Theatre Review: ‘The Illusion’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The cast of “The Illusion” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

One of the things I like best about Road Less Traveled Theatre’s productions is that you are immediately immersed in the show, or at least in its ambience. Think of last season’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” when Anthony Alcocer as the ‘motivational trainer’ began the show before the obligatory “please turn off your cell phone” announcements when the house lights were still full up. Or – later that same season – when the radio-drama-on-stage production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” integrated the pre-performance choral group ‘s last numbers into the start of the show. For “The Illusion,” Dave Hayes’ opening line is tight against the end of the pre-show reminders, on an almost fully dark stage with the measured drip-drip-drip of the cave setting punctuating his lines. Pouf! In an instant, you were in the show. Simple. Elegant. Brilliant.

Simple. Elegant. Brilliant.

It’s the subtle nuances like this seemingly small detail that makes “The Illusion” oh so fun. Spoiler alert: pay attention to these moments. Trust me, they hold meaning.

Hayes is Pridamant, a 17th century dad who seeks the guidance of a sorcerer who lives in this cave in France, in a town called Remulac. (Saturday Night Live viewers of a certain age may recall that The Coneheads said they were from France…also the planet Remulack.) He’s wistful and concerned that his son – who ran away as a lad – had vanished. Was he dead? In trouble? Disdained of his lawyer dad who was tough on him?  The all-knowing witch Alcandre – magically portrayed by Lisa Vitrano – would know, and could help. And help she does, by conjuring up images of the boy, now a man, named Calisto (Patrick Cameron). Trouble is, Calisto is in love with fair Melibea (Cassie Cameron) who wants nothing of him….or does she? The machinations of her comely maid Elicia (Sara Kow-Falcone) – who rhymes for a reason – steps in to help…or does she? Alcandre’s magical work is supported by her loyal servant Amanuesis (Rolando Gomez) who has the ability to slip to the other side. He’s silent, says Alcandre, because she’s cut off his tongue and pierced his eardrums…or does she? Calisto has competition from Matamore, hysterically played by Dave Marciniak at his bumbling finest.

This is a show of the senses, above all.  Lynne Koscielniak’s set is transformative without changing. That’s the magic of John Rickus’ lighting design that includes flashes of fire and the lanterns that extinguish and relight themselves before your eyes. Director John Hurley makes good use of the right-sized stage, letting  Calisto energetically leap between the raised surfaces and rocks on the cave floor.

Playwright Tony Kushner admitted to lots of leniency in his adaptation of tragedian Pierre Corneille’s  original French work. It doesn’t disappoint. There’s some witty repartee, some reflective moments about the relationship between fathers and son, and some real moments of wonder about the ability to see beyond what we think is obvious.

What’s abundantly clear is that the cast can’t help but have a blast with this show. Vitrano is as intense as ever as the one with the vision and power. Hayes, despite a few dropped lines, is the perfect picture of an anguished yet skeptical dad.  Kow-Falcone is a deviously devoted as the servant who is charmingly coy.

Running Time: 2 Hours with  10-minute intermission.

 “The Illusion” runs until February 10, 2019 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here. 

Theatre Review: ‘Sense & Sensibility’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Kristen Tripp Kelley as Elinor Dashwood, Renee Landrigan as Marianne Dashwood and Ben Michael Moran as Edward Ferrars. Photo is by Gene Witkowski

Gossipy, back-biting, smugly superior…yup, sounds like life in the British countryside, late 18th century style. This was the proverbial fodder for Jane Austen’s mill.  Kind hearted sisters stripped of their place in society, weak-willed men who don’t deserve them, and lots of smart, witty repartee make Austen’s novels a divine read and a delight on screen. Playwright Kate Hamill took the best of what we love about Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and Irish Classical Theatre Company put it on stage in its WNY premiere.

Classic literature, dynamic cast, terrific staging, perfect costumes make this show shine.

Not a Jane-ite you say, gentle reader?  Pray, do see this inventive, feisty, fun romp of a novel-on-stage anyway, and with haste. Director Chris Kelly and this rambunctious ensemble create stage magic with elegantly simple set pieces, handmade sound effects, and deliciously delivered dialogue.

The opening scene is reminiscent of the ‘Tower of Babel’ opening of “Godspell” and ‘The Telephone Hour’ from “Bye Bye Birdie,” but instead of dishing about Hugo and Kim, we’re introduced to the Dashwood sisters and the fate they’ll suffer because of their father’s death and their half-sister-in-law’s machinations. Hang on to your reticule, things are about to start spinning. Literally. The white-painted set pieces are on wheels and besides delivering Miss Austen’s good words, the actors are constantly moving, circling, scooting about on either tables, chairs, benches or mobilizing them. Then there are gilt frames that magically appear at propitious times, sometimes as cottage windows or carriage windows or other portals of adventure. And don’t be confused when actors flip into multiple roles which include prancing horses and rambunctious dogs. Anthony Alcocer’s one sleeve on/one sleeve off over the shoulder dual role is particularly charming.

