weak simmer below the surface. Nothing really bubbled up to be exciting or provocative (hey, even in the early 1960s, May-December romances happen, people were cruel and siblings rivaled), and the ending was pretty flat. I didn’t want “more” of this story after two and half hours, I did want it to end with more gumption. Regrettably, ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ didn’t entertain me.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes with one-10 minute intermission.

‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ is onstage until June 30, 2019 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Memories and Martinis’ at O’Connell & Company

Anyone who grew up loving music and stories and plays will admit to the same truth: their bedroom was a theatre, their bed was a stage, stuffed toys and dolls were members of the audience, and heartfelt solos were sung into hairbrushes.  For Mary Kate O’Connell, these early days spent singing, dancing, and acting with her beloved sister Patti became the roots of her career and the foundation of ‘Memories and Martinis,’ her first cabaret show onstage at O’Connell & Company.

. . .a delight. . .

Yes, it’s her first cabaret (not counting the ensemble piece ‘ DIVA by DIVA: A Celebration of Women’ which she writes and produces  and is now in its 17th season) show that reflects on her life, both on stage and off. With her dear friend and musical director Chuck Basil and her dog Rosy sharing the stage, it’s all Mary Kate, her warmth, her wit, and her stories. Very fitting – and maybe a bit surprising – that she opens the show with a Beatles classic, “In My Life.”  It’s poignant and a perfect place to start a life ‘til now story.

She takes you back to her family’s North Buffalo home and her bedroom productions with Patti, and the bond they shared as the youngest (and only girls) in a house full of five older brothers. Patti, “my best birthday present ever,” Mary Kate says wistfully, recalling the day her parents put baby Patti into Mary Kate’s arms and she was allowed to stay home from school to meet her only sister.

She reflects on loving the movies and music of Doris Day, and meeting Rosemary Clooney, and her first trips to New York City with her parents and sister, having dropped the boys off at West Point along the way, and the rush of her first Broadway show and seeing Carol Channing on stage.  Fast forward to 1971 and her teen years, getting her first pair of blue jeans and listening to Carole King’s album ‘Tapestry.’ From there it was time to launch her professional career, doing theatre in downtown Buffalo, meeting Buffalo big band leader Irv Shire and songwriter son David Shire.

There are plenty of stories like that in this show, some universal reflections, and some that are deeply personal. You feel the love she has for the family she was born to and the families she creates within the context of her work. You see their faces, too, on the walls of the set Matt Myers designed.

She and Basil have great rapport on stage, and his accompaniment is a glorious constant, sometimes barely there as a cozy music bed. He is a tremendous talent and he lends his voice to some fine tunes, memorably the Donald O’Connor track to “You’re Just in Love” from ‘Call Me Madam.’

Rosy, Mary Kate’s miniature poodle and constant companion is at her side  – and sometimes in her arms – throughout the show. Dressed in sparkling canine couture, Rosy dozes and wiggles and whimpers at times and it’s hard not to love someone so darn cute. She has her own story, as a 2.6 lb rescue who came to Mary Kate needing nurturing and a home.

Each performance has a guest friend who joins Mary Kate on stage: Annie de Fazio, a cast member from ‘1776’ was there for night two to swap some stories. I would have loved to hear a song or a duet.

Myers’ set design is simple, almost like the walls of a family room, with plenty of photos of Mary Kate’s family and friends, a stunning baby grand piano, a couple of stools and a bar for the martini glasses (her first one was over lunch with Buffalo’s grande dame of theatre, Blossom Cohan, who said a dry martini with three olives on the side was like lunch, another tale from Mary Kate’s canon). There are framed quotes on the wall, too, an homage to her late mother the quote-a-holic and a reflection of her DIVA by DIVA scripts.

Also on stage – but never mentioned – was a collection of awards. Several Artie Awards (one from just this year, for O’Connell & Company’s all-female production of ‘1776’), Arts Council awards, and Mary Kate’s Athena  Award from a few years back. Because when you’re the real deal and you live your life as an exemplar, you don’t need to come out and talk about it.

‘Memories & Martinis’ is a delight of a show. With plenty of heart, lots of music and stories,lots of laughs, and just a few tears, it’s gentle and sweet with a whole lot of heart, like Mary Kate herself.

Running Time: 2 hours with a 10-minute intermission,

“Memories and Martinis runs through June 23, 2019 and is presented at O’Connell & Company. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Rope’ at The Shaw Festival

The cast of “Rope” at The Shaw Festival. Photo by Emily Cooper.

“Rope,”  on stage at the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre, is a not-so-classic  whodunit where you know who the killers are from the opening moments of the story. What you don’t know is who from their inner circle will figure it out, or how long it will take for the killers to crack. Cue the theatrical suspense.

. . .the staging and art of presentation of ‘ Rope’ is pure stage magic. 

Penned by playwright Patrick Hamilton, ‘Rope’ preceded his more renowned play ‘Gaslight’ by 10 years, debuting in London in 1929. This timing makes it a perfect fit for this gem of a theatre. Designer Joanna Yu’s period-perfect set is the epitome of British society of the day. It’s something of a metaphor, too:  simple elegance can successfully hide something that’s dreadfully disturbing. The set pieces deserve credit for taking on character roles themselves: the grandfather clock is the larger than life presence that marks the passage of time. The bar table that exposes and conceals elixirs is there to draw out truths. The center-stage wooden chest is both the table and ersatz coffin. And together it just looks so darn pretty at first blush.

