Theatre Review: ‘An Octoroon’ at The Shaw Festival

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Ryan Cunningham, Star Domingue, and André Sills. Photo by David Cooper.

It’s safe to say that The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake is commonly known for high-quality detailed productions on a typically classical scale. It doesn’t necessarily feel like the home for a strong subversive piece, but that didn’t stop the festival from producing the Canadian premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” now playing through Oct. 14.

“An Octoroon” is wildly uncomfortable and wickedly good. There is a lot to unpack, but every powerful second of this play is important. Go see it.

Jacobs-Jenkins offers a reinterpretation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play “The Octoroon,” sprinkled with moments in the present. The play within the play (Boucicault’s play) depicts the happenings on the Plantation Terrabone as a new man, George, comes to take over the property following the death of his uncle, the previous owner. A villainous fellow slave owner, M’Closky, announces the plantation is for sale due to financial woes and plans to take all of the slaves, as well as the beautiful owner’s child, Zoe who is implied one-eighth black and is, therefore, the titular octoroon.

During the prologue, the playwright BJJ (an unstoppable André Sills), explains how his therapist encouraged him to explore writing this play and offers commentary on what the audience can expect. For instance, Sills blasts modern rap music following his monologue and sits at a makeup table to plaster his face in white makeup as he prepares for his roles as George and M’Closky (noting that all the white actors quit the production). He is joined by a playwright and his assistant, both white, who begin covering their faces in red and black makeup to play a Native American character and the other slaves, respectively.

There is a lot to unpack in this production, finely directed by Peter Hinton and designed by Gillian Gallow.  For this, I’d encourage every audience member to spend the pre-show reading the background pieces offered in the program. It’s not as simple as having a few moments in the present and performing a play within a play. Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t waste his time with subtext, most pointedly when a certain stage direction is projected across the screen, “I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.”

Sills is simply a powerhouse leader of this production. He is hilarious and grounded as BJJ and perfectly moves between that character and those of M’Closky and George. His energy and commitment never waver.

Additionally, Lisa Berry and Kiera Sangster as a pair of house slaves, Dido and Minnie, are a perfect duet. Their timing is impeccable and they easily steal the show. Vanessa Sears also charms as the lovely Zoe. But it is Diana Donnelly as Dora, a woman after George’s affections, that masters the true art of melodrama often relied upon in this production.. Her choices are hilarious and well-balanced.

Rounding out the ensemble are Patrick McManus, Ryan Cunningham, Starr Domingue and Samantha Walkes.

Gallow’s soundtrack is impossible to ignore. Her work stands out as its own character and adds a thrilling interpretive edge to an already interesting piece.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take an extra moment to emphasize the content warning for this show. The language and content is intense enough that certain audience members may not return after intermission. BJJ comments it is hard for theater to shock audiences anymore, but this production does and is worth every one of its 150 minutes.

“An Octoroon” is wildly uncomfortable and wickedly good. There is a lot to unpack, but every powerful second of this play is important. Go see it.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including intermission.

Advisory: This show contains mature content and strong language.

“An Octoroon” runs until October 14, 2017 and is presented at The Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Middletown’ at The Shaw Festival

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Gray Powell and Moya O’Connell. Photo by David Cooper.

There’s countless plays driven by characters who are purposefully larger than life. They will go to great lengths and lean toward the overdramatic, sometimes in order to communicate a very small, simple idea. Will Eno’s play, “Middletown,”  now playing at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre at Shaw Festival, does absolutely none of those things.

The Shaw production marks the Canadian premiere of “Middletown,” and it is a fine one at that. It’s a beautiful commentary on the human experience from birth to death and is well worth the quick drive across the border.

Just as you might suspect, it takes place in what we can guess is any small town located anywhere in the country. There’s all the same types of people as there are in any small town, all of whom have spent their whole lives there. Mary Swanson (a lovable Moya O’Connell) discovers this for herself when she visits the library during her first days as a resident. A recent transplant from an unnamed place, she is understandably nervous around her new neighbors.

It is through Mary and her new neighbors that we unearth small nuggets of information about each of the people of Middletown. Most intriguing is the unemployed, solitary character of John Dodge, intelligently played by Gray Powell. Mary and John start a sort of friendship after a few chance meetings, learning more about each other and about human nature.

