Theatre Review: “Division Street” at JCC Centerstage

The cast of “Division Street” at JCC Centerstage.

I had the great honor of experiencing the world premiere of “Divisions Street”, written by Jason Odell Williams (“Church & State”, “Handle with Care”) who returns to Rochester to collaborate once again with JCC Artistic Director Ralph Meranto for this provocative three-actor show. The two previously collaborated on 2016’s “Church and State.” The three roles are played by David Andreatta (Rob), Esther Winter (Nia), and D. Scott Adams (Trey).

. . .enlightening. . .

The play is set in present day. The plot—in a nut shell—is about celebrity couple’s interracial marriage (Rob is a white Jew and Nia is black with no clear religious affiliation) and how their respective careers are hitting opposing inflection points. Rob has been nominated for a Golden Globe for a movie role as a racist cop who shoots an unarmed black youth. Nia’s career has gone from shooting start status to stagnant. The play takes place in real-time, in the 90 minutes before the limo comes to pick them up for the Golden Globes. The play is described as a bold comedy-drama about race, media influence and the Hollywood movie machine but it is so much more.

Adding to the tension of a pressure cooker of a night is Rob and Nia’s long-time friend and co-producer of the movie Rob has been nominated for, Trey. He was the character over whom I did the most head-scratching. He is a white man who has adopted all the affectations of a black hip-hop artist—not because he grew up in the culture but because he chose the culture. At first, I wondered if that was realistic. Then I harkened back to a friend from high school who was so into the Beatles that he adopted an English accent and the gentlemanly demeanor of Paul McCartney. Kind of strange for a kid in a suburb of New York City in the late 80s but he never wavered and continued that way into adulthood.  

This play takes on a lot of complex issues. It made my head spin trying to imagine how I would feel if I were participating in each of the tension filled conversations that were happening before my eyes. There were moments of humor interjected to lighten the mood but, as a privileged white woman, I held my breath through the humor. This play successfully does what theatre should do. It forced the audience to empathize with conflicting points of view and introduced ideas many of us have not previously explored. It is unapologetic as it puts a spotlight on racial identity, perception, and misunderstandings. This enlightening play gave my guest and I much to talk about afterward. And as one of Nia’s lines so simply and hopefully states, “It’s nice when people listen, learn, and change”.

“Division Street” runs approximately 90 minutes and is performed without an intermission.

The show runs through Nov. 17 at the JCC Centerstage in Rochester, NY. For more information, visit: https://jccrochester.org/centerstage

 

Theatre Review: ‘Waitress’ at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre

Jeremy Morse, Molly Hager, Jessie Mueller, Aisha Jackson and Stephanie Torns (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The moment I saw the cherry pie curtain I had a feeling this show was going to be something special. And when I heard the line, “Home is where your ass is.”, the tone was set.  The recipe for the performance was going to include equal parts hilarity and harshness. Jenna, Dawn, and Becky (Christine Dwyer, Melody A. Betts, and Ephie Aardema) are waitresses at Joe’s Diner in a Southern Indiana town where Jenna is known for her pie-baking prowess.

This show delivers every moment. Do not miss it.

Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves but Jenna bakes her emotions into each pie. On the outside, her strength goes into maintaining the sensitive balance in her marriage to a violent and controlling man. That is only a small slice of this rich portrayal of each character’s struggle to be true to themselves and insist on the love they deserve. The story shows three women supporting one another as they face these challenges with grace, and not so gracefully. In the course of the show you get to know them deeply and root for them to find happiness.

I could write 5 paragraphs just gushing over the amazing, split-second timing of the choreography—which included creatively-realized sets whipping under, over and around the ever-moving and ever-singing cast—it was magical! I loved the sets; especially the little diner kitchen that barely had enough room to fit Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the rather imposing cook.

The characters suck you in because they are so relatable and each one very clearly lets you know who they are. You enjoy your time getting to know them for so many reasons. Their voices are top notch for the up-tempo numbers like “What’s Inside”, “Bad Idea” and “Club Knocked Up”. The more serious moments are offset by Betts’ comedic timing and Aardema’s perfectly delivered one liners combined with a searing side-eye. But they are just the appetizers to Jeremy Morse’s hilariously quirky portrayal of Ogie—the lovesick Civil War reenactment understudy who hopes to win Dawn’s affections. Seriously, I laughed harder than I can remember ever laughing at a performance. Earl, Jenna’s husband is just creepy and menacing enough for you to hate him. You know you would protect your girlfriends from such a guy and you want to protect Jenna.

I thought each character was so well played I will feel remiss skipping one, although, for brevity’s sake I must. Dr. Pomatter, played by Steven Good, nailed his funny and awkward obstetrician’s role. Just what we want in an OB, right ladies? Lucky Jenna. And lastly, the aging OCD owner of the restaurant, Joe (Richard Kline), has you laughing as he sneakily sets you up to strum that last heartstring you didn’t know was yet un-strummed.

This show delivers every moment. Do not miss it.

Show Run-time: 2 hours and 30 min, including 1 intermission

Age Recommendation: 13+

“Waitress” runs June 4-9 at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre, Rochester NY. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Chicago’ at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre

The Broadway cast of ‘Chicago.’