The cast is clearly enjoying this romp and roll, too. Kristen Tripp Kelly and Renee Landrigan embrace their roles as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the sense and sensibility of the title respectively.  They are everything a Dashwood daughter should be: Elinor is the pragmatic one who delivers the best Jane line of the novel: “I am calm. I am my own mistress.” Landrigan is the perfect Marianne, collapsing for wont of honor and true love in one scene, and playing a mean air pianoforte in several other scenes. Listen to the music and watch her fingers: she’s really playing along with the music. Impressive.

While the rest of the cast don multiple roles, they are the constants. At time their mom is Jennifer Stafford and younger sister Margaret is winsomely played by Brittany Bassett in her ICTC debut. Kate LoConti Alcocer is despicable as Fanny Ferrars Dashwood. Josephine Hogan embraces her role as the supportive Mrs. Jennings. The menfolk of the ensemble have some of the best moments. David Lundy’s main role is John Middleton, and yes, that’s him again donning a lace shawl in other moments. Ben Michael Moran plays it all from Edward Ferrars to one proud stallion and frisky pup. Brendan Didio is John Willoughby, another ICTC debut.

When they aren’t rolling chairs and tables across stage, the troupe is the soundtrack, too. From perfectly choreographed finger snaps, thigh slaps, and palm rubbing form thunderstorms. A burst of pop tune sets a new scene, repetitive words – like chants – create the metaphoric inner turmoil. Director Kelly wrung every bit of energy from this cast for sure.

The pace on stage was constant motion, fresh and bright. If the first act dragged a bit, blame dear Miss Austen’s original script for wanting to pack in every detail where a modern author would have settled for more nuance.

“Sense and Sensibility” takes the chill off a nasty winter night. Classic literature, dynamic cast, terrific staging, perfect costumes make this show shine.

Running Time: 2 hours with a 10 minute intermission.

“Sense and Sensibility” is onstage until February 10. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘A Very Trumpy Christmas Carol’ at Main Street Cabaret

So you’ve heard the bell ring when Clarence got his wings.  You wiped a tear during Linus’ telling of the Christmas story, felt restored when Tiny Tim says “God Bless Us, everyone,” and laughed with the Little Sisters of Hoboken. You’ve jingled, and twinkled, and decked the halls. There’s a new Christmas tradition in town at Alleyway Theatre’s Main Street Cabaret.  When all the other harbingers of Christmas yet to come have been heralded, it’s time for some political campiness with “A Very, Very Trumpy Christmas.”

This satirical send up of “A Christmas Carol” (ironically playing on the other side of the theatre) has President Ebensneezer J. Trumpy living the hell-dream of three ghostly visits while he slumbers in his flag blanky.  Visions of Hellary Clinton, Iwana Trumpy, Steve Banarama, Steve Acosted, and Mike Dence dance in his head to remind him of the true meaning of Christmas, Washington, DC style.

Redactor/director Todd Warfield took the best of the worst headlines and incorporated them into a funny, 45-minute frolic with plenty of tweety tweets and cries of fake news.  With four of the region’s finest and most versatile actors on stage, we watch the leader of the free world see/not see what the holidays mean/should mean. The bits fly fast and furious and I’m guessing that some of the funniest moments are unscripted and spontaneous based on the day’s real/fake news.

As always with a strong ensemble, it’s what the actors bring to the stage that makes the material shine. Guy Tomassi has every nuance of the “tangerine tyrant” down pat. The too long red tie, the perpetually pinched look on the peachy countenance, the rat’s nest coiffure, rapid fire speech, and the wild gestures to match are all on point. Stephanie Bax flips between Sarah Suckabe e-Sanders, Hellary Clinton, and Iwana Trumpy with deft costume and wig changes punctuated by her complete character overhauls. Her comedic chops are well exercised here. Timothy Patrick Finnegan makes the bold move from Rachel Maddog to Steve Banarama to Flimsy Graham, where his voice has the perfect drawl and with deadpan delivery. A. Peter Snodgrass’ Mike Dence is a hoot, and he’s equally smooth as CNN reporter Mike Acosted and the au current Michael Hohen. Director Warfield does some fine things with video (real and re-imagined) that give the script its context and the stark stage its setting.

Yes, laughing at the highest office in our country isn’t for everyone.  (Hey, it’s a democracy here. Freedom of expression still wins). Keeping it light and laughable still can keep the big picture in focus  And sometimes this is just what you need and expect from a night out in the theatre.

