‘The Mousetrap’ at Lancaster Opera House

It’s supposed to be hard to put your finger on the guilty party in a whodunit.  In the fashion of murder mysteries, the perpetrator could be any of the characters who take the stage.  And who done it becomes, by the end of the production, glaringly clear. The realization can be satisfying, bewildering, disappointing, or even painful in the end.   If you knew it all along, well, you get kudos after the performance for being some kind of armchair sleuth.   

Without giving too much away, in Lancaster Opera House’s current production of the Agatha Christie murder mystery, Mousetrap, pretty much everybody does it.

Matthew Rittler does it with an enthusiastic performance of the character of Christopher Wren, with an animation and flair that speaks not only to the mysteriousness of his character’s true identity, but also with a humor that brings fun to the play the other characters don’t get much chance to deliver.

Jaimee Harmon does it with poise and presence in her depiction of central character, Mollie Ralston, the better half of the married couple who are proprietors of the guesthouse where all the action takes place.  

Nathanial Higgins does it with his articulate and convincing portrayal of Detective Sergeant Trotter, whose scrupulous questioning of all the houseguests guides us down the varying pathways of finger-pointing guilt.

Jackson DiGiacomo, who plays the other half of the guesthouse proprietors, Giles Ralston, does it with and overtly proper being of a man who doesn’t exactly welcome opening his house to a band of transient guests, but is determined to make a go of it as a business.

That’s only four of the players in the total band of eight.  Yet all are guilty of realistic energy, of flowing through challenging dialogue with altogether fitting portrayals of their characters – to include the elderly and proper Mrs. Boyle played by Susan King; the youngish and purposefully strong Miss Casewell, played by Anne Roaldi Boucher; the stout and exacting military Major Metcalf, played by David C. Mitchell; and the unexpected and deceptively clever foreigner Mr. Paravicini, played by Monish Bhattachayya.   You can point your finger at any of them.   

And you can turn your gaze to the set – fully pleasing, realistic to the period and painstakingly rendered, complete with crown moldings, appropriate lighting, logs for the fireplace, velvety drapes and latched swing-open windows, and a great looking radio through which we first learn of murder, over the “wireless,” that happened not far from the guesthouse.   You even suspect the gifted Set Designer, David Dwyer, may have added the creaking wood floor to the Opera House stage, it’s all so well done, the detail is remarkable.  

The story finds the Ralston couple welcoming the cast of patrons to their home, which has been recently converted to a guesthouse for their new business venture.  The couple has been married only a year, still loving newlyweds, still learning about one another. It immediately becomes evident there’s been a murder not far from the guesthouse, but the fact goes largely unnoticed amidst a blizzard of a snowstorm and the stream of guests arriving.  

The characters are distinct, each idiosyncratic their own right, making them intriguing enough to bring suspicion onto them.  It’s not until the appearance of Detective Trotter that the plot gets rolling, the possibility of another murder becomes evident, and suspicion begins to fall everywhere. All the marks of a murder mystery are there.  The talent is a mix of seasoned local actors and crew, and very promising relative newcomers. Whether the audience finds the outcome satisfying, puzzling, or disappointing is hardly the matter. There’s a satisfaction in the journey given Mousetrap’s outstanding performances and Lancaster Opera House’s first-rate production for casual theatergoers or armchair sleuths.   

The Mousetrap is about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission, and is currently running through February 9.  More information is at http://lancasteropera.org/

Theatre Review: ‘Come Back To The Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ at New Phoenix Theatre

The New Phoenix Theatre production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean opened on Friday.

Even though this story has history, having made a Broadway run and adapted to film with what may have been a stellar cast, I entered Friday with zero familiarity.  Arguably, you might quarrel that a fair review of any play would require one to perform a little research, if not have some actual experience with the story, be it from stage, screen, or text.  Otherwise, how to gauge its success? Or, you might squabble that going into a play with zero experience with it makes for zero expectations. The production rises or falls on its basic merits as entertainment value.  

Either way, Jimmy Dean never makes an appearance.  Neither does James Dean. Not really a surprise. Even with zero expectations, a play about pure pork breakfast sausage or 50’s film icons was never anticipated.

It’s basically about broken lives come together.  Set in a small town in Texas at, you might guess, a Five and Dime store where not only are sundry goods sold but also coffee shop food and drink at a lunch counter.  The set of New Phoenix is meticulously rendered, with throw-back appropriate swivel stools, hanging lights and fan, corded wall phone and yes, a life-sized cut-out of the 50’s heart-throb, James Dean.

The occasion taking place is a meeting of a group of friends who were coming of age when Dean was alive, around the time of his filming of the movie, Giant.  The movie had apparently been filmed all those years ago just outside of the town where the play’s action takes place.  Those 30 years earlier, this group of friends had formed their own fan club, “The Disciples of James Dean”. They had agreed to meet 30 years later, at the Five and Dime where they had spent much of their adolescence.

