Theatre Review: ‘Hitmakers: Origins of Classic Rock’ at JCC CenterStage

The team at the JCC CenterStage Theatre has done it again with Hitmakers: Origins of Classic Rock! Picking up where last year’s British Invasion tribute left off, this year’s production explores what happened to rock and roll from the late ‘60s through the ‘70s. The cast delves into the spirit of this genre, belting out songs that were the anthem to so many of our lives. I may be a decade short from truly “growing up” during this time, but these were the songs of my childhood. By the time I came around to truly knowing this genre, it’s name had changed from Rock (having dropped the roll when it became much edgier) to the Classic Rock we all know and love today. The cast, both new and returning members, does not disappoint in their renditions!

As the audience makes their way to their seats, songs like “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles and “Crazy on You” by Heart play in the background, prepping us for the awesomeness that is about to ensue. The band makes its way on stage, followed closely by the performers giving us a background into the show. We find out how after the British Invasion, American rock and roll changed from the single performer to the group, Americans taking their cue from the success of bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Rock and Roll dropped the “roll” and as returning cast member Rich Steele tells us, it became a “time to be Wild!” He breaks out into a fantastic Steppenwolf tribute of “Born to be Wild” and this heady ride begins, keeping the audience rocking right up to the final song. The lineup explores music from The Doors, Jethro Tull, The Doobie Brothers, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and so many more.

As always, the cast is fantastic, but before I get to them, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the band. Headed up by conductor, piano and keyboards player Casey L. Filiaci the musicians in this production bring down the house! Mark Balestra on guitar, Dave Cohen on drums, Mark Terranova on bass and Leah Zicari on guitar, banjo and mandolin are phenomenal! They all played off each other well, are cohesive and collaborative. Without them, this show would not have been as kickin’ as it was.

Now onto the cast! Newcomers Melissa Boyack, Sarah Del Favero, Courtney Weather Schutt and Eric Schutt enhance the voices of returning members Marc Cataldi, Darren Frazier, Rich Steele and Josh Wilmot. Although each rendition/tribute feels like it’s better than the last, there were a few stand out pieces for me. Boyak’s, Del Favero’s and Weather Schutt’s rendition of The Weight has a soulfulness in it that adds to The Band’s original version. Cataldi’s Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers Band was spot on and his and Frazier’s Your Song by Elton John was phenomenal. Wilmot’s version of Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love was awesome and I LOVED Schutt’s version of The Door’s People are Strange!

Last year’s show was phenomenal and I think this year’s is even better. Bring a friend and rock out to the perfect way to heat up a cold February evening!

Run time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

Hitmakers: Origins of Classic Rock  is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre until February 16th. Get your tickets at https://jccrochester.org/events/special-events/centerstage-theatre

Theatre Review: ‘Raging Skillet’ at JCC CenterStage

Set in an on-stage kitchen at the book launch of Chef Rossi’s same titled memoir, Raging Skillet is a raucous good time that pulls at the heartstrings. Both a story of a chef’s professional journey as well as a tale of mother daughter relationships, this production will have you laughing and singing along one minute, and missing your mom the next.

As the audience makes its way into the theater they’re greeted by Rossi’s partner,  DJ Skillet (played by Laron Dewberry) setting up the kitchen, prepping ingredients and spinning tunes. Right before Rossi (played by Stephanie Roosa) enters the stage, DJ Skillet invites a handful of audience members to come and sit on stage in the pop-up restaurant he’s set up. If you can, take him up on the invitation. You’ll get to be part of the action, grooving out with Rossi at various points, as well as sample some of the food being prepared (such delectable treats as Rossi’s first ever recipe – pizza bagels, shiitake tacos, a Manischewitz spritzer as well as, gasp, chocolate dipped bacon (actually vegan bacon prepared by the Grass Fed Vegan Butcher Shop). Rossi enters, greeting the audience and “restaurant” goers. She immediately launches into introductions of herself and DJ Skillet, peppering her stories and descriptions with expletives, showing the audience that the stereotype of the foul-mouthed, cursing chef holds a bit of truth to it. Titling herself HBIC (Head B***h In Charge), she gives the audience the definition of what makes a great caterer as opposed to just a good one, “We head bang your taste buds!” 