What this production, directed by Meg Roe and superbly designed by Camellia Koo, succeeds at best is relating every one of these characters to every audience member, sometimes by force. Seriously – the actors come out before the show begins and start making small talk with the audience as if they were also about to watch the play. They use their real names, ask where you’re from and ask about your day. Additionally, they are taking turns drawing a map of Middletown on the center of the stage, located in the center of the seating area. Immediately, you have a connection to these people, and no matter how many characters they end up playing, you remain very aware of the fact that they are, indeed, humans just like you.

O’Connell and Powell lead the talented cast, most of whom play multiple characters. Karl Ang is a comical stand-out during his brief scene as the doctor, and Jeff Meadows is wonderfully mysterious and endearing as the mechanic, a man who seems to be a mess but might just be misunderstood. Claire Jullien and Peter Millard were also a crowd favorite as a pair of delightful tourists.

The ensemble also includes Kristopher Bowman, Fiona Byrne, Benedict Campbell, Natasha Mumba, Tara Rosling and Sara Topham.

Eno’s strengths lie in his ability to make his characters sound like real people, sometimes witty or awkward and sometimes overjoyed or fearful. Every thought expressed, whether it is a quick apology to a new friend for an awkward comment or a nervous muttering to a doctor about fearing to die, comes out as honest and raw as can be.

The structure of the play can be a little disjointed, mostly in the moments where the fourth wall is broken, but it ultimately succeeds in communicating the themes of the show. No matter how dull or uneventful your town or life may seem, we all wonder and fear the same things.

The Shaw production marks the Canadian premiere of “Middletown,” and it is a fine one at that. It’s a beautiful commentary on the human experience from birth to death and is well worth the quick drive across the border.

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes including intermission. 

“Middletown” runs until September 10, 2017 and is presented at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.

 

 

Theatre Review: ‘Macbeth’ at Shakespeare in Delaware Park

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Lady Macbeth: Lisa Vitrano Macbeth: Matt Witten Photo by Christopher Scinta

“So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are,” the biblical book of Numbers warns, “for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.”

Witches, prophesies, moving woods, and Cesarean sections are secondary: this is the plot of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” “That Scottish Play.”

Or, as our titular villain says in Act II, Scene IV, “blood will have blood.” Director Saul Elkin understands this much, and doesn’t need to dump buckets of the stuff to put on a fine production, one that Western New Yorkers should make every effort to see.

“. . .finely conceived and finely executed. . .

Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s mounting of “Macbeth,” one of Shakespeare’s shortest works, is happily a swift and bracing follow-up to the unwatchable “Merry Wives of Windsor,” in which an outmatched cast under dubious direction acted at half-speed the dullest game of Mousetrap ever played — a family game night complete with missing cheese pieces, forced laughs, and the malfunction of that infernal diving board man. By contrast, this season’s “Macbeth” is very good Shakespeare, with everything one expects from very good Shakespeare: leads capable of leading (in the sturdy Matt Witten and the confident Lisa Vitrano), delightful dialogue, and even a Shakespearean scene-stealing fool (Gerry Maher in perfect pitch as our porter).

In the play, the valiant (or just lucky) Thane of Glamis, Macbeth, returns from a successful battle and encounters three witches who offering a rhyming prophecy: He will be Thane of Cawdor, then king. In a classic expression of Scottish FOMO, Macbeth’s friend Banquo demands a prophecy for himself, and the sisters say he will not be king, but will beget a line of kings. When kind King Duncan comes under Macbeth’s roof and names him Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is sufficiently convinced (with some urging from his wife) to complete the prophecy, violating loyalty, honor, and the duty of hospitality by killing his king and taking the crown. Thus “fair is foul and foul is fair”: We see the reversal or total abandonment of of gender, husband-wife, king-thane, guest-host, and other relationships. Our Macbeth rules poorly, killing friends and innocents, succumbing to paranoid visions, shoring his self-confidence up with scraps of prophecy he does not understand, and finally falling under the blade of a more loyal thane, who willingly hands power over to Duncan’s son, an Anglophile posh-boy who restores order, modernizing and anglicizing those wild Scots, to boot.

