Theatre Review: ‘The Strudel Lady’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

Mary Kate O’Connell and Lisa Ludwig star in “The Strudel Lady” at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

Jewish Repertory Theatre began its 16th season with a sweet take on empowerment and transformation in the world premiere production of “The Strudel Lady.” Playwright Shirl Solomon penned this charming musical with a healthy dose of Jewish content and a universal message: sometimes it takes a strong new friend to help you believe in yourself.

Solomon’s story is touching.

“The Strudel Lady” is Chava, a recently divorced woman. Her ex lied about her to the rabbi, her children now shun her, and she wears her shame along with her drab and frumpy wardrobe. She meets a vivacious new friend, Faiga, wife of the temple cantor, who mends and updates Chava’s clothing, and by extension, repairs Chava’s broken spirit. Faiga sees a new opportunity for Chava, too: Chava is a wonderful baker and her strudel can put her on a path to financial independence and respectability.

Yes, it’s a bit like Pygmalion in a pogrom or “My Fair Lady” in a schmatta, but that’s what makes this production so grand. Four well prepared actors (and one on-stage keyboardist) roll out a five-year journey that’s a remarkable evolution for Chava, wonderfully played by Lisa Ludwig. Ludwig takes Chava on the path from bashful to self-confident with unabashed conviction. No longer content to be the baker in the background, we watch Chava emerge, and if she strays from orthodoxy along the way, she’s still true to herself and what she believes.

Chava owes the first steps in her journey to Faiga. Only a skilled and visionary director like Saul Elkin can coax the Jewish mama out of nun-playing, DIVA by DIVA creator like Mary Kate O’Connell, who adapts to this role like the surprise addition of figs in apple strudel. In other words, just delicious. O’Connell and Ludwig’s chemistry is the heart of the production: Faiga is to be admired, she’s the cantor’s wife who learned English and went to college after all. She’s full of sound advice for being happily married (“You still have to do it”), and succeeding in business, (“In business, lying is called marketing.”) too, and if Chava is reluctant at first, well, let’s just say she catches on. Perhaps a little too much. But growth sometimes is hard to reign in when a whole new world is opening up for you.

Rounding out the ensemble is Tom Makar as Faiga’s husband Velvel, the cantor who loves opera and likes to shake up Shul by applying Hebrew prayer to operatic arias. Makar’s resonant high baritone is well placed here. David Marciniak is loveable as Leonard, the restaurant executive who finds a place for Chava in his bakery department and beyond.

Solomon’s story is touching. Her songs add an interesting element to the production, too, as they often act as the “inner voice” or conscience of her characters.  Director Elkin made outstanding choices here: the ensemble’s voices were lovely, compatible, and blended. Elkin prompted depth from the actors, too. In places the plot was thin, and it was the forces of personality on stage that kept the story feeling real, like a modern-day fairytale with the message we all love to hear.

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

“The Strudel Lady” runs until October 28, 2018 and is presented at Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Gentlemen Prefer DIVAs: Buffalo Legends’ by O’Connell & Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

“DIVA by DIVA: A Celebration of Women,” an O’Connell & Company production is already in the local history books as Western New York’s longest running theatrical production. This year for Curtain Up, its sister show paid tribute to local history, landmarks, and the legendary citizens who give our region its unique character.

. . .the audience loves it. It’s real. It’s authentic and accessible.

“Gentlemen Prefer DIVAs: Buffalo Legends “ was on stage one night only at the Shea’s Smith Theatre, as a salute to the people, places, and things that make Buffalo the special, awesome, fabulous place that it is. From its renowned arts and cultural scene, the innovations and inventions that changed the world, to the gracious and glorious architecture, artistic director Mary Kate O’Connell had plenty of inspiration in writing this script for this fast moving cabaret show.

If you’ve never seen any of the “DIVA by DIVA” variations, O’Connell custom-scripts each performance with a unique collection of quotes, stories, and songs. Cast members receive their scripts an hour-ish before the performance which gives each performance its unpredictable, organic flare. Yup, there are plenty of surprises, some sing-a-longs and lots of laughs along with a few poignant moments, too. This is what makes the “DIVA by DIVA” franchise so special: the mix of actors, singers, and just folks (like yours truly) who come together on stage and share the spotlight as one.

