Photograph 51 Holds the Secret of Life at JRT

One of my favorite James Taylor songs begins with these lyrics: “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time…”

Sometimes we’re robbed of time. Sometimes we’re robbed of opportunity. Part of the human condition. For real-life British scientist Rosalind Franklin, the focus of Photograph 51, presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre, her early death (at age 37 from ovarian cancer), robbed her of both, and so much more.

Franklin was a ground-breaking researcher with a fascination for shapes, images, and patterns. In fact, the show begins with her monologue as she reminisces about looking through a camera for the first time at an arrangement of fallen leaves. She wasn’t creating art, she says, she was fascinated by the shapes refracted through the lens. This curiosity led her to the field of xray crystallography, the study of molecular and atomic cellular structure. The repeated and organized patterns that make up cells hold the secret of life and all its creations. She was hooked.

One quick sidebar: the study of crystallography may spark resonance with Buffalonians, as downtown Buffalo is home to the National Crystallization Center (a national resource for crystallography research) located in the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute. Ironically, the Institute’s founding in 1956 was funded  by the largesse of a woman, Helen Woodward Rivas, whose family wealth came from the Genesee Pure Food Company, the makers of Jell-O…crystals of an entirely different ilk.

Back to the show.  In short, it’s riveting. Kristen Tripp Kelley is focused and fiery as Franklin. She makes the visceral passion and determination of a scientist incredibly real and palpable. You can see Franklin’s intensity through every movement of Kelley’s pencil in her journal or the turn of her head. You feel her anger when she’s marginalized by her peers. The supporting cast – a group of five male scientists in pursuit of their own scholarly work – orbit around Franklin with varying levels of dismissive disdain and vague fascination. Could this 1950s-era woman of all things really be on the cusp of a discovery that would change how we view the building blocks of life and cure disease, too? It was that chance glimpse of an image – the infamous Photograph 51 – that held the proverbial key.  Jacob Albarella as Francis Crick, Ray Boucher as Don Casper, Dan Torres as Ray Gosling, Adam Yellen as James Watson are each fine in their roles. It’s John Profeta’s portrayal of Maurice Wilkins, the biophysicist who ‘assumed’ Franklin was joining his Kings College lab to support his work, is captivating – first in his arrogance and later in his veiled admiration – and is a perfect foil for Kelley as Franklin.

Staging is sparse and spare thanks to designer David Dwyer’s deft hand and elegantly lit by Brian Cavanagh.  They create a mood here that’s nuanced enough to have subtle power. Your focus is oh so meant to be on words by playwright Anna Ziegler and purposeful stage movement orchestrated by director Katie Mallinson. Sublime.

There’s a lot to unpack in this production. Franklin knew her work was leading to major breakthroughs, yet her peers didn’t honor her contributions. Cancer took her life before she could make further professional strides. Even the Nobel Prize committee – which lauded the work of her peers with the prize in Chemistry  in 1962 and later awarded another colleague the same prize for advanced crystallography work in 1982 – didn’t grant her posthumous recognition.   

In reading about Franklin’s real life, she did indeed travel to the U.S., albeit not to Buffalo, where a woman’s support was quietly developing a facility where researchers (many who happen to be women) have made – and are still making – life changing discoveries in crystallography and other fields of science. Dr. Franklin, they are grateful for your bold manner and solid work.

Photograph 51 is 90 minutes long (one act) with no intermission, onstage at the Maxine and Robert Sellers Theatre in Getzville, until November 14. Visit https://www.jccbuffalo.org/jrt/ for tickets and details.

Tootsie – Now on Stage at Shea’s

Full disclosure: I generally don’t enjoy productions that morph from screen to stage.

I prepared myself to embrace Tootsie, now on stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, with an open mind, and pushed my 1982 movie memories to the back of my brain. So a show with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (writing for screen to stage shows is his thing, having done so for The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrel, Women on the Verge…, and The Band’s Visit which is next on stage at Shea’s), seeing Buffalo gal Dominique Kempf in her first national tour, and the opportunity to be back in Shea’s again after a long intermission, how can it be bad?

Truth be told, it wasn’t horrible. Nor was it the best thing I’ve seen in this venerable house. Yazbek’s score was lively and clever, albeit not terribly memorable, beginning with an overture (a wonderful throwback that most musicals skip nowadays…there was an ent’racte, too) and a bright and snappy opening number. Straight up we meet Michael Dorsey (played by Drew Becker), a struggling stage actor and waiter who has high-minded opinions about the roles he is offered – and regrettably loses –  thanks to his passion for truth and depth. His roommate and aspiring playwright Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant) is his deadpan sidekick. Grant has some of the best lines with perfect delivery, too. He even cleaned up Bill Murray’s iconic observation of his roommate’s dual persona ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38lkRCedEys).