Rossi makes her way into the on-stage kitchen to begin preparing some treats for the audience when she is interrupted by her mother (played beautifully by Davida Bloom) making her way on stage. Rossi is stunned but keeps up her banter, “Mom, What are you doing here? You died in 1992!” To which Mom replies, “Jewish mothers never die!” What follows is a trip down memory lane – delving into Rossi’s childhood, her beginnings as a chef and her often tumultuous relationship with her mother.

We dive in and out of Rossi’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing, although Rossi and Mom acknowledge it wasn’t always “Orthodox.”  “Mom was the queen of finding loopholes in being Jewish,” Rossi states at one point, followed by a shrug from Mom. Occasionally the memories are tender, but often they are filled with strife and explode into arguments on stage, opening old wounds for both. Throughout the exchanges, DJ Skillet takes on supporting roles – Rossi’s first girlfriend who was chased out of her apartment at knife point by Mom, a sales lady in a southern discount department store on the day Elvis died, a distraught neighborhood mother who doesn’t want Rossi influencing her daughter, Rossi’s father, a Russian mobster who gave Rossi her first big break. We see glimpses of the experiences that formed Rossi, and chuckle at her irritation towards her mother’s naivete and intrusive ways, knowing that parents (and often specifically mothers) can bring a sense of embarrassment, frustration and outright anger throughout our lives. It isn’t until Mom storms off after Rossi explodes in an expletive rant about her mother’s meddling that we start to realize we may not have the full picture. (Do we ever?) DJ Skillet starts to lay into Rossi about how maybe she should have a little more respect for Mom. Mom storms in, thrusting a book into Rossi’s hands, “I wrote a book too!” she yells. Quickly turning on her heels to leave again. It’s then we, and Rossi, see who her mom was before she was Mom. Often the voice of reason throughout, DJ Skillet implies that maybe Rossi needs to take a step back in her judgment of Mom and realize for all her faults, she loved Rossi dearly and did her best to make sure she had a good life. As Rossi states, and I’m paraphrasing “As I was running away, I didn’t realize that maybe Mom wanted to come too.”

Throughout the awesome ‘80s soundtrack, hilarious stories and celebrity sightings, one thing that comes through loud and clear in Raging Skillet is Rossi’s love for her mother, Mom’s never ending influence upon her life and a longing of sorts to have her criticism and complaining back. Bravo to the cast and crew for an uproariously good time that leaves you wanting to go home and call your mom, and Brava to Rossi for being such an amazing story teller!

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Raging Skillet is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre until December 22nd. Get your tickets here.

Theatre Review: ‘Detroit ’67’ at Blackfriars Theatre

Set in July 1967, a time which would become known as the Long Hot Summer as race riots plagued American cities such as Newark, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee and of course, Detroit, Dominique Morisseau’s play Detroit ‘67 leaves the audience with a lot to reflect upon.

. . .an amazing performance. . .

The play opens in the basement of siblings Chelle and Lank’s house. They’ve buried their father six months prior and now that the will has been settled, are ready to start getting their lives back to normal. Normal includes after hours parties in their basement to help pay the mortgage as well as tuition for Chelle’s son to attend the Tuskegee Institute. They both agree the inheritance they received will be used primarily to pay for tuition, but once Lank’s friend, Sly informs him a local bar is being sold soon, Lank’s view of where this money should go to changes. As Lank and Sly try to convince Chelle the bar is a way to have a legitimate business of their own and a steadier income, tensions between the Detroit police and the African American communities continue to mount.While the violence in the streets rises to a fevered pitch, Lank and Sly bring more tension to the basement setting when they bring home Caroline, an unconscious white woman. Having found her disoriented and badly beaten in the streets, Lank insists on bringing her home in case whoever did this was coming back to finish the job. Chelle and Sly both argue this decision is foolhardy and will only bring trouble to the family, but Lank’s compassion for Caroline’s humanity eventually rules out and Chelle agrees to allow her to stay for a week if she helps them with their after hours parties. On the surface this proves to be a good idea since their revenue from parties increases significantly, but as more comes out about Caroline’s back story (some of which is provided by Chelle’s close friend, Bunny who has her finger on the pulse of the neighborhood’s information line) conflict continues to rise between the characters mirroring the violence that is increasing in the streets outside of the safety of the basement walls.

