Looking Life Square in the Eye: What I Thought I Knew

Josie DiVencenzo in “What I Thought I Knew.” Photo by Ali Lewis

Jewish Repertory Theatre’s production of “What I Thought I Knew” packs a lifetime of emotions,  decisions, and dilemmas into 90 minutes.  Based on writer Alice Eve Cohen’s memoir, the story is deeply reflective at times and slyly funny, too. Josie DiVincenzo is the soul teller of this story as she portrays 40 characters without leaving the stage.

DiVincenzo’s first character is the writer, who – in Jewish tradition – curses herself by proclaiming her happiness. After coping with infertility in her first marriage, she’s a single mom of an adopted daughter and is now the cougar partner of a hip and cool musician. She is…happy.  That is, until the day she detects a lump in her abdomen and has enough non-specific symptoms to send her to various doctors who can’t pinpoint a cause. Finally tests reveal that she is pregnant. And over 40 years old. Without health insurance. And without the first six months of careful prenatal care that she would have practiced if an earlier doctor wouldn’t have cavalierly told her that she didn’t need birth control. Oy vey.

The moments when DiVincenzo is flipping between doctors, nurses, off-hand receptionists, and vague diagnosticians are the funniest in their own dark ways. No costume changes or props, it’s the power of her voice and her countenance that make these other ‘cast’ members so vivid, thanks to Saul Elkin’s direction. Who needs a set (save for two lightweight chairs) when you can suggest the dreaded stirrup-strung examining table with posture (and toned and controlled abs), or arch an eyebrow and tilt your head to speak volumes without words?

She adopts solid personae for the recurring characters in the writer’s life:  her beau with his soft New Orleans accent, and her nine-year-old daughter’s overly dramatic “I want to die a moment” writhings and one rip-roarin’ doctor are evocative and just right.

DiVincenzo shares the stage with two other non-speaking co-stars: Brian Cavanaugh’s lighting design and Tom Makar’s sound design add to the performance. Both are subtle and gracefully applied.

“What I Thought I Knew” isn’t every woman’s journey, yet we’ve all dealt with life-defining and life-changing situations that caused us to examine our priorities and make hard decisions. The ethereal combination of faith – regardless of formal religious belief – and relief when things feel right are universal truths. Cohen’s honesty in sharing her journey is laudable. She’s neither maudlin or preachy.  There were spots where the long-one-act program dragged a bit, but DiVincenzo’s energy never flagged. In the end, Cohen reminds us that happiness is our best gift.

“What I Thought I Knew” runs 90 minutes without intermission to March 1. Visit www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com for tickets and show days and times.

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

‘Nunsense: A-Men!’ at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The musical comedy ‘Nunsense: A- Men!’ is at the Smith Theatre weekends through February 2. This is an O’Connell & Company production. ‘Nunsense A-men!’ is the original ‘Nunsense’ show with all the characters portrayed by male actors, instead of the usual female actors.

The original ‘Nunsense’ is a musical by Dan Goggin that opened off-Broadway in 1985 and ran for over 3,000 performances – making it the second longest running off-Broadway show in history. Only ‘The Fantasticks’ had a longer run. ‘Nunsense’ is so wildly popular that there have been six sequel shows and five spin-offs. The different versions have been performed in 26 languages with thousands of performances world wide.

As in all the ‘Nunsense’ shows, the storyline is slight and goofy, but the tunes are bouncy and the lyrics are wickedly funny. The thin plot is about a small band of nuns in Hoboken, New Jersey who are putting on a musical review to raise the money to bury four sisters who are currently in the freezer! Poison stew, leprosy, and a production of ‘Grease’ all come into play. Don’t worry about the story – just sit back and enjoy!

Director Mary Kate O’Connell has mounted a pleasant, seamless production. Incidentally, Ms. O’Connell was the very first person to play the Reverend Mother in ‘Nunsense’ here in WNY – starting a long tradition in our community of revivals and sequels of the show. O’Connell & Company break the fourth wall many times and they have thrown in a healthy dose of audience participation. Ad libs  are okay, too, and it all adds to the merriment of the production.

