Othello at SUNY Buffalo State

The work of William Shakespeare is elastic and enduring, crossing the boundaries of culture, language, ritual and time. Popular Shakespeare plays such as “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth”, and the “Merchant of Venice” have been translated into over 100 languages, and Shakespearian works are often reinterpreted into different time periods and reimagined for modern audiences. The theatre department at SUNY Buffalo State is continuing this tradition with their current production of “Othello”, the Bard’s classic story of revenge and deception, told through a modern sociopolitical lens. 

“Othello”, a tragedy believed to have been written by Shakespeare in 1603, revolves around its two central characters: Othello (Keion Abrams), a Moorish general, and his treacherous ensign Iago (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez). Othello marries a noblewoman, Desdemona (Lissette DeJesus), without the blessing of her family. Iago plots with Roderigo (Azarias Matthews) to essentially destroy Othello. Iago cites several reasons for his vengeance, including Othello overlooking him for a promotion and giving the position to Cassio (Stephen Weisenburger) instead, and Othello possibly sleeping with Iago’s wife, Emilia (Gabriella McKinley). Roderigo, who is used by Iago because he is rich, is in love with Desdemona and works with Iago because he is promised that he will win Desdemona if they are able to defeat Othello. Iago’s plans become progressively more manipulative and complex as he preys upon Othello’s insecurities and convinces him that his new wife is having an affair with Cassio. Notably, director Jennifer Toohey transplanted the story from its original setting in Venice and Cyprus, Italy, to the modern backdrop of the U.S/Syrian conflict. 

Modernizing Shakespeare is a tricky endeavor, and it flops as often as it succeeds. When done well, a modernized Shakespeare can breathe fresh air into centuries-old text and bring relevance to young audiences who haven’t yet been introduced to the themes and characters. When done poorly, the story often becomes lost and the characters overburdened. This production doesn’t squarely fit into either of those descriptions, but the retelling of the story against a modern foreign policy backdrop proves a bit unnecessary, mostly because the story, while told in a military context, isn’t really a military story; it’s a story of love, revenge, deceit, racism, and violence, and the elements of warfare are more a vehicle for the interpersonal machinations of Iago and Othello. Dressing the actors in modern camouflage perhaps provides a change of scenery, but doesn’t make any kind of meaningful thematic statement.   

Though retelling “Othello” through the modern lens of the U.S/Syrian conflict doesn’t add a lot of substance to the story, this production is still excellent, largely because of the standout acting performances from Abrams, Gomez, DeJesus and McKinley. Gomez perfectly captures the maniacal nature of Iago, his constant manipulations and treachery always present. Abrams is a subtle and thoughtful performer, acting as a perfect vehicle for Shakespeare’s words and the complexity of Othello, a character who’s full of both pain and rage. DeJesus has a wide emotional range, fully on display with her love of and devotion to Othello, and her anguish over his mistrust of her. Most impressive is McKinley, whose Emilia is cutting, fierce, and enormously powerful, delivering the character’s monologues—especially the monologue about adultery—completely magnetically. Kudos to Toohey for her world-building, and for helping to guide these young performers to such excellence.  

Buff State’s production of Othello is intense and captivating, one of the better collegiate theatre productions I’ve seen in some time. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover dozens of local, regional, and professional Shakespeare productions across New York and Canada, and the young people in this production of “Othello” are some of the finest actors I’ve seen to tackle the complexity of the Bard; we’ll surely be seeing more of them for years to come. 

Othello is playing at SUNY Buffalo State until March 14th; for tickets and more information, click here

‘Hand to God’ at Road Less Traveled

The cast of “Hand To God” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Poor Margery. She’s dealing with the loss of her husband by using liturgical puppets as a ministry at her Christian church. She’s not a puppeteer by trade, and she can’t sing or preach, she says, so she will show her love for the church through the Christkateers puppet club and it will be her path to salvation. That is until her son Jason’s puppet Tyrone becomes possessed by Satan, and the church pastor comes on to her in a sweet and gentle way which is NOT the way the teen Lothario of the puppet club declares his desire for her. What’s a mother to do?