Enter the 40-something Mona, played by Lori Haberberger, whose admiration for Dean is extreme.  So much so that she’s named her only child Jimmy Dean. In fact, we learn, that from the time of her son’s birth Mona has claimed she was seduced by James Dean himself during the filming of Giant, and that Jimmy Dean is his child.   

It’s not true, of course, but you would not know that by Haberberger’s portrayal.  She plays the character with a hint of disturbing over-the-deep-end drama that keens us into thinking something is wrong here.  Yet everybody knows it but her.

The rest of the characters let it play as a fact of Mona’s life, 30 years in the making.  Mona’s mother Juanita, played by Mary Moebius, the God-fearing proprietor of the Five and Dime, chooses to remain blissfully ignorant of the un-truth.  The rest of the Disciples have all moved on.   

Their comeback to the Five and Dime is lead by Sissy, expertly played by Buffalo theatre mainstay, award-winning actress, Lisa Ludwig.  Sissy is, in a word, sassy. And Ludwig plays her with an outstanding command of the stage, dialogue, and physical prowess, complete with an affecting southern accent and swagger.

Nearly matching Ludwig’s stage presence is Kerrykate Abel as the well-to-do Stella May, whose confidence and simple truth wisdom is a fantastically thick disguise of Stella May’s discomfort with her outwardly successful life.

The Disciples are a group of six companions, whose truths and confessions come out across the stage, veiled in uncomfortable lies and long held blissful assumptions about just what those 30 years have meant and what happened and who they came to be, 30 years after James Dean held their fancies.  

The play uses flashbacks from those days of the Disciples of Dean  – a young Mona being played by relative newcomer Jessie Miller, and a youthful Sissy being played by the accomplished Jamie Nablo.   As the young and adult Sissy, Nablo and Ludwig’s command are expertly meshed. The two performances bridge the 30-year gap of the character so convincingly you’d think they were mother and daughter in real life.   Sissy’s 30-year gap of young to old is packaged with care by these two stellar performances.

The actual stage flashbacks to 30 years earlier are not quite as seamless.   In the opening minutes of the play a flashback occurs and, still establishing a purchase on the play, it presents some unsure footing.   That is partly because the flashback mingles the younger actors from 30 years earlier with the very same older actors in the real time of the play, without an obvious visual transition.  The first time we see the young Mona, it’s presented as such a matter of fact walk-on that, at first, one might assume she is just another character in the present action of the play.  

Whether that’s a matter of stylized storytelling or production limitations —  early on it’s bewildering as the present action moves forward. Later in the play it becomes an integral, recurring approach.  But early on it takes a little time to gain one’s footing because of it, but once you’re grounded in the story and characters, the impact lessens and the seam closes.  

What you’re left with is a sometimes poignant, sometimes raucously fun look at how a group of small town folks reconnect to find their lives diverted, yet remain irrevocably bound by their early years of common ground and truths come to light.  The folks at New Phoenix have brought together a group of excellently seasoned performers to the stage, managed by some inventive newcomers managing the stage. Together they bring an altogether vigorous, entertaining show as filled with vibrant performances as it is with uncommon twists.   

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is two hours with a 15 minute intermission. It runs now through December 21.  More information is at https://www.newphoenixtheatre.org

Theatre Review: ‘The Firebugs – A learning-play without a lesson’ at Niagara University

Why would Gottlieb Biedermann allow arsonists to stay in his attic?   

Because Biedermann, with his eager desire to do good and help seemingly less fortunate souls can’t seem to see into those souls.  He’s philanthropic to a fault, at the edge of noble, the guy who’s accommodating to those less fortunate than his own middle-class self.  He ignores what seem the obvious truths. He’s not an altogether nice guy, but there’s a blind faith-guilt tugging at him that says he needs to be.  

Well intentioned though he is, Biedermann, played by Ashton DeCaro in Niagara University’s production of The Firebugs, possesses all of the needed characteristics of a person who would allow firebugs to live in his attic, and believe that it would turn out well.  He’s a well-meaning sort, and DeCaro touches the simplicities and intricacies of Biedermann in a charmingly flowing, matter-of-fact ease.  

What Biedermann is not is a subversive, yet there’s something engagingly subversive going on in The Firebugs.  With its frequent presence of a chorus of firefighters in the wings, warning us that that there is trouble on the horizon, the play treks forward through Biedermann’s series of bad moves. 

It’s the two would-be arsonists, a former wrestler and a former waiter, played by Tyler Olson and Andrew Salamone respectively, who are the ones bringing all the trouble to Biedermann’s house.  They come off as a pair down on their luck, so Biedermann allows them in. He’s his own worst enemy.  