Up next is Michael’s ex girlfriend Sandy Lester (Payton Reilly), a whirlwind of neuroses and emotions as she clamors for acting roles, too. Her repeated “What’s Gonna Happen” theme song is a study in rapid fire words and feelings in a funny sort of jumble. Sandy is pursuing a role in a sequel to Romeo and Juliet, and she when isn’t cast, Michael decides to audition, too…in the persona of Dorothy Michaels, a good ol’Southern girl who speaks her mind and by golly don’t people start listening. He wins the role and influences a plot pivot and title change. Michael as Dorothy is admired and liked and heard…and is falling in love with his leading lady (Ashley Alexandra) who thinks Dorothy is her new mentor. But the cast dumb-as-a-post hunk Max (Lukas James Miller) is falling for Dorothy, too. What’s a girl/guy to do?

In between all this, there are lovely costumes (the ‘50s styles glam gorgeous billowy ball gowns), some wonderful choreography, and plenty of funny bits. There is some meat behind the plot, too: self-realization and the value of true friends and digging deep to do what’s right all will prevail. It was also great to see Ashley Alexandra in her leading role: she’s a full figured woman cast in a part that – in a less inclusive world – might have gone to someone else. Brava. What I didn’t love were the overly long pregnant pauses to milk the laughs for an extra beat or two.

This is the first national tour for the Tony Award-winning show and the cast projects a strong ensemble vibe. It was wonderful to see Kempf on this stage, after enjoying her outstanding work at MusicalFare Theatre’s Ragtime, and West Side Story.

The story may be ho-hum but the energy is high and overall it’s entertaining. And Shea’s, it’s just good to be home.

Tootsie runs a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission; it is onstage until October 16: visit sheas.org for details.

All Through the Night Opens Varlets’ Season

The cast of “All Through The Night.”

Those of us of a certain age may remember watching “Fractured Fairy Tales,” one of Jay Ward’s staples in weekend morning TV cartoons. Each installment put a different spin on a traditional fairytale that –truth be told – was probably meant to appeal to the adults watching with their kids.

All Through the Night  by Shirley Lauro is staged by the 15 years-fabulous Brazen-Faced Varlets at Alleyway Theatre and it uses a chillingly fairytale set up to tell the story of a group of German Gentile woman in the never-idyllic days of Nazis and World War II.

Scripted as a series of vignettes (complete with fairytale titles displayed on her work table) with  Ludmilla – the village baker – as the moderator, All Through the Night is painfully, poignantly, all too real account of how Nazism manipulated and brainwashed its followers to spew hate and pain on any person who didn’t fit the party’s idea of perfection.

Ludmilla (Kaeli McGinnis) starts the show with lots of cheery smiles and vocal animation as she reflects on the girls she knew and the village girl’s school. School is changing, jah, as the “man on the hill” is promising a new society. And change it does. We meet Angelika (Jessie Miller) a devout Catholic who dreams of running a clinic in Africa, Friederike (Sarah Emmerling), the wealthy rebel who skips school to listen to American jazz at a verboten cabaret, and Gretchen (Stefanie Warnick), the good girl who wants to please authority thinking it will help her family.  Kathleen Rooney appears in multiple roles identified as the The Fraus, first as the school’s new headmistress, then the nurse at a Third Reich-run hospital, and finally as the sadistic leader of the women’s tent in the village square.  The story leads the ensemble from school girl innocence to shrewd, cunning women doing what they can to survive. Frederike’s wealth doesn’t elevate her from humiliation. Angelika’s faith doesn’t deliver her from suffering. Gretchen’s party loyalty doesn’t lead her to the perfect life. Each actor is strong and tight in their role. McGinnis’ Ludmilla and Rooney’s Frau roles are at opposite end of the spectrum: Mc Ginnis’ Ludmilla grows wiser in adversity and Rooney’s Frau just gets more evil. You have to love Ludmilla’s optimism: she’s a survivor to the core and McGinnis plays her just right. It was interesting to note that the ensemble actors are all  brunette and dark eyed while Rooney’s natural blonde hair and blue eyes were solitary reminders of the Aryan goal. While she may look like the kind-hearted Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life sitcom, she was cold to the bone.  Good casting across the board.

