First Look: ‘Dearly Departed’ at Aurora Players

The cast of ‘Dearly Departed’ at Aurora Players. Photo by Dori-Shear McGowan

As storytellers, directors often connect to plays that they have had awesome experiences with. This includes seeing a fantastic production and wanting to bring it to life for a new audience, or perhaps acting in a production of a show that they loved. Directors have a big responsibility when it comes to choosing their stories. If they don’t have some passion in what they are creating for the audience, it will be easily seen during the show. Nobody likes to sit through anything with a lack of enthusiasm.

Eighteen years ago, director Christopher Fire was lucky enough to perform in a production of “Dearly Departed,” a little known gem of a play written by David Bottrell and Jessie Jones, about a family who’s patriarch has just passed away and they must gather, leaving their own lives and coming together to mourn their loss. Oh yeah, the story also takes place in the backwoods of the bible belt in the American south.

The topic of death typically does not scream comedy, but this show takes a dense topic and brings a humanity to it.

“I think this is a show that the audiences at Aurora Players will be pleasantly surprised with,” says Fire, “It has heart, and it is a very funny show.”

“Dearly Departed” is a major divergence from the typical fare that is presented at Aurora Players. “There is no name recognition with this show,” says Fire, “this isn’t an Agatha Christie, or a Ken Ludwig, this show is not very well known, but is very entertaining.”

When it comes to community theatre, shows that have that accent, usually the British accent, are the ones that get performed the most. “This show has a different accent,” says Fire, “there are no refined characters in this piece, there are no high societal characters, just everyday broken people looking to live their best lives.

Fire says that this show is not one that has a recognizable leading character. “What drew me to this show was that people worked together and the ensemble made it memorable, that is something I truly love about the story.

While he loves the classics that Aurora Players typically performs, he wanted to mix things up a bit. “I wanted to submit something that would be different, and I am a firm believer that people will like this show because it is off the beaten path and many people will be able to relate to it. Variety is the spice of life!”

“Dearly Departed” opens May 31 and runs until June 16, 2019. It is presented at The Roycroft Pavilion in Hamlin Park in East Aurora. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Moon Over Buffalo’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

The farce is one of the oldest forms of theatre. Mistaken identities, inconceivable situations, lots of door slamming, and deep belly laughs. Farces are shows that keep the audience on the edge of their seats in hysterics, and keep the actors out of breath. Over the top characters, lots of mugging, and breaking the fourth wall are very common in these types of shows. Luckily for audience members, the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild is mounting a farce that is sure to keep you laughing. “Moon Over Buffalo,” by Ken Ludwig, took Broadway by storm in 1993 when it premiered, bringing Carol Burnett back to the Great White Way.

“I was not aware of the show until I was asked to direct it,” laughs Gary Gaffney who is directing the production, “I love to direct comedy, so when I was asked to do it, I gave it a read and loved everything about it.”

The show tells the story of a traveling repertory theatre group who is visiting Buffalo, New York in the 50s, and who all believe that Frank Capra is coming to see their production to cast two leads in his next big motion picture. Timing couldn’t have been worse because whatever can go wrong does go wrong. An affair, an interesting coffee recipe, a deaf grandmother, a clueless fiance, and a scheduling mishap cause for a night at the theatre that none of the characters will ever forget.

“This show is challenging,” says Gaffney, “there is a ton of chaos that happens on stage that needs to be organized so that the audience thinks it’s chaos, but the actors are in full control.”

The rehearsal process is grueling, timing is everything. “With every comedy, the timing is one of the most important things, and we needed to make sure that every door slam, every comic bit, every line, was delivered to get as many laughs as possible,” says Gaffney. “I have a great group of actors who are working very hard.”

The show is sure to get laughs. ”The cast has some trouble keeping it together during rehearsal because the show is so funny,” says Gaffney. “I know the audience will feel the same way. They will be able to clear their worries away for a few hours and will probably have sour cheeks from laughing so much.”

“Moon Over Buffalo” opens March 15, 2019 and runs until March 31. It is presented at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild’s Ellicott Creek Playhouse (The former St Edmunds). For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Ragtime’ at MusicalFare Theatre

There are shows that are ahead of their time. There are shows that are written, produced, and close before they are able to get their due. Then they get rediscovered and are more topical than ever before. This is what happened to the show “Ragtime” the 1998 Broadway musical with a book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens respectfully.