Detroit ‘67 covers obvious topics of race relations, police violence and class struggles, but also delves into topics of love, family connections, the desire to make a better life for oneself, make your mark on the world and keep those around you safe. Chelle and Lank struggle with their conflicting viewpoints – Chelle wanting the safety of what she has and only willing to look as far as tomorrow; Lank wanting something more for himself and to have a future more secure than it’s been. Chelle is the realist, viewing things as they are. Lank is the dreamer, seeing things as what they might be. Throughout, the one constant is their deep love for one another as family and their commitment to stand by one another no matter what. “We stuck together at the root.” as Chelle says to Lank at one point. 

Punctuating the play and enhancing the underlying themes is a steady stream of Motown music. With such well known groups as The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and Martha and The Vandellas, the music helps to set the atmosphere of the time. Lyrics which many of us sing without a second thought, become so much more poignant when set against the action on stage. 

As powerful as Ms. Morisseau’s play is, it’s the actors in this production who truly bring it to life, forcing the audience to confront the harsh truths which are presented. Ashona Pulliam as Chelle puts on an amazing performance bringing the full range of emotions of the character to the stage. Chelle’s internal struggle with the desire to support her brother’s dreams and the need to keep him safe in the reality of the world they are living in and the violence that is erupting around them is palpable to the audience. Pulliam’s talent shines as the audience watches Chelle fight to keep her heart safe from further hurt while being pulled toward the love that Sly offers. Tahina McPherson as Bunny offers the audience a much needed comic relief in a play filled with heavy, emotional topics and helps bring the self-assured character to life. McPherson’s Bunny acts as a softening in some ways to the intensity of Pulliam’s Chelle. The two actors work well together on stage, building off of each other’s emotions and creating an ebb and flow the audience can relate to. Aceyon Owens’ Sly, much like McPherson’s Bunny often adds an element of comic relief to a scene. In addition, Owens helps bring to life the struggle Sly experiences trying to make a living for himself as an African American man living in the ghetto of Detroit – trying to make ends meet, the struggle to get a foothold in life and the intense frustration at being blocked by white authorities (often crooked police) at every turn. Laron Dewberry’s Lank and Melanie McBride’s Caroline provide an idealistic view of what the world could be. Dewberry brings an intensity to Lank’s desire to make a better life for himself as well as a softness to Lank’s view that maybe the world can be a different place than what currently exists if we can see the humanity within each other. McBride’s Caroline brings the conflict of the streets into the family dynamics of Chelle and Lank, and forces the audience to question their own beliefs of what reality is.

Detroit ‘67 runs at Blackfriars Theatre until November 3rd. See it while you can. It truly is an amazing performance, and make sure to leave some time after for much needed discussions on the many topics this play brings up which continue to be relevant today.

Run time: 120 minutes with one intermission

Deals with adult themes and topics

Detroit ‘67 is playing at Blackfriars Theatre until November 3rd. Get your tickets at www.blackfriars.org

Theatre Review: ‘Indecent’ at JCC CenterStage

The cast of “Indecent” at JCC Centerstage.