This all-star cast included former Buffalo Bill Lou Piccone, The Hon. Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello, the creator of the Ride for Roswell Mitch Flynn, and award winning actor Lisa Ludwig, among the 29 arts, education, business, and civic leaders in celebration of all things 716. Rapid fire lines all had a Buffalo twist, with plenty of quotes from Lucille Ball, political humorist Mark Russell, Mark Twain, the always quotable Mayor Jimmy Griffin and other regional luminaries. There were quick biographical sketches of theatre impresario Michael Shea and songwriter Harold Arlen interspersed with reflections on snow in the southtowns, and intrepid Buffalo gals.

All of the songs were written by Buffalo-born or Buffalo-identified composers, the likes of Harold Arlen, David Shire, Ray Henderson, and Harry Warren, giving the singers a rich repertoire. Kate Masiello’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was sweet and simple. Jon May’s cover of David Shire’s “One of the Good Guys” was touching (the male voice version of New Yorker Jason Robert Brown’s “Sun and the Moon,” perhaps). Matthew Mooney nailed another Shire composition “I Chose Right.” May took the verbal punch in another Shire tune, “You Wanna Be My Friend” in a duet with Therese Vita. Tom Owen’s big and bodacious baritone led the group in its closing number “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Mary Craig took us to church with the only tune not written by a Buffalonian in a tribute to the late Buffalo-gal-for a few years Aretha Franklin: her medley of “A Natural Woman” with a dash of “Respect”  was a powerful moment that brought some audience members to their feet. Yes, it’s that kind of show.

It’s the cast members that makes these shows so appealing, and they all have their own reasons for wanting ‘in’ on the biggest night in Buffalo’s theatre calendar. Hon. Lynn Marinelli, director of intergovernmental relations for Empire State Development said, “Mary Kate O’Connell, and her life’s devotion to Buffalo, culture, equality and friendship, has such a positive, gravitational pull, you want in! It’s so enjoyable to be among her troupe. And, whether you share the stage or the audience with her – you smile and shine!”

For advertising executive and Ride for Roswell creator Mitch Flynn, he participated to pay homage to the best of this place we call home. He said, “You can’t beat the cast and Mary Kate has put together a really fun show about all things Buffalo – ranging from shoveling snow to the Buffalo Bills to beef on weck.

Wealth advisor and singer Therese Vita is a long-time “DIVA by DIVA” cast member who signed on because, she said, “I love going to Curtain Up, but participating in a performance is even more exciting!  Being on stage with some local celebrities on the most exciting night of theater in Buffalo is a real thrill.” 

 Stanton Hudson, executive director of the national landmark TR Site, got back to his high school roots in the show.” I began “finding” myself when I joined the glee club and began participating in our annual musicals. I wasn’t a great singer but had opportunities to act and make people laugh. I never thought I’d ever have the chance to relive those happy days on stage, but I’m back there 50 years later and I’m simply delighted.”

While the theatre elite may criticize the entire DIVA by DIVA cabaret premise – mixing amateurs and professional actors in a staged reading that isn’t rehearsed – the audience loves it. It’s real. It’s authentic and accessible. And judging by the applause and the laughter, the audience likes this. The audience made a choice. In other words, to quote the inimitable Marv Levy, “where would you rather be than right here, right now?”

“Gentlemen Prefer DIVAs: Buffalo Legends” was a fun lead-off to O’Connell & Company’s season. Find details on the rest of the schedule here.

Theatre Review: ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ at Kavinoky Theatre

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Loraine O’Donnell and Matt Witten in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street” at Kavinoky Theatre.

The stately Edwardian charm of the Kavinoky Theatre is transformed to 19th century London, evidenced by eerie smoke drifting from the under an animated scrim. That’s your first impression ofSweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” onstage until September 30.  It’s a foreboding and mysterious way to begin a riveting, vaguely disturbing, and thoroughly enjoyable production. Kavinoky picked a phenomenal way to begin a new season.

. . .nothing short of extraordinary.

This is a singer’s show. The plot is strong and intense, and it’s the music that leads it along. Like Sondheim’s earlier work “Passion,” this feels like a period opera for a contemporary audience.