Running Time: 45 minutes with no intermission

“A Very, Very Trumpy Christmas Carol” is on stage at the Alleyway Theatre’s Main Street Cabaret to December 23, 2018. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Nuncrackers – The Nunsense Christmas Musical’ at O’Connell & Company

The cast of “Nucrackers” at O’Connell & Company.

Pre-holiday stresses got you down? Let the Little Sisters of Hoboken cheer you up and chase the Grinch from your holiday spirit.

Make time to see ‘Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical ‘on stage at O’Connell & Company now through December 23. Yes, it’s another iteration of Dan Goggin’s Nunsense franchise (the third out of six sequels) with your favorite fun-loving sisters, this time producing their own cable TV Christmas special. Move over Charlie Brown Christmas, those Andy Williams’ Christmas specials from the 1960s, and the 24-hour marathon of “The Christmas Story:”  this Christmas special has plenty of songs, dance, comedy, skits, and a special cameo visit from everyone’s favorite nun-puppet St. Mary Annette.

Get thyself to O’Connell & Company and  remember that your true intention should be to sit back, relax, and just let the laughter happen.

If you don’t remember when Sunday night TV watching meant “The Ed Sullivan Show,” you won’t get why an old-fashioned variety show is rich with appealing moments. But for those of us who learned to love the planned disconnect between a country music singer (yes, with yodeling), some slap-stick comedy sketches, a dance troupe, and a cooking segment, “Nuncrackers” will take you back to this sweet and simple evenings with “all smiles and no frowns,” just like Mother Superior Sister Mary Regina says.

The show begins with some tunes from the Sisters and some selections by the students of their school, Mt. St. Helen. There’s  a Secret Santa gift offering (hint: if one of the Sisters hands you a Secret Santa coupon during the pre-show mingle, take it. Trust me. I scored a St. Anthony medal.  Sister Mary Regina reminisces about “A Carnival Christmas” from her secular youth. While the order’s cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, makes an emergency trip to police headquarters, Father Virgil takes over her cooking segment and takes a few nips of the fruitcake rum.  There’s an audience participation sing-along, a plea for vocations (the Sisters haven’t replaced all of the 52 Sisters who passed to their eternal reward in the first Nunsense show), and a segment about the Catholic Home Shopping networks commercials. You get the picture.

Where Goggin’s plot is Hallmark-movie thin, (“Sisters, let’s put on a show on cable TV”), it’s the cast – this cast – that makes it all sparkle like twinkle lights on tinsel.

Susanna Breese is charming as Sister Mary Paul, otherwise known as Amnesia, the sister whose memory vanished when a crucifix conked her wimple-clad noggin. Mary Moebius is Sister Leo who wants to fulfill her childhood dream of being a ballerina (nun-erina?) only to suffer a minor injury minutes before her first on-camera pirouette. Ann Mosner is the cut up Sister Robert Ann, jumping all over the stage in hightop sneakers with lots Brooklyn bravado. Michael Starczynski is Father Virgil, the Friar with a sense of humor and a taste for spirits.  Mary Craig is (almost) all business as Sister Hubert, mistress of novices and the second in command. And then there’s Mary Kate O’Connell in her signature role as Mother Superior Sister Mary Regina, complete with a clicker and a cheerfully firm reminder to the cast to have “good attitudes everyone.”

The real stars in this show are the students under the Sisters’ careful tutelage at Mt. St. Helen School.  Lily Flammer, Jack Flammer, Alejandro Perez, and Mira Haley Steuer have credited roles as they lead two alternating teams of ensemble castmates. The kids are in almost every scene, from the pre-show carol-fest warm up to the grand finale. They sing, dance, and throw lines like pros. What I like best is that these kids are real kids, not slicked up pageant kids tossing exaggerated winks at the audience. Director Drew McCabe let their utter adorableness take center stage.

If you’re looking for a deeply meaningful night of theatre…well, there are some pretty special moments in Nuncrackers. Starczynski’s “The Christmas Box” is a beautiful  reminder that Christmas presents are fleeting and the presence of love is the real gift. Mosner’s “Jesus Was Born in Brooklyn” is not the comedic story the title suggests: it’s a rite of passage story-song about a young girl’s troubled family. If this particular song – with its soft lyrics and lovely story – is perfectly suited to her character’s tender side, Mosner really sells it a few tunes later in “All I Want for Christmas…” (“…is a one-night stand at Carnegie Hall”) with a melody and arrangement that’s a better match for her natural voice.  Some of the bits are showing their age (this show was written almost 20 year ago), with reference to vintage work-out videos, an on-stage appearance of a salad shooter, even the idea of cable-access TV. But even the passage of time can’t make the Village People-esque song “In the Convent” (yup, you’re humming that now in your head, aren’t you?) any less hysterical, especially when Mary Craig channels Aretha for a chorus of C-O-N-V-E-N-T.