The story opens just after the crime is committed. University pals (or are they lovers?) Wyndham Brandon (Kelly Wong) and Charles Granillo (Travis Seetoo) have just killed one of their school chums. No real reason, other than they feel strong to his weakness, affluent to his common, and heck, they had nothing better to do. Another stage metaphor: the first 10 minutes of the show are very dark, with only the flicker of their lit cigarettes and quick flashes of table lamps to punctuate the dark. When finally convinced to let there be light, Brandon announces, “ I have committed murder. I have committed passionless – motiveless – faultless – and clueless murder. Bloodless and noiseless murder … And immaculate murder. I have killed. I have killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing. And I am alive. Truly and wonderfully alive. “ Granillo or Granno as he is called, is the less willing accomplice (could he have been a potential victim?) and is nervous and not proud. When he neglects to hide the deceased’s theatre ticket, Brandon reminds him of his place when he tells him, “It’s your business to see what I don’t see.”  Well, every Batman needs a Robin as they sang in “The Book of Mormon.”

The duo then hosts a party – with the deceased still in the wooden chest – with more university chums and even the deceased’s aged father. The coffin-cum-buffet is neatly covered with linen and snacks as the bon mots fly between veiled threats, some grandstanding, where the roots of suspicion are revealed. It’s university prof Rupert Cadell (Michael Therriault) whose suspicions are aroused as the others drink and banter around him. Therriault plays this role with a delicious detachment, almost like the observer who waits for the right moment to insert himself in the moment. He’s the one to watch in the ensemble.  I’m not completely convinced with actors Wong and Seeto as recent university grads, but casting Therriault in this creepy “guest who won’t leave” role is fine.

There were up and down moments throughout: the costuming was stunning. The fight scene was almost too balletic. There was some suspense, but not enough real tension. Granno’s fear was almost comedic and nervously jerky.

While the plot may be implausible, the staging and art of presentation of ‘ Rope’ is pure stage magic. Louise Guinand’s lighting design is meticulous: the near dark sequence may have felt a bit too long, but the effect was stunning. So was the constant rain patter and splatter on the window. Director Jani Lauzon kept the action fluid and well-paced. She used the backlit stairway well as a point of transition and a good visual device. Composer/sound designer John Gzowski (good to note  that this was a woman-dominated production team) laid down a subtle and constant music bed that was just ‘there’ enough to connect you to the characters and their machinations. When the story fails me, it’s these elements that pull me in.

‘Rope’ is a visually beautiful production that hides a seamy story of murder and deception. It’s onstage on a rotating schedule until October. 12. It runs two hours with a 10-minute intermission. Visit www.shawfest.com for details and tickets.

Theatre Review: ‘Looking Through Glass’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

It’s just your typical boy-meets-girl-meets-boy-who-dies and inhabits her body sort of play…with a twist.

. . .a fine night of theatre. . .

Playwright Ken Kaissar’s local premiere of ’Looking Through Glass,’ a modern adaption of ‘The Dybbuk’ is an ethereal send up to the intensity of love and the power of a promise, produced by Jewish Repertory Theatre.

In short, it was lovely, sparse and spare with staging to emphasize the beauty of the words, and very well executed by a stellar cast. Yes, on opening night there were some stutters and stammers and dropped lines, but then again, real life isn’t about perfection. Neither is love, and that’s the heart of this story.

Leah is a doctor living with her mother in New York, happily dating a fine young man, and waiting for him to pop the question. She’s ineffably attracted to Jacob,a stranger who is just as mysteriously drawn to her window. Silent sparks fly, curiosity is aroused, and her cautious mother and suspicious intended are wary. After Jacob takes his life, Leah intends to wed her beau Shmuel, and that’s when it happens. Jacob’s restless soul – his dybbuk – has unfinished business with Leah.

Kaissar’s adaptation of S.Ansky’s 1914 story is fierce, with enough contemporary updates to pull you into this character study and capture your imagination. It’s the casting and the character that put it over the top. Arin Lee Dandes is a fine Leah. She’s sweet and skeptical, romantic, and career-focused, and truly wants to do the right thing, whatever it is. When the dybbuk possesses her, she’s visibly, audibly changed. No stage magic here, it’s all her, and her fine actor’s chops.

Zachary Bellus is equally on point as Jacob, the stranger no one wants to know any better, a Kabala-quoting pseudo –intellectual, he’s every mother’s nightmare in sneakers. Yet he charms and beguiles Leah and he does it oh so well. Angelo J. Heimowitz is the even-keeled, dependable Shmuel, a perfectly good guy whose heart will be strangely broken. Heimowitz is rock-steady, just as his character should be. Tina Rausa is Leah’s mom who delivers the outstanding level of performance we expect and love from her.

The complete and unabashed stand out in the cast is David Lundy in three distinct and demanding roles. Some of them brief, but each one requires a change up in accent, demeanor, and delivery. Most of the time he’s playwright Ansky, guiding the early development of the story. Later he’s the Rabbi at Leah and Shmuel’s wedding who tried to exercise the dybbuk. Then he’s two generations of Mordecai, Leah’s father, who gives context and the delivers the surprise twist that gives this story its soul. His performance is brilliant.

‘Looking Through Glass’ is full of metaphor and allegory and suspended reality in the context of beloved Jewish mythology. JRT’s delivers  a fine night of theatre with this one.

Sidenote: this is intense and riveting theatre in a small, quiet, dark space. For the love of all things holy and mystical, before you enter this space, turn off your cell phones and keep them off.  All the way off. Not just the ringer. The whole device. No text that you may receive is all that important and your social media feed can wait. There were the usual distractions from audience members who put their need to stay connected above the respect live theatre deserves.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with a 10-minute intermission

‘Looking  Through Glass’ is onstage now to June 2, 2019 and is presented at the Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.