Attention to detail pays dividends in this production. We can forgive one or two minor players for the distraction of grasping their swords by the blades; we can forgive an army in contemporary camouflage fatigues; a man in a kilt and a see-through mesh tank that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Funky Monkey “Gaelic” night; and witches in Cirque du Soleil outfits, high-stepping to music you might hear in an internet cafe in Garden City, N.J., if North Korea wins the next great war. On the whole, the costuming is fine, the music is unintrusive, and Steve Vaughan’s fight choreography is riveting, both when making full use of the large cast and when our attention is fixed on only two or four players. The moment when Macbeth and Lady Macbeth grasp each other’s bloody hands is well-played and immensely satisfying. And the scene in which Macbeth’s hired murderers (Brett Klaczyk and Ben Caldwell) kill Lady Macduff and her child (Jamie Nablo and Joel Fesmire or Brady Sadkin, alternating), the mother flailing on the floor and scraping toward her son as if unaware of the cloth around her neck, is physical theater every bit on par with Shakespeare’s words, and an illustration of the truism that productions live or die by their minor characters.

There is something unsettling about the play — besides its brutality. It is the absence of any motive sufficient for the the villains’ crime, or their later guilt and madness. Something in us resists believing Lady Macbeth’s immediate ecstasy of ambition on hearing — secondhand — of the witches’ prophecy. And there is something off about Witten’s muted performance in the first half, in which he hears the prophecy of his kingship, contemplates murder, and enacts it.

But so too was there something off in Sir Ian McKellan’s turn as Macbeth in 1978, as in nearly every other actor’s attempt. The fault is not (entirely) Witten’s, McKellan’s, or any other actor’s. Even if, as some have theorized, our “Macbeth” is an incomplete version of an undiscovered whole, Macbeth the man remains an incomplete villain: not as charming as the deformed and exuberant King Richard, not as provokingly ambiguous as Shylock, and not as fascinating an incarnation of evil as Iago. Moving amidst a cast of dimensionless characters — including his wife, whose desire to be “unsexed” and give full play is never fully developed, and whose descent into the madness of guilt comes on too quickly — Macbeth, who bears none of the marks of a truly ambitious man, calmly weighs the cons of killing his king and decides to go through with it — as if he “might as well.” We are willing to move past this once the energetic third, fourth, and fifth acts begin to sweep us along, but the lack of proper set-up in the beginning makes Macbeth’s eventual fall less (immediately) powerful.

Similarly, the poet-critic T.S. Eliot complained in his essay “Hamlet and His Problems” (which will someday, I hope, be the title of a puppet version of the play), that “Hamlet” is an “artistic failure,” because the title character is gripped by emotions that are not justified by the circumstances of the plot. Hamlet, he argues, is less trapped in his puns and plays and equivocations than is the author, who has not mastered his materials, attempting to express an inexpressible emotion.

As was the case with many things immediately beneath his very sensitive nose, Eliot missed the point (or more precisely the success) of “Hamlet,” as we may easily miss the success of “Macbeth.” Without realizing what he is saying, Eliot writes of Hamlet that “The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known.” And Shakespeare’s characters, like Dostoevsky’s, know and live these feelings more powerfully than the rest of us.

Romeo and Juliet’s hasty love and hastier suicides, Hamlet’s disgust and equivocation, Iago’s jealousy, and Shylock’s stubbornness — all are examples of “intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible,” that lack or exceed an object. So too Macbeth’s ambition, guilt, and paranoia — and finally his face-off with fate. His every action and reaction is not only irrational, but drawing on an unplumbable hot spring at the bottom of the pool of human emotions, a force that has no correlative.

So, Vitrano’s 180-degree turn from harpy-wife to guilt-stricken suicide may not be supportable or believable; but she plays both turns with unimpeachable conviction. And Witten might have struck different notes in the first half of the production, making Macbeth’s arc steeper and more interesting; but when he is raving we will believe anything he says. By the final act, we have abandoned any need for “complete” characters whose every action is really a reaction, in perfect proportion to some element cleverly revealed in a bit of backstory. We believe — no, we feel,  as Macbeth has told us — that

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Only thus can we understand Macbeth’s murder, his guilt, and his final decision — straining against a heavy chain of choices tied to total belief in an incontrovertible fate — to fight fate, to fight though Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane Hill, to fight against a man not born of woman. To “try the last.” We cannot explain why he has staked everything on “fate” and why he now denies it, “beard to beard” — and we cannot help but understand it.