But the pair of troublemakers have charm.  They’re friendly, worldly in their own ways, and seemingly amiable.  Salamone, plays his waiter/firebug with a captivating wickedness, the zeal of carnival barker with a smoke and mirrors edge.  But more than that, his persona is animated and purposefully funny, and not-so deceptively evil.  

So there’s that space between where you think: I get this, and then: No I don’t.  There’s allegory in that space, the unclear clues, faintly shone at both sides of the space, but not in a definitive this-thing or that-thing sort of light.  The choruses’ leader, played by Marley Judd, gives hints at what’s afoot, and where Beiderman is going wrong, what’s the matter with Biedermann’s decisions, signaling the impending woe.  Judd delivers her lead with the surety of a firefighter captain, knowingly experienced and dramatically convincing, amusingly attempting to warn us of an inescapable conclusion.

But while the answers to Biedermann’s folly might be in there, the play itself is even more animated, purposefully and amusingly unconventional like Biedermann’s actions, while at times surprisingly entertaining in its overall character.  Niagara University’s production aims to capture its playbill subtitle — “A learning-play without a lesson” – and it does so. Having been written in mid 1900’s, its apparent intent was a jab-like statement about a rising middle-class. But if there’s a “lesson” or statement being made, that’s a moving target at best.  The temptation may be to label the play a simple statement to a naïve middle-class to beware the flashy, deceptive hucksters. But that would not be full disclosure.    

As a “learning-play” it fits its billing to a tee, and it’s a success on every level.  It leaves you thinking a bit about its “lesson,” or lack thereof depending on your bent, and so you leave with a feel for the redeeming quality of the experience, and it’s the production itself.  Because what Niagara’s student cast and crew put on display this night was seemingly without troubles, not a single miscue, zero botches of any kind. A learning-play? Perhaps. And perhaps if there were any particular details of delivery or inflection or stage movement, that’s for the students and their instructors to work out.  None could be found from the environs of NU’s Leary Theatre.  

What was found was a dedicated, well-learned and enthusiastic cast and crew at every level.  It’s impressive execution on display — from the choruses’ flawless execution and pitch, to a stage with its pleasingly lit scheme and nicely crafted single set, to a group of both promising and already accomplished actors.  It seems the production could not have been more finely tuned and learned.  

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“The Firebugs” is almost two hours minutes with its 15 minute intermission. It runs through Monday, October 7.  More information is at https://theatre.niagara.edu/shows/current-shows/show/193

Theatre Review: ‘Navigators’ at Alleyway Theatre

Seems like Alleyway is looking to whet the appetite of Western New York theatergoers with its offering of Navigators.  Opening a week before Curtain Up! the cast and crew get several performances in the meantime, giving the production ample opportunity to work out any kinks before the big night.

. . .a charming wave through the choppy waters of politics and family. . .

There’s not a lot to work out really and, with its approximately 90-minute runtime, it’s a perfect opportunity for Curtain Up! patrons to take in a compelling comical drama and step out onto Main Street for its free festivities relatively early into the night. 

But what am I saying — even without free festivities and whatnot, Navigators is an altogether satisfying theater experience.  Take, for example, that it’s set on a New England lake, and its props include a boathouse, equipped with its own dinghy sailing vessel.   And a dock. Oddly, or not so oddly, when the Navigators set sail on the dinghy, it never moves – the set does. Couple that with an easy-on-the-ears interlude music and a sleepy starry backdrop sky, well, you get the drift.  And even more pleasing is that the passengers do too, swaying as they do with the waves.  

But hold on.  There’s more to Navigators than inspired set design and agreeable sound.  Living on the lake is E.J., the son of a US Senator who’s recently died.  E.J., played by Chris J. Handley, has just delivered a eulogy for his mother the senator and has stolen back to his boathouse to write.  He’s quickly followed onto the boat by his sister, Maddy, played by Sandra Roberts. It comes apparent that E.J. had just delivered the eulogy for his mother’s funeral.  As estranged son, he’s just recently returned to see her before she died.

Maddy and E.J. are smart, educated, and it’s apparent they are very close.  Their dialogue is fast, witty and on-point, funny and, at times, poignant. They “get” one another as only close siblings would.  Handley and Roberts play their back and forth tight as a sheet, as two persons of like experiences, who almost know what the other will say before they say it.  

But time has changed their lives’ trajectories.  One loves politics and is political, like their mother.  The other despises all of it and the compromises their mother had made to their ideals in the name of politics.  The script is hot-peppered with both characters’ views, the points and counterpoints. Handley and Roberts deliver them with the precision and passion you’d expect of staunch adversaries, amusingly so.  They are both appealing in their roles, because their characters truly understand one another. And it is this understanding and love for one another that moves the story forward through Gordon Farrell’s rich and demanding script.  

