Theatre Review: ‘Buffalo Quickies’ at Alleyway Theatre

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The cast of Kick Up Your Heals and Shout. Included in “Buffalo Quickies” at Alleyway Theatre.

It’s Alleyway Theatre’s spring rite of passage: the 27th annual “Buffalo Quickies” is replete with local talent, some Buffalo nostalgia, and a few things I just can’t figure out.

While some of the ‘quickies’ don’t always hit the highest playwriting mark, what is consistently impressive is watching the agility and versatility of the actors.

On opening night, director Joyce Stilson pointed out that of the eight playwrights represented in the line- up, seven are from Buffalo. This is significant: Buffalo’s cache as an arts and cultural beacon shines even brighter when local talent is recognized in meaningful ways. It’s a Buffalo gal’s work that leads off the night. Playwright Donna Hoke’s “Spirit of Buffalo” starts with the local soundtrack of the ‘70s, the “Talkin’ Proud” song,  which leads us to a cold ride on a snowy roadway. Andrew Zuccari is the mysterious Beau Fleuve (get it?) who raps on the window of Jacquie Cherry’s car as they wait for the road to clear. He’s a down home guy, and she’s a frustrated, sullen expat who finally remembers that a beef and weck and loganberry martini – served for a good Samaritan – can warm both heart and soul. Or as Beau Fleuve says, “We’re Buffalo. Crisis brings out the best in us.”

Zuccari gets into a summer groove for “Lawn Wars,” where he and neighbor Christopher Standart verbally mow each other down over the natural verses cultivated appearance of their adjoining properties. You have to love Zuccari’s tongue-twisting monologues and epitaphs in this world premiere as the two men tussle to find “turf détente.” Playwright  Matthew Boyle, like Hoke , is another local Quickie veteran.

Another world premiere “The Offer” has an out-of-this-world premise: ex-NASA scientist Grace (Cherry) is being offered an opportunity to test her research in a galaxy far, far away. Playwright Bella Poyton leaves you hanging, with plenty to think through with this one. What’s it like to live your dream if it means you’re never coming home?

“Notice” is a regional premiere by Peter Snoad that really highlights the versatility of actors Kate Olena and Bill Lovern. In just a few minutes, they change characters three times around a cryptic message on a t-shirt: Writers Notice. This show was a finalist in the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition last year: it has the right combination of funny and ironic moments.

Standart, Cherry, Olena, and Lovern are back again when local legendary broadcaster/playwright and Quickie veteran Mike Randall premieres “Johnny Stormcatcher” about a fed-up TV meteorologist who has had it with his toupee, his news director, and years of bad management decisions.

Another world premiere “The Death of Melendez” puts Standart and Lovern in the bleachers of a baseball stadium. Lovern prides himself on keeping accurate gameday records, Standart just likes to yell at the pitcher he loves to hate.

“When the Skeletons In Our Closets Choke on Candy Corn” pairs Zuccari and Tom Dreitlein as Halloween party guests who escape to the backyard for a metaphysical moment.

The fast-paced evening ends with the 2017 Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition winner, “Kick Your Heels Up and Shout” by J. Snodgrass. Another local send up, this time focusing on a family (Cherry, Lovern, Olena) who take the Buffalo Bills’ desire to “squish the fish” very seriously.

While some of the ‘quickies’ don’t always hit the highest playwriting mark, what is consistently impressive is watching the agility and versatility of the actors. The same corps has a whirlwind of characters, costume changes, moods, and nuances throughout this 90-minute experience.  The real standout this year is Jacquie Cherry. In one night she morphs from snobbish expat to sullen teen to snubbed scientist with a latent hunger for discovery.

“Buffalo Quickies” is a local tradition that never disappoints. Alleyway Theatre is unique in this commitment to the one act genre, and for the theatre community, it’s one more reason to be talkin’ proud(ly). OK, had to do it. It’s been bugging me for almost 40 years!

Running Time: 90 minutes, with 10 minute intermission.

“Buffalo Quickies” runs until May 5, 2018 and is performed at Alleyway theatre. For more information, click here

Theatre Review: ‘I Do! I Do!’ at O’Connell & Company

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Mary Coppola Gjurich and Gregory Gjurich in “I Do! I Do!” at “O’Connell & Company.