The rigorous Sondheim score requires every member of the cast to have outstanding vocal chops. This cast didn’t disappoint. Like last season’s “Mamma Mia!,” (probably the only similarity between these two shows) there were plenty of familiar faces – usually seen in leading or featured roles – in the ensemble. Charmagne Chi’s soprano soars when the score permits. She, with Kelly Copps, Ben Michael Moran, Dudley Joseph, and the rest of troupe have powerful and exquisite vocal blend.

The featured actors are flat out magnificent, showing range and dynamics that showcase Sondheim’s vocal gymnastics. Matt Witten as Sweeney, Loraine O’Donnell as Mrs. Lovett, Anthony Lazzaro as Anthony Hope, Aleks Makejs in her Buffalo debut singing role, and Peter Palmisano as the creepy Judge Turpin, pull you into this story with every note and spin you into the web of deceit and revenge.

Sweeney’s story unfolds as the ragtag street people of London pull down the scrim to reveal a dank and dreary cityscape. He is fresh off the boat from a dozen years away, and while his fresh-faced traveling companion, a sailor aptly named Anthony Hope, is excited to be there, Sweeney’s feelings about London run deeper, “its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit and it goes by the name of London,” he sings. Matt Witten’s resonant voice and solid diction hammer at Sondheim’s staccato rhythms and clipped lyrics. This may be his finest performance yet, with steely resolve under a gentleman’s reserve, and a voice that handles every elegant and complicated riff that Sondheim wrote. It’s perfection.

The same can be said about Loraine O’Donnell’s portrayal of Mrs. Lovett, baker of the worst pies in London. She’s bold and brassy with her big voice filling the house. Listen closely to her act one song “Wait:” her character is reflective, her voice is rich, lower, and thinking again of Sondheim’s “Passion,” when she played Fosca on the O’Connell & Company stage years ago. She and Witten nail the comedic duet “A Little Priest,” too. The story is so intense you almost forget to laugh at the clever humor and wordplay. She can “take” a song, too: she’s sweet and loving when young Tobias (Lucas DeNies) shows  his devotion singing the tender “Not While I’m Around.”

It’s Malejs who is is the surprise of the evening in a singing role as the prescient beggar woman. She creeps about the city, somehow all knowing that something is even more wrong is this grimy, impoverished, corrupt corner of the world.  Her “Beggar Woman’s Lullaby” will break your heart.

Director John Fredo expertly moves this large cast around stage, and his actors all do double duty moving David King’s set pieces about, from pie shop to insane asylum, to street scenes.  Moody lighting designed by Brian Cavanaugh, a larger-than-expected orchestra led by Allan Paglia, and plenty of stage-tech magic add layers to the production.

This is an ambitious production and Kavinoky’s team is nothing short of extraordinary. Make this the first show of this season’s local theatre season journey.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30-minutes with a 20-minute intermission.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” runs until September 30, 2018 and is presented at the Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Once In My Lifetime: A Buffalo Football Fantasy’ at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The cast of “Once In My Lifetime: A Buffalo Football Fantasy” at Shea’s Smith Theatre.

Plenty of stories begin this way: a man walks into a bar, and …

In Donna Hoke’s “Once in My Lifetime: A Buffalo Football Fantasy,” a mysterious stranger wearing a Bills’ jersey walks into a Buffalo bar called Miracle, slams a Boiler Maker (“one up, one down”), doles out some tough-love words to the diehard Bills fans, and changes more than a few lives.

. . . [an] entertaining. . .inspirational new play. . .

This entertaining and yes, inspirational new play takes everything a true blue Buffalo fan loves about those Sunday afternoons and gives them hope. The story is charming: Lyn’s late husband Howard was a Bills fan to the end. He shared his dying wish with a buddy:  Lyn should open a bar called Miracle in the hopes for a Super Bowl win. Lyn (Josie DiVincenzo) embraces the challenge, dons her best Bills logo tank shirt, and opens the doors for a motley family of friends who share Howard’s divine hope for a Super Bowl win.