“Macbeth” is timeless, and not just because it is so obviously an influence on “Game of Thrones.” It spans cultural paradigms from the medieval social system to the “absurd” of Albert Camus.

It is also worth mentioning that “Macbeth” is a work aware of and shaped by the political currents of Shakespeare’s day. We see Banquo, widely believed to be the ancestor of Shakespeare’s king and patron James I, turned from a traitor and fellow regicide into a morally ambiguous foil to Macbeth. Contemporary audiences would have heard echoes of the Gunpowder Plot (for American readers: the one that made Guy Fawkes famous), giving rise to an interpretation of Macbeth as deeply conservative, a play reaffirming the existing social and political order. Even the witches (and their cauldron) are borrowed more or less whole from the Berwick witch trials stirring up fears across the country at the time of writing (for comparison, imagine a playwright today turning to Buzzfeed or the MSN homepage to see what the “Florida man” has been up to, and adding the news story in as a plot device). And the play still has a particularly local contemporary resonance. When Ross, a thane, bemoans his “poor country! / Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot / Be call’d our mother, but our grave,” he might as well be Ewan McGregor in “Trainspotting.”

These connections, both dated and timelessly Scottish, will pass without notice for most watching the Delaware Park production — minds might instead skip across the centuries to our present, American circumstances. Thankfully, Saul Elkin didn’t opt to dress his leads in a power suit and red Ralph Lauren dress, like the controversial Shakespeare in Central Park production of Julius Caesar, which put Donald Trump, basically, in the title role. As much fun as it might have been to imagine Melania as Lady Macbeth crying to the demons to be “unsexed,” the play wouldn’t survive such a grafting. Far better to let the timeless characters let their timeless passions propel them into a timely tale: that of a man without a personality; a man intoxicated by the gross promise of a prophecy; a man who surprises all, even himself, by fulfilling it; a man who holding power hasn’t a clue what to do with it, cutting down all his closest allies, gripped by the twinned and paradoxical beliefs that he is invincible and that everyone is out to get him.

This “Macbeth” is finely conceived and finely executed. There are many reasons to see it. But, above all of these, if this summer you have even for a moment succumbed to the feeling that life is “a tale, told by an idiot … signifying nothing,” you might need to see this play. Bringing wine won’t hurt.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

“Macbeth” runs until August 20, 2017 and is presented in Delaware Park in Buffalo as part of Shakespeare in Delaware Park. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Pretty/Funny’ at MusicalFare Theatre

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You’ve seen it before: the lonely girl, an outcast, worrying her way through life until something happens to help her come out of her shell and realize her worth… but not told like this. Through musical comedy, dance, and modern media, Marisa Guida (conceiver, Book, co-lyrics) takes us on a predictable coming of age journey for Genny (Arin Lee Dandes), with a unique and fun twist… encouraging us to clown around and shine in your own light.

“. . .the perfect feel good show. . .”

Meet Genny, a lovable girl entering the unknown horrors of middle school with her parents, Mom (Amy Jakiel) and Dad (Louis Colaiacovo), totally stoked and eager to support their little princess. However, Genny’s excitement soon turns sour after she meets up with her best friend (Leah Berst) who’s just returned from camp, smart phone in hand and a new clique to bond with. Life only goes downhill from there. With the current day media telling girls how to look and behave, unfair behavior at school both from students and a teacher, Genny’s mother working for a beauty campaign across the country, and her father being fired from his job, Genny starts to crumble under the pressure.

Then, as fate would have it, Genny accidentally finds solace in Imogene Coca, the pioneering female comedian that no one’s heard of. In an attempt to cheer his daughter up, Dad suggests that Genny write her term paper on Coca, explaining in great detail (and song) all about the wondrous woman from the black and white era.

This is where “Pretty/Funny” shines, in it’s ability to recreate not only a real-life Imogene Coca (Nicole Marrale Cimato), but to dim the lights and reveal demonstrations of how early 1900’s vaudevilles performed on stage. Kudos to producer/director Randall Kramer for effortless transitions/combinations between reality and daydreams. Constantly during a musical explanation of something requiring visual aid, actors would dance in and out of the scene without disruption or confusion, purely there for comedic effect or just a fun dance number.