The cast of five are all strong musical theatre performers and, as much as possible, they are playing it straight. This is not campy – it’s Nunsense and the actors happen to be male, not female.

Michael Starzynski is primly commanding as the mother superior until the end of the first act when she is flying high – that’s when Mr. Starzynski has a chance to let loose and he really shines! Free Willy!

As Reverend Mother’s ambitious assistant, Jake Hayes gives a peppy, good-natured performance. He leads the finale with great energy and gave the cheering audience a rocking good time.

The rank-and-files nuns are also solid. Daniel Lendzian is a powerhouse as starstruck, streetwise Sr. Robert Anne. Nick Lama is appropriately sweet and vacant as Sr. Mary Amnesia and his crackerjack  puppetry is one of the highlights of the show. Joey Bucheker is ebullient as the Donna McKechnie of the convent. His performance is topped off with an impressive tour jete on toe shoes! 

There is spritely choreography by Mr. Bucheker and all the production values – including the set by Bill Baldwin and lights by Kimberly Pukay are fine. The top notch musical direction and keyboard accompaniment is by Joe Isgar and Robert Mazierski on the drums.

Once in a while, the dialogue is a bit risqué, but this is essentially a family show for preteens on up.

‘Nunsense A -Men!’ is a solid and entertaining production that is sure to warm your heart on a cold January night.

The show runs 2 hours including intermission.

‘Nunsense: A-Men!’ runs until February 2, 2020, and is presented at Shea’s Smith Theatre. For more information, click here.

‘The Mousetrap’ at Lancaster Opera House

It’s supposed to be hard to put your finger on the guilty party in a whodunit.  In the fashion of murder mysteries, the perpetrator could be any of the characters who take the stage.  And who done it becomes, by the end of the production, glaringly clear. The realization can be satisfying, bewildering, disappointing, or even painful in the end.   If you knew it all along, well, you get kudos after the performance for being some kind of armchair sleuth.   

Without giving too much away, in Lancaster Opera House’s current production of the Agatha Christie murder mystery, Mousetrap, pretty much everybody does it.

Matthew Rittler does it with an enthusiastic performance of the character of Christopher Wren, with an animation and flair that speaks not only to the mysteriousness of his character’s true identity, but also with a humor that brings fun to the play the other characters don’t get much chance to deliver.

Jaimee Harmon does it with poise and presence in her depiction of central character, Mollie Ralston, the better half of the married couple who are proprietors of the guesthouse where all the action takes place.  

Nathanial Higgins does it with his articulate and convincing portrayal of Detective Sergeant Trotter, whose scrupulous questioning of all the houseguests guides us down the varying pathways of finger-pointing guilt.

Jackson DiGiacomo, who plays the other half of the guesthouse proprietors, Giles Ralston, does it with and overtly proper being of a man who doesn’t exactly welcome opening his house to a band of transient guests, but is determined to make a go of it as a business.

That’s only four of the players in the total band of eight.  Yet all are guilty of realistic energy, of flowing through challenging dialogue with altogether fitting portrayals of their characters – to include the elderly and proper Mrs. Boyle played by Susan King; the youngish and purposefully strong Miss Casewell, played by Anne Roaldi Boucher; the stout and exacting military Major Metcalf, played by David C. Mitchell; and the unexpected and deceptively clever foreigner Mr. Paravicini, played by Monish Bhattachayya.   You can point your finger at any of them.   

And you can turn your gaze to the set – fully pleasing, realistic to the period and painstakingly rendered, complete with crown moldings, appropriate lighting, logs for the fireplace, velvety drapes and latched swing-open windows, and a great looking radio through which we first learn of murder, over the “wireless,” that happened not far from the guesthouse.   You even suspect the gifted Set Designer, David Dwyer, may have added the creaking wood floor to the Opera House stage, it’s all so well done, the detail is remarkable.  

The story finds the Ralston couple welcoming the cast of patrons to their home, which has been recently converted to a guesthouse for their new business venture.  The couple has been married only a year, still loving newlyweds, still learning about one another. It immediately becomes evident there’s been a murder not far from the guesthouse, but the fact goes largely unnoticed amidst a blizzard of a snowstorm and the stream of guests arriving.  