Set throughout the first half of the 1900s, “Indecent” takes the audience on a journey of a play within a play. On the surface, this production is about Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance and the controversy surrounding it. Written in 1906 in Yiddish, the play dealt with the love between a prostitute and the daughter of the brothel owner. It included Jewish prostitutes, a lesbian scene and the throwing of a Torah across the stage. While God of Vengeance is a forever present character winding its way throughout “Indecent,” the audience actually gets to see very little of the original play aside from the closing Torah scene and eventually the infamous “rain scene”. (To see the original play, check out the free event at CenterStage on April 10th at 7PM).

. . .the CenterStage cast does an excellent job . . .

What “Indecent” actually focuses on is the journey this play took from the first reading in the salon of I. L. Peretz in Poland, to its original production in Berlin, to its performances throughout Europe and eventually the Bowery Theatre in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan and culminating in its Broadway debut. The cast deftly takes the audience through this journey, welcoming us to the performance as if we are participating in a Yiddish theatre production from the “Old Country.” We are quickly immersed in the scene and then just as quickly transported elsewhere. The back and forth between vignettes of everyday life, historical events, the performance of the play itself, rehearsals of the play and the real life dramas surrounding the original cast can often leave the audience feeling as if they’ve been spun around and now need to find which way is forward. My partner, who joined me in this viewing, found this back and forth confusing, but for myself, this piece was what made this production so poignant. The unsteadiness, the not knowing mirrored Asch’s own uncertainty throughout the play. Why couldn’t Yiddish writing tell the stories of all  the Jewish people, not just the “good” ones? Was he doing the right thing by putting this story out into the public? How could he focus on his play and writings when there was so much horror going on that was being ignored?

Carl Del Buono expertly channels this up and down of emotions in his portrayal of Asch, leading the audience from his young, idealistic days of an emerging writer and playwright, to his success in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to his tortured psyche after observing the beginnings of the Holocaust throughout Europe.

Maya June Dwyer’s Madje is one of the forces encouraging Asch to follow his heart that things can be better, that these stories need to be told. It is Madje’s voice which continually pushes Asch to remember his idealism and to attempt to call him back to himself in the darkest of times.

Stefan Cohen’s Lemml takes on the roles of narrator, stage manager and the voice of hope and belief that there are better ways to do life, the belief that we are all human, inherently good and deserving of love. He mirrors Madje in the beginning and his enthusiasm and joy after the first reading Asch does in Peretz’s salon acts as a counter to the negative reception the play is given from Peretz and his fellow writers. It is Lemml’s belief in the inherent worth of Asch’s words which encourages Asch to fight for the plays production and it is Lemml who continues to believe in the necessity of telling these stories even in the darkest of times.

Underneath all that this play is on the surface, there is the undercurrent of so many facets of life. The want or need to assimilate in a new culture yet hold fast to your identity. The need to be seen as wholly human even when your life does not reflect the dominant thinking. Secular versus religious. Immigrant versus Native. The desire to be seen as an equal, to have worth. The need to have your story told and acknowledged as having value. “Indecent” touches on so many of these themes and the CenterStage cast does an excellent job of taking the audience on this ride of what is moral, what is “right,” what does it mean to be human and experience life fully.

Running Time: 2 hours with no intermission

“Indecent” is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre in Rochester until April 14th. Get your tickets here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Humans’ at Geva Theatre Center

The cast of “The Humans” at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester.

Set in a turn of the century tenement apartment building in New York City’s Chinatown on Thanksgiving 2013, “The Humans” offers the audience a complex view of intergenerational struggles. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this play going in, but the write up framed it as a production about middle class struggles. What was middle class? Who were the middle class and how is it that so many people with wide ranges of income classify themselves as middle class? While class was certainly an undertone of the production, this was not the main theme for me.

. . .a definite “must see.”