So that’s the innocent set up of “Hand to God” the wickedly funny and very moving show on stage at Road Less Traveled Productions, now until March 29. It took a couple years for RLTP to finally get Robert Askins’ Tony-nominated show on stage in Buffalo, and – hand-to-God –  it will be one of the best shows you will see all season.  The script is both hilarious and deeply moving and the performances by Jenn Stafford as Margery and Dan Urtz as her son Jason are outstanding.

There’s a lot of love about this show. Dyan Burlingame’s set nails the typical church basement classroom and she cleverly drops in a concealed space that serves as two rooms in Margery and Jason’s home. Diane Almeter Jones was in touch with her inner child in searching out perfect props to add to the spaces. My favorite was the toy automobile console and steering while that Stafford “drove”  with deadpan perfection. Tyrone and Jolene – the puppets – were the work of designer Adam Kreutinger. Tyrone the sock puppet started out as a goofy gray sock dressed in child-friendly primary colors and evolved into the devil incarnate with teeth that draw blood and a demonic expression. Jolene is all woman with extra large sequin nipples. Hysterical.

It’s the acting that makes this wild ride of a script so sublime. Stafford is flat out amazing as the perfect Christian mom full of pent up sexuality covered in Southern charm. She’s exactly how you never want to imagine your mom. John Kreuzer is the slightly sweaty Pastor Greg who lusts in his heart for Margery while teaching the good word to his flock. Teen lover-boy Timmy is the kid you love to hate and Henry Farleo has the swagger to pull it off. Maura Nolan Coseglia is Jessica, the kind hearted girl in puppet club who is designing Jolene with a little bit of bad girl. It’s Dan Urtz as Jason that owns almost every scene. As Jason he’s soft-spoken and child-like; when he’s Tyrone, his voice is angry and evil and full of potty-mouth-puppet rage. He shifts gears between personae effortlessly. John Hurley’s direction keeps the show tight and on target. The funniest scene has to be when puppet Jolene tries to calm Tyrone’s inner beast with her womanly charms. If you had your fill of puppets enjoying sock-on-sock action in “Avenue  Q,” this is a whole different story. Urtz and Nolan Coseglia took this to the limit.

Underneath the loads of laughs and the twisted story of sock puppets with a mind of their own, the human story is poignant. Loneliness and isolation harm the human psyche. Dealing with loss and absent parents – through death or their own despair – have deep residual impacts. How we deal with the life we’re handed can be a painful struggle to survive, fit in, and find love. Role playing can indeed bring out our demons until our authentic selves take charge.

“Hand to God” is  great fun and an outstanding showcase for some of our region’s finest theatre talent. It run just two hours with a 15-minutre intermission to March 29. Find details and tickets at www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

“Indecent” is Sublime at Kavinoky

In 1906, Warsaw was a city in revolution. The Imperial Russian Army was terrorizing workers.  The city was in recession, a harbinger of things to come. Despite this grim reality, its Jewish community was creating art and celebrating its culture. Playwright  Sholem Asch was staring taboos  in the face with a provocative play of love, defiance, and unbridled sensuality. His ‘God of Vengeance’ told  the story of illicit love between a prostitute and the virginal young daughter of a brothel owner. It shocked the establishment, and enthralled a tailor who made it his life’s work to bring the production to the great capitals of Europe and then to New York where it met its demise.

This is the story within the story of “Indecent,” beautifully constructed by Paula Vogel and elegantly staged at Kavinoky Theatre now to March 29. Presented in collaboration with the Jewish Repertory of WNY, this marks the first theatre company partnership for the Kavinoky, and this is a perfect match stylistically and metaphorically, too.

In brief, this performance is stunning. The cast of 12 takes on multiple roles that make the experience even more robust than it is. Each character carries his own dignity in humbling, strong ways throughout the story that spans more than 50 years and many locations. In a blink, lives change as society struggles along.

