Theatre Review: ‘Equivocation’ at Kavinoky Theatre

Arianne Davidow, Darryl Semira, Chris Avery, Adriano Gatto, Chris Guilmet, Guy Balotine. Photo by Diane Almeter Jones.

Those 17th Century British Catholics: in an attempt to overthrow the (Protestant) government and monarch, they thought if they could just pack the Parliament with gunpowder and blow the dickens out of the place, the faith could rule. King James I was not amused.  He also knew he wanted to control the spin. Since social media was 400 years in the offing, perhaps the most eloquent commentator of the day – William Shakespeare – could be commissioned to write a play that would (pardon the pun) blow the lid off this conspiracy and make Great Britain Safe Again.

. . . a worthy night of theatre. 

But the King and his minions had one script in mind, while the Bard and his social conscience wanted to depict something with more authentic with fewer alternative facts.  When your head (literally) is at stake, what’s a Bard to do?

That’s the gist of Equivocation, the drama that’s closing this season at Kavinoky Theatre. I’ll be blunt: I struggled with playwright Bill Cain’s script. Most roles – except for the Bard himself (played by Guy Balotine) and his daughter Judith (Arianne Davidow) – were double cast, and this added to my confusion with the storyline that jumped from backstage, onstage, and offstage.

That’s not to say the production wasn’t well executed. David King’s set was – as usual – evocative and eye-attracting. Hearty hewn faux stonework on the Kav’s luscious Edwardian stage was just right, and using two levels of staging kept the action brisk. I loved how director Katie Mallinson used the whole house to create a surround-sound setting. Actors entered from the back of the house, jumped down off the stage for some scenes, and even used the sideboxes. This is a great effect in smaller houses and puts the audience in the middle of the story. It’s just the story itself was so nonlinear and disjointed, it was a challenge to stay focused.

There were plenty of good moments: hearing Shag (as Shakespeare is called by his peeps) reference his other works – so familiar to us – the same way we might talk about the daily grind of our own workplaces is a hoot. When the King’s staffer says His Maj wants something “with witches,” there were plenty of knowing snickers from the audience. There were some “Hamlet” references, too, and other familiar moments that made the audience engage. It’s Judith who gets her father on track with fulfilling (some) of the King’s wishes when she saves a discarded script the Bard intended to chucked away.

The ensemble has lot going on with this show. Christopher Avery, Christopher Guilmet, Adriano Gatto, and Darryl Semira are changing tunics, crowns, skirts, and wigs to keep up with the flow of characters. Gatto pulls extra duty as the fight director, too, as plenty of punches were thrown, and a there was a pretty good sword fight, too. They handled the fluctuations of their roles well, often doffing robes and tunics on stage as their personae changed.

The two most used words were equivocation (yes, there’s plenty of evasiveness spoken here) and soliloquy which Judith says she hates, but she delivers a couple fine ones. As the only woman on stage, Davidow commands her scenes easily. It’s so good to see her in a straight acting role again, after several (exceptionally fine) musical performances in “The Producers,” “Mamma Mia!” on this stage and most recently in “Million Dollar Quartet” at Shea’s 710.

Brian Cavanagh’s lighting got to catch glints of steel off those dueling swords, and even got to create a couple pretty impressive lightning storms, too.

Before you head out to the Kav, take Cole Porter’s advice and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”  to get the most out of this one. It’s a worthy night of theatre, but be prepared to give it all of  your attention.

The Kavinoky took its share of licks this season, and had some pretty grand moments, too. Next season – its 40th – is packed with promise, drama, and two musicals, too. I can’t wait.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes-with a 15-minute intermission.

“Equivocation” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Undeniable Sound Of Right Now’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

Those of us of a certain age still sigh when we remember going to the Belle Star out in Colden. Or Central Park Grill. Or the original Tralf on Main Street.  These were places where live music was king, but it was the atmosphere, the company, the whole gestalt of it all that made it more than just a destination with a great sound. That’s the essence of Hank’s, the dive bar with live music in “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” on stage at Road Less Traveled Productions.

. . . ends RLTP’s season on a high note. . .

Dyan Burlingame’s set pulls you in before playwright Laura Eason’s endearing story begins. Hank’s has a warm, rundown vibe of a place packed with memories, with  just a dash of stale beer. Lots of framed prints on the walls, a Teddy Bear over the bar signed by The Clash’s Mick Jones, a string of twinkle lights above the bar surrounded by a collection of mismatched stools. Only one thing was missing, noticed one keen observer: there should have been a few holes in the wall around the dartboard. But it’s all perfect. It creates a sense of place, a feeling, something meant to linger and stay with all whom cross the threshold.