“This show is more relatable today than it was in 1998,” says Randy Kramer, who is directing the production. “The show deals in themes of immigration, race, and financial inequality, the topics that are being discussed daily in the news.” MusicalFare brings this regional premiere to their intimate stage beginning February 13.

“I have always loved this musical, and last season when we produced “Violet” I realized how powerful that show was on our stage,” says Kramer, “the show was strong and I thought, imagine ‘Ragtime’ in this space.”

This is a huge undertaking for a theatre whose stage is not that large. “We have eighteen people in this cast, many of whom have never worked with us before,” says Kramer, “it is a challenge, and we go into every production knowing that we need to figure these challenges out. Audiences like to see new people.

With such topical themes, Kramer says that something clicked when another large show that dealt with similar themes came to Buffalo. “I was sitting in ‘Hamilton’ and when we got to the end of act-one, I turned to my wife and said, wow, I have a greater appreciation for the standards and expectations our founding fathers had when they shaped our country.”

Kramer says that ‘Ragtime’ was not chosen to start a political football game, but he hopes that the audiences who come to see it can appreciate the America that it discusses.

The show also includes a young cast, and Kramer says he was reminded of why creating theatre is so magical. “We have a few members of the cast who are just starting out and they are so excited to be apart of the process, and to learn, and I realized that many of us have taken this process for granted. The magic of the process is what creates memorable theatre.”

“Ragtime” opens February 13, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Sense & Sensibility’ at Irish Classical Theatre

The cast of “Sense & Sensibility” at Irish Classical Theatre.

There seems to be a line drawn in the sand when it comes to the work of Jane Austen. Either you love her work, and want to be engulfed in her stories, or you want to run away screaming as fast as you can. Luckily, when Irish Classical Theatre opens their first show of 2019 “Sense & Sensibility”, you most likely will not run away screaming, you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

“Sense and Sensibility” tells the story of the Dashwood sisters, who have lost their father, and along with his death, they have also lost their wealth, social status, and prospects at successful marriage.

“I have been familiar with the story for a long time” says Chris Kelly, who will be directing this production. “In the 90’s I had fallen in love with the movie, starring Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant, and for years I wondered why Irish Classical had never done a Jane Austen play before.”

Like many theatre companies, the reliance on keeping an audience is a main priority, and picking a show that might not appeal to the masses can be a huge risk. “ I read this adaptation of the story by Kate Hamlin and then I saw it in New York, and I knew that I had to direct this play,” says Kelly, “We have been talking about this production for over a year.”

Kelly mentions that audience members around him in New York were a little apprehensive about the show, “I remember sitting in the theatre waiting for the show to start, and people around me were murmuring about how they really didn’t want to be there. It sounded like that had been dragged to the show,” Kelly laughs.

The audience will be in for a treat. “The actors play numerous characters in the show, and the set pieces are spread around the stage, all placed on wheels, so the show literally moves,” laughs Kelly. “The scenes move much quicker than you would think. The show is fun and does a wonderful job maintaining the heart of the story.

This show is a great piece of physical theatre as well. There is truly something for everyone in this production.

For those of you who still on the fence, you can rest easy knowing that this production will be anything but dry. “This adaptation hits all of the beats from Austin’s novel, but tells the story in a fresh and fun way,” says Kelly.

“Sense & Sensibility” opens on January 18 and runs through February 10, 2019 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Christmas Over The Tavern’ at MusicalFare Theatre

Tom Dudzick’s “Over The Tavern” is not only a local favorite that highlights our great city, but is one that is an international favorite as well. The characters are well known, it is nostalgic, and there is just something relatable about the “Over The Tavern” stories. This was something that Dudzick wanted to explore again, and because of this he began working on a new project with the characters that we all know and love, a musical “Christmas Over The Tavern.”

“It was a long time since Tom wrote a musical” says Randy Kramer, executive and artistic director at MusicalFare Theatre, “he came up with a new story that takes place during the holidays, and he sent it to me.”

Kramer says that Dudzick approached him some time ago to see if he would be interested in workshopping a new production at MusicalFare. “I was interested, and we had a few meetings about the show, and over the course of a year or so, Tom had a script written and a pretty good section of the score completed.”

MusicalFare did a workshop in spring of 2017 of the show. “This was a great experience for me to help create a new show, and for Tom because he was able to see how musicals worked and we gave notes to better his material,” says Kramer. “There are many things that musicals need to work, like pacing, time between songs, underscoring, these were all things that Tom got from working with us, and I think it was a great journey for him to go through.”