And the plot – the reason E.J. and Maddy are on this lake – is that in the world of politics timing is everything.  A dead senator needs to be replaced. The family has name recognition. The case is made by another senator, Leo, played by Tom Owen.  Leo is E.J. and Maddy’s long-time uncle, as it were, and their mother’s confidante through many years in the senate together. He believes the family’s name recognition can keep the vacant senator’s seat in the party’s hands.  E.J.’s life experience and notoriety becomes the clear choice for that.  

The cast of three embodies their roles convincingly.  Handley plays the intelligent E.J. as he stumbles and sways between sober lucidity and intoxicated smartass.  As the knowing Maddy, Robert’s matches him with a just-right mix of being on board with him, while steering the ship to port.  Interestingly, while it seemed some hiccups came and went with the script, this cast recovered from them so smoothly as to make it unclear whether those moments were in fact gaffs or slight idiosyncrasies of the characters.   And regardless of that, all appeared to have genuine joy in bringing an excellent script to life.  

Family, politics, and sailing.  Sincere and funny dialogue on the ups and downs of all of it.   A trio of characters who have much to say and reveal on each of these matters, often comically so.  Add a plot and script by Playwright-in-Residence Farrell that winds its way in and out of each subject and how they play against one another.  Combine that with a delightful setting of a New England lake, artfully constructed, and Alleyway’s Navigators rides a charming wave through the choppy waters of politics and family, hitting on every level.    

Running Time: 90-minutes with one intermission.

Navigators runs until October 5, 2019 and is presented at Alleyway Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Dearly Departed’ at Aurora Players

The cast of ‘Dearly Departed’ at Aurora Players.

With a dull thud, Mr. Turpin drops dead on the kitchen floor.

According to his wife, Raynelle, the man had all but stopped breathing for the better part of their thirty-plus year marriage.  Besides, he was a mean and surly man.

. . .off-the-map funny.

So goes “Dearly Departed,” the current comedy by Aurora Players running now at the Roycroft Pavilion.

Soon after the not-breathing patriarch of the Turpin family bites the linoleum, his Southern relatives set about planning his memorial services.  To say the man’s brood is going to struggle pulling together the resources to do it is an understatement.

Enter his sister, Marguerite, aptly played by Lillian Edmunds, whose performance as the scripture-quoting, elderly southern lady whose major disappointment in life is just about everybody.   But her son, Royce, played by Thomas Videon, is her biggest disappointment. Royce is unemployed and has no intention of being employed. He’s a sort of couch philosopher who’s unaffected by life, let alone his uncle’s demise.  Edmunds and Videon address their characters with southern drawls, but skillfully keep them in check. The longer you listen, the more natural they become so as to disappear.

But there’s more.  Set changes come fast and efficiently.  Scenes change from kitchens to living rooms to back yards to funeral parlors, to the front seat of cars over the course of the play.  But the action is well paced and holds interest seamlessly. The sets are mid-sparse, with just enough to make sure we know where the action is taking place.  David Hall’s hand as stage manager and set designer is well played and gives room for the characters to grow on us.

And they do grow.  The prodigal son, Ray-Bud and his wife, Lucille — played by Daniel Keith Barone and Madeline E. Allard — ground the characters as the couple who mostly seem to have their act together.  Being the eldest son of the deceased, Ray-Bud is also the responsible one, and Lucille has enough sense for both of them even when he does not. Together Ray-Bud and Lucille are the two characters who, by default, are holding the family on track, emotionally if not financially.   As a result, their own closely-held sorrows and disappointments go almost unnoticed by the rest of the family. They’re not quite the complainers the rest of their family is. Barone and Allard melt into their roles and ground the plot with them.

That’s because the rest of the characters have troubles of their own, and they have no trouble putting them on display.  Younger brother Junior, played by Joshua Leary, is the not-so-smart, broke, bad decision-making southern boy. Suzanne, played by Brooke Bartell Goergen, is his wife, whose one mistake in life is that she married Junior.  She knows this, and speaks of it often. But the two of them have hearts on their sleeves, and Suzanne does what she can to get a rise out of Junior, or get done with him. She’s a woman who loves her man, and has no trouble giving fair warning that he’s close to losing it.   And Bartell Goergen’s performance of Suzanne lets us know she’ll do well regardles ofs the outcome, no matter the stage and role. She plays this strong and convincing, with sharp admonitions in early scenes and then breaching wonderfully unexpected emotions later.