Eason’s story is a little bit Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” meets “You’ve Got Mail.” Hank’s is a 25 year institution in 1992-era Chicago. It’s the place indie bands play on their way from the garage to the big time. Hank has the ear for it, too.  Music is his life and this dive bar he built is his world. That world’s about to be rocked by the by DJs who liked to mix it up at the turntables and keep a vacant warehouse full of 20-somethings dancing all night. This is a track Hank isn’t willing to play in his place. “Too produced, processed, and soul-less,” he grumbles. The neighborhood is poised to change, too, as the next generation landlord is selling off old properties for new uses. Yup, sometimes even the best tunes resolve to a minor key.

Director David Oliver’s well-chosen cast give life to Eason’s story. Hank (perfectly portrayed by Peter Palmisano) is irascible, funny, and philosophical, too. His monologue about music (“it’s some kind of magic,” he says) is both wistful and powerful. Christine Turturro (a graduating college senior in Niagara University’s legendary theatre program) is Hank’s daughter Lena. She was raised to love live music just like her dad, but her peers are the ones dancing in the warehouse. Turturro is a fine actor and picks a mean guitar, too. I loved the scenes when Hank and Lena grab their guitars and just pick and talk, thinking through their fingers. Listen closely to these small moments: your ear will catch some familiar riffs, a little Hendrix, some early Beatles. In my head, I finished the line of the Beatles tune, “You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead…”  Like Hank says, it’s magic.

Jeff Coyle as Toby, Hank’s bar manager, Diane DiBernardo as Bette his ex-wife who is still drawn to the man and the place that has her heart,  Johnny Barden as Nash, Lena’s beau with ulterior motives, and Nick Stevens as Joey, the son of the landlord with little respect for a handshake and tradition round out the cast well. Coyle and Stevens are fresh from MusicalFare’s last iteration of “Million Dollar Quartet” at Shea’s 710 Theatre as Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley respectively.  It’s Palmisano and Turturro who have the real chemistry here: their father-daughter dynamic is both fierce and sweet.

On the production side, John Rickus has some fun lighting key scenes, when the adjoining warehouse is packed with a couple thousand writhing dancers. He creates visual depth looking into a briefly opened door that’s stunning. Katie Menke’s sound design includes some fine tunes in scene changes. I couldn’t help myself: I started singing along with Janis Joplin at one point, and noticed the audience member next to me joined in. That’s another thing music does: it creates community.

“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” ends RLTP’s season on a high note, but like a great music set, I want to hear it all again.

Running Time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission.

“The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” runs until May 19, 2019 at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Parade’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

The cast of “Parade” at ART of WNY.

Often it’s the true stories that make the most compelling shows on Broadway. Shows like “Evita,” “Hamilton,” “1776,” (coincidentally one word titles) add music to the drama of real life. “Parade” currently staged by the American Repertory Theater of WNY, is the 1913-15 story of a man wrongfully accused of killing a young girl who works for him. It’s also another look at corrupt politicians, ethnic profiling, groupthink, and how love is professed when it’s most needed.

“Parade” is worth it. The messaging will linger with you

When “Parade” opened in 1998, it was composer Jason Robert Brown’s (“Songs for a New World,” “ The Last Five Years”) first Broadway show, and while it was critically acclaimed, its Broadway run and 2007 London revival were short, and it’s less common in the local production canon. It’s unfortunate: it’s a solid story with strong and meaningful messages.

ART of WNY’s production was hampered by poor acoustics and uneven sound balance on its opening night that can hopefully be addressed for the rest of the run. It needs to be. There’s precious little dialogue: the story is told in Brown’s carefully crafted lyrics and ear-appealing melodies in his operatic musical style that prevails across his work.

Director Matthew Refermat took some liberties with the casting: the original Broadway show had a large cast that was pared down for the London re-staging.  Refermat shaved it down further so all actors play multiple roles except for the accused Leo Frank and his wife Lucille, well-played by actual husband and wife Jordan Levin and Melissa Levin.  This was Refermat’s best casting decision: Jordan is the perfect choice to portray the transplanted Brooklyn Jew Leo, who married the charming Southern belle Lucille. He’s skinny, bespectacled, erudite, hardworking. She’s charming, vivacious, a daughter of Atlanta. They perfectly misconnect in the first act, when he’s too work-focused and she wants to enjoy Southern traditions (“why do they celebrate a war that they lost,” ponders Leo as Atlantans wave their confederate flags at the annual confederate memorial day parade). He’s not at home in “The Red Hills of Home” in what should be a stirring opening number, unfortunately dogged by the unbalanced sound and microphones that couldn’t keep up which made Brown’s lyrics unintelligible.

The double-casting of the ensemble muddied the power of each role: the subtle costume variations didn’t help establish clear identities either. For example, Lucas Denies opens the show as a young man who discovers a book about this landmark case, and by doffing a hoodie, he becomes the suitor of young Mary Phagan who meets her death moments later. Their clever duet “The Picture Show” takes place on a trolley seat, actually the cedar chest that is the unifying, multi-purpose set piece. The deceased later morphs into a reporter’s role and other minor players, merely by tucking her braids into her collar and donning a unisex cardigan.  Ditto Nicholas Lama, a strong singer and real presence as the manipulative prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, fades in the background in lesser roles. Powerhouse baritone Brandon Williamson assumes three key roles, but again the sound quality hampered both his performance and perception when he sings. He’s a force, though, when as a fugitive lawyer Dorsey guides his testimony to sound the death knell for Leo.