The characters are distinct, each idiosyncratic their own right, making them intriguing enough to bring suspicion onto them.  It’s not until the appearance of Detective Trotter that the plot gets rolling, the possibility of another murder becomes evident, and suspicion begins to fall everywhere. All the marks of a murder mystery are there.  The talent is a mix of seasoned local actors and crew, and very promising relative newcomers. Whether the audience finds the outcome satisfying, puzzling, or disappointing is hardly the matter. There’s a satisfaction in the journey given Mousetrap’s outstanding performances and Lancaster Opera House’s first-rate production for casual theatergoers or armchair sleuths.   

The Mousetrap is about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission, and is currently running through February 9.  More information is at http://lancasteropera.org/

Miss Nelson is Missing at Theatre of Youth

If you were a kid after the 70s, it’s likely you read Miss Nelson is Missing in school. Theatre of Youth looks to capitalize on this name recognition with their new production, which opened January 25th and runs through February 9th. With an incredible set designed by Kenneth Shaw and a cast of TOY regulars, the Meg Quinn helmed production makes the very best of an uncharacteristically weak adaptation, to the delight of the non-theater critics in the audience.

TOY is well-established as Buffalo’s only theater for young audiences, and the work is always top-notch. Miss Nelson is Missing is no exception. TOY newcomer Lily Jones handles the dual roles of Miss Nelson and Miss Viola Swamp, the Jekyll/Hyde of classroom 207 with as much dichotomy as she can provide and a voice to bring down the rafters. As the story’s narrator, a wizened janitor, Jacob Albarella gives us a hilarious turn. Those familiar with Albarella know his versatility knows no bounds, and he makes exceptional use of that versatility playing supplemental roles as the school’s principal Mr. Blandsworth (complete with some unbelievable singing by Albarella) and the forgetful Detective McSmogg (complete with a hysterical accent by Albarella). And as the aforementioned class in 207, Mike Benoit, Daniel Torres, Sabrina Kahwaty, and Christine Seshie start the show with a strong a capella alma mater and carry the show with well-choreographed hijinks throughout.

The only thing potentially harmful to the TOY production was the material. Kids might not notice just how bad the lyrics that accompany the relatively good music are, but it’s jarring enough to the adult ear that it had to be mentioned. I’d like to make two things clear: 1) I’m not here to criticize the lyrics to a children’s musical, but 2) a lesser director/organization might have some trouble. In steps Quinn and an adept cast of performers, and voila, I’m almost convinced! Jones is victim to bad writing the most, and she makes the best of what she’s given with a confidence that is not easy to come by. And I know I mentioned it in the beginning of the review, but Shaw’s set is truly magnificent. His work at TOY frequently goes underappreciated, but his inventiveness and ingenuity frequently better the productions at TOY, and Miss Nelson is Missing is no exception.

Despite the adaptation’s weaknesses, the terrific cast (and crew…I see you Chester Popiolkowski, Brittany Wysocki, and Gabe Gutierrez) make for an enjoyable production of Miss Nelson is Missing that kids and nostalgic adults like me will be happy they saw.

Run time 1 hour, no intermission

‘Miss Nelson is Missing’ runs until February 9, 2019. For more information, click here.

No One’s Out of Order in the Court Room

The cast of “The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women” by Brazen-Faced Varlets.

Nobody likes the highly-principled bossy one. Or the rich daddy’s girl. Or the show stealer. Or the snarky one. Yet when you put them all together in a show-within-a-show production, you want every last one of them to be your new best friend.

The Brazen-Faced Varlets’ production of ‘The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women’ is a play about a play that’s a courtroom drama. It’s even interactive. In brief, it’s a hoot.