The supporting cast, likewise, give stellar moments.  Parker Reed as Reverend Hooker is hugely entertaining in a role that is both televangelist and solemn reverence to the Lord.  In the final scene of Act One, Parker puts on a sermon that is hilariously funny as a man of the cloth whose life is just as mired in frustration as his flock’s.  His sermon is backed up by a chorus of minor supporting actors that play multiple roles – most notably Christopher Rimes who does double duty as the hysterical and terminally-ill Norval, and as Ray-Bud’s boss.   And Shelby Ebeling, who offers up a precisely high-quality performance of her lowly noble character, Juanita — a small but distinguishing role, in her first regular-season production for Aurora Players.

“Dearly Departed” could have easily slipped into an exercise in southern, stereotypical caricature.  It may seem to flirt with it, at times, as characters such as these may appear familiar at first glance.  Adding to that, this is comedy, making it a possibly greasier descent.

But audiences can take heart — the wittiness, amusement and poignancy coming from the script and these characters make it a solidly entertaining trip into southern humor, mixed with a tinge of tragedy and heart that truly has no geographic locale.   The southern spin makes it and even more worthwhile production, and it’s also off-the-map funny.

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

“Dearly Departed” directed by Chris Fire runs through June 16, 2019 and is presented at the Roycroft Pavilion in Hamlin Park in East Aurora. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Lottie and Bernice Show’ at Ghostlight Theatre

The cast of “The Lottie and Bernice Show.”

They’re back.

Along with their fronts, their sides and yes, their large bottoms.  Lottie and Bernice make a return to Ghostlight Theatre this month, fresh as ever, following their numerous appearances locally and elsewhere since 2001, when they first appeared in Ghostlight’s “Dance Macabre.”  This time, they are in the reproduction of “The Lottie and Bernice Show” for its 10-year anniversary.

. . . lands comic jabs over and over again with gusto. . .

Reprising their roles are Joann V. Mis (Lottie) and Debby Koszelak Swartz (Bernice) as the grumpy oldsters.  As the story goes, the pair are picked up on the street during a Western New York blizzard by a local television station’s assistant, Virgil.  None of the usual broadcasters were able to make it into the station. So Lottie and Bernice are enlisted with other amateurs to host the Buffalo Yak show.   It’s a sort of variety news/talk show with a decidedly local flavor.

Helped along by a couple of stagehand janitors, Hal and Sal (Don Swartz and Jesse Swartz) and the ambitious yet ability-challenged intern, Candy Bickle, played by Jenna Montesanti, the production must and does go on.  Hal and Sal help to host the editorial segments; Candy Bickle anchors the news desk. But it is, of course, Lottie and Bernice who steal the show.

They steal it everywhere, but mostly with their viewer call-in question segment, answering the phones with “Hello caller, what’s your beef?”  And even if the callers don’t really have a beef, Lottie and Bernice seem able to make one out of it. With every call this pair of cranky ladies spin some kind of worn and worldly wise wisdom that is, at times, outrageously funny and cranky derelict wit.  They make their own sense of the world, which never exactly matches any conventional wisdom. The world the way it is for them, and they way they’d like it to be.

Mis has some particularly high moments when, being challenged by a caller, she gets up from her chair and slowly walks to the front of the stage, peering into the invisible studio TV camera and directly chastising the caller.  You almost imagine watching on the television, as she peers into the lens. And when she and Koszelak Swartz start to grumbling and talking over one another about some matter of people or thing that they just don’t get, it’s uproariously funny.  

Jesse and Don Swartz have their moments as well, with their editorial subjects about the legitimacy of ten-bean salad, and the pitfalls of using bleach cleaning wipes on the most inappropriate body parts.  Characterization is everything, and these longtime Ghostlight alums come off as folks we know, or might like to, if we don’t already.

There’s a bit of everything here that might have ever been funny — pratfalls, pokes at the system, raucousness, politically incorrect references, with jabs at various public entities of Western New York living.  Almost nothing is off limits. It’s a production done with heart, without a mean or vicious bone in its body. Ghostlight Theatre and playwright L. Don Swartz, for their part, knows their audience. The nearly constant laughter coming from it supports them at nearly every turn.  Not every punchline is a knockout, but Swartz and Ghostlight know how to stay the course, so “The Lottie and Bernice Show” lands comic jabs over and over again with gusto.

Set staging is left, right, and center for editorials, news desk, and Lottie and Bernice.  Props are used to perfection, the lighting constant, the costumes entirely suitable. The players are all on point for a blizzard of comedy, laughter and mayhem.

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

“The Lottie and Bernice Show” runs  through May 19, 2019.  For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Late In The Evening: The World According To Paul Simon’ at MusicalFare Theatre

The cast of “Late In The Evening: The World According To Paul Simon” at MusicalFare Theatre.

You might have large expectations for “Late in the Evening,” a MusicalFare production based on the works of Paul Simon, if you are a fan of Simon the musician and songwriter.  And MusicalFare, with its cozy close proximity seating to the stage is a venue that holds even more promise.