This is an ensemble show driven by endearing characters: think of NBC’s “Cheers” glad in Zubaz. Director Victoria Perez had to have had a blast with this fun script and perfectly chosen troupe who completely nail their respective roles. Adam Hayes is earnest as the dapper-dressed fan who wants to connect with his elderly dad again. Jake Hayes is the bartender who listens. A lot. But is he a real fan? Aaron Krygier and Kinzy Brown are best-buds-who-feud and are Bills Mafia to the bone, but circumstances keep them in the bar (instead of the stands) for home games. You have to love Brown’s victory dance moves, too.  Jon May and Diane DiBernardo are the well-heeled spouses PT and Belinda Sue (if this was “Gilligan’s Island,” they would be Lovely and Thurston Howell) with a secret source of wealth. Kyle Baran is Willy (or is he Pat? Hmmm….what’s his team of choice?) who is the Ghost of Super Bowls Past and the Harbinger for Things to Come, all rolled into one. It’s his presence that turns the sizzling September Sunday into a snowstorm as he riles up the Miracle fan base.

Each show has a special guest walk-on (the night I was there, local theatre legend Anthony Chase wore the guest jersey).  What would have put this over the top is if local sportscasters would have dropped in as the gameday announcers. Actors Steve Brachmann and Pamela Rose Mangus were the voices of the game, and while it was cool to hear a woman’s voice in this role, those familiar sports voices doing their thing would have been a hoot.

Paul Bostaph’s bar room set has a little bit of everything, from nostalgic Genesee beer serving trays, a box of Flutie Flakes, and handmade Bills posters, to the simple Miracle sign over the door. It’s your basic Buffalo bar with plenty of red, white, and blue accents.

In the fast-moving 90-minute show, there’s plenty of Bills trivia, highlights, low-lights, and cheers and jeers from the audience. Hokes nails the hometown spirit for sure, down to every fan’s favorite mantra “it’s early in the season, there’s still time.”

At its heart, “Once in My Lifetime” is an allegory for everyone’s need to Bill-lieve for what is in your heart, from  loyalty to friends and family, to love for the team, and for the confidence to tackle any challenge when the naysayers have you pegged to fail.  In other words, don’t let that illegal forward lateral haunt you: having faith will change your destiny.

Running Time: 90-minutes with no intermission.

“Once in a Lifetime: A Buffalo Football Fantasy” runs until September 8, 2018 and is presented at at Shea’s Smith Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Forget Me Not (Or Minding June’s Story, A Family Tale)’ at Kavinoky Theatre

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Family memories, World War II history, and the troubled recesses in the human psyche converge in “Forget Me Not,(Or Minding June’s Story, A Family Tale)” a new play written by Buffalo’s own Diane Almeter Jones. The play is making its regional premiere this weekend at the Kavinoky Theatre.

. . .a powerful and thoughtful work.

It’s a powerful and thoughtful work. The story flits between the 1940s and 1980s, spanning three generations, based on emotional artifacts from the playwright’s family. At times, it’s not easy watching. The opening scene is disconcerting: the 1980s granddaughter, sequestered in a high-ceilinged attic packed with family mementos, looks like she’s ready to harm herself. Her husband’s voice through the door startles her, announcing that her beloved grandmother has died. She hurriedly pushes down her sweater sleeve and begins pacing the space. In a waking dream, or some absurdist reality, the attic is now alive with spirits, perhaps powered by Grandma June’s collection of postcard and letters, treasured in a flowery box. Her Grandma June,  Grandpa Harry, his brother, and in a curious and funny moment, the blessed Mother with a Madonna blue robe, an Irish accent and a bottle of chianti, are revealed in clever entrances and exits that rarely use the attic door.

Set designer David King’s stage is magnificent here, punctuated with just-right set pieces (Almeter Jones is the Kavinoky’s resident properties manager), from furnishings to a wedding veil. Brian Cavanaugh’s lighting design is skillful: there are stark and bright moments when the characters break from ensemble and tell their story. Director Kristen Tripp Kelley uses these moments wisely: these brief monologues help form their moments of connection with the audience.  The Kav’s snazzy LED curtains display images from the family correspondence and other subtle video snippets. There’s a lot of activity on the stage, too, as characters move from the focal point farmhouse table to the elevated “spotlight” chair: is this another metaphor for rising heavenward, or a way of distancing for clarity and perspective? Kelley’s smart direction keeps the movement from being too frenetic.