After the workshop, Dudzick continued the write the script. “Tom got it to a great point. It is a stand alone story that you don’t need to see the other shows to understand,” says Kramer, “there are no references to the other shows in it. I think the audiences will really enjoy it.”

Musical director Theresa Quinn is feverishly working on orchestrating the score. “Theresa is writing the orchestrations for a four piece band, taking Tom’s music and changing keys so that they would be more comfortable for the actors to sing,” says Kramer.

The cast is enjoying themselves. “There is always an excitement that an actor has when they get to originate a role,” says Kramer, “and this is a wonderful opportunity for them all.”

Tickets are selling fast. “We are completely amazed at how quickly these tickets are selling. It’s a good problem to have,” laughs Kramer. If you want to visit the Pazinski family this holiday season, you better get your tickets now!

“Christmas Over The Tavern” opens on November 14 and runs through December 16, 2018. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘The Three Musketeers’ by All For One Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

Buffalo is one of the largest theatre communities in the United States. It is one of the largest markets for touring shows, and producers love Buffalo because we like to buy tickets, many tickets. In Buffalo, there are more than twenty companies that produce theatre annually, most of which have at least 5 productions mounted each season.

Of these companies, exists Irish Classical Theatre Company, Road Less Traveled Productions, Theatre of Youth, MusicalFare Theatre, and Shea’s Performing Arts Center, who all collaborated to create a production that would bring the entire community together.

“Scott Behrend (Road Less Traveled), Vincent O’Neill (Irish Classical Theatre), Meg Quinn (Theatre of Youth), and I got together about three years ago for breakfast, and we started talking about the status of the theatre in Buffalo,” says Randy Kramer, artistic and executive director of MusicalFare Theatre, “we tossed around the idea of working together, and thinking about what we should do if we did decide to work together.”

And the breakfast meetings continued. “It is always fun to get together with your peers, especially those who work in the same field as you do,’ says Kramer, “running a theatre is a very unique business that does not always have the same challenges as other businesses. It is nice to be able to understand and relate to others who speak the same language.”

The breakfast clubbers read scripts, many scripts, thinking of ideas for what they could produce together, “We knew that we didn’t want to do something that any one of our companies could do by themselves,” says Kramer, “ we wanted to look at our best designers, our best builders, our best creative teams, and make this production one that would be a huge draw to the community.”

And then the show was chosen. “The Three Musketeers” by Linda Alper. “We wanted to pick a show that would appeal to all of the audiences from all of our theaters,” says Kramer. “This show is great for families, its a unique production, and it isn’t seen on stage very often.”

The group consensus was that the production should be performed at Shea’s 710 Theatre, in an effort to get that space utilized since it has such history in the Buffalo theatre community. “We spoke to Tony Conte [the former president of Shea’s] and he loved the idea, then he retired,” laughs Kramer. “Michael Murphy, who took over for Tony, brought great insight into our plans and really helped make this reality.”

“It has been a tremendous experience working with everyone on this production,” says Kramer, “I have seen the rehearsals and it is epic.”

“The Three Musketeers” is produced by All For One Productions and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre November 1 – 17, 2018. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

We hear every now and then of how a famous author died before they finished a work. Publishers scramble to get the rights and to see if there is a way that it can be finished so that they can capitalize on the projected profits. This is similar to what happened with Charles Dickens, who was working on his novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” when he passed away, without giving any hints at how he was thinking the book should end.

Rupert Holmes took this idea and ran with it, creating a musical murder mystery where the audience gets to choose how the story unravels and who the murderer is. It is a play within a  play. “The audience gets to vote on key questions throughout the show to pick how things happen,” says Fran Newton, who is directing the production. “The ending changes every night,” he laughs.

The Niagara Regional Theatre Guild is made up of volunteers, and like the Stratford Festival in Ontario, the company performs in numerous shows during the season, so that each production is balanced with talent and crew. “Volunteers help build the set and put in hundreds of hours throughout the season doing various tasks to help the theatre,” says Newton, “For those volunteers who put in the necessary hours, they are allowed to vote on one of the shows we will produce during the season. This show was their choice.” Newton goes on to say that they love this policy and it helps build excitement into the volunteer base.

This show is interactive, which means that the audience has a great deal of say on how the evening progresses. “The script has lots of notes on things that the writer suggests, like improv, or if the actors lose track of their lines, we have a character on stage who is the ‘stage manager’  and they can give them their lines. It is a pretty funny piece,” says Newton.