Director Lara D. Haberberger wisely kept staging, props, and costuming intentionally simple to allow focus to stay fixed on the script. Rachel Maggs used reversible aprons to transform school to-prisoner-to worker uniforms. Heather Fansgrud’s set was tiered platforms against a lit stockade fence. Props were simple or suggested.  While the director’s notes in the program state that Haberberger had this show on her RADAR for a time, now is the right time to see this production. Admittedly at times it’s not easy to watch: and it’s a startling reminder of inhumane cruelty, yet there are moments of hope and goodness.

There were a few moments when the German words sprinkled into the dialogue were more distracting than evocative, and the attempts at an affected accent were just too phony. (I heard some upper East side New York City socialite in one of Rooney’s speeches.) 

Ludmilla does indeed get her ‘happily ever after’ in this grown up fairytale, even at great expense to humanity. Or in the words of conceptual  artist Jenny Holzer, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.”

All Through the Night runs a long two and quarter hours with one 10-minute intermission, until October 24. Visit www.varlets.org for details.

“To the New Girl…” at New Phoenix Theatre

Sarah Emmerling as Elissa

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

And if that woman has your address  – physical or email – there’s a good chance you’re gonna hear from her.

Sharing pearls of personal wisdom between the about-to-be-ex and the trade-in is the premise behind To The New Girl from the Former Mrs. ___: Sound Advice for my husband’s new wife or mistress on stage now at the New Phoenix Theatre. Playwright and filmmaker Samantha Macher wrote the stage version in 2011 (she later adapted it to a film) with 10 different women actors delivering epistolary monologues. The one thing they all have in common:  they have something to say to the person who now is the proverbial apple of her husband’s eye.

Each monologue is a story onto itself and the actors range in age, marital (or not) commitment, and social status. Infidelity is the great equalizer here.

The staging is simple: maybe one or two set pieces are moved to a dark stage with as many props per scene. It’s stark which adds extra emphasis on the works and the delivery.

It starts off innocent enough, with even a bit a humor. Zoe (Jessie Miller) is a former internet dominatrix whose beau has an adult baby fetish (yup, he’s the baby) and she aghast that there’s another woman in town willing to play mama. Next up is Miriam (Kathleen Recchione), a Jewish grandmother whose husband announces at Seder that he’s starting over…with a Catholic woman. Bethany (Vanessa Shevat) is calculating as she is charming as she plans how to manage her televangelist husband’s fling with…a man. Davida Tolbert is Sheila, a woman who can’t bring a pregnancy to term who learns her husband’s  new interest gave birth to twins. Her anger fierce, her disappointment in her body is palpable, and she manages to land some of the only purely funny lines of the night (“I hope your baby is as fat as Oprah in the ‘90s…”).  Ciara Davie is Faye, the youngest of the team, whose ex is a felon holding her engagement ring hostage. Alexis (Kari Becker) is the wealthy social climber, who coldly tells her daughter’s nanny that her husband’s abuse is part of the gig. Karen (Kathryn Schneider) is the teacher who finds a former student is her husband’s new study buddy.  Melanie (Pandora Kew, also the co-producer) is completely enraged as she offers strong warnings to her replacement, as sheshares horrific details of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. Elissa (Sarah Emmerling) dons her bridal gown as she reflects on her husband’s admission of longing for his high school sweetheart. Mary Craig ends the show on wistful, bittersweet note as Give ‘Em Hell, Harriet, whose loving husband Harold lives his final days in a nursing home as his withering capacities direct him to a fellow patient.

It is an emotional roller coaster with 10 different highs and lows of heartbreak, disappointment, anger, and a twist of revenge planning, too.  With only a few minor quibbles (Elissa’s bed might have been angled differently and Karen’s story seemed a bit disjointed) , each actor does a solid job telling their character’s story, from Alexis’ frosty facts of privileged life  to Zoe’s kitten-with-a-switch outrage. It’s Kew and Craig who make you sit a little straighter in your seat. Kew is visibly trembling with anger from the moment her light comes up. Her jaw is tensed so tightly the words growl from her lips. Two scenes later, Craig is tender and loving as her memory is fading from her husband’s mind. They were married 57 years (58 in August), she says, and as he turns his affection to someone else, he is still her great love. This was the perfect way to end this often biting and bitter show. Sometimes love shouldn’t, couldn’t fade away, even in the ultimate betrayal.