Another standout was Tim Goehrig, first playing the newspaper reporter hungry for a story and Governor Slaton who encourages the prosecutor to get the conviction, but then later reviews the case and commutes Leo’s sentence.  It took mental effort to sort out when Goehrig was either person, although his voice rose above the din well.

There were a few inexplicable moments in lighting, and at least one continuity issue: when the police come to the Frank house to arrest Leo, he’s reminded – twice – to put on this shoes…which he is already wearing.

The audio issues were a little better in the second act, save for an odd reverb in Jordan Levin’s mic, which made him sound like the voice from the beyond at times. Fortunately this wasn’t the case for the moving ballad “All the Wasted Time” beautifully performed by the Levins. Melissa’s voice just soars and it’s stunning.

There were other bright spots in this cast, including some very young and first-time ART of WNY cast members, particularly Talia Mobley, a high school sophomore. These are the casting risks that pay off for the actor and the audience alike.

It’s good to see Don Jenczka behind the upright piano leading the band: Brown’s known for his strong piano lines and Jenczka is up for it. The band (percussion, woodwinds, and two French horns) is also on stage, and overpowered the singers in this acoustically challenged venue. Perhaps the band would have been more successful in the loft space above the stage that was used as Leo’s jail cell.

Despite these challenges, “Parade” is worth it. The messaging will linger with you:  it takes generations to change a society and break free from history’s shackles. People from different cultures are just…different, not to be feared. And when a partner loves you enough to fight for you when no one else will, the rest doesn’t matter.

Running Time:  Approximately 3 Hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“Parade” runs to April 13, 2019 and is produced by American Repertory Theatre Of Western New York. For more information, click here. 

Theatre Review: ‘Present Laughter’ at Aurora Players

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The cast of “Present Laughter” at Aurora Players.

It’s a show with plenty of laughs, a romp of a plot, with a couple of little twists thrown in for the surprise factor.  It’s a light and frothy show by design, but as our leading man Garry says in the first act, “There’s something awfully sad about happiness, isn’t there?”

. . .a fine production of a venerable theatrical warhorse

Overall this is a fine production of a venerable theatrical warhorse. The set is beautiful (kudos to designer David Hall and his construction team) for creating the perfect pre-war, upscale home, complete with a marble (faux painted, perhaps) fireplace and elegant décor. (A note about this: there’s a special raffle to win the  velvet chaise on set, with proceeds to support a company member who is battling some difficult health challenges. I love the heartfelt way this theatre community supports its own.) There are only two real (and unfortunate) distractions: most cast members can’t credibly sustain their accents; and there are too many over-exaggerated facial expressions directed to the audience.  If this was a home movie, they’d be mugging for the camera. Often Coward plays call for this wink-and-a-nod gesture to the audience, almost folding the audience in to an inside joke, but two characters in particular did this to the extreme to unsatisfactory results. This is where director Monish Bhattacharyta should reign in his cast and their over the top enthusiasm. Or as ex-wife Liz says to main man Garry, “don’t be so affected, Garry.”

The setting is middle age actor Garry Essendine’s stylish London home. He’s preparing to tour the African continent and he is rife with anticipation. Marc Ruffino plays the man of hour.  He’s a suave smooth talker and Ruffino plays him to the hilt. Ruffino is almost too fast-talking, though: he’s not supposed to be a player, merely a charmer. Who is vain.  And beloved by all.  And who can’t stop looking in the mirror. Then there are all these women who keep throwing themselves at his well-heeled feet. First up is ingénue Daphne, with stars in her eyes as she meets a matinee idol old enough to be her papa. Then there’s Joanna, wife of one of his closest friends. And for some reason his ex-wife Liz is still hanging around. What’s an aging roué to do? None of this makes him happy, even when he mirror-checks himself frequently and gazes up at his portrait over the mantel.