The show in Alleyway Theatre’s Cabaret stage starts just before curtain for the The Emma Goldman Theatre Brigade. To be ever egalitarian, cast members learn all the roles and character assignments are literally pulled names from a hat. Marie the idealist (Jamie Nablo)  is adamant about the process and its inherent fairness.   Donna the snark (well played by Kathleen Rooney) is confident that collective founder Diane (Priscilla Young-Anker) palms the best role to keep it for herself. Stagehand Betty (Heather Fansgrud) is tossed into the mix, a reluctant thespian who prefers to be off stage,  with her angst about having to learn so many lines. Melissa and Amy (Jessie Miller and Emily Pici respectively) just want to get on with it, because the critics are coming! Jenny (Jennifer Arroyo) is eager for her big break but is sick as the proverbial dog. Athena (Stefanie Warnick) wants to stretch her acting chops with a juicier role. Then the playwright (Caroline Parzy-Sanders) walks in with – gasp! – changes, and –gasp encore!! – a whole NEW character which she will portray.

And this is how we meet the cast, as they finagle their way into the role they want…or least dread.

It’s where Carolyn Gage’s script is at its best: it’s the people who make a relationship story, whether they are good or self-absorbed.  The Emma Goldman Theatre Brigade is a sisterhood, after all, based on equality, and the show they’re staging is about a woman in need and her female tribe who is supposed to help. Well, sometimes equality and support go right out the window when it’s inconvenient and messy. The Varlets play this angle to the hilt. And – like the best theatre – it gives you a bit of mental pause on the ride home, too.

The court battle is a history-mystery mash up:  five women are on trial for turning their backs on woman who may be Anastasia, the only person to survive the the murder of Russian Czar Nicholas’ family.

But it’s the actor-women and their frustration with their troupe and each other that bring the laughs. Rule-follower Marie breaks from the script to make her personal points. Diane the director floats in and out of character to defend her authority on stage.  It’s like good slapstick: you wouldn’t tolerate these behaviors if they really happened onstage, but you almost really want them to happen because this is where the veneers lift away and someone’s true colors show.

The audience interaction helps decide on court decisions and we have responsibility for the final verdict, too. That’s empowering and a lot of fun, too.

‘The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women’ is a fast couple hours with a 10-minute break, and runs until February 2. Visit www.varlets.org for details.

Opposites Attract and Repel in “The Antipodes”

The cast of “The Antipodes” at Road Less Traveled Theatre. Photo by Gina Gandolfo.

The art and process of storytelling is the central theme of ‘The Antipodes’ on stage now at Road Less Traveled Productions.

Storytelling is a cross cultural tradition that spans the ages. It’s a form of communication, level setting, and oral history gathering. It’s as natural as sunshine and can be as processed as a rectangle a bright orange cheese. And sometimes it’s just a bit creepy.

Finding the next ‘big’story is the goal for a group of storytellers that comprise this cast. The head of the project is Sandy, (South Buffalo’s Sean Cullen), and he is where the creepiness gets in. Sandy is a glad-hander, the lover of all, the hugger, the one who seems nervous about pleasing the mysterious boss on the VR screen. He comes, he goes, he returns a hot mess. As the group sits around a corporate board room table kicking around ideas for apparently no reason, you’re left to wonder why. Movie script? TV show? Vainglorious exercise in futility with a regular paycheck (for some) and  a catered free lunch?  Nice gig.

We meet Eleanor (Kristen Tripp Kelley), the only woman storyteller who knits are she spins her personal yarns. Dave (Dave Hayes) and Danny 1 (John Hurley) revel in their roles as the only repeaters on Team Sandy. Danny 2 (Dave Marciniak) is handsomely shallow as he steals one of Eleanor’s tales as his own (her glower is worth the price of admission alone). Shy guy Josh (Ricky Needham) is tricked out as a young exec and he stands alone as the one whose payroll isn’t processed and whose ideas aren’t recorded by hero-worshipper Brian (Adam Yellen). Sarah (Cassie Cameron) is the perky admin who makes sure lunch is ordered and that Sandy’s wishes are fulfilled. Cameron channels a younger Sarah Jessica Parker, down to her quirky hair tosses, side glances, and punchy delivery Carrie Bradshaw-style.

Annie Baker’s script is more character study than storytelling as it depicts everything bad about corporate brainstorming sessions. Personalities emerge and are thwarted. Weak leadership curry favor, earn praise, and retreat into their self-absorbed worlds. Earnest participants get shot down and are defeated. What starts out feeling fresh and interesting seems to spin itself into unresolved circles. Perhaps that was Baker’s intention:  a look into a world of joyless striving where the resolution is an enigma.