The actors, in their multiple roles, give life and voice to Almeter Jones’ family. Anne Roaldi Boucher is charming as shy teen June at times, and strong as the gentle wise grandmother. Her life, her challenges form the backbone here. Zachary Bellus is Harry, the earnest younger brother who is determined to make June proud. Nick Stevens as Harry’s brother Francis, another family soldier, has his own secrets and story. It’s Maria Caruso as Diane (and  the Blessed Mother) who advances the story as the narrator of sorts, the convener of souls who reads from the family correspondence and pulls the distant past into the more recent past.

Almeter Jones developed this project in the 2015 Emanuel Fried New Play Workshop at Road Less Traveled Theatre. Her inspiration was her grandmother’s box of letters and the rich family history it represented. She does her family history proud.

Running Time: 1 Hour 10 Minutes, no intermission.

“Forget Me Not, (Or Minding June’s Story, A Family Tale)” has a fast weekend run on stage at The Kav, closing on June 9, 2018. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ at Irish Classical Theatre

The cast of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” at Irish Classical Theatre.

Ah, the things we do for love. We keep secrets. Maybe tell a fib or two. And perhaps we try to protect the object of our affection from hurting over something that can’t be undone.

Love, honor, and the subtleties of deception combine to form the delectable story of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” sumptuously staged by the Irish Classical Theatre Company.

Director Josephine Hogan had the dream team cast for this one.

The story begins as we meet Lady Windermere, elegantly played by Arianne Davidow. . She has two visitors in the afternoon of her “coming of age” birthday. First is Lord Darlington who Lady Windermere playfully chides for lavishing too much attention on her. “Compliments,” sighs Lord Darlington, “is the only thing we can pay,” he laments.  Still he admires so much about her, she is a good woman, in a world where there are so many bad ones. Lady Windermere, true to her Puritan values, wants nothing to do with such talk, or his veiled attempts at seduction. “I will have no one in my house about whom there is any scandal,” she declares. So when her next guest arrives – The Duchess of Berwick with her daughter Lady Agatha – Lady W can barely tolerate the thought that her dear husband is involved with a woman with a questionable past. And he’s giving her money! Whatever for?

She confronts her husband, who implores her to invite the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne to the evening’s birthday party. Lady W. will have none of it, so Lord W. invites this wayward guest himself. There’s a gasp when Mrs. Erlynne sweeps into the room, all clad in the brightest of red gowns, with the tallest hair ornament of them all, against a sea of more modestly-hued frocks.  She beguiles the men. And shocks the women.

What unfolds is the classic parlor comedy with a morality theme, sparked by plenty of discussion about right and wrong, marriage and human nature, good and bad. If you’re not charming, you’re tedious, and if you’re too good, you’re taken too seriously. The witty banter, the raised eyebrows, the shocking revelations are Wilde at his finest. So is the fluttering of Lady Windermere’s fan, with its pure white feathers, sparkling jewels, inscription just for the Lady. The fan – a gift, a metaphor, a symbol – has the most provocative silent role of all.

Director Josephine Hogan had the dream team cast for this one. Davidow, in demure pink and white with flowers in her hair, is the perfect young bride to Matt Witten’s stalwart but loving Lord Windermere. Ben Michael Moran is a charmer as the smitten Lord Darlington, and delivers the classic line – “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” with a sweet longing for the love he can’t share with Lady W. Kate LoConti is outstanding as the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne. She’s brazen, confident, and determined…and sentimental, caring, and devoted to what’s acceptable to the high-brow British uppercrust. LoConti’s expressions, her gestures, are slight, and convey every emotion and meaning. David Lundy is a trip as Parker the butler.  His entr’acte stage-lights-at-half ballet sequence is Artie-worthy. Christian Brandjes as the bumbling Lord Augustus Lorton and Chris Kelly as the sardonic Cecil Graham are great foils. Jon May’s Mr. Dumby delivers the prophetic punch at the party with “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Wilde’s wisest words.

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

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” is onstage until June 24, 2018 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here. 

Theatre Review: ‘Stage Kiss’ at The Shaw Festival

Fiona Byrne as She and Sanjay Talwar as Husband in Stage Kiss. Photo by Emily Cooper.