And so we’re off. Garry has plenty of staff supporting his lavish lifestyle. The  household characters really shine in this show. Susan King is Garry’s secretary Monica Reed. She’s been loyal to him for 17 years and knows how to manage the details of his life. King does a solid job in this part:  her British accent is the only one that is consistently on point. Chris Biggie is Fred, Garry’s valet, and he’s chipper and sprightly enough. The standout is Aurora Players’ regular Susan Musial. She deadpans her way through all her scenes as Miss Erickson, the maid, with a cigarette dangling from her lips and a sly eye toward what’s happening in the house. Her name indicates she’s Scandinavian, but she sounds more  German. She’s a hoot to watch. Garry’s parade of ladies is led off by Kit Kuebler as Daphne Stillington, the 21 year old who conveniently misplaces her latchkey and has no choice but to spend the night in the spare room, in a pair of Garry’s pajamas. Catherine Burkhart is the unflappable ex-wife Liz. She is strong, she knows her ex husband and all his foibles and willingly accepts the bevy of sycophants who surround him. Burkhart nails the demeanor perfectly, despite her overly-mortified facial gestures: stop looking at the audience and focus on your castmates, please. Christopher Jackson is Roland Moule, the wild-haired young man at the door. If he’s identified as a wannabe playwright in this staging, I missed it and only know why he’s hanging on because I’ve seen the show a few times in other places. Jackson is frenetic and wacky, darting around the stage, a bit overplayed, and a little too boisterous. Tim Musial and Michael Breen are hysterical as Garry’s bumbling best friends, both besotted by the same woman, who – no surprise – is also throwing herself at Garry. Tara Potzler is Joanna, another would-be lover, a married woman who has a hard time taking no for an answer. Finally Tricia Hughes enters as Lady Saltburn, a wealthy supporter who wants her to put her ‘innocent’ starlet niece on Garry’s professional radar. Like Susan Musial, Hughes is a quiet standout. Her gestures and manners are the epitome of upscale British propriety: watch how so subtly, seductively strokes her fur boa. This is how Coward should be played. When perfectly nuanced, the intent silently screams. I love this. Speaking of her boa, the costumes were stunning, thanks to Kimberly Hicks’ good eye for scouting point-perfect period attire for the men and women.  Joanna’s act two gown and Monica’s tailored grey shirtwaist were enviable, along with Garry’s silky smoking jacket.

In short, this is a worthy effort that only needs some dialect coaching and directorial fine-tuning to make it soar.

One other point: the theatre experience extends beyond the stage. The Aurora Players organization is blessed with a fine theatre in a historic, 100 year old structure. It’s nicely outfitted with a designated ticketing area, concessions, comfy clean private facilities, and decent parking. This is a major win for community theatre overall and a point of pride for the Aurora Players and the group’s community stature. It also has an active and devoted volunteer team that produces a really well crafted printed program and other back office efficiencies.  The downside is that vintage seats aren’t always cozy and an overly heated space invites heavy audience eyelids during long shows. These and other fine points of patron experience should be given every consideration by the group’s volunteer leadership.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission (race to the lobby for a mulled cider which is a delicious, $1 bargain).

“Present Laughter” runs until March 24, 2019 and is presented at The Roycroft Pavilion in Hamlin Park in East Aurora. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre

Some nights are worth re-living again and again. Like December 4, 1956, the night four on-their-way-to-being-musical legends came together to make some music in the Sun Music recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Yes, you’re a witness to history, because this is the night Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins jammed at the place that launched their careers

Get there by March 31, and prepare to love it. . .

That’s the premise behind “Million Dollar Quartet,” initially produced by MusicalFare Theatre in 2017 for its Amherst mainstage, and now MusicalFare brought it downtown to Shea’s 710 Theatre.

And that’s the story. This is a music show, peppered with a little storytelling and some 1956 asides, you’re here to hear the hits and this cast doesn’t disappoint. The actual night 62 years ago lasted more than four hours: Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux who wrote the book based on Mutrux’s concept, condensed it down to under two hours with 23 hits. While it’s short on dialogue (you won’t miss it, trust me)  pay attention because there’s a little music and social history shared in real time.

With a couple exceptions, this is the same extraordinary cast from MusicalFare’s 2017 production. Jeffrey Coyle is star-maker and Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. Coyle’s take on Phillips is the perfect combination of loveable lug and shrewd businessman, and he’s a hoot to watch as he bops around the stage.

Brandon Barry reprises his role as Carl Perkins, posturing great guitar licks against his disappointment-based anger with Elvis Presley whose cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” eclipsed his original release in the ears of listeners. (Side note: Perkins’ version was released a month before Presley’s, soared  to #2 and spent 21 weeks on the music charts, while Presley’s cover only topped out at 20 with as many weeks on the charts. It was that night on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” however, that turned this into an Elvis signature song.) Barry’s got the playing chops and the right vibe to portray Perkins, the father of rockabilly, whose impact on music was tremendous but is more often overlooked.

The tall, dark, brooding swagger of Johnny Cash lives in Andrew J. Reimers’ performance. Close your eyes and listen: his vocal line in “Peace in the Valley” is like goin’ to church and then he swings back with a fierce “Folsom Prison Blues.” There’s tenderness in his “I Walk the Line,” a love song to his first wife, his first country hit that crossed over to the pop charts, too.

It’s the brash upstart Jerry Lee Lewis that tries to grab that night in the studio, and it’s Joseph Donohue III who makes it so on stage. The wild mop of hair and flashy red shoes are only the set up to his wildfire piano playing. He’s a maniac force on stage, too, sitting on the edge of the piano bench and pulling the piano back in place as it threatens to skid away from his fast-flying-fingers, with a whole lot of braggin’ going on, too.