It’s a show full of moments. That sweet first kiss. The shy wonder of first intimacy. The bright delight of someone making you smile. Fear. Anger. And comfort that what you have is what was meant to be. “I Do! I Do!” on stage now at O’Connell & Company through May 6 celebrates these moments in a charming two-hander starring Mary Coppola Gjurich and Gregory Gjurich.

. . . a charming two-hander starring Mary Coppola Gjurich and Gregory Gjurich.

Real life Mr. and Mrs. Gjurich portray bride and groom Agnes and Michael in a story that spans 50 years of marriage, from their wedding night to the day they downsize. First staged in 1966 and still set as a 1895 to 1945 period piece, the musical version is based on the 1951 play called “The Four Poster” which originally starred another real life married couple Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. The third star on the stage is the magnificent four poster bed: it’s a physical focal point and an important metaphor, too. A shared bed is unity and sharing in good times, and an object of avoidance when times are tough. And Agnes and Michael learn this on their journey.

Mary and Greg wear their roles well. In the opening scene, they’re both tender and tremulous in their first married kiss. She is appropriately outraged when her husband professes that “in a way, your youth is over” as they begin their timehop from newlyweds to silver-hairs. Michael is unabashedly enamored as he joyously sings “I Love My Wife.” Agnes is in awe with her wistful singing of “Something Has Happened” as she awaits the birth of their first child. If the story itself is showing its age, Mary and Greg raise their voices above this: their sound is rich and their interpretations of the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt score is heartfelt and timeless. Their duet of this show’s most memorable song – “My Cup Runneth Over” is lovely and poignant. I almost wish director Bobby Cooke elevated this moment and gave it more spotlight.

Through the years, the young marrieds grow older and their imperfections unfold. The witty duet “Nobody’s Perfect” does a good, funny job of pointing out how irritating our little foibles are to each other. She’s always late and forgetting her gloves and bag. He chews in his sleep. There are brief, darker moments, too. Somewhere along the way he’s unfaithful. Yet they find their way back to each other and the marriage and life they began. It was vaguely disconcerting to watch Mary and Greg age onstage in character. This is where I prefer the magic of theatre: it was a hoot when Mary walked off stage only to emerge a few beats later in a late-stage pregnancy, but it was weird to watch Greg put a gray toupee on his head onstage. This took me out of the moment and just reminded me that I was watching a show.

If the four poster bed is the non-human star of the show, its co-star is the antique Lane hope chest at the foot of the bed. Its burled walnut elegance hides some of Agnes and Michael’s secrets. The pillow he detests, the chocolate he buys her that he expects her to share, and other marital artifacts gets chucked into the hope chest with that tacit “out of sight, out of mind” wish that all would be well if unpleasant things could just disappear. Set designer Paul Bostaph picked some lovely pieces to grace this simple staging. Pamela Snyder echoed this with gorgeous costumes, in particular Mary’s blue beaded black organza gown was a stunner.

Mother and son keyboardists Ian and Jacquie Scaduto did a straight up great job with the tunes: keeping it pure and unadulterated emphasized the sentiments. In the end, it’s the fine vocal chops on Mary and Greg Gjurich that keeps everyone engaged in this story, and reminds us that true love lasts a lifetime. Bravo.

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

“I Do! I Do!”runs until May 6, 2018 and is presented at O’Connell & Company. For more information, click here.  

Theatre Review: ‘Disgraced’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

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

They could be any accomplished, upscale couple living in Manhattan. He is a mergers and acquisitions attorney, she is an artist who finds her muse in Islamic imagery. He’s an American born Pakistani, raised in a Muslim household, she is porcelain skinned, auburn haired, attracted to opposites. But Amir and Emily’s story is an exquisite manipulation of identity: who they are, who they aspire to be, and to whom they are trying to turn from. This intense and very human drama is the heart of “Disgraced, “ the riveting Pulitzer Prize winning play by Ayad Akhtar making its Western New York premiere as the penultimate show in Road Less Traveled Production’s season.

. . .an amazing, calculated performance.