So leave the serious theatre in the room where it happens where it’s quiet uptown. Get thyself to O’Connell & Company and  remember that your true intention should be to sit back, relax, and just let the laughter happen. And keep your feet on the floor (Sister Mary Regina will call you out if your legs are crossed), and banish your impure thoughts.

“Nuncrackers: The Christmas Musical” is a fast moving 90-minutes with one intercession, I mean 15 minute-intermission, now through December 23. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Sive’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Josephine Hogan and Kiana Duggan-Haas in “Sive” at Irish Classical Theatre.

Matchmaking is a resounding theme in Buffalo’s theatre district this week.

At Shea’s Performing Art Center, Mama and Papa in “Fiddler on the Roof” use the services of the village Yente to seek spouses for their daughters. It’s a tradition.  Across the street at the Andrews Theatre, home of Irish Classical Theatre Company, the village matchmaker in “Sive” scouts a much older man for the production’s title character, but there are no happy songs to sing about it. It’s just tragic.

. . .a good solid drama with an extraordinary cast.

The world hadn’t changed much between late 19th century Imperialist Russia and the 1950s Irish countryside when it comes to young women and the pursuit of marriage. A young girl’s life is still a commodity to be sold for financial security.

“Sive,” written by John B. Keane is one of Ireland’s most produced plays and is a popular bit of required reading in the country’s high schools. It’s a compelling family drama where three generations of the Glavin family share a farm house, secrets, and enduring shame.

Sive the girl is the illegitimate niece of Mike Glavin who promised his sister on her deathbed that he would look after the girl. A noble plan, but Mike’s wife Mena (for those who like anagrams, ‘mean’ is the perfect fit)  resents Sive, the memory of her dead mother, and the presence of the Glavin matriarch who’s also in her home. Mena makes a plan with Thomasheen the matchmaker to marry off Sive to Sean Dota, an elderly farmer who has his eye on Sive’s youthful beauty. There’s a twist: the Glavin’s don’t need to provide a dowry. Sean Dota will pay Mena for Sive’s wedding vows plus a bonus to Thomasheen.  Sive wants nothing of this. She likes her convent school and the attention of a fine young lad name Liam, who unfortunately is kin once removed from the man who fathered her.

Long-simmering resentment pervades this dark story. The Mike and Nanna Glavin hate Liam and his family for causing shame to their family. Mena hates everyone who has more than she. Sive is young and hungry for details of the parents she never knew.  

Director Vincent O’Neill was working with the cream of the crop for this one. A tense and taut tragedy in a beloved script and a superb cast make for a excellent albeit heart-wrenching production. Aleks Malejs is absolutely hateful as Mena (when she’s called a ‘horrible bitch’ in the second act, you want to stand up and cheer). Her constantly scowling face, tightly pulled back hair, and drab outfits speak volumes at a glance. She rocks the evil persona. Patrick Moltane is her meek-as-a-lamb husband. Ray Boucher is Thomasheen, the all for the money matchmaker. He’s sprite as a pixie, artfully irritating, and cunning like a fox. Kiana Duggan-Haas is honest and forthright as Sive. She joins Peter S. Raimundo (Liam, Sive’s would-be young suitor) and Johnny Barden (the singing son of the village tinker) making ICTC debuts. So good to see young actors awarded meaty roles alongside strong and seasoned actors.  Josephine Hogan is Nanna Glavin, doing her best in a losing battle to protect Sive from Mena’s machinations. David Lundy is shuffling and stammering as the rheumy-eyed old farmer who desires Sive as his bride. Gerry Maher is the traveling tinker, the source of news and prescient entertainment in the parish.

“Sive” is the kind of production that leaves you emotionally drained. You’re angry about the injustice for a young girl’s hardship and empathetic about rural poverty. Remembering that the show is only set in 1950 – not that long ago – is even more disconcerting.

While this isn’t an uplifting night in the theatre, it’s a good solid drama with an extraordinary cast. Brian Cavanaugh’s set design captures the rough hewn life in the Irish countryside (the only distraction was the obviously plastic dinner plates clattering alongside tin cups and plank tables). I love how he suggests walls and windows and doors with free-hanging frames and hardware. Tom Makar’s subtle sound design had me looking over my shoulder for cows lowing in the distance. They create the atmosphere that I always love about ICTC productions.

Ironically while this is Duggan-Haas’ ICTC debut, she and Boucher were last seen together in this TV commercial. That’s Buffalo for you.