Nick Stevens assumes the Elvis Presley role: Steve Copps who nailed the look, the sound, the swivel hips and curled lip in 2017, is up the street in Second Generation Theatre’s production of “Angels in America.” Stevens did a decent job of crooning the hits, but his overall performance was less dynamic.

Arianne Davidow is the (fictitious) lady in the studio, Dyanne, who arrived on the arm of Elvis, and she smokes up the stage with her sultry cover of “Fever.” She’s a sassy voice of reason, too, and shares some quiet wisdom with Coyle, almost like a conscience on stage.

Dave Siegfried and Brian McMahon round out the cast as the drummer and stand up bass player. They lay down the back beat and land a few good deadpan moments, too, just like a back up band should. And it’s so good to hear an actual trapset again, in this day of electronic drums.

This is one of the better jukebox musicals, and 710’s intimate venue emphasizes the goodness of it all. Chris Cavanagh tweaked Chris Schenk’s original set to fit the 710 stage and it certainly feels ‘50s enough, down to the vintage microphones.  Cavanagh’s lightening and sound worked, save for a couple opening night glitches and an audible hum for several minutes mid-show. Susan Drozd’s costumes and wigs were dead on, down to Dyanne’s platinum curls.

Producer/director Randy Kramer and Music Director Theresa Quinn brought out the best of this  cast to create a fun night of theatre. Get there by March 31, and prepare to love it, because as Sam Phillips said, “It really was such a night.”

Running Time: 2 Hours with no intermission.

“Million Dollar Quartet” runs until March 31, 2019 and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here. 

Theatre Review: ‘1984’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of “1984” at Kavinoky Theatre.

19 days.

That’s how long the creative team at Kavinoky Theatre had to select and stage “1984” as the replacement for “To Kill a Mockingbird” when it was forced pulled the show from the season schedule.

. . .a powerful onstage drama. . .

Kavinoky’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell couldn’t quell the tremor in her voice as she recapped the whirlwind timeline from the day she received the cease and desist email to Friday’s opening night. She credited the cast and crew – particularly director Kyle LoConti – for making theatre magic happen. The production trajectory is usually significantly longer (think months, not days) and it takes a special level of commitment and craft to create the experience that is “1984.”

I’ll be blunt: Chris Avery (Winston) and Patrick Moltane (O’Brien) deserve Artie Awards this year for their stunning and powerful performances. The entire cast did the proverbial yeoman’s job on a short timeline with some heavy material, but these two performances were intense.  These two particular roles were dialogue-heavy and not the typical conversational give-and-take between characters. Some of their scenes were brutal, almost hard to watch, and boy, did they play it.

“1984” is based on George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel where he projected a world filled with newspeak under the watchful eye of big brother where thought police made short work of individualism and independent thought. Global war has divided the world. The “Party” meant fear…yet everyone had to be a party worker. Love was forbidden. Propaganda was prevalent.  Civilization was bleak.

This production was created by another two Brits (Orwell was British), Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, who worked most of the content through improvisation with a London cast.  It’s a clever set up: the story begins when a book club in the year 2050 is reading a book that looks back on this cruel world. As they discuss and reflect, this imagined world comes to life on stage and on dazzling, dizzying LED screen across the stage. This is where the propaganda flows freely, from chocorat (think chocolate),  and thick skinned oranges, and lots of off the wall political ramblings. O’Donnell and LoConti wisely and kindly found a place for everyone in the large “Mockingbird” production by casting them on stage or on this screen, even the youngest actors. Video designer Brian Milband made extraordinary use of the LED panels, sometimes pixelating and distorting the images to add extra creepiness. There are times when the images go dark, and the panels are bare: this is when they are at their eeriest, actually.  That feeling of the stark barrenness behind the imagery is compelling. The set itself is a black box with a few tables, industrial-looking stools, and minimal props: often simplicity is the hardest to pull off and set designer David King and prop manager/set dresser Diane Almeter Jones won this round. Brian Cavanagh had lights flashing and dimming and the house lights up and down at precise moments, again contributing to the “we’re all being watched” ethos. There’s a moment when the house lights were up that Winston implores the audience to help him and accuses us of just sitting there….a powerful, silent, poignant moment.

Alexs Malejs gives a well controlled performance as Julia, another Party member who wins Winston heart. She’s sturdy soldier and passionate lover. Costume designer Jessica Wegryzn dressed her in a drab khaki dress, with pops of bright red when needed. Similarly O’Brien is black-suited with crisp accents: he’s all business all the time.

It’s Kyle LoConti ‘s superb direction, risk taking, and energy that pulled all these elements together – in just 19 days – that created a dynamic work of theatre art. Brava to her bold vision and tenacity.  