Permit me one minor rant here: I love everything there is about WNY theatre, from big to small, Theatre District across town to the ‘burbs. All live theatre is good (even when it’s not) and deserves support and engagement. That’s my main reason for volunteering as a reviewer (I’m the first to admit I’m not the theatrical authority, I’m just a Buffalo gal who wants to encourage others to support local theatre). It’s not lost on me that the house at New Phoenix was pretty light in its second weekend, while a few blocks east, another theatre was packed and enjoying a stunningly presented fantasy about two other less than real women. There is room for fantasy and reality in life and on stage. It’s my hope that the fantasy seekers also make the time and allocate personal resources to see locally produced shows, too, whether it is another musical, drama or comedy.  Rant over.

“To the New Girl…” runs a tight 90 minutes with no intermission until October 3. Visit www.newphoenixtheatre.com for details and tickets.

Local mother and daughter among those impacted by Kenny Awards

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Buffalo, NY – Shea’s Performing Arts Center and The Lipke Foundation will celebrate 25 years of the Kenny Awards, a year-long educational initiative which includes performances, numerous awards, theatre workshops and a fully realized ceremony open to the public.

The 25th Annual Kenny Awards ceremony will be held at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre on Saturday, May 12, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. The ceremony is the culmination of a year-long program that honors and recognizes the talent, hard work, and dedication of area students and teachers to high school musical theatre in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, and Allegany counties.

This year’s ceremony is especially meaningful to Michelle and Emma Jeziorowski, a mother and daughter who are now both Kenny Award participants – Michelle in 1993-1994 for the West Seneca West production of Pippin, and Emma in 2017-2018 for the WSW production of Anything Goes. As fate would have it, Michelle won the Kenny Award in its inaugural year, while her daughter is currently a nominee as the program celebrates its 25th anniversary.

“As a student the Kennys 25 years ago brought some recognition to the fantastic music programs that our high schools in the area have. As a mom, I started sharing my love of the arts with my own daughter at a young age.  She was bit by the stage bug and never looked back,” said Michelle Jeziorowski. “Twenty-five years later, seeing her perform on the same stage that I did, in the same music department, honoring the same traditions – my heart just beams with pride.  To be able to say that two generations of our family have been able to be part of a program that gives back so much to the community is amazing.”

“Getting chosen for the Kenny has allowed me to see even more of the theatre. As I enter my senior year, I get to take with me the memories of being on stage with my closest friends. Not only that, but being on the same stage that my mom stood on when she was my age,” added daughter Emma Jeziorowski. “My mom showed me the theatre, and her love of music and the arts passed down to me. I can only hope that the Kennys will be here another 25 years. Then my children will be able to stand on the same stage and get to feel that rush of adrenalin when the curtain goes up.”

“Like Michelle and Emma Jeziorowski, there’s a strong generational connection with the Kenny Awards for my family and others,” said Carlisle Lipke, Director of the Kenny Awards. “My mom started the Kenny Awards to honor my father’s love of theatre 25 years ago and eventually passed it onto me to continue the legacy.”

Since the inception of the program, the Kenny Awards have recognized and honored countless outstanding musical productions in local high schools and put $120,000 into area high school theatre programs.  Now in its 25th year, the Kenny Awards will again recognize local high school talent for excellence in producing and performing musicals with host and Kenny alum Lauren Hall from One Buffalo.

Tickets are now on sale for $8 and may be purchased online at www.ticketmaster.com, by phone at 1-800-745-3000, or in-person at Shea’s Box Office, 650 Main Street. The day of the ceremony, tickets may be purchased for $10 at the door.

Applications for this year’s Kenny Awards program were accepted in October and reviewed by the panel of Kenny adjudicators. From the applicant pool, 10 schools were selected to participate as finalists in this year’s program and be eligible for the Outstanding Musical Production award. The finalists for the 2018 Kenny Awards are:

Buffalo Academy for the Visual & Performing Arts – Chicago

Dunkirk High School – Little Shop of Horrors

Eden Jr/Sr High School – Catch Me If You Can

Forestville Central School – Disney’s Beauty & the Beast

Lewiston Porter High School – Into the Woods

Pioneer Central School – Mary Poppins

St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Starpoint High School – Mary Poppins

Tonawanda High School – Jekyll & Hyde

West Seneca West Senior High School – Anything Goes

The Kenny adjudicators viewed and evaluated the productions and determined the nominees and winners based on what they saw. There are 15 award categories, including “The Kenny” for Outstanding Musical Production in which the winning school receives a $5,000 grant from the Lipke Foundation to be used solely by the school’s theatre department. Other awards include individual performances in leading and supporting roles, as well as areas of technical production, orchestration, choreography, set design, and dance performance.