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

“Sive” is presented at Irish Classical Theatre Company, until November 25, 2018. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘A Doll’s House, Part Two’ at Kavinoky Theatre

David Oliver as Torvald and Kristen Tripp Kelley as Nora in: “A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2” at Kavinoky Theatre.

When we last saw Nora, she was walking out the door and slamming it behind her.

After 15 years, Nora’s on the other side of the same door, this time knocking to be let in.

And so begins “A Doll’s House Part Two,” now on stage at the Kavinoky Theatre until November 25.

Ibsen’s original “A Doll’s House” is the story of Torvald and Nora, their marriage, a long-term deception, and a grand realization for Nora, with a revolutionary notion for women in 1879.

This quartet did an admirable job . . .

That stormy departure put Nora on a new path in playwright Lucas Hnath’s  continuation. Sometime between the front door slamming behind her and her confident knock-knock-knock 1 5 years hence, she changed, another great stride for a woman in her era. She is no longer man’s possession. She will not be trivialized. She is earning her own money, successful albeit anonymously in her  career, and is blissfully alone and content. Cue pop singer Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit “You Don’t Own Me.”

If only her family believed her.

It would be more convenient if Nora was dead, or at least was believed to be dead.  After so many years away from her family, most people in town speculated she was dead anyway, but without a death certificate on file, there was no way to prove it.

Well, therein lies the problem.

If Torvald finally agrees to a divorce, that’s an acknowledgement that Nora was alive for all those years, ignoring her children and her womanly duties. If she was really just dead, well, she’s somehow not accountable for her self-made, avant garde life.  Daughter Emmy – who has no recollection of her mom – is advocating for the death option. Her betrothed works at the same bank as her father, and it would be face-saving for her. Nora is not buying this, nor is she convinced that her daughter should be wed so young and to a banker, no less.

What’s a girl to do?

From the moment Nora – handsomely played by Kristen Tripp Kelley – strides through the door, she’s the light in the room. The fiery vermillion dress and snazzy red and black high button shoes scream  dominance. Her gait isn’t mincing, as one might expect if one is corseted in form-fitting attire: it’s masculine, almost to the extreme, as if she’s let go of her femininity entirely, instead of evolving away from the porcelain princess in the manor house. Watch how she sits, squarely on the seat, not perched on the edge,  knees not locked for propriety. She’s man-spreading in her former turf.

Anne Gayley is Anne Marie, the live in help,  who added child rearing to her job description when the former lady of the house walked out. There’s no role Gayle can’t play: her Anne Marie is in service, yes, and her role in the house is important, as the influencer over the next generation.

David Oliver is Torvald, the husband who is shocked at Nora’s return and is still as befuddled about her reasons for leaving as she was 15 years ago. Oliver is convincingly benign. Leah Berst is a sparkplug as the young adult daughter Emmy, the only child (of the three), to ‘re-meet’ Nora, of whom she has no recollection. Berst does as a fine job as the calculating, bride-to-be who isn’t listening to her mother’s explanation of why she shouldn’t feel the need to marry so young or at all.

This quartet did an admirable job with Hnath’s  less convincing story. While a 21st century audience will embrace the strong feminist foundation of Nora’s new story, his script is almost too contemporary, too vernacular an extension of Ibsen’s work. With the exception of Anne Marie, it feels like Hnath wrote every character to be vaguely unlikeable, even Nora, who  I desperately wanted to like. After all, she’s earning a fine living as a writer (much to Anne Marie’s surprise), and she wears red with the proper swagger. As far as story and characters, I much preferred Hnath’s 2015 “The Christians,” masterly produced last season by Road Less Traveled Productions.

That being said, the Kavinoky production is fine. David King’s set is subtle, mostly grey scale with reverse hombre walls (it darkens on the way up), to illustrate how Nora took the color out of the home when she left. The door – the portal to a new life – is at center stage, always in clear view. You can’t ignore its significance when it’s always in your view. Robert Waterhouse’s direction is clean and precise.  Next to Nora’s glam dress, if I had to pick a highlight, it would be the rare on-stage opportunity to hear Gayley – Buffalo’s elegant grande dame of theatre – dropping F bombs like it’s her job.

A side note: while technology surrounds us, live theatre is your chance to leave it off or behind altogether.  I heard three different mobile phones ringing – admittedly softly – during the show. Indeed the patron in front of me and the patron on the opposite side of my theatre companion that night both were scrolling through their news feeds after the house lights were down.  Seriously. Use this downtime to read your program or soak in the ambiance or even softly converse with your companion. As an audience member, your responsibility is to be in the moment. Read about theatre etiquette here.

Running Time: 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult Langauge

“A Doll’s House, Part Two” runs until November 25, 2018 and is presented at Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The National Touring Company of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There were moments so quiet, you couldn’t believe you were in a sold-out theatre.