Performed in one act, The Humans opens with Richard Saad preparing Thanksgiving dinner for his girlfriend, Brigid Blake, and her family. Brigid comes in through the upstairs/ground flour door with her parents, sister and grandmother. They have traveled in to NYC from Scranton, Pennsylvania to see Brigid and Richard’s new apartment. Brigid is clearly excited to have found such a gem as a duplex apartment in Manhattan and wants her family’s approval. The uncomfortableness and agitation I felt at this opening scene gives testament to the actors excellent ability to portray the tensions often felt within a family, particularly around holiday times. Regan Moro’s Brigid is full of enthusiasm for this new living arrangement but is quick to get defensive and combative with anyone who says anything that she perceives as being a criticism of her life choices. There is clear tension between all of the Blake family. “Momo” Blake’s declining health due to dementia is an obvious catalyst for family strife, but as the play continues, the audience finds deeper levels of struggle for each of the family members which plays into the growing tension.

As an outsider, Thamer Jendoubi’s Richard tries throughout the play to find his place. Vacillating between ingratiating himself to Brigid’s parents and defending her and himself against their criticism, his character acts as a sort of pendulum between the generations. It is hinted that Richard is older than Brigid, but the audience never finds out how much older. In many instances, his thinking seems to be more in line with Dierdre and Erik rather than Aimee and Brigid. Coming from Connecticut and a different class background than the Blakes, he also personifies the tension between the younger and older generations. Where “Momo” came from poverty and struggle as an Irish immigrant in NYC and Deirdre and Erik have made a life for themselves in a working class/blue collar town, Aimee and Brigid have moved back to big city living and into a seemingly higher economic bracket.

Throughout the play, topics of religion, health care, living conditions, food choices, how we spend our money, traditions and family trauma act as a foil for the differences between each of the family members. As much as each generation has grown and changed though, in the end the love that they feel for one another comes through. They may not always understand each other and may be disappointed in decisions each has made along the way, but their commitment to staying connected to each other is a constant. That connection is what makes “The Humans” so relatable. Throughout the play I was kept tense and on-edge, which is a credit to the actors’ performance. Although I’m not sure I could sit through the tension a second time, this production is a definite “must see.”

Run time: about 90 minutes with no intermission

“The Humans” is playing at Geva Theatre until March 17, 2019 in Rochester. Click here for more information.

Theatre Review: ‘Ordinary Days’ at Blackfriars Theatre

The cast of ‘Ordinary Days’ at Blackfriars Theatre. Photo by Megan Colombo.

Within the ordinary hides the potential for the extraordinary. Set in New York City circa 2008, “Ordinary Days” follows the lives of four ordinary individuals. Each a transplant to the city, having their own hopes and dreams, their own “big picture,” yet each struggles with what it means when inevitably life happens and their picture has changed from a classic portrait to a modern art abstract.

The acting is superb. . .

Warren (Hector Manuel) and Deb (Kit Prelewitz) are fresh faced twenty-somethings, their ideals still intact when the audience first meets them. Doubt in their grand plans slowly creeps in as the reality of day to day living in a city like New York starts to become apparent. While Deb holds fast to her original plans, becoming more rigid and jaded in the process, Warren has an easier time of holding on to his sunny outlook on life by letting go of his expectations, and more clearly seeing the “big picture” for what it really is.

Jason (Colin D. Pazik) and Claire (Emily Putnam) are a couple in their thirties, struggling to figure out what their next steps are in life. Having more life experience than Warren and Deb, both know that life plans can change in a moment. On the surface, their paths seem to be joined, but when they look deeper into their life picture, they start to wonder if they are starting to diverge from each other.

As a former New Yorker myself, I loved this musical. Frequent references to New York City landmarks (The Met, Penn Station, Union Square) made me nostalgic for my own time in “The City.” I could relate so much to the idealism of Warren and Deb, having come to New York as a twenty-something myself, as well as the more experienced reality of what life really is as seen through the eyes of Jason and Claire. Hector Manuel’s portrayal of Warren was a refreshing balance of comedy to the edgy stress of Kit Prelewitz’s Deb. Colin D. Pazik’s Jason still holds on to fragments of that idealism that brought him to New York to begin with, but Emily Putnam’s Claire has clearly lost that. (We find out why later in the production.)