Lynne Koscielniak’s set is sleek and clean: corporate America with no clutter. Maura Price’s costumes fit the personalities perfectly, from Eleanor’s soft coziness to Brian’s disheveled duds. Director Scott Behrend’s direction nails the timing of ins and outs of a corporate meeting and the give-and-take around the conference table, practiced to nonchalance perfection.

‘The Antipodes’ is onstage until February 9: visit www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org. The show runs a long-feeling two hours with a 15-minute intermission and a fun opportunity to snap a selfie with the cast around the corporate table.

“The Bridges of Madison County” Cross Love and Infidelity

Pamela Mangus, Karen Harty, Arin Dandes, Robert Cooke, Chris Guilmet, Michele Marie Roberts, Ian Hayes, Kelly Copps, Paul Maisano, Ben Moran, Laryssa Petryshyn. Photo by Gene Witkowski

“The Bridges of Madison County,” making its regional premiere at the Kavinoky Theatre now until February 2, is lush with outstanding vocal performance and imagery. It will also spark some interesting conversation with your theatre companion of choice…and maybe some self-reflection, too.  Infidelity is wrong, but where is your heart’s desire? Friends who keep your secrets and spouses who button up their feelings: are they loving and loyal or living a lie? Yup, it’s an interesting night at the theatre.

Full disclosure: when “The Bridges of Madison County” was the novella everyone  was reading in 1992, I wasn’t impressed.  A decade-ish later, when it was made into a movie, I had to see it because of Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, but once again…nothin’. When I heard it was being made into a musical, I may have rolled me eyes in a ‘not again’ moment. And then I heard Jason Robert Brown’s haunting, elegant score. Gorgeous.

 Kav’s production completely swept away me across that Iowa plain. This production is the epitome of romance, conflict, love, and loss, anchored by that stunning score and the incredible artistry of our local actors.

In an Midwestern corn kernel, this is a love story between Francesca, a World War II war bride from Italy who married American soldier Bud and moved to his Iowa farm, and Robert, a no-rest-in-his-soul traveling photographer from National Geographic magazine. He’s passing through town on assignment to photograph those ironic covered bridges.  In a “in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to come in to mine” sort of moment, Robert ambles up Francesca’s driveway for directions. Sparks fly: Francesca’s husband and two kids are away showing cattle at a competition (spoiler alert, Stevie the steer nails it), and with only two nosy neighbors to spy and speculate, Francesca and Robert share stories, meals, a bed, their secret passions.

Yes, we’ve seen this plot before in several variations. “Same Time, Next Year” is appointment infidelity. “Brief Encounter” (or “Still Life” on stage) is love on a train. But “Bridges” has a different feel, deeper nuance. What if the stranger holds some clandestine key to pure happiness?

Michele Marie Roberts is stunning as Francesca. She opens the show with her brave anticipation in “To Build a Home,” leaving war-torn Naples, familial competition with her sister, and the broken dreams of lost love, to journey to America.  Husband Bud is Christopher Guilmet,  a soldier turned farmer who knew Francesca was “Something From a Dream” the moment he saw her.  SUNY Fredonia junior Ian Hayes is son Michael (so good when college students stretch into professional roles with a cast of new mentors), and everyone’s favorite child-adult actor Arin Dandes grows into teen-hood as daughter Carolyn. Steve Copps is the lanky, sexy, man with the camera, Robert Kincaid. A loner, a vegetarian where meat-eaters roam freely, he’s recently returned from Italy and has stories to share with Francesca as they drive to the bridge he couldn’t find on a map. And share an impromptu dinner. And grow into a four-day intensity they didn’t expect.

Roberts and Copps capture something here. Their voices in their duets are impeccably matched – note for note – with clarity, with passion, with wonder. The audience feels this, too: the moment of their first kiss, the sold-out theatre on opening night was absolutely quiet.  Even in my seat, in the back of the balcony…you heard their kiss.