Afrim Gjonbalaj is Amir: in his $600 Charvet shirts “with ridiculous thread count,” silk tie and dark well-cut suit, he is the epitome of success…who changes his name in an attempt to hide his heritage from his law firm colleagues in our post-September 11 world.  Kristen Tripp Kelley is his wife Emily, the artist with a penchant for dark-skinned men. Akhtar’s skillful writing slides these quick references about Amir’s and Emily’s family into storyline very early on. Listen for them and hold them: these quick mentions are at the heart of the emerging story, and help define the characters’ souls. In the opening scene, Emily is sketching her husband as he replicates a pose from a famous work of art, but perhaps this is not as innocuous as it seems.

Mohammed Farraj is Abe, Amir’s nephew, whose knock at the door is a request for his lawyer uncle’s help. Abe – who also changed his name – still follows his faith and he wants justice for a jailed Imam. It’s here where Amir’s worlds begin to collide in ways he can’t manage, nor wants to, it seems. Things begin to bubble up, like veiled references to Muslim heritage and opinions from his elders, like “white women have no self-respect,” as he still portends to brush off his past. Of Abe, Emily says, “His heart is in the right place. Is yours?” as she can’t understand Amir’s hesitation to visit the Imam.  Fictional lives, like real lives, intersect in interesting ways: Emily’s art dealer Issac (Matt Witten) is married to Joury (Candice Whitfield) another attorney in Amir’s firm. When the two couples meet for dinner, ostensibly to celebrate Emily’s successful inclusion in a prestigious art show, elements of their distinct backgrounds are no longer repressed under the careful machinations that we create to define who we want to be. Things are said here – and happen here – that cross boundaries. It’s stunning to watch the storyline advance so quickly here and the characters evolve as words explode from the actors’ mouths.   

This is an amazing, calculated performance. Road Less Traveled Productions took some chances here…and they were worth it.  John Hurley’s direction brings intensity to an already strong script. Watch the careful scene changes: the opening and closing second of each scene is like a mini-still life. John Rickus echoes this in his lighting design: there’s one dimly lit moment  where Amir removes a piece of Emily’s art from the wall: narrow vertical parallels of light fill the space, not unlike the shafts of light that fill the Manhattan skyline where the Twin Towers once stood. This is elegant. Lynne Koscielniak’s set design is a spare and suitable backdrop for the passionate, powerful script.

Gjonbalaj’s performance as Amir starts slow, almost stiff, but wow, as he develops his character, he grabs Akhtar’s writing and pulls raw and powerful impact into every word. As always, Kelley is luminous, herself a portrait of strength as the story simmers on, and illustrates the complexity in her marriage to Amir. Witten plays Issac with subtle passion and solid craft: his versatility as an actor (coming off Kavinoky Theatre’s “Mamma Mia!” and the solid but slimy “Glengarry Glen Ross” before that) is amazing this season. Whitfield as Joury is proud and determined, but charming in equal measure. Farraj as Abe was almost hard to hear on opening night: perhaps too soft spoken.

“Disgraced” is part modern 21st century “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with elements of Amy Waldman’s novel “The Submission” woven together. It’s a shattering reminder ,that while we can modify our façade, what’s in our hearts and souls create our passion, our conviction, and those take more than acquisitions to change.

Running Time: 90 Minutes with no intermission.

“Disgraced” runs until March 31, 2018 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Ben Butler’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of ‘Ben Butler’ at Kavinoky Theatre. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

It’s a heck of a way to start a new job. Ben Butler still has boxes to unpack in his Fort Monroe, Virginia office. He’s a Union general and Virginia has just voted to join the Confederacy. His West Point-educated Lieutenant is an over-eager servant who aims to please but can’t help but fall short. And then a trio of runaway slaves appear at the Fort. One even has the audacity to demand a moment of General Butler’s time. A slave that makes demands. Astonishing.

‘Ben Butler’ is one to see.

Perfectly-paced, sharp, and witty, “Ben Butler” is based on a real moment in the American Civil War with haunting voices that still ring true in 2018. Who is really free? Are all Negroes (his word) the same? When is an established protocol wrong? Richard Strand drives several subtle messages home in this piece, woven between bursts of clever word play.