The production is done well. The acting is superb, each actor exploring the depths of what goes through an individual’s inner dialog in these ordinary day moments. I particularly liked Hector’s ability to insert humor within each of his scenes and Kit’s frequent ramp ups to an apparent crisis with a sudden aside that brings us all down to the reality of the situation. The scenery is minimal but once the actors are on stage they are able to create the scene with ease for the audience. New York City, a fifth character, comes alive under the talent of these four individuals. The hustle and bustle of the city streets, the often cramped living and travel conditions, the underlying frustration of trying to get around, as well as the gloriousness that the city has to offer all come through like a beautiful Monet painting. Musical Director, Andy Pratt’s Billy Joel-like piano man, has a wonderful ability to play the music as well as simultaneously deliver witty wordless “lines” adding to the underlying comedy of the production.

“Ordinary Days” leaves you with so much to think about in the end. How life can change in an instant. How seemingly ordinary moments can tell a lifetime of stories. How a picture at first glance can seem simple but can hold a depth of complexity that would have been missed if we hadn’t taken the time to really savor it. Finding that, while it’s the extraordinary that often changes the trajectories of our lives, it’s the ordinary of every day that brings meaning to them.

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

“Ordinary Days” is playing at Blackfriars Theatre until February 17, 2018 in Rochester. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Hitmakers – The British Are Coming!’ at JCC CenterStage Theatre

The British are coming! The British are coming! Or at least they are in the JCC CenterStage cover band version. For the fifth year, CenterStage creates their take on a rockumentary, this time focusing on the British Invasion of the 1960s. The writing and directing team of Jack Garner, Esther Winter, Casey Filiaci and Ralph Meranto definitely hit this one out of the park.  Although I’m a bit young to have experienced this music in its original live form, this was the music of my formative years. The coming of age music for my parents, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Animals and The Rolling Stones were frequent background music to my early childhood, so I was excited to see this show. I was not disappointed when I looked at the lineup, knowing about 98% of the songs listed.

. . .go see this show, sing along, clap your hands and get up and dance!

Performing with a live band and screen projections of album covers of the era, the nine performers in “Hitmakers” do an excellent job entertaining the audience and singing covers of some of the most famous rock songs of this period. Although all of the performances were done well, there were some that really stood out. Janine Mercandetti’s performance of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” was phenomenal! Her powerful voice adding a depth of soul and grittiness that is necessary for this song to be a success.  Laura Jean Smillie Diekmann’s rendition of “Downtown” could have been mistaken for Petula Clark herself, and Jordan Bachmann and Marc Cataldi’s version of The Beatles “Blackbird” was spot on.

Interspersed throughout the production are historical tidbits which were nice breaks between songs and genres. The audience is told how the American 1950s Rock-n-Roll made its way across the pond to England in the form of bootleg albums and radio broadcasts picked up from passing ships by British teenagers. We learn how the Brits formulated their own version of Rock-n-Roll starting with The Beatles, who eventually made their way back across the pond to the United States in the 1960s. The back and forth, and evolution of this art form including the Blond Blue-eyed Soul Movement with Dusty Springfield, the “satirizing” groups like the Monkees and John Fred and His Playboy Band, and ending with the psychedelics of the late ‘60s helped to spread Rock-n-Roll worldwide.

This is a fun, upbeat performance and definitely one to check out for anyone who loves this music genre. A few of the renditions were a bit kitschy, “Wild Thing” by The Troggs and “My Generation” by The Who come to mind, but over all added to the show as a whole. My only complaint would be the lack of audience enthusiasm. I don’t know how you hear these songs and this music and not sing along, or get up and dance in the aisles! This, of course, was not due to any lack of trying on the performers parts. All of them frequently tried to get the audience clapping or singing along, with little success. (This has been a frequent observation of mine at many musical performances in Rochester, so I don’t think it’s unique to this show in particular.) My advice if you go see this show, sing along, clap your hands and get up and dance!

Run time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

“Hitmakers: The British are Coming”  is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre until February 17, 2019 in Rochester. For more information, click here.