The Kenny Awards is one of 40 regional awards programs nationwide participating in the National High School Musical Awards Program, aka The Jimmy Awards, which will allow the selected Outstanding Leading Actress and Actor of the Kenny Awards to win an all-expenses-paid, week-long trip to New York City to compete in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards in June, 2018.

This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will include rehearsals and coaching sessions with Broadway performers, performances, and other beneficial experiences. Participants in “The Jimmy Awards” will compete for various college scholarships.

Ceremony tickets are available now through a finalist school for $8.00 presale.

For information on the Kenny Award Program, visit KennyAwards.weebly.com or contact Shea’s Education Coordinator Holly Grant at (716) 829-1171 or hgrant@sheas.org.

 

 

Theatre Review: ‘Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope’ at The Paul Robeson Theatre

Can’t cope? Dreary winter weather got you down? Finding the TV as dull as dirty roadside snow since the Winter Olympics ended? You may want to take a trip to the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center where the musical revue “Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope” is sure to ignite a spark to thaw the winter blues away.

. . .one of the best musical ensembles you’ll see in Buffalo Theatre this season.

The 1973 Tony nominee for Best Musical, with music, lyrics and book by Micki Grant, celebrates the African-American experience as seen from the heart and disco soul of the 1970s. Its message of tolerance and perseverance still resonates today.

Director and choreographer Carlos R. A. Jones has assembled a talented group of singers and dancers who raise the theatre with spectacular voice and electrify the stage with extravagant foot work from nearly every imaginable dance step.

Video projections draped along the back of the stage, from the Obamas to The Cosby Show families, provides a history of Black America, and while changing as rapidly as the dance steps, never obscures the powerful messaging coming from the stage. I especially liked the history of popular dance steps, with the names of the dances – from the Charleston to The Twist and on –  projected on the screen as the cast changed from one dance to the other in exuberant joyous timing. 

The militant and fiery stomping during “They Keep Comin’” while the ensemble shouts/chants milestones in African-American history, is a thrilling theatre experience. Perfectly synchronized, the complex dance arrangement with the emotionally charged vocals, delivers a loving sucker-punch to the gut.

While the first act explodes with rapid-fire pace and surprising turns, the second act is a little less exciting, centering mostly on the same wonderful singing and dancing, but contained within the confines of a Sunday church. This change tempers the revue significantly, as Black Gospel seems a more ordinary response to the street-level activism expressed in the first act.

But that’s a tiny quibble in a show where performances are so engaging, it is difficult to single out any one player. Certainly, London Lee sets the stage solidly with a fine baritone vocal in the first song, “I Gotta Keep Movin’”. Naila Ansari-Woods and Kayla Henigan, in separate dance moments, offer gentle and seductive dance that expresses a global, nearly hypnotic level of freedom from oppression.

The musical combo – David Wells (Bass), Abdul-Rahman Qadir (Percussion), and Musical Director, Frazier Thomas Smith (Keyboards), provides expert accompaniment. During pre-show and intermission, they got me thinking about my old Ramsey Lewis Trio records.

“Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope” is as warm and inviting as a fireplace in winter. It is one of the best musical ensembles you’ll see in Buffalo Theatre this season.

Running Time: 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope” runs through March 25, 2018 at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center. Tickets can be purchased here.

Theatre Review: ‘Far Away’ at Torn Space Theater

The cast of “Far Away” at Torn Space Theatre. Photo by Mark Duggan.

The opening scene of the Torn Space production of Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” is the most engrossing. In it, a young girl named Joan (Allison Barsi) approaches her aunt Harper (Bonnie Jean Taylor) to tell her that she cannot sleep. TST mainstay Taylor is particularly strong, her performance, characterized by restraint as well as range, often grounding what will be a plot-lite and highly suggestive production. The exceptionally talented Barsi — a ninth-grader — matches her, though, perfectly balancing in her delivery a fear of what she saw, an assertion of its truth, and a readiness to believe the best of it.

Fine performances, choreography, set design, sound, and lighting conspire to render powerfully something that is only suggested in Churchill’s script. 

As the girl and the woman, both dressed with a sort of fascicized Puritan sensibility, move about a small room of wood and lit white sheets, not square but opening outward toward the audience, and set on a rounded bottom: Each step an actor takes sends the whole contraption – the home – tilting and thunking from side to side. Intimacy, here, is impossible. Touch is unnatural. There is no comfort in any corner.

From their strained conversation, the audience pieces together that the world is in conflict and even those with intact families and homes live in a state of constant fear and suspicion. “Here we are,” Harper reassures her niece, “in our little bit of space, and I’m on the side of the people who are putting things right.”