John Fredo plays General Butler expertly. Stout, sturdy, with great fringe of hair, he tosses smart banter with ease. No surprise that he’s a lawyer with just a month of military experience. Christopher Evans is a hoot as career Army officer Lt. Kelly who  is trying to prove his worth to his new commander. Evans has the Army walk-stop-pivot down pat, especially when he heads for the door only to stop at the sound of Butler’s voice. He learned on day one that very few people can make a demand on Major Butler. So when the feistiest slave Shepard Mallory demands – er, requests – a meeting, Lt. Kelly has to deliver the news. It’s here where the underscoring lessons begin: Lt. Kelly doesn’t know the names of the escapees. Is it because they’re black or because they aren’t military issue soldiers? He does admit that he’s none too fond of Mallory and his brash and bold ways. But something happens when Mallory and Butler engage: they can match wits and words. They have reasoned and reasonable discussions.

Patrick Coleman shows his real acting chops with this role, swiftly shifting from swagger to flashes of well-placed reluctance.  Watching Fredo and Coleman dance with their words is brilliant, a tribute to a smart script and Robert Waterhouse’s tight direction. Rounding out the cast is Tom Loughlin as Major Cary, a confederate general who’s back to claim the slaves-as-property to return them to their owner. Loughlin is lovingly detestable as the pompous and not-too-bright general who can’t admit that people are people and that America is poised for change. Love Fredo and Loughlin’s belly to belly dialogue as generals with two points of view on the one law that governs them.

Once again David King’s set wins. Whitewashed walls behind rough stone with purposefully elegant appointments as props make a military office look like a gentleman’s library.

‘Ben Butler’ is one to see. The dialogue is clever: listen for symphonic reiteration with words. Those passages are there for a reason. The messages aren’t frozen in 1861: we still need them today. And there’s no substitute for rapier-sharp dialogue delivered by talented actors.

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

“Ben Butler” runs until March 25, 2018 and is presented at The Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Rose’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York

Tina Rausa in ‘Rose’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

Rose doesn’t say she’s a heroine. She doesn’t consider herself a victim. She is, however, a survivor. She’s full of irony and contradiction (“I’m eating ice cream to take a pill for cholesterol,” she says as a cold creamy spoonful helps her swallow her meds), and a strong, modern woman who holds onto bits of tradition in a less than noble world.

. . .an exquisite night of theatre.

“Rose” is currently on stage at Jewish Repertory Theatre, through February 25, and Tina Rausa is reprising her title role as an older, wise actor.  This one-actor show runs the emotional gamut with compelling storytelling, a few laughs, and many powerful moments.

Rausa as Rose tells her story from the solid wooden shiva bench. No easy feat for an 80-something who – in her youth – walked through Warsaw’s sewers and through Eastern Europe to eventually board a ramshackle boat and then leap from a moving train to find freedom – not in Palestine as she thought – but in America. By the time she’s working in a Jersey shore hotel, she knows her young daughter and most of her family were killed. Yet she survives. If there’s guilt that lingers, she parlays it into determination to build a new life in a new world (“I mastered the language in a month,” she says), and if embracing American capitalism is foreign to her, she knew what she had to do to protect herself and the new family she’ll create.

This is far from another retelling of the atrocities of World War II: this production is more soulful. Rose admits that sometimes she’s not sure if her remembrances are real or pop culture adaptations she’s reliving. But they are sincere, emotional, stark and seering. Playwright Martin Sherman’s storytelling is riveting, and Rausa is expansive, as a slight woman whose only movements are soft and spare. Her expressions and the rise and fall of her voice as she recounts her stories fill the room. Sometimes she admits her failings, “I’m in the millennium, but I stink of the last century,” she says, and other times she wistfully remembers Yiddish as her first language, and struggles to reckon with the next generation’s reaction to 21st century Israeli conflict and politics. Sometimes Rausa the actor stumbles over her words: on the other hand, is it Rose, the person, stumbling past the articulation of her story?

Sherman’s words, sometimes punctuated by audio bites and musical backgrounds carefully curated by Tom Makar, against David Dwyer’s remarkably simple set and Brian Cavanaugh’s equally simple and effective lighting, support images that are hard to erase when you exit the space. What’s it like to lose everything, to start again, to question your identity, to lose connection with your past and try to grasp what is now….this is what Rose lives with every day.