It’s the music that makes this production. Allan Paglia is the lead pianist and conductor of Brown’s signature keyboard/violin/viola/cello ensemble.  Brown’s style (“Parade” and “The Last Five Years”) manages to be spare and lush at the same time. With voices as rich as Roberts’ and Copps’ the cello and viola in particular support their sound beautifully. I’ve heard both actors in their many roles through the years, but Paglia (and vocal coach Michael Hooker) brought out something in their voices. Powerful, wistful, hard to describe, as accomplished singer/actors, Roberts and Copps found something new here.

The show is more than romance between two: there’s plenty of funny scenes with Pamela Rose Mangus and Paul Maisano as the neighbor couple.  They both get their turn at song, too, Mangus with “Get Closer,” a perfect ‘60s slow dance tune, and  Maisano with the good ol’ country gospel “When I’m Gone.”

Another showstopper is ensemble member/choreographer Kelly Copps’ flashback appearance as Robert’s first wife. “Another Life” applies Brown’s style to a Joni Mitchell-esque story song. This Copps is in magnificent voice in this quick moment.

Like we’ve seen in other Kav musicals, the ensemble is full of some of the region’s finest actors, moving set pieces and adding voice and movement to key moments.

The other ‘star’ is the video and photos captured by Brian Milbrand: he and director Loraine O’Donnell with S. Copps and Roberts traveled to Iowa to pose at the storied bridge and other locations. This element that the Kav is elevating to higher art form grows on me each time I see it so artfully done on this stage. It complemented Dyan Burlingame’s set nicely.

Director O’Donnell and her team has a stellar cast and fabulous music here. If the script and story are still only so-so, the Kav cast and crew soar above it to create a great escape to a place where time can stand still for a moment and where “love is always better.”

Tickets will fly for this one: visit kavinokytheatre.com to secure your tickets. Running time is a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission to fan yourself and splash cold water on your face. (Yes, the show is that hot.) For more information, click here.

BPO, ICTC, the Bard, and Mendelssohn…Oh My!

 Brendan Didio as Puck and Vincent O’Neill as Oberon.  Photo by Gene Witkowski.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Irish Classical Theatre Company will offer another collaborative program January 17-19 when “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” pairs a beloved William Shakespeare comedy with music composed by Felix Mendelssohn.

It’s a double duet – two world-class arts organizations and two classic bodies of work – creating a dynamic performance in Kleinhans Music Hall. This is the fourth performance coupling for the BPO and ICTC.

“It is an honor for the BPO to welcome the audience of the ICTC into our house,” says BPO music director JoAnn Falletta. “The Buffalo Philharmonic reached out to the company several years ago to explore a partnership combining  Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman with the music of Richard Strauss, and the result was so delightful, funny and felicitous that we realized we had to find other projects. Amadeus (with the music of Mozart) was also superb, and very different in character-probing, tragic and unforgettable.  The combination of two geniuses- Shakespeare and Mendelssohn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect marriage, and I think that it will be our best partnership.”

Fortunato Pezzimenti, ICTC’s associate director agrees: “It’s such a celebration for the theatre company to work with the orchestra. It’s wonderful for the company to perform with this magnificent orchestra behind them.”

Bringing two artistic organizations together takes some finessing, on stage and off. Pezzimenti said, “It’s not difficult but we have to be smart about it.” The actors will share the Kleinhans Music Hall stage with the orchestra, which is a completely different size and shape than the cozy  dimension of The Andrews Theatre,  ICTC’s Main Street home base. Pezzimenti said, “The stage is very, very wide and not very deep. There are limitations to the set design.”

Pezzimenti said the set (designed by David Dwyer) will be minimal and costumes designed by Lise Harty are “significant to create the beauty, wonder, and magic of the piece.”

Sharing the stage with the BPO will be: Vincent O’Neill  as Oberon/Theseus; (Falletta said it’s a “lovely detail” that ICTC Co-Founder and Artistic Director Vincent O’Neill played the starring role in the three previous productions, too);  Aleks Malejs aTitiana/Hippolyta; Brendan Didio a Philostarte/Puck; Chris Kelly as Egeus/Quince; David Wysocki  as Lysander;  Nick Stevens as Demetrius;  Kayla Storto Hermia;  Kit Kuebler as Helena;  Phil Farugia as Bottom;  Kevin Kennedy as Flute;  Dudney Joseph as Snout;  David Lundy as Starvling; and Gerry Maher  as Snug. Soprano Karen D’Angelo and Vocalis Chamber Choir alto Maria Parker will sing the fairy roles.