While it’s a little bit “Kiss Me Kate”with a  touch of “Noises Off,” “Stage Kiss,” onstage at St. George’s Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s iconic Shaw Festival 18, distinguishes itself in the ‘play within a play’ comic genre with one good plot twist and a few interesting insights on the difference between matured true love and unfinished 20-somethings romance.

. . .a fine summer night of theatre.

American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s script isn’t over-the-top hysterical, but it’s witty and smart in just the right measure for a rom-com on stage. The story centers on He and She, two actors separated by time and circumstance, unexpectedly reunited for a revival of a flopped 1930s melodrama. Here She’s character is dying and her last wish is for one last meeting with her ex – He – now a famous sculptor in Sweden. She’s husband makes it so without regret, it seems. They fall back in love and she’s miraculously cured. Cue the irony.  The ‘real’ He and She are ex’s, too: She left showbiz to marry and raise a family, while He bounced around the country in minor roles for meager salaries. After a long absence, fate puts them on the same stage with an oft-distracted director and overly ambitious understudy. Life imitates art imitating art, and He and She find themselves – after a few awkward Act 1 moments – back in each other’s arms.

They do have an Act 2, starring opposite each other again in an original work (guess what? The same director is also a playwright), off-off-off Broadway….in Detroit. “It’s real, honest work,” says the director, pumping up the skeptical pair. It’s here that She realizes the difference between fizzy excitement and the comforts of her more grown up life.  “You’re champagne,” She tells He, “and you can’t just live on champagne. My husband is bread.”

This isn’t Ruhl’s finest script (New Phoenix Theatre staged  her Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-nominated “In the Next Room…Or the Vibrator Play” back in 2011). The production itself elevates the almost sit-com script. Long time Show Festival actors Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer as She and He play their roles well. Byrne makes She nervous and a little twitchy that’s the perfect essence for a woman caught between looking back while examining her present and future. Happer’s take on He is just short of swaggering, without catching the trappings of success. I love their Act 2 interplay as they rehearse in character but converse as themselves. Neil Barclay is fine as the director, into his muse one minute, and focused on his phone in the next.

The rest of the cast does double duty with multiple roles.  Jeff Meadows is a riot as Kevin, He’s understudy, who can’t quite come to grips with having to kiss a woman actor on stage.  Sanjay Talmar is She’s husband in the melodrama and ‘real’ life. The real standouts are two young actors, Sarena Parmar and Rong Fu, ironically named Mille and Millicent in the stage production (“Why is everyone named Millie in this show,” wails She about the script) who also morphs into She’s daughter and He’s girlfriend respectively.  Parmar as Millie is the 20-something always cast as the teen: a few good hair tosses, eyerolls, and a Catholic school uniform later she’s giving her mom a good talking-to about the value of true, lasting love with a dead-on tattoo analogy. Fu sweeps through the melodrama in mink and then appears demurely dressed as He’s kindergarten teacher girlfriend. Fu’s  ‘my boyfriend is cheating on me with his ex’ meltdown is comic perfection, down to the secret joint in the bathroom to the “I find comfort in a PB&J sandwich” admission.

As we come to expect at the Shaw Festival, the sets are stunning. The barebones backstage of the rehearsal space, the lush Art Deco melodrama set, and He’s dumpy walkup apartment: Gillian Gallow nails them all. There’s more show-in-show fun as Barclay the director calls for lighting changes on a window and Louise Guinand’s lighting design performs on cue.

Well worth the drive over the border and the navigating the lively crowds on the street, “Stage Kiss” is a fine summer night of theatre.

Running Time: 1 Hour 20 Minutes with out 15-Minute Intermission.

“Stage Kiss” runs until September 1, 2018 and is presented as part of The Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: Ken Ludwig’s ‘Baskerville’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre

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The cast of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” a Sherlock Holmes Mystery, at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Who says a time-honored literary work has to be a serious drama on stage? No one. Ever.

Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville”  A Sherlock Holmes (Comic) Mystery , produced by MusicalFare, is onstage now at Shea’s 710 Theatre and it’s a flat out hoot. You know you’re in for a treat when two performances are added to the run long before opening night.  Yes, it’s that funny.

. . .a flat out hoot.