It’s this push and pull between past and present, family and self, time frozen, indelible memories and the need to march forward that makes Rose a remarkable woman and an exquisite night of theatre.

Running Time: Approximately 110 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.

“Rose” runs until February 25, 2018, and is presented at Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Constant Wife’ at Irish Classical Theatre

The cast of “The Constant Wife” at Irish Classical Theatre. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

Back in 1926 – when women’s suffrage was a recent memory in the UK as well as the US –  there was Constance Middleton. Strong, savvy, sly, and she’s “The Constant Wife”  in W. Somerset Maugham’s comedy of manners presented now through February 11  at the Irish Classical Theatre Company.

. . .Maugham may have penned this “The Constant Wife” nearly a century ago, but the message and inspiration are more relevant today than ever:  strong women aren’t fooled by weak men.

Constance, beautifully portrayed by Kate LoConti, has it all: a lovely home, a place in society, a doctor for a husband, one pragmatic friend, one perky friend, and a mother and younger sister who are there to keep her grounded and alert…or at least that’s what they think. She also has – gasp! – a philandering husband. And the object of his affection is – gasp encore! – her perky friend. Even more delicious is the attention of a long-ago suitor who arrives on her doorstep at a propitious moment.

What unfolds is a funny and  (strangely, wonderfully) empowering evening as Constance surprises everyone but herself as she charts brave new paths through old society. There’s plenty of smart banter, sassy wit, and twisted social mores here. All good.

LoConti as Constance is grand: she’s strong and determined and elegant. Josephine Hogan is her mother Mrs. Culver who –not unlike women of her generation – accepts that yes, men do stray.  And women are meant to tolerate it as the natural course. Even her definition of true love (“could you use his toothbrush?”) brings a shudder.

Younger sister Martha is indignant with all this, and wants to inform her sister. Kristin Bentley plays this to the hilt: she’s outraged with a current of comeuppance underneath it. Bentley as Martha is solid, if a bit twitchy, as she tries to understand her mother’s tolerance and her sister’s cool grace with all this. ICTC mainstay Kristen Tripp Kelley is the pragmatic friend, Barbara, owner of a successful interior design company who offers Constance work, wisely knowing that financial independence is the one thing Constance’s marriage can’t buy.

It’s Kelsey Mogensen as Marie-Louise Durham, the “greatest friend” and other woman, who is all fresh charm and appeal. She dazzles as the younger woman, with bobbed bouncy curls, shorter flouncy dresses, and a chirpy delight in life’s little secrets. Even her despair at being found out is exuberant and a joy to watch.

In his first appearance on this stage, Jon May is irresistible as the suave and debonair old beau Bernard.  Does Constance love him or is she merely relieved to know another man finds her appealing? Eric Michael Rawski lies and harrumphs his way along as two-timing Dr. Middleton in fine stoic style. Elliot Fox is a stitch as wronged husband Moritmer: he appears on stage all hellfire and brimstone, swiftly bowing to Constance’s insistence that he just can’t be right in his assessment.

David Dwyer’s sparse set depicts the Middleton’s stately home perfectly: I loved the ironically empty picture frames that suggest the presence of walls, and the changing vases of flowers that tick down the passage of time.

Maugham may have penned this “The Constant Wife” nearly a century ago, but the message and inspiration are more relevant today than ever:  strong women aren’t fooled by weak men.  “There is only one freedom that’s important, and it’s economic freedom,” Constance learns. Between the lines, there’s plenty of hearty laughs here, too.

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

“The Constant Wife” runs until February 11, 2018 at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here. 

Theatre Review: ‘Mamma Mia!’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of “Mamma Mia!” at Kavinoky Theatre.

My reviewer’s reserve lasted about 20 minutes, and after that, I couldn’t help myself.  I started singing along.  And I wasn’t alone.

That’s the power of “Mamma Mia!” on stage at Kavinoky Theatre until January 28. You can’t help riding the ‘70s wave again and belting out those toe-tapping ABBA tunes.

Overall, it’s a fine production of a familiar musical with a fabulous cast. It’s the perfect choice for a cold winter night, too.  Does this reviewer recommend it? I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do!