There is a reason “Chicago” is the longest running American musical in Broadway history! It is hot, sexy, frenetic, and relatable. Yes, there are parallels to this millennium. When watching it I couldn’t help but think about our current obsession with the 5-minute news cycle and sensational news reporting we all claim to be exhausted by today. Apparently, nothing has changed in nearly 100 years. People crave entertainment and also being famous, even for the most heinous crimes. Only today we have better technology to distribute the—dare I say it—fake news.

. . . the eye candy is found in the choreography, which is delivered with all the energy of Time Square on New Years Eve.

“Chicago” is a satire about crime and corruption set in Chicago in the 1920’s Jazz Age that focuses on two “tomatoes”, Velma Kelly (Terra C. MacLeod) and Roxie Hart (Dylis Croman), who murdered their paramours and . landed in jail. The two vie for the public eye so they can control public opinion about—and influence the outcome of—their respective trials. They vacillate between feelings of being thrilled with newfound fame and fear of being hanged.

The police, Roxie and Velma’s attorney (Billy Flynn played by Peter Lockyer), the jail matron (“Mama” Morton played by Jennifer Fouche), the doctor, news reporters, and everyone in between are on the take and looking out for themselves…except Roxie’s poor schmuck of a husband, Amos (Paul Vogt). Amos is so innocently in love with Roxie he is completely at her mercy. Vogt is perfect in the role.

The audience came for the sexy electricity and physically-demanding dance numbers, like Velma’s “Razzle Dazzle”, and were not disappointed. Other stand out numbers were Fouche’s “When You’re Good to Mama”, Croman as a ventriloquist dummy for “We Both Reached for the Gun”, and “Little Bit of Good” sung by D. Ratell as Mary Sunshine.

The set and costumes are simple because the eye candy is found in the choreography, which is delivered with all the energy of Time Square on New Years Eve. No one wanted the party to end. The Chicago devotees cheered at the anticipation of certain numbers and some of the audience said key lines out loud with the actors. It felt a little like Rocky Horror—with jazz hands. Speaking of which—one suggestion for the producers—black light for Vogt’s “Mr. Cellophane” number.

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

“Chicago” runs from February 5-10 at the Rochester Broadway Theatre League’s Auditorium Theatre in Rochester NY. For more information, click here.

 

 

Theatre Review: ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’ at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre

If musicals aren’t for you—this is your musical! I am often put off by musicals that are just a framework into which song after song are stuffed—whether good, bad, logical, benign or poignant. I know I should be able to suspend my disbelief and go along with people breaking into song as they cook dinner, but I’m drawn in by good dialogue as much as good, well-placed musical numbers and I think the best musicals come from the combination of the two. “Beautiful” has that combination with the additional perks of satisfying character development, well-timed humor, acting that resonates, singing that knocks your socks off, spot-on costuming, wigs and makeup, and sets designed to put you in the mood of the era.

If musicals aren’t for you—this is your musical!

“Beautiful” chronicles the early years of Carole King’s songwriting career. Initially, she didn’t see herself as a lyricist and partnered with—and soon married—lyricist Gerry Goffin (played by Dylan S. Wallach). She and Gerry wrote dozens of memorable hits sung by the top artists of their time. Songs such as their first hit song, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (The Drifters), “The Locomotion” (Little Eva), and “One Fine Day” (The Shirelles). The lead, Sarah Bockel, virtually channels Carole King with her flinty tones and slight tremolo. Early on in the production, she is a young, unpolished singer. Carole King’s style never became “polished” but it mellowed and grew simultaneously. In Bockel’s portrayal of the later years of Carole’s career—when she is performing her own numbers for audiences—you still see the simplicity of her style but it is with power she evokes your emotions.

It’s refreshing to be told a story about an extraordinarily talented person who is driven, from an early age, to do or be something NOT because they were desperate for a way out of a dismal situation but because they were brilliant at it and loved doing it. Carole King was an exceptional child, starting college at the age of 16. She probably could have been successful in any endeavor she pursued—even as a woman in the 50’s. She loved writing music and she was driven to be in the music business. Her simple, hard-working, and focused demeanor was far from flashy. You could even describe her as matronly amid the sequined dresses and lacquered hairdos of the musical acts her songs helped launch. The audience is rooting for Carole and Gerry’s partnership and marriage even when things get rocky. They are likable, albeit flawed, people. You also get to know and like their song-writing rivals—the team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (Alison Whitehurst and Jacob Helmer). This rivalry turns into a life-long friendship that you are glad Carole has during the hard times.

The director, Marc Bruni, handles the scenes with care (without the kitsch). He brings out the innocence of the 50’s, the coming of age of the 60’s, and the mellowing of the 70’s. There are delightfully funny moments in many scenes, often delivered by a hypochondriacal Barry or Carole’s stalwart mother, Genie Klein (Suzanne Grodner). But it’s the songs that make you feel so good. If you were born before 1980 you probably can sing along to most of the songs King & Goffin, and Mann & Weil created. Songs like “It’s Too Late”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Up On The Roof”, “A Natural Woman”, “Take Good Care Of My Baby”, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”, and “Beautiful”. The vignettes showcasing the singing groups of the era got my foot tapping and I had to control the urge to get up and dance. Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? This show does!

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

“Beautiful, The Carole King Musical” runs until January 27 at the Rochester Broadway Theatre League’s Auditorium Theatre in Rochester NY. For more information, click here.