The entire cast works so well together, the enjoyment each actor exudes on stage beams to the audience and sets the mood for the duration of the show. Doug Weyand’s tasteful choreography includes hip hop, tap, ballet, and physical comedy routines that adds that little something extra to every musical number or scene. Of course the music, composed by Philip Farugia, combined with toe-tapping dance numbers, creates annoyingly catchy tunes that you’ll be humming days later.

“Pretty/Funny” is the perfect feel good show that will inspire you, educate you (right after the performance I went home and Googled Imogene Coca, what a legend), and make you reflect on the social expectations forced upon little girls today, which could be the main, underlying focus of this show. Why is society so glued to the media? Why do we need that product that promises us to look younger? Why listen to what a magazine says you should look like? Don’t conform to today’s “beauty” standards, don’t let anyone try to put you in a box. “Pretty/Funny” insists you can do better; you can stand out and be the most wonderful version of you, be yourself despite anything.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15 minute intermission.

“Pretty/Funny” runs until August 13, 2017 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Billy Elliot The Musical’ at Lockport Palace Theatre

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The Cast of “Billy Elliot The Musical” at Lockport Palace Theatre.

Societal norms tend to dictate what we as people can and cannot do with our lives. To this day, a person who tries to make a career for themselves in the arts is still looked at as an underachiever, while a person who decides to have a career that possesses no creative necessity is thought of as a success. The norms of society have a huge power over the citizens who reside in it, but I believe that it is those who break these social norms and take their own paths, that are truly the most successful in life. These trailblazers are the ones who make the world a better place.

an admirable effort, bringing together fantastic young and veteran talent.”

“Billy Elliot The Musical” tells the tale of a town that is down on it’s luck. The men in the community have been on strike for a last year from the mine. They try to wear the unions down by striking and taking down scabs that cross the picket line, but find a great deal of difficulty providing for their families. The Elliot family is in the thick of it as well. Young Billy (Seth Judice) takes weekly boxing classes, but does not have a real knack for it. He’s small, he’s petite, he isn’t really built for a boxer’s life. After staying late after one class, Billy is introduced to Mrs. Wilkinson’s (Lisa Ludwig) ballet class. When Billy shows great potential in being a dance, he starts honing his skills. After two months of lessons, and winning over the approval of his father (Geoff Koplas), Billy auditions for a spot in the Royal Ballet Company school.

Leading the show as the child dancing prodigy is Seth Judice. Judice instantly wins the audience over as the ‘everyman’ in this piece. His dancing abilities will put you in awe at the amazing movement that he is able to bring to the stage. His performance of “Electricity” makes you want to jump to your feet and cheer. He is perfectly cast as the lead in this show, and does not disappoint.

Lisa Ludwig brings a great comic performance to her portrayal of Mrs. Wilkinson. Ludwig is able to play the uptight ballet instructor, and then with the flip of a switch, delivers a maternal performance that is full of heart, compassion, and love. Ludwig is a high point of the production.

Geoff Koplas plays the conflicted single father, Jackie Elliot, well. He brings a great sense of pride, pain, and love to the role, and his character possesses the strongest character arch in the show. You feel for him as he tries to support his family by breaking his morals and crossing the picket line to earn for his family.

Backing up the principle players is a great ensemble that assists in creating a wonderful night of theatre.

Since the show takes place in a small english town, the cast performs with the necessary accents. Accents are always tricky because they can make or break a performance. Overall, the accents in this production are easily understood, but at times you really need to pay close attention or some of the lines and dialogue will be missed.

Under the baton of David C. Stacey, the orchestra performs the wonderful score by Elton John. The orchestra is always one of my favorite parts of seeing a live performance at the Lockport Palace, because their attention to detail allows for a wonderful musical experience for all!

The Curtain Up Production’s presentation of “Billy Elliot The Musical” is an admirable effort, bringing together fantastic young and veteran talent. Director Christopher Prada mounts a production that moves nicely, and entertains fully, all the while displaying wonderful production value.

Running Time: Approximately 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15 Minute Intermission.

Advisory: Some Adult Language

“Billy Elliot The Musical” runs until July 23, 2017 and is presented at the Lockport Palace Theatre in Lockport. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Fox on the Fairway’ by George Liaros Productions at Road Less Traveled Theater

Like most of America, I was introduced to the sport of golf by the movie “Happy Gilmore.” What I thought were over the top characters in the film, turn out to be how most people who play the sport act. I guess that character traits have to come from somewhere, right? These golfer and country club stereotypes are very entertaining, especially when they appear in Ken Ludwig’s “The Fox on the Fairway,” George Liaros Productions’ current endeavor, being presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre in Buffalo. The laughs are plentiful in this country club farce.