Director Lynne Kurdziel Formato put together a powerhouse cast of 23 actors who are on fire with fun in this one. And what a cast. Arianne Davidow is luminous as curious child Sophie, who is determined to figure out her paternity before her wedding.  Debbie Pappas Sham plays ex-rock singer single mom Donna Sheridan to the hilt. Her cover of “The Winner Takes it All” is more poignant and soulful than the original. Her galpals from her Donna and the Dynamos days – Tanya and Rosie played by Loraine O’Donnell and Lisa Ludwig – are hysterical. Tender and caring as they croon “Chiquitita” and having a blast reliving their past in “Dancing Queen” (Truly, what girl hasn’t sung into her, um, curling iron like a rock star in the privacy of her bedroom?), the trio’s voices are wonderfully melded. Then we meet the other trio – the potential Dads that Sophie secretly snuffed out from her mom’s diary. And…(read that as dot dot dot), they are sublime. Matt Witten (fresh from his smooth and slimy salesman gig in Road Less Traveled Production’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”) is Bill Austin the globetrotting writer who never settles down. Doug Weyand is the suave Brit Harry Bright (he nails the accent consistently, too, which is impressive).  When he and Donna pair up for “Our Last Summer,” it’s sweet with old memories. Peter Palmisano is the hot-as-heck architect Sam Carmichael who covers “Knowing Me, Knowing You” expertly.  He and Donna make good work of “SOS,” too.

The whole ensemble is remarkable. Scan the crowd for familiar faces like Kelly Copps, Arin Dandes, and Bobby Cooke: you’re used to seeing them in featured or starring roles. Here they are happy to sing and dance along with an energetic troupe of emerging actors. It’s great to see so many students and recent grads blending seamlessly with their more experienced cast members. What a great tribute to the outstanding theatre programs in our region! Indeed Sky, the husband-to-be played by William Hin is finishing his senior year at the University at Buffalo: he and Davidow are a winsome pair. I hope he sticks around after grad: he can grow into all kinds of roles in our robust theatrical community.

David King’s simple Greek isle set is enhanced with the new LED curtains that display lush scenery views. This is old hat for director Formato: she’s worked with this technology in Europe for years. The swirling shapes and cheesy floating hearts are distracting: I liked the authentic blue sky-white sand beach scenes better.

There’s more than a few winning moments: Rosie and Bill (O’Donnell and Witten) have real chemistry when they pair up on “Take a Chance on Me.” Tanya (yes, that’s Ludwig under the brunette bobbed wig) has the guys eating out of her hand in “Does Your Mother Know.”

One tiny wrinkle is the music: keeping true to the Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus tunes is mandatory, so the sound (three electronic keyboards plus piano bass, guitar, and some percussion) sometimes sounded tinny and over processed. Stick to the center of the house or the balcony and focus your ears on the voices on stage.

Overall, it’s a fine production of a familiar musical with a fabulous cast. It’s the perfect choice for a cold winter night, too.  Does this reviewer recommend it? I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do!

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

“Mamma Mia!” runs until January 28, 2018 and is presented at The Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie a bunch of times, but unless you are truly of a certain age, you’ve never seen (or heard) “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” now on stage at Shea’s 710 Theatre and produced by Road Less Traveled Productions.

. . .good night of theatre, you’ll love this production.

First produced as a radio drama in 1947 (the year after Frank Capra made the 1939 short story into a movie) for the Lux Radio Theatre, this version is Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation. It’s set in a fictitious 1946 radio station, WBFR, and Road Less Traveled has outdone itself making sure every detail is in place to take you back. The stage set is late Art Deco, down to the font on the Applause and On Air signs hanging over head, and big head microphones the actors cluster around.

In clever Road Less Traveled style, the show’s opening takes you by surprise, and leads you into your role as a member of the live studio audience for a coast-to-coast radio broadcast. The six actors (Anthony Alcocer, Steve Copps, Kelly Copps, Charmagne Chi, Fisher, and Philip Farugia) aren’t dressed as the familiar movie characters: they are sharply dressed radio stars doing their job on Christmas Eve. And what a job!  Copps and Copps portray George and Mary Bailey, while the other four actors smoothly morph from character to character. Alcocer in particular has many conversations with himself in dueling characters. It’s a joy to watch.