Director Kristen Tripp Kelley uses every inch of Kavinoky’s space, from the wings to the house itself; the audience is literally wrapped in this performance. Set designer extraordinaire David King created a multi-layered canvas that transformed the Kav’s stage to the worn and weary European stage houses and war-torn buildings where Jewish culture was kept in secret.  Diane Almeter Jones did magical things with simple props; suitcases were vessels for travel that also became table supports and sign holders. The metaphors aren’t lost, they’re center stage. She dressed the set with scarves that wrapped, concealed, and transformed the actors. Brian Milbrand’s projections used a timeline in English and Yiddish that helped the audience keep pace with change in venue and the span of time. The silent movie-style narration on the projection is engaging, too. All these elements worked silently and seamlessly.

But it’s the cast constantly moving (carefully choreographed by Lynne Kurdziel Formato) cast against a vintage screen backdrop that was tasked to tell Vogel’s intense adaptation. Jordan Levin (last seen as Leo Frank in “Parade”last season at ART of WNY, another intense performance) is on fire as Lemml, the tailor-turned stage manager. His cast mates shine in their multiple roles. Arin Lee Dandes, Aleks Malejs, Adam Yellen, Peter Palmisano, Debbie Pappas Sham, Saul Elkin, and Matt Witten flex as ‘Vengeance’ cast members and others who  are both beguiled and outraged by immorality and expressions of love. The musicians are on stage, too, and weave into the cast as well. Watch the arch of violinist Maggie Zindle’s brow as the works her way around the stage, and the playfulness Megan Callahan has in toodling  klezmer tunes on her clarinet. Musical director Joseph Donohue III doubles as the accordionist, and Bassist Benjamin Levitt rounds out the sound.

There are some gorgeous moments here; some repeat for effect, like when fine ash falls from under actors’ coat sleeves in key sequences, and a soft fall of rain welcomes spring and a new day.

Good things happen when the right partners come together in strength and shared vision. The Kav and and JRT prove this, on stage and off. The Kav’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell and JRT’s founder Saul Elkin set the bar a little higher for theatre company collaboration with this one.

Before the show, O’Donnell previewed the Kav’s 41st season. Two musicals (“Something Rotten” and “Rock of Ages” ) light up the season. The British mystery “The Woman in Black” returns to this stage. The classic “Pride and Prejudice” will take a new spin (if you liked Irish Classical Theatre Company’s treatment of “Sense and Sensibility” last season, this adaptation was penned by the same playwright), and “People, Places, and Things, a powerful story about addiction closes out the 2021 season. O’Donnell knows how to keep an audience engaged while taking some calculated chances, too. All good.

“Indecent” runs 95 minutes without intermission and is onstage until March 29. Find tickets and details here.

A Sure Sign of Spring: Shea’s Announces Next Season’s Schedule

Shea’s Buffalo Theatre is going back to its roots as a movie house with the M&T Bank 2020-21 Broadway Series. Six of the seven mainstage offerings either began their lives on the silver screen or have already been made into films. Venerable producing partner Albert Nocciolino joined Shea’s  President  Michael G. Murphy to announce next year’s season at a subscriber’s event held Tuesday night.

An exciting kick off to the season – and another economic boon for Buffalo – are two national tours are launching on Shea’s stage. This also means that Shea’s will host the tech and stage crews for extended stays, with an estimated $3 million in regional economic impact for the region, says Murphy, along with creating work for local theatre technicians.  This is made possible by a New York State program that incents Broadway productions to launch from an upstate – in our case a Western New York – theatre, an opportunity enjoyed by our city coffers for five years.

The first of these productions is “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Richard Thomas, August 15-22. This is Aaron Sorkin’s script which was produced this season at the Kavinoky Theatre. Thomas – long remembered for his TV character John Boy Walton – will star as Atticus Finch.

