“Once On This Island” at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of Once on This Island at Shea’s 710 Theatre. Photo by Kelsey Martinez.

Through a colorful and magical production, Shea’s Performing Arts Center produces its first in-house show of “Once on this Island” in which the talent of Buffalo, NY is highlighted and celebrated. I had the pleasure of attending the opening night at Shea’s 710 Theatre and could feel the excitement and support of the audience as soon as I entered the doors of the theatre. Actors could be seen walking around interacting with the audience and introducing themselves further building the buzz.

“Once on this Island” tells the story of Ti Moune (Zhanna Reed) as she is saved from a flood as a child and sent on a journey as a young woman to prove that love is stronger than death. The Gods are an integral part of this tale and are made up of Asaka, Goddess of the Earth (Latosha Jennings), Agwe, God of water (Marcus J. Paige), Erzulie, Goddess of love (Anita Frasier), and Papa Ge, God of death (Darrick Penny). Ti Moune falls in love with a wealthy grand homme named Daniel after she saves him from a car crash. She makes a deal with Pap Ge to keep him alive, trading her soul for his. After he is returned to the other side of the island, Ti Moune goes to him in hopes of marrying her true love. 

“Once on this Island” highlights two different worlds of the peasants and grand hommes. The peasants have darker skin and spend their days laboring on one side of the island while the lighter-skinned grand hommes entertain guests and have lavish parties on the other side of the island. The underlying themes of racism and class continue to make statements on society as a whole that audiences are able to connect with. Even in 2022, people are currently arguing over the casting of a black woman as Ariel in Disney’s upcoming “The Little Mermaid” live-action movie. Racism is unfortunately still very much alive and impacting our lives which is why the messages of this production are even more powerful. Having a full cast of brilliantly talented people of color is also a strong representation of the people of Buffalo.

Zhanna Reed does a beautiful job portraying the challenging role of Ti Moune. She fully personifies the strength and hope of the character and performs an incredible dance solo in “Ti Moune’s Dance”. She also brings the necessary sweetness and innocence to the role. Darrick Penny’s portrayal of Papa Ge reminded me of Dr. Facilier from “The Princess and the Frog” as he creates a perfect caricature of Death that also includes accessories similar to the Disney villain. Latosha Jennings as Asaka brings dynamite vocals to the crowd favorite “Mama Will Provide”. 

Another stand-out is Melinda Capeles as Andrea and ensemble. Capeles is an accomplished hard of hearing performer and teaching artist who brings the beauty of American Sign Language to her performance. The only other time I had seen sign language incorporated on stage was through performances of Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Capeles signs with a musical essence, almost creating choreography with her words. What an amazing representation. 

At the end of the show, the cast invited their artistic team on stage with them to perform a final verse of “Why We Tell the Story” and then took the time to speak on the team’s accomplishments and acknowledge their hard work in creating the production. You can really tell how much the cast appreciates and respects them and how close the relationship between them was. The entire audience was on their feet in support of the entire cast, crew, and production team in what felt like a celebration of Buffalo, young talent, theatre, and representation. “Once on this Island” is a must-see and will leave you feeling absolutely inspired. 

Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no Intermission

Sep 15- Oct 2, 2022

For more information, click here.

‘Riverdance’ visit’s Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The 25th Anniversary Show of Riverdance made its way to Shea’s Buffalo Theatre this past weekend with three Buffalo-natives in the cast. This thrilling addition was the cause of several mid-show standing ovations like I’ve never seen before! The excitement filled the air for Erin Lynch, Fiona Dargan, and Kevinah Dargan along with the rest of the incredibly talented cast and production team.

The original Riverdance that premiered at The Point Theatre Dublin 25 years ago has been reimagined in this captivating anniversary show with new additions in lighting, stage designs, costuming, and music. This theatrical show consists mainly of traditional Irish music and dance with occasional features of flamenco, Russian folk dance, and American tap. Even if you aren’t particularly knowledgeable about dance, you’re sure to be fascinated by the effortless movement on stage accompanied with complex rhythms and incredible musical talents. As a dancer myself (primarily trained in classic ballet pointe), I found this performance all the more interesting from a technical point of view. 

Irish Dance and Ballet differ in many ways, but also have a great number of parallels. For example, the idea of having principal dancers backed by a troupe or corpse is the same as well as the overall goal of making even the most intricate routines appear easy and light. Something that differed that I particularly enjoyed was the air of confidence and attitude possessed by the female dancers. Instead of having to appear dainty, sweet, and fragile as is often the goal in ballet, these Irish dancers present themselves with sass, flair, and empowerment. The way they move across the stage is almost unreal in that they just seem to float from one place to another with such speed and power. 

The musicians of this production, especially Emma Frampton, Tara Howley, and Haley Richardson, are extremely talented and make their instrumental “face-offs” exceedingly enjoyable to watch. It seems like everyone is having fun and is so passionate about what they do that you can feel it as an audience member. The Riverdance Singers have the traditional, angelic voices we equate to celtic music that transcends you to the peaceful rolling hills of Ireland and eases your mind so you can only focus on the beauty of their sound. 