With every musical comes unique challenges, and this show is no different. “Because every actor could potentially be the killer at the end of the show, we needed to allow time for each actor to rehearse the closing song,” laughs Newton, “that was our biggest challenge. Making sure everyone got enough rehearsal time.” The actors literally know if they are the killer, minutes before the number starts. “There is very little time to get nervous, you just have to go with it.”

Newton continues to say that the music is haunting and there are plenty of fun numbers in this show.

Due to the fact that the audience is able to choose how the show progresses, there are over one-hundred potential endings for this production. “You could come see the show ten times and each time see a completely different show,” says Newton.

This show is one that also has some technical challenges. “We have a thrust stage in our theatre, and for this show we built a proscenium, and we also have some effects that we need to pull off that are really exciting to the technical team,” says Newton, “I love when a show excites everyone involved.”

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” opens on November 2, 2018 and is presented by Niagara Regional Theatre Guide at the Elliott Creek Playhouse. For more information, click here.

First Look: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The Original Broadway Cast of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Buffalo is very lucky to be one of the largest markets in the United States for touring Broadway shows. Producers see this, and they see that the audiences are always warm and welcoming of new work. Buffalo has also had the opportunity to be the launching point for a few huge Broadway hits when they take to the road. “Finding Neverland,” “On Your Feet,” and now “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” can add its name to the list of shows that started their travels in the City of Good Neighbors.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is based on the children’s novel by Roald Dahl, and tells the story of young Charlie Bucket, who finds a Golden Ticket in a candy bar, and wins a tour of the mysterious chocolate factory owned by the infamous, Willy Wonka. Charlie takes the tour with his Grandpa Joe, and four other rotten kids. At the end, Charlie will see that he won more than just a trip to a chocolate factory.

“It is very exciting brand to be part of,” says Mark Shacket, General Manager for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” “I don’t think that there is anyone alive who doesn’t know the story of Charlie. It is a huge story to bring to life.”

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was first introduced as a stage musical on the West End in London in 2013, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Whittman, who brought us “Hairspray.” The show was directed by Sam Mendes, right around the time he was finishing up directing “Sky Fall.” After running for almost four-years, it was re-worked for Broadway audiences and opened in 2017 in New York under the direction of Jack O’Brien. The show ran almost nine months on Broadway. Now, it is starting it’s first National Tour.

“Thanks to the tax credit given by New York State, we are able to start our tour here in Buffalo, a town that is so supportive of live theatre,” says Shacket. Shacket is a UB alum, and was also the General Manager of the Broadway show. “It has been a tedious last few weeks, but all the hard work is going to pay off.”

Four weeks before the actors even come to Buffalo, they spend long days learning the show in a studio in New York City. “The cast worked with the creative team on the music, and the choreography, and they learn the entire show.”

About halfway through the rehearsal process for the actors, crews begin loading the show in at Shea’s. “We spend two weeks building the set,s getting lights set up and testing equipment,” says Shacket. “Once the cast arrives, we spend two full weeks in tech, making sure that everything is right, all the cues are correct, and we keep running the show to make everything perfect. Then we will do nine performances in Buffalo.”

Shacket says that the director and the authors reimagined the show for Broadway audiences, and added some of the songs from the film starring Gene Wilder. “This show is very different, and still very imaginative.”

When it comes to Roald Dahl’s stories, there is a certain nostalgia that is connected to them, and there is a high order of expectation as well. Audiences expect magic and fantasy. “Many people ask me how are we going to bring the Oompa Loompa’s to the stage. I don’t tell them how, but I’ll say that Basil Twist did wonderful work.”

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” begins it’s National Tour in Buffalo, September 21 and runs until the 29, at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Aladdin’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

Disney Theatrical Productions under the direction of Thomas Schumacher presents Aladdin, the US tour, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, book and additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin, opening night April 19 at Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago, starring: Adam Jacobs (Aladdin), Anthony Murphy (Genie), Isabelle McCalla (Jasmine), Zach Bencal (Babkak), Mike Longo (Kassim), Philippe Arroyo (Omar), Jonathan Weir (Jafar), Reggie de Leon (Iago) and JC Montgomery (Sultan) directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw

Millennials finally have disposable income, and when it comes to the nostalgia of yesteryear, we are first in line to see anything that will take us back to our childhood. The 1992 Disney film, “Aladdin” lives in nostalgia as one of those films that makes us feel good. It is funny, we remember the songs, and we love the characters. It is only fitting that one of the most successful Disney films of all time be made into a Broadway musical. A musical that will be coming to Buffalo, August 8 – 19.