That’s the power of the iconic musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” on stage at Shea’s Performing Art Center to November 4.

Perhaps it’s the reflection on recent events across our country that made some of those pensive moments in the show particularly poignant. The Fiddler story is – at its heart – already somber yet there’s an underlying hope for resilience. But this night in the theatre felt different somehow, more thoughtful, like the connection between late 19th century Imperial Russia and 21st century America is still present.

There were moments so quiet, you couldn’t believe you were in a sold-out theatre.

This is the 2015 staging and it’s glorious. The stage is softly lit for most of the show, almost gray tones, with few and rare pops of bright. It sustains the mood, almost eerie, maybe foreboding.  There’s a tone-setting twist: the show opens in a deserted train station and a lone passenger in his red traveler’s anorak paging through a tour book. Once the jacket is doffed, with a flip of his prayer shawl and a hat (“we always wear hats”), he is Tevye, majestically portrayed by Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov.  He brings us to his beloved home in Anatevka, a Russian shtetl, where tradition is still revered. Hence the opening number, ‘Tradition’ is a joyous explanation of the roles of the papa, the mama, the sons, and the daughters.

The younger generation is ready to blaze new paths. Tezye and wife Golde have five daughters to marry off, and the eldest three may want to make their own decisions. Their signature song, ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker,’ is less wistful and more like a challenge to the town Yente to find their perfect matches.

And so it goes. Changing times are challenging, and a man of strong faith like Tevye struggles. His monologues to God are the backbone of the script, where he implores God about his lot in life (‘If I Were a Rich Man’) and events happening  to his family and in their village.

Whether you’ve seen other stagings of ‘Fiddler’ or grew up with the movie, the songs are all familiar, beloved, and sing-able.  Composer and lyricist Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick respectively created a score for the ages. There’s joy in ‘To Life,’ and a reverence in the ‘Sabbath Prayer.’ Motel, about to wed Tevye and Golde’s daughter Tzeitel, is in awe of his new life and his ‘Miracle of Miracles’ is a celebration. Golde’s feistiness is briefly tempered when Tevye asks ‘Do You Love Me.’ Watch the gentle shift in body language as this song ends: the sweet hand clasp is a moment of beauty. Daughter Hodel’s rich voice is plaintive as she sings about marrying and traveling ‘Far from the Home I Love.’

As the village changes and dissolves, our beloved characters scatter, to build new lives in new places. It’s a new world, where men and women dance together, they chose their own spouses, women learn to read. We’re left to wonder about faith, cultural, and traditions.

This is a top-notch cast. Lazarov’s Tevye is strong, hearty, with a stunning and powerful voice. Maite Uzal as wife Golde is his perfect foil, the pragmatist to his sensitive side. Carol Beaugard is a stitch as Yente the matchmaker, the busybody. The sons and daughters and ensemble villagers are all shoulder to shoulder strong: their dancing is lively and spirited.

Two things to note in the playbill: Shea’s president Michael Murphy’s Welcome (page 8) is articulate and thoughtful and gives context to the production. This is refreshing. The Who’s Who in the Cast listed Buffalo native Olivia Gjurich as a villager, Fruma-Sarah, and as an understudy. She’s the daughter of familiar stage actors Greg and Mary Coppola Gjurich and is following in their performing footsteps. In that family, it’s a Tradition.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“Fiddler on the Roof” runs until November 4, 2018 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Speed-the-Plow’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The cast of “Speed-the-Plow” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright said “A building is not just a place to be, but a way to be.”

Road Less Traveled Productions found its way by launching its 15th season  in a newly-built out theatre space (the first theatre to open on Main St.’s Theatre District in 20 years) with an outstanding production of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow.”

. . .the production is a fine example of RLTP’s consistent good work. . .

“Speed-the-Plow” is a satirical send up to the movie industry and the eternal struggle between making money and creating meaningful art on screen. The frenetically-paced show answers the question in a lot of rapid dialogue that brings shallow values and relationships to new depths.

Bobby is the newly-appointed studio executive, and  Charlie is his 11-year colleague in the trenches who brings him a concept and a deal. As they prepare a pitch for the studio chief, they also wager on Bobby’s ability to bed Karen, his (temporary) secretary.

True to Mamet’s style, there’s plenty of snappy and sassy dialogue, peppered with F-bombs and other words not suitable for family-friendly websites. Site gags between the guys set up their own version of a buddy movie, too: that’s the point Charlie drives home. They are buddies, they are loyal, and they are in this together. Enter Karen the temp  who turns out to be more than the docile “broad” who can bring the coffee after all.