Next up and the second national launch is the stage version of the 1982 comedy “Tootsie,” October 3-10. It’s the same fun story: an out of work actor wins roles when he dresses in drag, with a score written by David Yazbeck who also the score for “The Band’s Visit” coming to Shea’s this April, along with “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

The next movie on stage in “Pretty Woman The Musical,” where the hooker with a heart of gold wins over emotionally remote rich dude. All the scenes you loved in the 1990 movies are tied together with a score by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime song writing partner Jim Vallance.

The 2019 Tony award winning revival of “Oklahoma” is on stage January 26-31. The New York Times called it the “the coolest production of the year is from 1943” because of its inventive restaging of an American classic and the fresh arrangements of the lovely Rodgers and Hammerstein score.

Another classic,  the Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” follows March 23-28.

The season’s juke box musical is “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Life and Times of The Temptations,” dances on stage May 11 to 16.

Closing out the season is another hit from the snowy silvery screen, “Frozen,” June 16-27.

Two special engagements round out the season: “Hamilton” returns November 3-20. Season subscribers may opt to include this as part of their season; and “Dear Evan Hansen,” April 13-18.

Murphy also announced the new seasons for Shea’s other theatre properties.  For the third season, O’Connell & Company will be in residence at Shea’s Smith Theatre. This season begins with “Nunsensations A-Men,” January 8-17, followed by “SUDS: The Rocking ‘60s Musical Soap Opera,” March 5-14, and the return of “Betsy Carmichael’s BINGO PALACE, “ April 29-May 2. Also in residence at Shea’s Smith is Second Generation Theatre. This company’s season begins October 16 with the play “Constellations,”  until November 1, followed by Jason Robert Brown’s lush musical “Songs for a New World” February 5-21, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel adapted for stage “The Secret Garden,” May 21-June 6. 

At Shea’s 710 Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions will stage “Slow Food, “a comedy, September 10-27. MusicalFare Theatre follows with the musical “In the Heights,”December 3-20. The theatre collaborative All for One Theatre Productions (MusicalFare Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions, Irish Classical Theatre, Theatre of Youth) bring love and comedy to the stage with “Shakespeare in Love,”February 11-28. Irish Classical Theatre brings” Farinelli and the King,”a drama, to this stage April 8-18. Finally MusicalFare Theatre returns with the regional premiere of Kinky Boots, May 6-23.

Full descriptions and ticket information is online at www.sheas.org.

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When Life Gives You Onions…

 Stan Klimecko as Onion and Louie Visone as Ogie.  Photo is by Gene Witkowski. 

People are quirky. Relationships are complicated. Life isn’t all sunshine and unicorns. Onions can either be really sweet and deeply flavorful if they are sautéed low and slow or sharp and bitter if they’re left raw and unadulterated. And sometimes Onion is just a name.

“The Onion Game,” next up for the Irish Classical Theatre is a drama with darkly funny moments…and it’s also a comedy with moments of drama. Just like real life.

The Onion Game will enjoy its world premiere on the Andrews Theatre stage March 6 through 29.

“The Onion Game” is the story of Pearl and Onion, two people unhappily married, with children they don’t understand, and aspirations they most likely won’t reach. And they’ll be together until they aren’t. Which could be sooner or later.

Director Greg Natale says directing Bryan Delaney’s production is a different experience from the last Delaney show he directed for ICTC. “I directed “The Seedbed” a couple seasons ago,” he said. “It wasn’t as humorous as this is meant to be. This show is written to be funny on top of some bizarre stuff.”

Delaney agrees. “It is quite different from “The Seedbed.”I wanted to write a full on comedy to make a boisterous night in the theatre.”

Boisterous, with some very human and raw moments. The comedy actually comes from these moments and how the characters handle their humanity. Natale says the show is “not Eugene O’Neill kind of bleak where everything is bleak. It’s more like a situation comedy, where all points of view are taking to the extreme level and therein lies the comedy.” He says that it’s “challenging for the actors, too. There’s a seriousness to the characters, a sense of purpose, but we need to allow the humor to come out.”