Farugia has the most understated but important role of all: he’s the Foley Artist, the head sound effects guy who slams doors, makes thunder roar, and in an impressive aural and visual moment, vigorously flaps an umbrella to suggest the chugging of a train.

The others add to the soundscape, too. This is the fun stuff for the post-radio generation to watch. Flicking a deadbolt lock is the ticking of a clock. A scrub brush on a washboard is a sled wooshing down a hill. Watch Kelly Copps’ face as she sloshes her hands into the bucket of water, and later attacks the same basin with a plunger. The actors (and their characters) are having a good time.

The Copps couple (real life spouses) are charming as the Bailey husband and wife, aging in place from kids to teens, adults. Chi is perfectly sultry as the vampish Violet (“why this old thing,” she says when George admires her dress, “ I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.”) and winsomely whiny as at least two Bailey kids. If Fisher’s Mr. Martini sounds more Jamaican than Italian, his smooth baritone chops are perfectly angelic as Clarence ordering mulled wine (heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves).  The only quibble is Alcocer as Uncle Billy, who drawls more like a southern belle than sounding like the befuddled old uncle. Otherwise he nails the smarmy radio announcer patter and malevolent Potter characters scowls easily.

Director John Hurley brings out the best in his cast: the ensemble babble to simulate crowd noise is effective, and the frequent stage crosses to get to the mics and the “green room” (where the actors retreat to knit or read when not needed at the mics) are fluid and natural.

This kind of show – while seemingly simple – is built on complex layers of details.  The “commercial breaks” in the broadcast were value-added mentions for the production’s actual sponsors, delivered in classic vintage radio style. Heavy color saturation in the costumes, well-coiffed hair, Max Factor perfect makeup are all on point.  A minor distraction was the excessive reverb in the sound mix: maybe it was meant to give that authentic ‘40s sound (but the studio audience would have heard a more pure in-studio mix). It either dissipated as the night went on, or my ears got used to it.

Landry’s adaptation has most of the moments you love from the movie, but the real delight of this production is the show-within-the-show staging. If you loved “Remember WENN” when it too briefly aired on cable TV from 1996 to 1998, or have fond memories of listening to radio dramas, or just appreciate a good night of theatre, you’ll love this production.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with no intermission.

“It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” runs until December 17, 2017, is produced by Road Less Traveled Productions, and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Irving Berlin’s America’ at O’Connell & Company

“Irving Berlin’s America,” now onstage at O’Connell & Company, is one wonderful tune after another against a story that’s based on the celebrated songwriter’s robust rags to riches 101 year life.

. . . very entertaining performances, lovely singing, and the good vibes that remind you Berlin’s music will endure “not for just an hour, not for just day, not for just a year, but always.”

William Group and Matthew Mooney as Berlin and his mysterious nighttime visitor Jack belt and croon their way through a small but endearing collection of Berlin tunes (with a few from the pen George M. Cohan, too) in this musical send up. Their twin tenors blend and harmonize perfectly and they nail every note and clever lyric. In just two hours, they sing and dance through 28 bits and pieces of perfectly wonderful Americana. Music director Susan Shaw is their offstage accompanist who did a heck of a job making the digital keyboard sound like a vintage upright stride from the jazz age.

The story line itself is oddly disconcerting: Berlin is painting at an easel, in his bathrobe, when Jack appears in his presumably locked home. Jack coaxes Berlin’s life story from him, from his struggles as a Russian immigrant, from his earliest tunesmith days, to his brief marriage to Buffalo gal Dorothy Goetz, his 12 year grief after her sad death, and his marriage to wealthy Catholic Ellin whose father disapproved of the marriage. Playwright Chip Deffaa’s dialogue is stilted and strained, and Group and Mooney do their best with it. It’s the constant roll of songs that keeps the audience engaged and wanting more. Deffaa’s song choice spans the familiar – “I Love a Piano” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” heading the list – to songs that maybe aren’t top of mind, like “The Circus is Coming To Town.” Missing from the rich rundown are the show stoppers from “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam” and beloved pieces like “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.”  After Mooney’s beautifully plaintive “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” I would have loved to hear his treatment of “Always.”  Group’s poignant performance of Berlin’s first ballad “When I Lost You” is so exquisitely tender, I would have loved to have heard what he did with “What’ll I Do.” But with 1500 songs from which to chose, something had to be left behind. The hits you love most get a wink and a nod in the script, with some storytelling in between.  Listen carefully for bits of Berlin and pop song trivia, too. Here’s a hint: the two or three times Berlin mentions wanting “another cup of coffee and another piece of pie” is – no surprise – lyrics from one of his 1923 compositions.  And the date so conveniently mentioned in Act 1 – September 22, 1989 – is the date of Berlin’s death.