. . .an absolute banquet for the eyes and ears. . .

And you might be justified.  Billed as a world premiere play pulled together from music of, arguably, one of America’s greatest songwriters of the modern era — the initial draw is there.  The music, that is, and how a catalog of songs spanning decades can be fit to a story of some unified account. And even if you don’t like Paul Simon, the upside, you know at least some of his tunes.

Expect to be introduced to some rarely heard songs from Simon’s catalog, some memorable gems, and some critically acclaimed hits.  Expect the rhythms of a devout and gifted band, the guitar and gravelly haunting voice of the main character, Duncan, sung by the accomplished and talented local musician, Zak Ward.  Expect some interpretive choreography by an experienced troupe, highlighted by lighting that is, at times, austere and vibrant to the ever-changing moods of the music. Expect a talented cast committed to this production and their craft.  

Just don’t expect a story to carry you along.  Michael Walline, who directs, choreographs, and by circumstance was tapped late in the creative process to craft the play’s premise, had his work cut out for him.  How to put one of popular music’s most inventive wordsmith’s to a singular narrative flow. Walline sets the story in the main character of Duncan, a homeless veteran who is taken on a journey through the back story of his life by a young boy.   Using pictures that the audience never sees, hung about the set, the boy (Noah Bielecki) gives them to the down and out Duncan, which prompts the songs into being.

The account of Duncan’s life, however, is never really apparent.  And the songs, at times, seem misplaced in trying to grab any narrative flow.  

At one point, midway through the first set, we’re presented with Duncan recalling apparently being drafted into the service with – oddly — the song “You Can Call Me Al,” which seems like trying to tie together a manuscript with a dried up rubber band – a stretch too far, and the thing snaps and scatters.  There’s more than one instance where this happens.

To be fair, the play, like most great music, is open to interpretation – purposefully so, on both accounts.  And a truly engaging performance, in this case by Dudney Joseph, Jr. as Al, softens the sting just a bit.

In Act Two, we’re taken on a piecemeal journey of Duncan through relationships with the women in his life good, bad, and indifferent.  These sequences are highlighted by truly stellar duets between Ward and Emily Prucha in “You’re The One” and Ward with Dominique Kempf in “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.   These and several other tunes through Act Two seem to bring a more narrative flow to the piece. Even if one or two break the flow, there’s more of a foothold helped along by even more stylized choreography and ambiance.   But is it enough.

Essentially, if you see MusicalFare’s Late in the Evening, you can expect an absolute banquet for the eyes and ears.  There are some beautifully rendered scenes, creative and at times surprising song renderings.   More than that, the production boasts stunning scenic and transitional moments of sound and light by designer Chris Cavanagh.   

You can also expect the promise of the expected — a vast array of Paul Simon songs that can be often about spirituality, longing, pain, joy, and humor.  It’s the nature of the beast for viewers to want to put such a presentation into a narrative context, after all, there’s a story here, somewhere, is the implied promise. Overall, to borrow a line from a Simon tune: it just don’t work out that way.

Whether there’s too much room left open to interpretation may not even matter, because you can decide to sit back and relax and enjoy the music, the affect of each, on its own, and the songs as they come at you, one at a time, for what they are individually – masterful interpretations.   

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

Late in the Evening: The World According to Paul Simon  is currently running through May 26, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre.  For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Jungle Book’ at Theatre of Youth

The cast of “The Jungle Book” at Theatre of Youth.

On a cold and blustery March day a little time in a jungle seems a welcome and warm idea.  But it’s the nature of things to have their ups and downs, and we’re not just talking about monkeys climbing here.

. . .visually stunning, inventive and creative . . .

The ups are many and, yes, the monkeys are one of them.  But start that with a beautiful, richly lit set, the comfort and warmth of Allendale Theater, a story appropriate backdrop and lush projections adorning the theatre walls and ceiling.  You’re ready to be warmed by this tale of the boy, Mowgli, raised by wolves in the jungle whose coming of age is threatened by some of the very creatures of that jungle and his own precocious nature.

The warmth continues as some of the actors come out into the audience and engage both children and adults in the experience of what is about to take place.  It all holds a lot of promise to be a great experience for both young and old.

In costumes narrowly suggesting wolves, monkeys, vultures, the tiger, Shere Khan, a panther, Baghera, and Baloo the bear, there are five actors taking up these roles, and they come at it with eagerness, enthusiasm and, at times, certain gusto.  All five play multiple characters, switching out at a moment’s notice several times during the play. And when all five of them are on stage at the same time, interacting as animals in and out of the spotlight, the production shines. And later, when all five are on stage, playing the troupe of monkeys it is, well, a full-on monkeyshine of a time.  