Delaney says this story of married and misunderstood life  can be “disturbing with difficult themes. There will be laughter, but it will be uncomfortable laughter,” he says.

Delaney says he finds it challenging to write sustained comedy, and that’s why he’s so fascinated by the intersection between comedy and tragedy in “The Onion Game”, and “that blend of dark and comedic. It’s a demented prism of life.” The satisfaction for both the playwright and the director will come from the audience reaction. Both are prepared to observe how different audience personalities will ‘take’ the show. “Every night will be different,” Delaney says.

Tickets and more information on “The Onion Game” are online here.

Sylvia Howls Along at Niagara University

I’m putting this right up front: “Sylvia” on stage at Niagara University’s William P. and Marie Leary Theatre in the Elizabeth Ann Clune Center for Theatre is a completely student run production.

NU’s theatre department is indeed the stuff of legends and I respect that. All our regional stages and beyond are all the better by having NU alumni engaged.

That in itself begs me to assess this production at a higher level.

The production itself is fine: A.R. Gurney (another local legend) penned this comedy in 1995 (set in the 1980s) and –regrettably – like many Gurney scripts, the intent  may stand the test of time, but most of the nuances date themselves by the end of its respective decade. Case in point: the Manhattan skyline backdrop includes the Twin Towers. A note in the playbill that place-sets the production would have helped give this context to the audience. Speaking of the playbill, it’s a tradition to include a bio of the playwright here: this one didn’t. Gurney is only mentioned in the director’s notes, and sadly, it’s a direct lift from a Wikipedia citation about the play. Seriously. Google “AR Gurney Sylvia” and the first hit is Wikipedia and this ‘quote’ is in the second paragraph. Note to director: dig deeper, please.

The small cast – a quartet of undergrads – do a fine job telling the story of a man in search of his midlife crisis, his career-focused wife, and the stray dog who comes between them. The fourth actor has a hoot of a time flipping between three characters who are male, female, and decidedly binary. Julia Miskines is adorable as Sylvia, cocking her head just so, frisking around, and using words as barks and whimpers to communicate her love for Greg, disdain for Kate, and her everyday doggy needs. She’s expressive and funny as heck. Andrew Salamone as Greg is fine in the role intended to be bland. Ditto Isabel Merkel as Kate the spurned-for-fur wife. Justin Durrett is Tom the pal from the dog park who later dons a dress as Phyllis Kate’s snooty friend (Sylvia gives a dog’s highest endorsement to this one), and Leslie the androgynous-by-design therapist.  This gives Durrett a nice stretch as an actor, particularly since he’s a mere freshman.  He’s the one to watch. The tech crew did fine work, costumes were spot on, and the over-all look of the show was just fine.

A major distraction was the use of stage crew as improv comedy devices. They roamed the stage to give it a soft opening, posing as dog wardens searching for a stray. They were mercifully not miced up, so their comments were sotto voce and limited. They had a loud cheering section in the audience; this peanut gallery whooped and hollered every time they performed their real tasks changing out set pieces. Yeah, I know; they’re students who want to support and appreciate their friends. And it was a Friday night on a college campus. But actors take their roles and their craft seriously; be there, be supportive, show appreciation, but carrying on like you’re at a little league game makes you an annoying audience member. 

Supporting student productions is essential to help build the next generation of artists: for that, I will keep going back.

Sylvia pants along for two hours with 15-minutes to take yourself for a walk. It runs for three performances on  Feb. 28-29; details at https://theatre.niagara.edu/shows/current-shows/show/198

‘Next to Normal’ at Blackfriars Theatre

Next to Normal was the musical that changed modern perception of theater. The harrowing story of a mother plagued by mental illness and its effect on her family garnered Tony wins for Original Score, Orchestrations, and Lead Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley, the original Diana. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, and paved the way for the commercial success of musicals like Dear Evan Hansen. It’s one of my personal favorites.