Because the music is so grand and the plot line is an odd mix of biography and allegory (is Jack the Grim Reaper or the spirit of Berlin’s deceased son coming to bring him to his heavenly home?), I chose to stay locked into the music. Group plays Berlin with an endearing blend of nebbish charm with a touch of grumpy old man. As he says, “I write simple songs. I’m a simple man.”  He sums up Berlin’s life as the most published and popular songwriter of his time, saying “It’s given me everything by giving me what I wanted to be.”

Mooney tap dances and sings his way into your heart. (Watch him in Act 1: he slyly slides from tap shoes to soft shoes with some on stage magic). I couldn’t help but notice a few opening night dropped lines and a distracting problem with flickering lights. Group and Mooney rise above this with very entertaining performances, lovely singing, and the good vibes that remind you Berlin’s music will endure “not for just an hour, not for just day, not for just a year, but always.”

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

“Irving Berlin’s America” runs until December 17, 2017 and is presented at O’Connell & Company at The Park School of Buffalo. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Minding Frankie’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Kristen Tripp Kelly and Christian Brandjes star in “Minding Frankie” at Irish Classical Theatre. Photo by Gene Witkowski

We should all live in the world Maeve Binchy created. Gentle moments are soft as a whisper. Strong emotions are passions with purpose. Hate is usually couched in fear, and while it’s uncomfortable, it’s not vitriolic. And the good guy always wins.

. . .a sentimental and sweet story.

“Minding Frankie” was one of Binchy’s last novels (published two years before her death) and is the only one adapted for the stage, nicely done by Shay Linehan. Irish Classical Theatre’s production is the North American premiere.

Linehan did a fine job scaling back the abundant characters of the novel to this clean and taut production for two actors in multiple tiny roles.

Director Chris Kelly struck gold with his two actors of choice. Christian Brandjes’ dominant role is Noel, the father and minder of infant Frankie, the poor dear, who is born out of wedlock to a terminally ill woman who professes that Noel is the biological dad.

Kristen Tripp Kelley is Frankie’s mom Stella, but for most of show she is Moira, the social worker who is not convinced that Noel, with his love of the drink, is father material. And so it goes.

Turns out Noel can manage just fine, most of the time, with a little help from his extended family of village folk, who appear to the audience only in one-sided dialogue..

Both Brandjes and Kelly shine in their primary roles and their multiple character appearances, too. Kelley’s shift from the disdainful social worker Moira from dying mama Stella is the farthest stretch of all, and she manages this beautifully. Brandjes’ morph from drunk Noel to waiter is charming and deft. Both actors use their voices and body language well, with carefully placed steps and nuances, aided by randomly small props and pieces. Whoever thought a simple plastic rain bonnet was all you needed to change personalities, or a tilt to your wrist can suggest a serving tray? A truly skilled actor can make you see something new in every suggestion.

Skillful acting, versatile set design, simple costumes,  and minimalist props powerfully suggest people, places, and objects here, supporting a sentimental and sweet story. Designer Paul Bostaph’s set is a series of oversized alphabet blocks that shift into a bed, a changing table, and a bar, besides holding teaser props to fold our imaginations into the space and story. A vintage receiver sans cord is the non-cellular phone. Hands curved around air just so suggest holding the wriggly curves of an infant.  I like that this production makes you work along with the actors to make the story very real in your mind’s eye. It’s this subtly vivid storytelling that draws you in and makes you very glad you are there.

Running time is just over two hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“Minding Frankie” runs until November 26, 2017 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.