This is a fun, visually striking, rhythmic, musical, sometimes acrobatic-like production.  And it’s an often hilarious romp through the jungle, where a few performances stand out. Lissette DeJesus plays one of the rollicking monkeys to the hilt in a couple of scenes with her ape-like brethren, and brings a slithering, deceptively charming light to Kaa, the mesmerizing snake who holds the jungle creatures and audience in her hypnotic gaze.  DeJesus is an ensemble member of the Raices Theatre Company and currently a Theatre major at Buffalo State. And she looks to be a promising and more prominent fixture in Buffalo, if not beyond Buffalo theatre, after her studies are completed.

Also standing tall in the jungle-gym — a rotating set of  giant hoop-like steel structures (constructed of farming bale feeders) that are adorned with foliage – are monkey/vulture actors Brendan Didio and Rick Lattimer.  While it’s true the monkeys steal the show for a time, Didio and Lattimer’s double duty as vultures have the most charismatic and cleverly comical roles. Plus, their vocal ranges, going from land to air creatures, give one the idea that there are more actors playing these roles than there really are.   

It’s hard to say what the intended audience, children, might take away from this story.  Kipling’s tale is about many things – a dangerous world of the jungle in which the creatures kill one another, one in which  Mowgli must be and is taught the ways of the jungle in order to coexist. And ultimately whether it is best the “mancub” leaves the jungle when he becomes older and more man-like.  On one hand Kipling’s tale is complex but magical, while cartoon and film renditions tend to fun and musical. But in either version, the message is clear.

This stage version, written by Greg Banks, seems to fall somewhere in between, and in doing so loses some footing.  It’s incredibly fast-paced, never pausing, jumping through and past the lessons of Mowgli’s journey, and what it means for him to understand and coexist with nature.  Lost in the hustle are some of the meaningful exchanges of this story, some heartfelt moments in which Mowgli is made to understand his own journey, some time to take in how one thing that happens leads to another.  Some intention of the story seems lost in its breakneck pace.

But what’s the worst thing that could come of that.  Beyond the questions kids ask – how did you do this, and how was that made – they may be moved to ask, why did this happen, or why did that happen. They’ll be given a chance to ask after the play.  Or maybe they will be moved to ask that of their parents. Either way, with this visually stunning, inventive and creative production, TOY has yet again created an opportunity to engage kids and adults in theatre and performing arts.  And if kids in attendance leave with just that, then Meg Quinn and company can call it mission accomplished and well done.

Running Time: 1 Hour 45-minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

“The Jungle Book” runs through April 7, 2019 and is presented at Theatre Of Youth.  For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Frost/Nixon’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Adriano Gatto as David Frost and Jack Hunter as Richard M. Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”. Photo is by Gene Witkowski.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear:  opening night for Irish Classical Theater’s production of “Frost/Nixon” sold out.

. . .a fascinating story, expertly told, acted, and staged. . .

One bet is there’s some interest in the not so long ago historical subject matter.  And what better venue than ICTC’s in-the-round for a play whose central event is the face-to-face, 1977 post-Watergate interviews of former President Richard Nixon by British talk show host, David Frost.  

But it’s more than that.  As a retelling of history goes, it’s often about perspective.  And what lives on most of the play’s stage are behind the scenes action leading up to, and between, those historic interviews.  We are given the circumstances of Nixon (Jack Hunter) a full three years after his resignation. Nixon and his talent agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Ray Boucher) negotiate the terms and conditions of the extensive interviews, not the least of which is the payday Nixon stands to make.

For Frost (Adriano Gatto), whose 1977 circumstance is an easy-going, light on substance talk show host and playboy with a struggling career, the stakes are perhaps even greater.  For Nixon, it was in part about re-establishing his public persona. As a seasoned politician, his belief is that he will handle the playboy Frost with some ease. For Frost, the question is not whether he is up to the challenge, but also about whether the whole thing would leave him broke.

But Frost’s production team of advisors wonders more about the challenge in front of them.  ABC News political journalist Bob Zelnick and political writer James Reston, who narrates the play, confront Frost about their concerns.  They fear Frost will seem the weak interviewer, and too-easily let Nixon skirt around him with political savvy, and let him off the hook for what they believe to be his crimes.   

Jim Reston is played by Adam Yellen, whose duties as both narrator of this story and recurring character come literally from all sides of the ICTC stage, and he appears with fervent activism, anger and, when he comes face to face with Nixon, a comic moment of deference to the former president.  It’s just one reminder that these are human beings and not just historical public figures.