Matt Witten, Kevin Kennedy, and Laura Barriere are Bobby Gould, Charlie Fox, and Karen respectively, and this trio (directed by RLTP’s artistic director Scott Behrend) christened the new stage with energetic, spirited performances.

Witten and Kennedy have the buddy thing down pat: there’s plenty of name-calling, shoulder slugging, and expressions of manly devotion in this script (at least until things go south), and they play it well. Kennedy is a hoot as Charlie Fox. He’s jumpy and excitable – he stops short of being completely irritating – and he plays out that carefully masked envy for his pal’s success very well. Witten is one of the region’s most versatile actors, having just completed the title role in “Sweeney Todd” at Kavinoky Theatre to over-the-top reviews. His Bobby vacillates between feisty and confused with the trademark Mamet edginess. Witten has an affinity these slightly sleazy Mamet roles: last season he was the smooth-talking Ricky Roma is RLTP’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Barriere’s Karen is all cunning sweetness:   she owns her scenes, replete with girl-power resolve that’s ready to change the world…even when it can’t.

While the production is a fine example of RLTP’s consistent good work, the star of this show is the house itself. It needs some more work that will come with time and support, but the pride that Behrend and the RLTP ensemble has for this place is palpable.  It’s time: from humble beginnings in a movie theatre, to the past few years at the Forbes Theatre on Pearl St., RLTP has distinguished itself on stage and off. Its Playwright Residencies and Off-Book discussion series are two engaging examples of how Behrend et al extend the company’s value into the community. Even the playbill, with its supplemental program notes specific to each production, is crafted with exceptional care. Personally, I love this supplement: it’s the theatre’s equivalent to Ed Yadzinski’s program notes in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s program, combining history and insight to accompany the production.  It’s all good stuff.

Behrend was wise to follow RLTP board member Stephen McKinley Henderson’s advice to “be so good they can’t ignore you.” Bravo to Behrend and the RLTP ensemble making many bold and successful moves.

Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

“Speed-the-Plow” runs through November 18, 2018 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Big Fish’ by Second Generation Theatre at Shea’s Smith Theatre

So here’s the thing about…musicals. When they’re good, they’re great, and Second Generation Theatre landed a big one with the regional premiere of “Big Fish.” In true SGT style, there’s a stellar cast, perfect costumes, a simple but effective set, and a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

. . .full of laughs, sweet moments, and reflective take-aways.  

“Big Fish” isn’t a household name musical. It had a short run on Broadway in 2013 followed by a London run a few years later. A couple tunes are regularly heard on Sirius’ Broadway channel. Its origin is a 1998 novel which  Tim Burton made into a film, and all three iterations share the basic storyline with its colorful characters and multi-leveled messages. It’s good to see this story on a Buffalo stage.

The musical version captures the best of the story: a complicated father-son relationship, pure and love, and the story of a bigger than life everyman whose quiet acts of goodness were coated in tall tales and boisterous stories.

Lou Colaiacovo is Edward Bloom, the adventure seeking traveling salesman who spins a world of fantasy that embarrasses his feet-planted-firmly on the ground son Will,played by Ricky Needham. Michele Marie Roberts is Edward’s wife, who catches his eye across a crowded circus. Yes, it was love at first sight, and she ditches her fiancée (Edward’s teen nemesis) to marry her beguiling dreamer. The ensemble are the characters in Edward’s real and amplified world. Standouts are Victoria Perez: her solo, ‘The Witch’ is big and rich and almost scary fun. She strides across the stage with a flamenco stamp in her step, snapping her fan, and gazing into her crystal ball. She’s fierce and fabulous. Stevie Jackson is giggly and sweet as Jenny Hill, the cheerleader girlfriend Edward left behind. Jacob Albarella is a stitch as the circus ringleader by day and werewolf by night. You have to love the erudite Karl the Giant (Dave Spychalski) and his clomping Frankenstein shoes.

The uncredited star of the show is the river in Edward’s dot-on-the-map Alabama hometown. You don’t see it or hear it, but it’s there. He’s skipping stones  across it as the show opens. It’s the setting for his witch encounter. It’s the site of the dam that will flood out the old town. It’s where Will brings him before he takes his last breath. More than a common metaphor for life and rebirth, the river flows through some of Edward’s biggest tales and defines his immortality.

Director/choreographer Michael Walline made perfect choices for his cast. Colaiacovo and Roberts are loveable as husband and wife Edward and Sandra. Roberts’ stunning voice soars as she sings about the ‘Magic in the Man’, a send up to true love. Her subtle winks and knowing smiles are full of Alabama lamb southern style. Their ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Time Stops’ duets are tender and loving. Colaiacovo makes fine work of the ‘Be the Hero’ and ‘Fight the Dragons’ anthems, and the prescient  ‘How it Ends’ is especially poignant. Needham is appropriately straight laced and pragmatic as Will who finally learns that “once you understand the stories, you understand the man.”