More blunt talk: this show won’t be for everyone. It’s fierce and strong with some disturbing moments that will linger with you (do yourself a favor and book some free time when you leave, talk to friends, have a beverage, empty your mind for a spell). As Kavinoky embraces its new mission statement to broaden its reach across genre and bring a wider variety of shows to its audience, audience members need to remain open to new experiences on this venerable stage. O’Donnell has it right: a mix of classic drama, musicals, comedies that blend new and familiar offerings should build a strong and diverse audience base with something for everyone.  This is a production that deserves to be seen: give yourself that opportunity. Embrace something bold and different. Use this experience to create an important dialogue about the value of personal opinion, our freedoms as Americans, and how incredibly blessed we are in Western New York to have bold theatre choices and talented professionals available to us.

“1984” is a powerful onstage drama that was the result of a just as powerful off-stage drama. Team Kavinoky handled both initiatives with inimitable style. The tour de force dystopian drama onstage and the sophisticated and reasonable way O’Donnell et al managed the Mockingbird interruption are both extraordinary examples of how to manage quality theatre and a public relations crisis. And all it took was just 19 days.

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“1984”  is onstage to April 7. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The cast of “Between Riverside and Crazy” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Not all stage families are like the Von Trapps. Or the Pazinskis.  Meet Walter Washington, affectionately called Dad by his son Junior, his son’s girlfriend, Lulu, and Junior’s friend Oswaldo. They all share Walter’s rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive and they comprise the complicated,  flawed, funny, frightening family in playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Between Riverside and Crazy,” staged by Road Less Traveled Productions.

. . .strong. Solid. Gutsy. 

This show is strong. Solid.  Gutsy. RTLP director Scott Behrend staged other Guirgis works before, but this one grabs you. There are seriously funny moments, mostly dialogue-based when characters display the lighter side of their humanity. There are other moments that are intense insights into the hold addiction has on people who are struggling to get through another day. Addiction – whether to drugs, alcohol, old habits, poignant memories – is powerful, not crazy at all, just devastating.

Walter, (John Vines) is a former New York City cop, eight years  in litigation with the police force over his disabling injury. He still mourns his late wife Dolores and uses her old wheelchair to sit in at the kitchen table as he sips whiskey from her good China tea cup. It’s here where the family banters and jokes and where Oswaldo (Alejando Gomez) admits to Walter that this is where he finds comfort as he embraces his sobriety and takes steps along a better path away from his “emotionalisms.”  Vines and Gomez have great rapport as their characters: Gomez’s malapropisms have an earthy sweetness as he parrots the benefits of healthier eating and Vines brings the right balance of mature life experience and some urban wisdom to Walter. It’s a comfortable world in this kitchen, where tall boy beers are always in the fridge and it’s all good until the outside world beckons.

Junior (Gabriel Robere) is back home to look after his dad, but Junior has his struggles, too. He’s no stranger to the other side of the law, and his girlfriend Lulu (Melinda Capeles) may or may not have alternative ways to earn a living. Capeles is a hoot in this role: her comic chops shine in offbeat moment. Robere’s take on Junior is that he’s looking out for his Dad the best way he can. Every line he delivers is warm and protective

Lisa Vitrano is Walter’s old partner on the force. Now a detective, she brings her fiancé (Dave Mitchell) – a lieutenant on the force with his eyes on other things – to meet Walter. Mitchell plays the cunning cop role well, fey bumbling but sharp and ready to attack. You can see him seething under the good ol’ guy façade. Vitrano – who made stage magic in RLTP’s production of “The Illusion” earlier this season is clearly torn. She wants her old partner to settle the disagreement he has with the force which will help her fiancé,  but she sees Walter as a father figure, too, even when she questions his motives and speculates how good a cop or a husband he really was. These two cops though are living room bound. They don’t have the privilege, the access to family safe zone, the kitchen.

The visiting church lady is in the kitchen though. Victoria Perez is mystifying as this nameless visitor, there to drink juice and eat cookies and bring churchly solace to Walter. She claims to see things, feel things, and wants Walter to give his soul to Jesus for healing. But her motives (and her methods) aren’t pure. When her ‘visit’ causes Walter to suffer a heart attack, his weakened heart actually strengthens his resolve to move on with his life, on his terms.  Perez only has two brief scenes – both with Walter – and they are both exquisitely raw in different ways. Perez is an amazingly versatile actor: she saws two extremes in this character and she does so expertly.

In the end, it’s the apartment itself that is the central character. Its presence in this ersatz family’s life defines it. When it’s threatened, chaos reigns. As a home, it provides safety, sanctuary. Lou Iannone as set director got it right. The “bones” of a classic prewar apartment are there, but there are water stained walls and simple furnishings. It’s a home with some blemishes for a family that has some proverbial warts, too.

There’s one character we don’t see: the X$&$ing dog, Walter’s nemesis and pal that’s the objective of some pretty funny lines.

This plot is truly riveting. The characters are complex and there are moments that are so dark you want to turn away. But you can’t. You need to know. No surprise that this won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015.

Running time: 90 minutes plus a 10-minute intermission.

“Between Riverside and Crazy” is onstage now to March 31, 2019. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’ at Springville Center of the Arts.

The cast of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at Springville Center For The Arts.