Likewise Gatto comes to play.  He gives Frost’s devil-may-care persona a hint of under-surface doubt, barely noticeable, as the interviews go by.  Frost and Nixon are opponents, and Hunter’s Nixon gets the best of Frost at first. Hunter shines, embellishing his Nixon character with a troubled, sometimes intoxicating passion, as a self-deprecating, self-described political punching bag, vulnerable, tired, yet a still hardass opponent.  Hunter doesn’t sweat the demanding role one bit.

Never are the leads played as caricatures, or as personas, or as what we may think we remember we know about them.  They are played as characters, opponents in a struggle, which becomes even more persuasive through the scenes leading up the final interview on Watergate.

What happens in that interview is the stuff of history.  It can be referenced in media and on the stage as point in fact.  How the players get there, what leads up to it, how it comes to be the way it did come to be, is all the stuff of good theater, a mix of  fictionalized as well as historically accurate storytelling. What the ICTC and director Brian Cavanagh do is pump life into this scarred bit of American history, and, sure, in doing so bring even more appropriate fare if one is given to drawing parallels to today’s political scenery.   Give the ICTC credit if that is even a minor reason for staging “Frost/Nixon.” For if one is given to drawing parallels, these characters of history might make you question whether duping the public’s trust are high crimes, misdemeanors, or forgivable muggings. And whether one commits them as an effect of the conditions heaved upon them, or they are of their own dreadful making.   

A sold out opening night may speak to that kind of aim to understand history in the present as it relates  to the past. But one thing is perfectly clear – it is just as likely that this is a fascinating story, expertly told, acted, and staged that makes it even more worthy, so get a ticket while you can.  The fact that it is based on real history is even more compelling.

Running Time: 2 Hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

“Frost/Nixon” is currently running through March 24.  For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Baby’ at Lancaster Opera House

Having babies can be a messy business.  The question is whether a play about having babies would come to life on the stage.  The simple answer is yes.

. . .a delightfully easy on the eyes and ears production.

But if giving life were that simple, everybody would do it.  Not everybody can. And not everybody would, even if they could.   Lancaster Opera House does inject life in its production of the 1983 musical, Baby.  It has a lot going for it:  Let’s just mention the original Broadway production in the 1980s had several Tony Award nominations including best musical and original score.  While we’re at it, know that director Nathan Miller has brought together a very talented group of players/singers to labor out this lyrical journey from conception to birth.  

The play is about nine months in the lives of three couples, all facing the prospect of child birth before them.   First off is the young couple in idealistic love, dreaming of how their lives will go forward and determined to not let the birth of their child derail the trajectory of their real goals and dreams.  Next up is the established married couple, having tried to get pregnant for some time and, we learn at the start, appear to have finally been successful. And then there is the forty-something couple who, after having raised four children, find themselves unexpectedly pregnant with differing opinions on what lays ahead.   

Everything here is on time – actors, orchestra and sound, lighting, stage management – not a dim bulb, loose string, or wasted word in the bunch.  And while the main six players of the cast seem to share almost equal stage time ably, the apparent lead of Leah Berst, as Lizzie, one-half of the idealistic young couple, stands out as a strong and extremely talented voice.  Most of Lizzie’s duets are played alongside her love, Danny, played by Trevor Bunce. Between them, it’s hard to pick a better half. Together, they share a chemistry that is solid and convincing and, well, seemingly full of loving admiration.  They regard one another with a longing and passion that speak just below the lyrics and lines, of a pair truly in love, while never seeming to become melodramatic about any of it. These are joyful performances.

They are all for the most part joyful performances.  There are bits of sadness and tragedy in the plot, but in fact none of it appears melodramatic which, given the subject matter and the paths the characters take, seems like a possible pitfall expertly avoided.  There’s just enough clever realism here in script and lyrics, and all the actors keep it grounded there.

The emotion, splattered with a great deal of hilarity, uncertainty and downright joy, all come to life through some poignant, thought-provoking, and often hilarious lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.  And it’s all pulled off in a finely tuned fashion by Mr. Miller and crew.

If one were to pick out a weak note, it’s that while the characters seemingly come to us as three separate and random couples on three different, sometimes unexpected paths, the plot reveals to us that they had known one another previously.  It’s almost a too-small world — maybe, and a too-small point. We’re not after a strong plot here. We’re looking for the world made smaller by music.

And it is.  What’s more than plausible about “Baby” is the realism of these characters’ situations, how they cope, how they feel about them, the truths and insights they speak and sing of.  Certain not all the bases are covered. But regardless of whether you’ve been either half of a pregnancy, you’re likely to come away with some small notion of what it’s like to navigate that messy business.  And Mr. Miller and crew, the cast, and orchestra playing from the balcony, flooding the curved design of the Lancaster Opera House, come together in a delightfully easy on the eyes and ears production. It could not have been made more clean or entertaining.   

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

“Baby”  is currently running through March 3, 2019 and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House.  For more information, click here.