It’s the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story with Holmes (masterfully played by Todd Benzin) playing it straight as the master solver of all crimes. Holmes and faithful companion Dr. Watson (Chris J. Handley) are told of a frightening series of events on the foggy moors. A creature with a resonant howl and giant footprints is scaring the bejeebers out of the locals, according to Dr. Mortimer, one of several roles played by Marc Sacco, who also shares the sad Baskerville saga. So the investigation begins. While Holmes and Watson are on the prowl, it’s Sacco and castmates Patrick Cameron and Maria Droz who morph in and out of more than three dozen characters. This is the real show within the show. With a flip of cap a man becomes a woman. Doff the dress and you’re a Castilian hotel desk clerk (the lisp and the accent are a stitch). It’s flurry of wigs, hats, props, and costumes that fly on and off, sometimes on stage in a sleight of hand that’s magical to watch.

Kari Drozd and Susan Drozd must have had a blast wrangling all these bits and pieces. The cast sure had a frenetically good time getting dressed, undressed, and over-dressed. This is a really physical show, too, full of funny details. Watch as Maria Droz flies a bird at a propitious moment and as Patrick Cameron  – as a deceased Baskervillian – flips his dead body over.

Lynn Koscielniak’s set is simple and strangely effective. There’s a mysterious black box effect downstage and a series of moveable risers that function as set pieces throughout. The whole house is really part of the set as actors roam the theatre and lights and smog follow. The black stage and white crisscrosses (metaphors for the web of deceit, perhaps) are mesmerizing, as are the Holmes quotes scripted across the floor. Don’t be too curious: even after the performance ends, if you step on stage to piece together the words, you’ll be reminded to exit.

“Baskerville” is one wild romp of fast paced fun and frolic. The slow steady pace of Benzin, the soft-sell sidekick of Handley, and zaniness of this uber-talented cast make this a night to howl at the theatre. Hang on to your deerstalker and catch this show before  May 19!

Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission.

Advisory:  Black lights and strobe lights are used.  

Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” A Sherlock Holmes Mystery runs until May 19, 2018, is produced by MusicalFare Theatre, and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.

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

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

The spirit moved a full house to attend opening night of “The Christian”’ presented by Road Less Traveled Productions, ironically housed in the former Christian Center in downtown Buffalo. The audience is the congregation for this production, and the stage is the altar in a sleek, contemporary mega church, with a faux stained glass window as a video screening, lots of microphones, and plenty of conviction. It’s in this setting of a weekly worship service that playwright Lucas Hnath’s slow-simmering script posts the question “What if there is no Hell?”

. . .ends Road Less Traveled’s 14th season in a provocative way.

That earth-shattering message is delivered by ‘Pastor’ Dave Hayes who is perfectly slick as the spiritual leader of his stalwart congregation. His long and passionately delivered sermon is in four parts: Where Are We Now, A Powerful Urge, The Fires of Hell, and A Radical Change. It’s almost an academic construct: the first section reviews the church’s history and Pastor offers thanks as the church debt is now paid. In section two, he retells how he met his wife on an airplane when he passed her a note that says “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you but the distance between us is insurmountable.” All heck breaks loose in section three, where he unfolds the heart of his message: at a conference for pastors he heard a story of a young man who died saving his little sister’s life. He wasn’t Christian, but he was a selfless hero. Where’s his eternal reward?  Or is he to be punished for his lack of belief? The debate begins in section four as the Pastor and Associate Pastor (in a riveting performance by Aaron Moss) fire Biblical quotes and heartfelt statements at each other in debate. This is the good stuff: the passion between leader and rising leader, the unspoken tension between the Pastor’s wife and the church elder. The heart-felt question from a congregant. Hayes and Moss are perfectly matched.

Hayes has all the vocal highs and lows of any televangelist. As a Pastor, he knows how to tend his flock: he praises their support, he smiles at his lovely wife, he points to the congregants with pride…and then he shakes their world. Moss is on fire: where Hayes is polished and maybe too comfortable as the spiritual, Moss is all passion and bravado. It’s elegant to watch. Lisa Vitrano is the Pastor’s wife, smartly dressed in a conservative suit with layers of sparkle, down to her gilt shoes, she doesn’t speak a word for most of the show, but her conflict is in every expression and gesture she makes. When she finally opens up, it’s a welcomed surprise. It’s a perfect moment when congregant Victoria Perez leaves her seat in the audience to speak to her Pastor. ‘Til now, Perez is the ideal congregant: loyal, trusting, believing.  She accepts the church’s support to improve her quality of life, and she tithes more than her fair share, until she questions her beloved Pastor’s new philosophy. You hear the incredulity in her voice. Steve Jakiel is the solid church elder who wants what’s best for the greater good.