Here’s what I love about local theatre here in WNY: there is plenty of it, there’s something for everyone, it’s  across the region, in all communities, and at every price point.

While some of my reviewer brethren may give a haughty air sniff at the thought, community theatre plays an important role for both actors and audience.

. . .hits all the right notes for community theatre production.

The Springville Players’ production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” hits all the right notes for community theatre production. It features a local cast that represents a mix of ages and a wide array of day jobs. It’s in a great setting in the heart of the village.  And it is packed with passion, commitment, and fun.

“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is based on playwright Simon’s life experience as a junior writer on NBC’s “Your Show of Shows” when Sid Caesar was the king of prime time television. The crew did a fine job replicating 1953 in its one-room set – the writer’s room –  where the team gathers to write the bits and gags for The Max Prince Show, back when TV was live and highly anticipated. First out is Lucas, (Arron Fisher making his acting debut). He’s the new guy on the team, hoping and trying to fit in. Wise-cracking, beret-wearing Milt Fields is well played by Cory Golabek. Matthew Walter wears the part of ‘genius’ Kenny Franks well, with boyish charm and a joke at the ready. Charles R. Weber is Brian Doyle, the New Yorker with Hollywood on his mind. Rick Manzone commands the stage as comedy star Max Prince, sporting a mop of a toupee (a nod to the Allen Brady character on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” no doubt, also about a team of comedy writers for a TV show). Mark J. Mendola is the complaint-a-minute Ira Stone. Brian Kujawa is Val Slotsky, the Russian immigrant who struggles with English words. Erin Bellavia is the only woman on the writer’s team who keeps up with the guys when it comes to writing gags.

Director Matt Boyle picked a good group here. They played off each other well and the stage chemistry was real. There was good rhythm to their pacing and it was easy to believe they were a group that thinks as one when it comes to creating a new script every week.  Even so, there were some minor missteps. Casting a theatre newbie as the guy who opens the show takes great trust. While Fisher captured Lucas’ enthusiasm perfectly, sometimes his delivery felt rushed and stilted. Kujawa’s overly heavy Russian accent was hard on the ears and too many good jokes were lost in his over-exuberance for sounding Russian.

There were some truly fun moments. When Ira Stone bursts into the room at the end of act one with a full script on a big pile of paper, it’s an absolute hoot when he chucks the paper in the air. What a great shower of jokes. In the second act, one lone paper flutters past the window on the back of the set. Yes, it wasn’t supposed to happen, but in that one little moment, you could imagine it was chucked out an upper floor window by an irate writer or show host. I loved it.

The show touches some serious moments of the era, too. Senator Joe McCarthy was blacklisting entertainers and others for un-American activities. Politics makes networks nervous which trickles down to the writer’s room. The golden era of live television was transitioning, too, and networks were struggling to find the formula that worked. While these concerns were present in the script, these subtle pivots in tenor and mood were a challenge. This cast handled the laughs more handily.

What I liked best about this trek to Springville was the experience of the Springville Center of the Arts. It’s a former Baptist church with some original windows in the art gallery portion of the building. The auditorium is versatile and is used for concerts besides theatre. This show’s co-producer Jennifer Weber is enthusiastic about its arts programs and other offerings. It’s a community treasure and it’s good to see the space well used and appreciated.

My only other beef: the audience member in my row who felt the need to check his cell phone and scan his newsfeed during the production. More than once. Seriously.  There was an announcement to silence all cell phones at the start of the show. This dude missed the – do I really need to say this – part about keeping the phone in his pocket until intermission. Where art thou, Patti LuPone?

If you loved “The Dick Van Dyke” show on TV or the 1982 movie “My Favorite Year” (and the less than successful Broadway version 10 years later), you’ll love this look back at early television. Overall, this is fun theatre, the kind that makes you want to see more.  Or as Kenny says, “Maybe we’ll never have this much fun again in our entire lives.”

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” runs until March 17, 2019; For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Almost Maine’ by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of “Almost, Maine” by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

A lot can happen in one night.

You could fall in love. Or realize it’s not love anymore. You could connect with a former flame. Or find out that our best friend really has your heart in a surprising way. Your broken heart could get mended. You might see love in a surprising new way. Or you could just revel in the beauty of the Northern Lights and wonder about love’s possibilities.

“Almost, Maine” isn’t the dramatic powerhouse that often dominates the RLTP schedule, but there’s depth that’s worth exploring in each vignette.

Welcome to “Almost, Maine,” presented by Road Less Traveled Productions and onstage at Shea’s 710 Theatre to February 24.  Playwright John Cariani introduces us to nine couples in quick vignettes as they discover new things about love and themselves all on the same winter’s night in this quaint and quirky (fictitious) town.