I made the snowy trek to Blackfriars Theatre from Buffalo, and my first thought upon arrival was how impressed I was by the endurance of this downtown Rochester staple; they’re celebrating their 70th anniversary! And as far as this production goes, the company proved exactly why they’ve continued to be successful.

Janine Mercandetti brings a unique approach to Diana, the story’s troubled matriarch. She’s an accomplished singer, and could out-sing even the healthiest Alice Ripley. Her vocal quality is clear, her notes are precise, and her phrasing is excellent. I personally felt that either because of the direction of the piece or Mercandetti’s own choices, her early Act One seemed a little presentational. I saw a marked change, however, at the pivotal moment in Act One. From that point on, Mercandetti takes control of the show, and it’s an award-worthy performance.

J. Simmons plays Dan, Diana’s husband, who’s holding on hope of a life where his family can be free of the mental illness and grief they’ve suffered. He’s Diana’s perfect foil, and Simmons plays the extremely difficult role with aplomb. Dan is an architect, and Simmons’ interpretation is very architectural: he deals in absolutes. There’s no grey area. I truly enjoyed his work in “Why Stay/A Promise.”

As the Goodman children, Gabe and Natalie, rising professionals Zachary Jones and Haley Knips both possess an impressive amount of raw talent. Both are juniors at Nazareth College, and the school should be proud of the representation by the two young actors. Jones has a remarkable vocal instrument, a clear tenor with a sweet falsetto that’s likely the envy of his classmate. More impressive was his navigation of what sounded to be a voice not at 100%. His role is complicated, and his nuance and relationship with Mercandetti made for an impressive evening. Knips has a difficult job as the source of much of the evening’s humor, and for the most part she handles the role of Natalie well. Her singing voice is her best asset, and she adds some delightful touches as Natalie. There were moments, however, where she had a tendency to speed through lines, especially punchlines, resulting in a lack of clarity in some essential story moments.

In supporting roles as Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden and Henry, respectively, Carl Del Buono and Evan Miller Watelet add to the well-rounded narrative. Del Buono is delightful in his roles, especially Dr. Madden. He’s accomplishing something really impressive: driving the story without ever touching the wheel. It’s not an easy task. Miller Watelet plays Natalie’s boyfriend Henry with a genuine innocence and has an excellent voice to boot.

The ENTIRE production staff, especially Director Kerry Young and Musical Director Andy Pratt, deserve commendation. What an impressive use of playing space, what a careful treatment of the delicate issues in the piece, what clear and concise storytelling! Young is also to be celebrated for her blind casting. Next to Normal has a tendency to (until the recent Kennedy Center production starring Brandon Victor Dixon as Dan, Khamary Rose as Gabe, and Maia Reficco as Natalie) be whitewashed. Pratt’s band was extremely talented, with a few opening night hiccups in this difficult score.

I’ll leave readers with this thought: I hate standing ovations as the accepted “standard.” They should be reserved for excellence, performances that exceed expectations. I was one of the first to leap to my feet at this production, and if you are lucky enough to see it, I’m sure you will too.

Running through February 23rd, the show was 2 hours and fifteen minutes with a fifteen minute intermission.

For more information, click here.

‘Cookin’ at the Cookery’ at Musicalfare

Ember Tate and Zoe Scruggs in ‘Cookin at the Cookery.’ Photo by Bethany Burrows.

The more I see musical revues, the more I really enjoy the style. Cookin’ at the Cookery, playing at MusicalFare through March 8th, is no exception.

I wasn’t really familiar with Alberta Hunter going into the show, and shame on me for saying so. She’s a Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Hall of Fame member, began performing in her early teens in Chicago after leaving Memphis to become a singer. After almost twenty years away, she came back and began a residency at the Cookery.

The show is told through vignettes, with Zoe Scruggs playing “adult” Alberta and also Alberta’s mother, while Ember Tate plays “young” Alberta and a slew of other characters. The Albertas share the narrative duties, as George Caldwell’s magnificent band carries the audience through the story.