When it comes to well known properties like that of Disney films, the audience has many expectations that need to be upheld. “Aladdin” is no different. “The show comes from well known source material,” says Jonathan Weir, who will be playing Jafar on the tour, “we talk about it in rehearsals that we have a certain responsibility as actors to uphold expectations and make sure that we give the audience a show that they will absolutely love.”

The National Tour of “Aladdin” is not a scaled down production, the Broadway show is literally delivered to every city it visits. “The production quality is awesome,” says Weir, “Nothing is scaled down. There are 350 costumes and tons of magic. Our audiences definitely get the quality of show that Disney is known for.”

Weir has a long history working for the House of Mouse, and was excited to get a chance to play another Disney villain. “I worked for Disney for the last 15 years, as a stand by for various tours and on Broadway. When I learned that they were casting for the National Tour of ‘Aladdin’ I walked my resume to the stage door of the New Amsterdam Theatre. It was very 1940’s of me,” laughs Weir. He was a standby for Scar and Pumba in “The Lion King.”

The North American Touring Cast of Disney’s “Aladdin.”

“Over the course of a few years, I had auditioned a few times, and I was offered the part of Jafar,” says Weir, “I was able to create the signature voice that is so well known.”

In a story that is so well known, one wonders if there are certain parameters that an actor needs to follow when working on a Disney piece. “We were encouraged to make the characters our own, and to bring our own humanity to them,” says Weir.

Weir laughs that he has been cast as two well known villains, Scar from “The Lion King” and now Jafar. “The two have certain similarities, they are both second in command, and they do whatever it takes to get power, but this also causes both of their demises. It is a joy to play the antagonist!”

Audiences are sure to enjoy this production. “This isn’t a children’s show by any means. Children love it, Millennials love it, everyone can find something to enjoy about this story. Nothing can replace the true theatre experience,” says Weir, “the power of laughter is magical, and there is a lot of magic in this show.”

“Aladdin” opens on August 8 and runs until August 19, 2018. It is performed at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘The Odyssey’ at Artpark

There is a phrase that is used often when it comes to creating a special project of a large scale. “It takes a village.” What does this mean? It means when a group can come together to develop and create, whatever the project may be, it will only contribute to the greater good of the community. This is exactly what is happening early this August when Artpark brings their production of Homer’s “The Odyssey” to the stage.

“There is an entire national movement happening right now, based on the Public Works model of theatre,” says director Roger Danforth, “this is a communal event where the public can break down the walls between us and them,” meaning that everyone is able to participate. 

Back in April, Artpark held open auditions for the show, asking anyone and everyone with theatrical abilities, or those who just wanted to try something new, to come out and be part of the show. “We have over 100 people in the cast who are all doing various things,” says Carin Jean White, associate director of the show, “we are working with so many schedules, and getting everyone to be on the same page, it is a huge undertaking.”

While the production may seem daunting, it is truly a monumental feat. Homer’s story tells a tale of Odysseus, who is on a quest to return home. The story deals with issues of community, the meaning of home, and where community comes from. It is only fitting that the Western New York Community come together to build a production about home, and pride in a community’s region.

“The Odyssey” was conceived and originally directed by Lear DeBessonet at the New York Public Theatre. The book, music and lyrics are by Todd Almond. Roger Danforth helms the Artpark production. “I am so excited about this,” says Danforth, “Families from all over Western New York are going to be very entertained by what we have in this show. The entertainment value is phenomenal with aerialists, bands, orchestras, and even break dancers. The show will dazzle.”

Danforth says that this show will also bridge the gap between age groups since there are many generations on stage at once. “The family experience will be memorable because we have performers who are 7 or 8 years old on stage next to performers who are 80 years old. Generations will be speaking to other generations.”

“The Odyssey” will star Terence Archie as Odysseus, a Broadway veteran who most recently was seen in “Rocky The Musical” in New York, and Courtney Balan, who was in the original casts of “Falsetto’s (2016 revival) and “Finding Neverland,” as Penelope.  The Singer will be played by Christopher Guilmet, and The Cyclops will be performed by notable mime, Gregg Goldston.

Homer’s “The Odyssey” will run August 4 and 5, 2018 at Artpark’s Main Stage theatre, in Lewiston. For more information, click here.