Each story is charming. Some folks may think they’re goofy, but there’s a lot of heart in these stories, even the tales that deliver us from the love we think we share. First we meet Pete and Ginette as they make shy declarations and clumsy analogies about physics. (Spoiler alert: we see them again. You have to love a show with a prologue, interlogue and epilogue).  Next up are Glory and East who don’t expect to find love in a former potato patch. ‘They Fell’ has best buds Jimmy and Steve competing to see who has the worst dates, until they figure out the reason why their dates are trainwrecks. ‘The Story of Hope’ is wistful about the love that might have been, and ‘Seeing the Thing’ reminds Dave and Rhonda that taking a risk is a good thing.  You get the picture: it’s everyman and everywoman in any stage of life.

It’s easy to see why “Almost, Maine” is so often produced. The cast can flex from a quartet to up to 19 actors. The set can be simple. Props are minimal and most costuming is the kind of outerwear we’re all donning this time of year (parkas and gloves and hats, oh my). Director Doug Weyand kept it blissfully simple with four versatile actors (Eve Everette, Wendy Hall, John Kreuzer, and Nicholas Lama) on a stark white set designed by Lynne Koscielniak with some interesting faux snow texture, and a subtle kaleidoscope of lights artfully designed by John Rickus. Sound designer Katie Menke selected lovely original music by Julian Fleischer to set the tone. It’s upbeat, acoustic, a little bit of fiddle and a whole lotta soul that sets the perfect mood. Weyand’s actors were good choices, too, as the residents of this place that never got too big or too organized to be officially called a town. It’s a little bit “Brigadoon” meets Bedford Falls with a dash of Northern Exposure, and it’s fun and thoughtful at the same time.

“Almost, Maine” isn’t the dramatic powerhouse that often dominates the RLTP schedule, but there’s depth that’s worth exploring in each vignette. Nobody said that love and life have to be serious.

This is an early night (90 minutes with an intermission) with a short run (to February 24), so make your plans before it’s too late. And don’t forget to look up at the stars on your walk back to your car.

Find tickets and details at www.sheas.org or www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

Theatre Review: ‘The Kathy & Mo Show: Parallel Lives The Dark Side’ by O’Connell & Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

Sketch comedy was a mainstay of variety shows from the Golden Age of Television.  Shows like The Garry Moore Show and The Carol Burnett Show were famous for these brief comic vignettes. “The Kathy & Mo Show Parallel Lives The Dark Side,” winningly produced by O’Connell & Company on the Shea’s Smith Theatre Stage, is an unintentional homage to this comedy genre, with some purposeful messages woven in.

In “The Dark Side,” Mary Kate O’Connell and Pamela Rose Mangus play dozens of characters in a fast moving two hours. First they are angels, pondering creation, procreation, and the foibles of their  colleague Cliff. They speculate on how to make men and women ‘work,’ the intricacies of child birth, and the starkness of the color white in the wonderful rainbow of human hues. According the O’Connell, the creator of WNY’s longest running theatrical production “DIVA by DIVA: A Celebration of Women,” she and Mangus – both DIVA by DIVA cast members,  having two divae as angels is the ultimate in “using your DIVA powers for good.” Mangus comments, “I think each piece we do has subtext, and comedy is the best way to get the point across sometimes.  

Just minutes into this show, you see how and why director Victoria Perez cast this show with this pair. These rapid fire character studies require highly skilled actors, comedic genius, perfect timing, and a double shot of moxie.  In other words, no one but O’Connell and Mangus could have pulled it off.

With a quick flash of lights and the movement of some modular set pieces, the duo morphs from angels to teen girls swept away by the movie “West Side Story” awaiting a dinner of shells and sauce and a sleep over. More lights and woman-power music and they are Syvvie and Maddie, mink stoled and feather hatted woman of a certain age taking a class and ushering at a theatre where their enthusiastic comments are shushed. More lights and music and they are in the confessional for the first time in a lot of years, offering up exploits with sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and the admission of lies, lots of lies, that cover most of the bases for practicing Catholics everywhere. Later they are driving to an ashram, renouncing their Catholic roots when a near miss accident sends them into hugs and Hail Marys faster than a speeding absolution.  My favorite bit by far was the support group for the Disney movie moms you’ve never met: Ariel’s mom Ethel Mermaid, Snow’s mom Betty White, Mama Dumbo the elephant, and Bambi’s cig-puffing mama get together to work through their issues. Both actors take on multiple personas in short order with nothing more than a change in voice and affectation. This was the perfect vehicle to show off both actors’ considerable chops. Pretty hysterical. The penultimate scene is in the neighborhood bar (the kind of place where everybody knows you), when drunk cowboy Hank (Mangus) rambles on to spritzer sipping Karen Sue (O’Connell), professing his undying love.

Shows like this – on the Shea’s Smith Theatre simple stage – are good reminders that the best shows need a great script, solid direction, and talented actors. Costumes, sets, props, and pageantry are awesome for sure, but sometimes it’s the simplicity that shines.

This was a short run and Mother Nature canceled at least one performance. This wasn’t the first go round with “The Kathy & Mo Show” and rest assured, it won’t be the last.

O’Connell & Company is back in its Park School location for Love Letters, opening  January 31. Visit www.oconnellandcompany.com for details.