The audience continued to be an active participant throughout the show, getting involved with clapping, cheering, and reacting to the performance. The buzz of energy and delight that filled the theatre was unlike anything I’d felt before when attending a typical Shea’s season show. Perhaps it was the attendance of all of the Rince Na Tierne dancers- past and present, young and old- that created such a buzz. The feeling of seeing the possibility of your dreams coming true and turning your hard work and passions into a career like the dancers on stage is made even more achievable and palpable. 

Overall, this is an exciting show you won’t want to miss. Even if you think you’ve seen it before, you’ve never seen it like this! If you missed it in Buffalo, it’s headed to New Brunswick, NJ next. Definitely worth the day trip- you won’t be disappointed! 

For more information, click here.

Oklahoma! at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

“Wow, everything is so bright!”, I remarked as I entered the Shea’s Performing Arts Center last night for the production of Oklahoma!. The lights on the stage felt as though they were turned up so high, it almost hurt my eyes. What I didn’t know was that things were about to get extremely dark…

Prior to attending this more recent touring version of Oklahoma! I’d only been familiar with the music from the original and hadn’t actually seen a live production of it. Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m not a die-hard classic Oklahoma! fan because I went into this experience more open-minded than others in the audience. If the original, classic production is your absolute favorite, this may not be the show for you, and I’ll break down exactly why.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Tells the story of a young farm girl, Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings), and her relationships with cowboy Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and farmhand Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow). There’s an upcoming social event in town and Curly is set on taking Laurey. However, due to their stubborn nature, neither is very good at communicating their exact feelings for each other. This leads to Laurey accepting Jud’s invitation to the box social even though she clearly voices that he makes her feel uneasy and that she’d rather go with Curly. Meanwhile, Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) has just returned home from a trip with enough money to finally marry Ado Annie (Sis) who seems to have fallen for a Peddler, Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman) in his absence. 

The main premise of the story confused me as I feel like the entirety of the issues faced by the characters could have been avoided if Laurey hadn’t gone to the social with Jud just to spite Curly. At the social, Laurey avoids being alone with Jud until she is finally forced to face him and his unsettling threats. She runs back to Curly, they finally admit their feelings for each other, and they decide to get married all the while fearing Jud’s dangers. The character of Jud is extremely creepy. He mainly resides in an old smokehouse decorated with lewd photos of women and passes his time shooting bats. It’s clear he has become obsessed with Laurey and is often seen pacing outside her window at night. Christopher portrayed a perfectly haunted and ominous version of Jud that you get to further appreciate in extreme close-ups provided by an onstage camera used to project larger than life images of the actors onstage at certain points throughout the show. 

The most chilling scene for me was one that took place between Curly and Jud the smokehouse in Act I. This is the first time all of the lights are completely shut off so the audience is left sitting in total darkness only listening to the sounds of the actors’ voices. Curly discusses how Jud could kill himself and seems to be trying to convince him to do so. When you can at last see again, it’s only the black and white extreme close-up images of the two projected on the back wall of the stage as they each sit face to face holding microphones to deliver their lines. The first gunshot to go off in this scene caught me completely by surprise and caused me to jump along with many other audience members. It’s still hard to see clearly, so you have the anxiety of not-knowing what just happened or if a character was killed. The whole scene made me very uncomfortable, which is exactly how it was intended. When at last the bright lights come back on, you’re struck by the severe contrast of the tone.

Something worth noting is the refreshing diversity of the cast. While television and movies are beginning to display a far more diverse range of actors and characters, professional theatre has been lagging behind, especially for older classical musicals like those of Rogers and Hammerstein. This cast includes an array of various races, backgrounds, shapes, and sizes. Sasha as leading lady Laurey was an outstanding choice. I fell in love with her character choices, stage presence, and musical interpretations. Sis brings a completely new and unexpected representation of Ado Annie. It’s about time we brought similar diversity in casting to classic Broadway productions. 

Throughout the first act, I was pretty onboard with all the new artistic interpretations of this show. It’s the second act that definitely lost me. Act II opens with the Dream Ballet which typically portrays what Laurey is dreaming/hallucinating about Curly and Jud. In contrast, this version mainly displays the dancing abilities of just Gabrielle Hamilton as the Lead Dance. Gabrielle is without a doubt very talented and skilled in various styles of dance. However, the whole sequence seemed a bit too deep, symbolic, and “out there” for your typical audience member to grasp. I felt extremely confused and unsettled at the same time. It was also very long. In fact, the entire show is very long. Two hours and forty-five minutes to be exact. The second part of Act II that lost me was the final wedding sequence and song “Oklahoma”. Without giving too much away, it’s a pretty visual and upsetting representation of violence that contrasts completely with the song being sung. The show almost ends on a nice note! Things are finally going well and happily ever is was near. Then BANG! A tragedy.

Overall, this is a talented cast and creative reimagining of an old favorite. Sean as Curly was another standout for me whose voice will have swooning from the very beginning. Perhaps if you were prepared to experience the darkness and depth of what at one point could have been considered a more fun, light musical, you’d be more open to the theatrical experience. This isn’t a show for a casual theatregoer or your Grandma. This is a show for people who understand the complexity of theatre, symbolism, and artistic expression.

For more information, click here.