Pezzimenti said the actors are proud to be part of this collaboration. “It’s a tremendous honor to be cast in something like this,” he said. Actor David Lundy says the cast dynamic – a mix of seasoned stage actors and “some fresh young talent”  – with the BPO create a very special theatre experience. “It’s novel for experienced concert-goers and theater patrons alike” said Lundy. “They’re seeing one of Buffalo’s finest acting companies performing front of a world-class orchestra, with classical music composed directly for the play being shown. Both the audience and the performers are thrilled in a way that doesn’t happen for a typical play.”

Falletta agrees: “It is truly thrilling to come together with our actor ‘cousins’. Our art forms share so many similarities and values, and it is very inspiring to have the ICTC on the stage with us. We feel their energy and respond to it, and they tell us that having the music swirling around them is an amazing experience for them. It also is interesting for them to work in a house that seats 2400 people, and to project their artistry into a large space. We learn from the actors, and grow, and frankly have a spectacular time collaborating with these great artists. I am always astonished at how musical the members of the ICTC are – their flexibility, their open-mindedness, their enjoyment of music –  truly is an inspiration to us.”

There are only three performances – Friday and Saturday evenings, January 17 and 18 and a Sunday, January 19 matinee. Plan to arrive an hour earlier to attend the pre-concert talk: Ms Falletta and members of the cast will give you an insider’s look into the production. Tickets are available at http://www.bpo.org

State Grant Supports Kavinoky Improvements

The Kavinoky Theatre received a special 40th anniversary present:  a $145,000 grant awarded from New York state’s Regional Economic Development Council (REDC).

The grant will fund some capital improvements for the theatre, including a Broadway-style covered entryway, new theatre seats, and an updated projection system.

“We are thrilled to receive this award,” said Loraine O’Donnell, executive artistic director of the

theatre. “This grant will breathe new life into the theatre and provide our audience with an

even more enjoyable experience. The awning will make our guests feel like they are taking in a show in New York City and the projection equipment will enhance future productions.”

Senator Tim Kennedy, a D’Youville College alumnus (Kavinoky is the 250-seat jewel of D’Youville’s urban campus) said, “This state investment will support Kavinoky Theatre’s mission to foster creativity and offer Western New Yorkers immersive experiences into all genre of theatre. By supporting the Theatre’s efforts to preserve the Kavinoky’s charm, we’re ensuring that this City of Buffalo icon will continue to inspire future artists, actors, and writers for generations to come.”

Senator Kennedy’s family is no stranger to the Kav: his cousin, Kevin Kennedy is a local actor who most recently in the Kav’s production of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Of the 54 grants awarded to Erie County organizations in this funding cycle, this was one of two in the arts and cultural facilities improvement program. All told,  $67.3 million was awarded to 109 different projects in Western New York.

REDC grants support organizations and programs that help boost our regional economy and began in 2011 as a centerpiece of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s s strategy to jumpstart the economy and create jobs.

The state’s investment in the Kav is another demonstration of the power of the arts to be an economic driver. In The Arts and Economic Prosperity Report “The Arts Mean Business” prepared by ASI of WNY, it showed arts and culture sector is a$352.1 million industry and generates$40.3 million in local and state government revenue.

 “This grant from the Regional Economic Development Council will allow The Kavinoky Theatre to continue to play an essential role in Buffalo’s vibrant arts community, as it has for the past 40 years,” said Pamela Say, vice president of institutional advancement at D’Youville.

The Kav’s next production – “The Bridges of Madison County” – opens Friday, January 10. Based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel, it was adapted for the screen and later for the stage in 2014 with a sumptuous score by Jason Robert Brown. The Kav’s production features Michele Marie Roberts, Steve Copps. Tickets and details at http://www.kavionkytheatre.com.