To say that Scruggs is a little young to play 82-year-old Alberta Hunter is an obvious understatement, and yet, for 2 hours I believed every second. Scruggs is rare in her vocal prowess, she’s truly a jazz singer and handles the material and persona with ease. Her comedic timing is also excellent, and the sparse audience by MusicalFare’s standards were nonetheless engaged immediately. Tate has a difficult job to her role, as she portrays a very young Alberta. While Tate’s other characters are magnificent (including an unbelievable Louis Armstrong) and her turn as Hunter on a USO tour stops the show (Hunter would be proud), I found she took a little time to settle in to her portrayal of Hunter as a child.

A few line flubs did nothing to take away from the sheer magnitude of the stage presence of these two women, telling an important story about a truly remarkable woman. Without being overtly politic, I felt queasy listening to Scruggs as Hunter describe the perils of the pre-Civil Rights South and recognizing just how little we’ve learned. An especially poignant line comes when Scruggs and Tate co-narrate about segregation and make a statement about just seeing people as people, regardless of race.

Here’s where I get on my soapbox; I mentioned the sparsely attended performance because Buffalo audiences as a whole have a habit of only attending shows where there is “title recognition.” Not enough people witnessed these incredible performances Wednesday evening, and it’s disappointing. Support this production, which is MusicalFare at its best. Support local theater as much as you clamor to get Shea’s tickets or go see all the Oscar nominated movies. There are so many local companies to choose from, and its a shame to see even a single empty seat at MusicalFare’s astounding production of Cookin at the Cookery, running through March 8th.

For more information, click here.

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The national touring company of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The iconic rock opera, written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, graced the stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre as part of the 50th anniversary National Tour. “Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of Jesus Christ during the last seven days of his life. It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t push beliefs on it’s audience, it is a tale of the man. 

Timothy Sheader directs a unique production. Part interpretive dance, part rock concert. It isn’t for everyone, but I found it exciting, fresh, and contemporary. Taking material from the 70’s and mounting it for audiences that may never have been exposed to the material before. It is a 90 minute experience that I believe is what Rice and Lloyd Webber set out to create when they penned this material. 

“Jesus Christ Superstar” was never supposed to be a book musical. It was a concept album, telling the story through a rock and roll score. This production does just that, and seeing it live, will definitely make you see that this isn’t an ordinary staging. It’s not supposed to be an ordinary musical. 

Where the production falls a little flat is in some of the vocal prowess. Singing against tempo, breathing in strange phrases, and lagging with the band, seems to be a theme in this show. While not totally terrible, as a musician, I cringed hearing the singers delay, wondering if they were going to catch up. They always did, in-case you were wondering. The orchestra, a full band that includes all members of the various instrument families, delivers Lloyd Webber’s score with power, force, and brilliance. There are some artistic liberties taken, especially with a random screechy tenor saxophone solo, but after thinking about it for a while, I realized that it complemented the activity happening on stage, and I found it perfect.

Costumes are modernized in this production, including tank tops, baggy sweatpants, sneakers, zip up hoodies,  and lots of tattoos. This style reminded me of the “Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE” on NBC a few years ago. I really liked it.

James Delisco Beeks plays Judas, and let me tell you, his performance must cause him great exhaustion at the end of the night. He is a rock star, and he does well singing the demanding parts. “Heaven On Their Minds” needs to be amazing because it sets us up for the rest of the story. Delisco Beeks takes a few minutes to warm up, but once he gets going, he is a powerhouse. 

Jenna Rubaii sings her heart out as Mary Magdalene, and is an audience favorite. Her performance of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” (one of my favorite songs in the show) is beautiful, and she graces the notes with ease. Sadly, Mary’s part is not huge in the show, and I would have loved to see more of her. 