We tell ourselves stories in order to live – so Joan Didion says. In the world of “Far Away”, Harper’s simple, flimsy story may be the only one left worth telling. We can almost hear it collapse along with scenographer Kristina Siegel’s house at the close of the act.

The second act opens on an adult Joan (Corrine McLoughlin), now a milliner in a stark, futuristic factory, where she, her coworker Todd (Kalub Thompson), and other artists make high-fashion hats for prisoners. Allusions to corruption, mass incarceration, futility, and execution are layered over the undercurrent of general and all-encompassing conflict, as the dialogue loosely links the themes of aesthetics, imprisonment, observation, judgment, and production and consumption.

“The script for ‘Far Away’ resembles a relief for what could be a vast epic of 20th and 21st century turmoil,” writes director Dan Shanahan. The particulars of culture, geography, and exposition have been erased, leaving only a system at the root of the turmoil.

Following the collapse of the home — a defined, if precarious, “little bit of space” — all of the characters are radically exposed, and slip further into a manic anxiety of affiliation. In Churchill’s world, every constituency of the natural world is at war with every other: Japanese and French, as well as deers, mosquitos, cats, and children under five. Alliances are always shifting: “The dentists have been linked with international dentistry, and that’s where their true loyalties lie,” Joan shouts, in one example of the play’s characteristically quick-guttering humor.

Written and first produced in 2000, Churchill’s play was a frank warning to an increasingly divided world. Nearly 20 years later, the warning’s last echo has died and we see in the work only a stark reification, embodiment, and animation of our hyper-partisanship. When Todd remarks that life here and now is “tiring … because everything’s been recruited,” he is voicing, in Churchill’s simple and effective language, nearly every audience member’s secret end-of-the-workweek thoughts.

Audience members looking for a a satisfying narrative arc, high drama, clever banter, or Aristotelian catharsis would do better to look elsewhere. But for the theatregoer hoping to be unsettled and impregnated with an idea that may not give its first full kick until long after you’ve stepped back out onto Fillmore, “Far Away” is worth seeing. Fine performances, choreography, set design, sound, and lighting conspire to render powerfully something that is only suggested in Churchill’s script. As the descriptions of parties, sides, and alliances multiply and grow increasingly absurd, an absence at the heart of the performance widens. While there are countless Others, there is very little — save accidents of proximity, incarceration, and death — on which to found an “us.”

Running Time: 65 Minutes with a 10 minute intermission.

“Far Away” runs until March 11, 2018 and is presented at Torn Space Theater. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ at MusicalFare Theatre

The cast of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at MusicalFare Theatre. Photo by Jesse Sloier.

There’s a certain advantage to attending a show you know very little about — there are no preconceived notions, and the intent is simply to enjoy the performance. MusicalFare’s production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” certainly delivered a knockout performance for their audience. This musical revue is an enjoyable mix of high-energy ensemble pieces and slower, more intense solo numbers. The show is a revue of pieces written by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, including songs such as “Yakety Yak”, “Charlie Brown”, “Hound Dog”, “Love Potion #9”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “Stand By Me”.

. . .most definitely a show you won’t want to miss.

At first sight, the stage seems well fit for such a production — the set is decorated as a colorful jukebox,  with a sign reading “Wurlitzer” above the stage. The use of moving panels aid in entrances and exits for some of the more intense numbers, and the band is stationed behind a scrim, beneath a neon sign reading “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”. When the stage is lit just so, the band is nearly as visible as the cast members themselves. There was a small solo section for each musician in the opening number of act 2, which had the audience cheering.

One  difficulty with a musical revue is showcasing each performer’s talents without one or a few overpowering the rest. “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” was cast so well that each solo or small group could then seamlessly transition into an ensemble number with ease. Marc Sacco was charming and charismatic onstage in songs in which he was featured more heavily. Brian Brown’s voice is a smooth and clear tenor. Dudney Joseph Jr. brought soul and emotion to his performances. Lorenzo Shawn Parnell’s performances were strong, and he looked at ease on stage. Ben Michael Moran’s rich bass was supplemented by his characteristic facial expressions throughout the show. When all five men were performing together, they created a vocal powerhouse that blew the audience away.

The females in the cast were no different. Victoria Perez and Zoe Scruggs were incredibly soulful; Perez has a gorgeous low range, and Scruggs was, at times, vocally reminiscent of Aretha Franklin. Michele Marie Roberts has a beautiful belt and soprano range, and Nicole Marrale Cimato shone particularly onstage when she was dancing, not to mention her knockout voice. The four women got together for a song entitled “I’m a Woman” and the audience whooped and whistled throughout the performance.