What would have sent this production over the top was even more music from the gifted music director Karen Saxon, an off-stage presence. How awesome it would have been to see some members of a church choir on stage swaying in their satiny robes with some live music, preaching through song.

The best theater is supposed to leave us with questions or at least thoughts that reflect our unique experience. “The Christians”certainly has that potential. It also ends Road Less Traveled’s 14th season in a provocative way.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

‘The Christians’ is onstage until May 20, 2018. For more information, click here. 

Theatre Review: ‘The Awful Truth’ at Irish Classical Theatre

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Diane Curley and Adriano Gatto are ex-spouses in “The Awful Truth” at Irish Classical Theatre.

The grace and elegance of the upper-crust 1930s society- warts and all – is all part of ‘The Awful Truth’ staged by the Irish Classical Theatre Company. Yes, plenty of pricey perfume may hide the unsavory scent of deception, but when the smell is intoxicatingly sweet and pleasant, do we really care?

. . .this rarely produced work is staged with flair and the cast shines.

This show is a charmer. The stage version had a brief Broadway run and later inspired the film starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.  More character driven than the more familiar film, this works well for ICTC’s fine ensemble cast. When Lucy (played by Diane Curley) was married to Norman (Adrian Gatto), she cheated on him with Rufus (Chris Kelly). Shock: she’s a divorcee! Now she’s angling to marry Texas oil baron Daniel Leeson (Eric Rawski) and stern faced mama Mrs. Leeson (Ellen Horst) is suspicious.  She’s heard plenty of gossip. After all she says, “Rumors don’t usually live this long without some basis of fact.” Daniel is a straight speaking earnest fellow after all, a bit of a braggart with new money, and his mother knows deep down that Lucy is no innocent ingénue, with her snappy retorts and distressingly flippant attitude toward marriage. Could she be the real woman for Daniel and the mother of his children? “Our children,” Daniel says solemnly, “are the Americans of tomorrow.”

Cue the machinations as Lucy tries to hang on to her engagement (he’s wealthy, she’s flits under the facade to support her carefree lifestyle) while dealing with authentic matters of heart. Ah, the struggles of the lovely and in demand.

This is what Irish Classical does so well: this rarely produced work is staged with flair and the cast shines. Curley is sweetly sly and cleverly cunning in her role as the scheming Lucy. With a cascade of wavy hair, she reminded me of Rita Hayworth as Gilda. Rawski – as skilled a character actor as any – is full of Texas bravado but his accent is nondescript and wobbly. Gatto is suave as wronged husband Norman Satterly, the epitome of Art Deco debonair. Maura Nolan and Zak Ward are admirable as Josie and Eustace Trent, the best friends who know Lucy’s secrets. Ward perfectly underplays his role against Nolan’s perkiness. Chris Kelly is Rufus, the root of the scandal, and he’s solid as the “other man.” Maria Caruso shows her comic flair as Celeste the maid who also opens the show by displaying the credits on stage on placards, styled with a nostalgic nod to the film. Director Fortunato Pezzimenti knows how to use this stage and house so well. Look around the walls for backlit sculptures suggesting  a city skyline.

The costumes, lighting, and overall tone have the visual “feel” of a black and white film, too. From obvious things (the period furnishings are painted – you guessed it – black and white), to the subtle washes of color (Lucy’s pale peachy blouse in one scene would read as gray scale on the silver screen of yore), the mood is pure vintage. Yes, back to the good ol’ days, when infidelities were whispered and not shouted, and scandals had indignant albeit forgivable memories. Sift beneath the surface of Arthur Richman’s rather shallow plotline to remember that true love sometimes escapes our grasp and yes, even rich oil barons should listen to their mothers.

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

“The Awful Truth” runs until May 13, 2018 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre Company. For more information, click here.