Somewhere in the last 50 years, it was decided that King Herod had to be portrayed as a flamboyant drag performer. I have seen this in at least three productions out of the last five I have attended. While I don’t hate it, it surely takes away from new interpretations as this seems to be the new normal. In any case, Paul Louis Lessard gets the laughs and makes quite the spectacle as Herod in this production. A flashy gold outfit, a machete, boots, it’s very entertaining. He sings the iconic “King Herod’s Song” to a tee. An audience favorite.

Finally, Aaron LaVigne plays Jesus. I always judge a production’s Jesus by how well they sing my all time favorite song in the show “Gethsemane.” Playing his own guitar accompaniment, and laying all the cards out on the table, LaVigne makes this song his own, including the Ted Neely-esk screeches, and I loved every single stinking second of it. 

This production chooses to exclude the intermission, which is fantastic. 90 minutes. Glitter. You can’t go wrong!

“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs until February 16, 2020 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

“Glorious!” at O’Connell & Company

Mary Kate O’Connell as Florence Foster Jenkins in “Glorious!” at O’Connell & Company

“Glorious!,” a comedy by Peter Quilter, is currently being presented by O’Connell and Company in their lovely new theatre in the Elmwood Commons, the former Philip Sheridan School In the Town of Tonawanda. It’s easy to find the new home of O’Connell and Company; it’s on Elmwood just north of Sheridan. There is plenty of free parking behind the building. In addition to the theatre, O’Connell and Company now have a rehearsal space, lots of room for costumes and props, a special all purpose room for parties and events that includes a kitchen, a box office, and a refreshment stand. It’s a very nice set up.

The play is subtitled The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins the Worst Singer in the World. Ms. Jenkins was a wealthy turn of the twentieth century socialite who loved to sing opera although she had absolutely no vocal ability. Ms. Jenkins thought that she had talent galore, however, and gave a series of recitals which culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall. The members of her audiences were personal friends who cheered for her (and laughed as discretely as possible) and helped her maintain the illusion of being a great soprano. Her “fans” included celebrities like Harold Arlen and Cole Porter, and she was the toast of New York City.

Ms. Jenkins’ life has been the subject of five plays, a feature film starring Meryl Streep, and a documentary. Glorious! is light weight material. The characters aren’t fleshed out and we don’t being to understand the why’s or wherefores of Florence Jenkins, her part-time paramour St. Clair, or the other significant people in her life. The storyline takes some odd twists and turns. This play touches on some of her life’s more memorable moments including the traffic accident that enabled her to hit a high C and her performances as Carmen which included throwing flowers to the audience. What the play does best is give us one-liners which are peppered throughout and affords us plenty of opportunities to hear Ms. Jenkins sing. And the theme of the piece, reach for the stars, is inspiring.

Mary Kate O’Connell is effervescent as Florence and she clearly has a ball playing the opera star who lives in a dream world or her own design. Ms. O’Connell is bright, bouncy, and beautiful. Her three opera performances are lots of fun, true to Florence’s real life, and the highlight of the production. Her high pitched yelps are hysterical and are not to be forgotten!

Ms. O’Connell is ably supported by three talented actors — Roger VanDette plays St. Clair, a flamboyant, down and out thespian of the old school. Greg Gjurich plays her accompanist and Mr. Gurwich is particularly captivating in Act 2 when, at last, he is smitten and falls under Florence’s spell.  And Anne Gayley is delightful is as Florence’s buddy – a giddy, sherry-swilling society lady and patron of the arts.

Rounding out the cast are Kate Olena as an angry realist who refuses to pretend to see the emperor’s new clothes, Smirna Mercedes as a disgruntled Latina maid, and Mira Haley Steuer as the Bellhop.

There is solid direction by Steve Vaughan. The array of lovely period dresses and Florence’s amusing costumes are by Adam M. Wall. The stage is full of gorgeous flowers by Julianne Panty, and the masterful sound design is by Tom Makar. Kimberly Pukay did the lights; sets are by Bill Baldwin. To keep the audience’s attention during scene changes, there are interesting videos by  Brian Milbrand.

The production runs two hours, including one intermission.

For more information about showtimes and dates, click here.