The choreography was extremely well-done by director John Fredo. It was just enough to supplement the vocals, but not too busy to detract from the rest of the show.

It is certainly a feat to do justice to this music, but the cast didn’t let the audience down at any turn. This is most definitely a show you won’t want to miss.

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

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” runs until March 11, 2018 and is presented at Musicalfare Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Over The Tavern’ by Lancaster Regional Players at Lancaster Opera House

Tom Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern” recalls a time when the comedic violence of Woody Woodpecker and the shoot-‘em-up heroics of The Lone Ranger flickered on an absurdly futuristic black and white television set.

. . .impressive and entertaining. . .

A time when juvenile delinquency amounted to crude and simple street graffiti, smuggled and concealed “Playboy” magazines, and experimentation with beehive hairdos.

It is Buffalo, New York, in the late 1950s, and we are at the home of the blue-collar Pazinski family. They live in an apartment above their family owned tavern, Chet’s Bar & Grill.

The family kitchen is stockpiled with an arsenal of sugary breakfast cereals, a cupboard of canned beets, and either milk, Kool-Aid, or beer in the fridge. I don’t know why but it is so Buffalo.

The children’s bedroom is adorned with pictures of favorite TV stars, and the one bathroom and one telephone accommodate only one person at a time.

Chet, husband and father, is a gruff, complaining, hard-nosed provider, and his wife Ellen, is a working-class version of “Leave it to Beaver’s” June Cleaver. Except that Ellen has a more budget minded wardrobe, and you won’t find June snapping off a beer cap alone in her kitchen at the end of a long hard day.

Their concern is their kids who offer them no end of adolescent trouble. Daughter Annie is on the verge of womanhood and is convinced that she will never be desirable to boys, even in her forbidden beehive doo.

Oldest son Eddie is sleeping at the “Y” after an explosive argument with his father, and Rudy is demanding to know exactly what a “soldier for Christ” is on the eve of his Catholic Confirmation. He is not sure he wants to be a “soldier” at all.

Least trouble of all is Georgie, who gleefully shouts out his newly learned “dirty” word at the most inappropriate moments.

Intruding upon this domestic squabbling and sitcom premise, is Sister Clarissa, Rudy’s parochial school teacher who seems part corporal punishment advocate and part devout religious believer. When she visits the family unexpectedly, they scramble and hurriedly mount a picture of Jesus Christ on the refrigerator.

And there you have it. A domestic comedy ripe with familiarity and laughs. Especially if you’re Catholic. But this play is surprising in its dosage of equal parts humor and something approaching anguish. The comedy earns big deserved laughs from the audience, while the drama gets very close to genuine discomfort.

It’s as if the Woody Woodpecker cartoons and the pop-gun sounds of The Lone Ranger have spilled from the TV and have manifested themselves as verbal and physical violence.

Sister Clarissa’s habit of smacking Rudy on the head and rapping his fingers with a wooden ruler is unsettling. Even more disturbing are both Rudy’s and Eddie’s heated proclamations of hatred for their father.

These are genuine moments that are played out as passively as Ellen reaching in the refrigerator for a beer or Georgie clicking on the TV. And before you can absorb these alarming developments, or ponder the state of Catholic School doctrine, the family tumbles into another comedic spin and tragic notions are obliterated.

Dudzick’s play reflects family life honestly, and sometimes darkly, but mostly sweetly, all while Woody Woodpecker laughs his fool head off.

The adult performances are strong and solid. Greg Reggie (Chet) and Eileen Stevic (Ellen) have portrayed these roles several times, and although there was a slight lack of fluidity from them on opening night, they commanded a parental and matrimonial presence which allowed the stage a huge degree of ease.

Alicia Michielli as Sister Clarissa is justifiably bigger-than-life in a wildly entertaining performance that manages to exceed the bounds of her character’s devout religion to a level of humanity.

It’s the young performers who put this production over the top. Caroline Schettler as Annie, and Samuel Fesmire as Eddie possess a seasoned comedic timing, both physical and verbal, portraying youngsters on the verge of adulthood.

Isaac Fesmire as Rudy, the semi-autobiographical version of the playwright, is outstanding and natural in a lead role that allows him a wide range of childhood angst which he delivers masterfully. And he offers a funny Ed Sullivan impersonation to boot.

Ayden Herreid as the developmentally challenged Georgie, is a wonder. His believable and touching performance can only come from a child actor with a profound grip on performance.