“Big Fish” is full of laughs, sweet moments, and reflective take-aways.  With a story that’s a little bit “It’s a Wonderful Life” (one man can change a lot of lives)and “The Music Man’ (smart women see beyond the façade of  the men they love), you’ll be pulled in to the world where these loveable characters dwell, and maybe give a second thought to relationships and those mysterious moments that define the people we love and maybe don’t really know.

This is SGT’s first show at Shea’s Smith Theatre. The built-out thrust stage makes sense for this room and show, and Walline uses the space beautifully, although sightlines weren’t always optimal. Opening night had some microphone glitches and a perhaps a couple musical challenges. The rest of the experience did all the things good theatre should evoke.  SGT has a great season planned, so in the words of the man himself, “Here’s to what’s next.”

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

“Big Fish” runs until October 28, 2018, is produced by Second Generation Theatre and is presented at Shea’s Smith Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘And Where Will You Put The Things You Save?” by Inclusive Theatre of WNY at Alleyway Theatre

We say it so much it’s become a regional cliché, but here it is one more time. Western New York is truly blessed to have such a robust and vibrant theatre community. With a couple dozen professional theatres, several community theatres, and college and high school programs that are launching the next generation of theatre professionals, the local theatre scene has something for everyone. The latest company on this august list, Inclusive Theater of WNY, is doing its part by creating a company that welcomes disabled and abled actors and behind the scenes personnel to participate.

ITWNY is off to a fine start with this three-hander. . .

After two years of writing groups, workshops, and informal work. ITWNY opened its first fully staged production, “And Where Will You Put the Things You Save?” at Alleyway Theatre. This is a regional premiere by local playwright Baroness von Smith, a 2008 Artie Award nominee.

ITWNY is off to a fine start with this three-hander, featuring John Profeta, Steve Brachmann, and Jessica Levesque, directed by Virginia Bannon. Brachmann is Nick, an attorney whose career was sidelined as the result of a motorcycle accident and now uses wheelchair. Profeta, fresh off his role in Subversive Theatre’s production of “Fahrenheit 451” is his fiancée, an academic and a self-proclaimed tree-hugger with a deep commitment to protecting the environment. Jessica Levesque is Ericka, Nick’s younger sister, an aspiring roller derby skater who is on the autism spectrum. The story emerges as all three characters find themselves challenged by life-changing crossroads. Nick cautions Alex about his environmental passion heading to the extreme. Ericka is eager to explore friendships and experiences beyond the confines of a group home. Alex struggles with his visions for an idyllic world unmarred by technology’s interventions. Their commonality: they just want to find happiness and acceptance in a less-than-tolerant society.

Bannon’s straight-forward direction makes perfect sense for this first-time cast. She coaxes a lovely debut performance from Jessica Levesque, whose character is bubbly one minute, and stressed and anxious the next as she experiences a bigger world with acquaintances who don’t understand autism. This was also Brachmann’s debut. His chemistry with his castmates took some time to be convincing while his posture and demeanor as a wheelchair bound man was elegant and real. Profeta was solid throughout, an anchor in the lives of two disparate siblings who are finding new ways to navigate through their worlds.

The company’s founder Aimee Levesque was aware of the script for a while, and was at first hesitant to plan it as the company’s first production. She felt that with two characters disclosing  their disabilities as defining elements of the story was too obvious. Together with her associate founder Marilyn Erentsen-Scott they determined that the subtle and not so subtle messages of von Smith’s intriguing story made a positive statement about the company’s mission to reimagine our society without the disabling barriers.

There were a few opening night glitches: a set piece that wasn’t supposed to break, a few stalled lines, some ambient music that was too loud and long. Overall, it was a great effort and a production that is worthy of a larger audience.

It’s important to remember that this is a first-time production for a fledgling company that was founded to give every and any person with theatrical interests a place to work hard and to shine. Local actors, directors, and other theatre professionals have lent their time and talent to help this group fulfill its mission. It’s laudable and important work. Not every show is Broadway bound, nor is every local production, actor, director, or stage crew expecting to be. But that’s what makes the rich tapestry of our theatre community so special. There’s a stage and an audience available, accessible, and welcoming for everyone, without the pretense of lofty expectations. Smaller, new companies need the same support and attention as their well-heeled peers. This production is worth seeing and supporting.

Running Time: 95 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“And Where Will You Put The Things You Save?” will run to October 28, at the Alleyway Theatre. For tickets, call the box office at 716-218-8129, and for more information on the production and the company, visit www.inclusivetheaterofwny.com.