Director Gail Golden and the Lancaster Regional Players have given us an impressive and entertaining “Over the Tavern”. It’s a treat to hear references to Swan Street, Chef’s Italian Restaurant, and beef on weck, in a play that has reached global success.

And a shout-out to Post Cereal’s defunct and maligned Rice Krinkles, featured in the play. It was pulled from the marketplace sometime in the mid-60s, due to its near total lack of nutritional value, and a racist advertising campaign concerning an Asian cartoon character. I remember it fondly. And it was so sweet and yummy!

It seems to fit perfectly on the Pazinski family’s breakfast shelf. Right next to the “Wheaties.”

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“Over The Tavern” runs through January 21, 2018, is produced by Lancaster Regional Players and is presented  at The Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

 

 

Theatre Review: ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ at Theatre of Youth

The cast of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Photo by Benjamin Richey.

Theatre of Youth’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a delight. Charles M. Schultz’s beloved holiday story, based on his “Peanuts” comic strip, debuted as an animated television special program in 1965, and quickly became as representative of the season as Scrooge and eggnog. Its sophisticated anti-commercialism nods and winks – revolutionary then for a children’s holiday TV show – is said to have nearly killed the aluminum Christmas tree industry in the mid-1960s.

. . .a wonderful show. It proves this classic American holiday story, with a genuinely earnest Christmas message, can express itself well in any medium.

What is most impressive about Theatre of Youth’s stage adaptation by Eric Schaeffer is its reverence for the Emmy and Peabody Award winning show, which has run every year on network television since its inception. Even the smallest supporting roles in the ensemble, say Violet (you don’t remember Violet? You will!) is so acutely accurate to Schultz’s simple and elegant illustrative design, watching the show is like viewing the stage through a virtual fantasy lens.

In case you’ve forgotten, or have never owned a television, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the story of a hapless loser, Charlie Brown (Dan Urtz) searching for the true meaning of Christmas when secular commercialism drives him into a state of depression as he and his “Peanuts” gang prepare for the holiday. “Child” psychiatrist Lucy (Arin Lee Dandes) diagnoses his condition and assigns him the role of director of the annual Christmas pageant as therapy.

Director Meg Quinn draws out playful and sharp performances from her entire cast. They nail the beloved animated characters’ actions and mannerisms, while adding a flesh and blood comedic expression to what sometimes looks like a ballet of children celebrating Christmas. Barbara Priore’s bright and familiar costume and hair design, and Kenneth Shaw’s intricate, minimalist set design pay devoted homage to the original source.

Dan Urtz gives the anxiety ridden Charlie Brown a frowning, desolate disposition as he mopes about the stage, shoulders hunched high, eyes nervously searching, as the expectant joy of Christmas slowly dissipates from his mindset. Quite the contrary is Arin Lee Dandes, as Lucy. She is confident and brass, busying about the stage like a bundle of misplaced Christmas spirit, hoping Santa brings her a requested gift of real estate. Given the era this story was first presented, she is surprisingly a gender-equal, liberated, indeed dominating young girl.

Lighting designer Todd Proffitt creates an air of foreboding as Charlie Brown and Linus (Lucas Denies) search for the perfect Christmas tree, as a dusk filled urban horizon bears down on the smallish decorative lights of a trees-for-sale lot. It’s an effective scene. So too is the whimsical scene with the characters catching snowflakes on their tongues in an airy and bright winter wonderland.

The wild dance choreography during the Christmas pageant rehearsal is as amusing and fun as in the original TV show. I especially loved Shermy’s (Shawn Michael Edward Robinson) armless, back-and-forth dance technique, a moment in the original TV show that always captured by attention as a youngster.

The special effects are as impressive as the show’s attention to detail. A special floor mat allows the actors to truly ice skate across the stage on a winter pond. Snowflakes gently fall from the sky as white light filters through as if a hole in the Allendale Theatre’s roof was revealed. The transformation of Charlie’s pitiful Christmas tree to a respectable and proud lighted display is seamless.

And what a delight to hear Vince Guaraldi original jazz score performed by a live musical combo. Paul Sottnik (Pianist), Brian DeJesus (Bassist), and Jamie Sunshine (Percussionist) provide an added layer of warmth and cheer to the festive production.

It’s a wonderful show. It proves this classic American holiday story, with a genuinely earnest Christmas message, can express itself well in any medium.

Running Time: 40 minutes with an audience holiday sing-a-long at show’s end.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” runs until December 17, 2017 and is presented at Theatre of Youth. For more information, click here.