The laughs are plentiful in this country club farce.

Playwright Ken Ludwig, who has penned the Buffalo favorites, “Moon Over Buffalo,” and “Lend Me A Tenor” amongst others, delivers a story of a country club golf tournament which involves a ridiculous bet, a newly engaged coupled, a twisted love triangle, or would it be a square. . .there are four people involved. . .and a bunch of balls that are flying everywhere.

Chris Best plays the role of Henry Bingham, the club manager who makes a bet with a rival club owner that exceeds one-hundred thousand dollars, and his wife’s Antique Shop. His plan goes awry when it is discovered that his star player is playing for the opponent. In a pinch, Henry enlists his new assistant to be the club’s star player. Best brings a fun quality to the character that the audience enjoys. While he does not take too many creative chances, he plays the straight man well to the zany antics that are occurring around him. He is a admirable ring leader in this production.

Jamie Moore is hilarious as Louise, a club employee and newly engaged to Justin, Henry’s new assistant. Moore emits a Kristen Schaal approach to Louise in this production that is fantastic and enjoyable. She takes a number of artistic risks that are successful and you start smiling each time she enters the stage.

Russ Burton is a crowd favorite as Dickie Bell, a pro golfer who possesses a large personality, and an even larger ego. Burton employs a different Bill Cosby-esk ugly sweater every time he enters the stage. He goes for the jugular in his comedic delivery and he has no problem fully committing to the role he is portraying. Burton does not disappoint.

Rounding out the cast are nice contributions by Stacy Kowal, Donna Manquen, Jim Coughlin, and, Kyle Marchal. The cast works well together, and it is clear that they are having a great time on stage.

Director George Liaros has chosen a fun script for the summer season slot, and the cast does a nice job bringing this goofy farce to life on stage. Treat yourself to this funny show!

Running Time: Approximately 2 Hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“The Fox on the Fairway” runs until June 25, 2017, is produced by George Liaros Productions and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theater in Buffalo. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Hay Fever’ at Irish Classical Theatre Company

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David Oliver as David Bliss and Josephine Hogan as Judith Bliss in ‘Hay Fever’ at Irish Classical Theatre.. Photo is by Gene Witkowski

Last night, I went to the Irish Classical Theatre Company and saw their production of “Hayfever” by Noel Coward. This British drawing room comedy from the 1920’s isn’t performed as often as Coward classics “Blithe Spirits”, “Private Lives”, and “Present Laughter,” and so being able to see “Hayfever” is a real treat.

. . .light and fun. . .

The play takes place at a country house where Judith Bliss, a famous actress of a certain age, and her family and friends have assembled for a weekend. The Bliss clan is eccentric, Bohemian, and given to theatrics and this has a detrimental effect on the psyche of their unwitting guests.

Direction by Gordon McCall is spritely and smooth, and the pace is good. It could benefit by being a little wilder and more inspired – especially at the end of Act 3 – but this is certainly a pleasant production.

Josephine Hogan is the central character, Judith Bliss, and Ms. Hogan is very much in command of the proceedings, shining especially brightly as the emotional crux for the hijinks of the second act.

As her over-the-top daughter, Marisa Caruso, is appropriately both vivacious and arch, and she delights vocally with a range that can run from sultry to squeaky within the same sentence!

Ironically, the straight man played by David Lundy, gets the biggest laughs of the evening, and Jacob Albarella also scores as a hapless stage struck hunk.

Providing able support are David Oliver as the pompous novelist, Jordan Levin as his immature son, Hilary Walker as a notorious vamp, Melissa Levin as a ditzy flapper, and Andrea Gollhardt as the exasperated maid.

Production values are high with lighting by Brian Cavanagh, sound by Tom Makar, and colorful scenery topped by a set of spiffy lamps by Paul Bostaph.  The consistently excellent period costumes by Lisa Harty include gorgeous beaded dresses and wonderful touches like two tone oxfords, red and black gardening gloves, and magnificent patent leather boots.

“Hay Fever” at the Irish Classical Theatre Company is light and fun and a lovely summer evening’s entertainment.

Running Time: 2 Hours 10 Minutes with one 10 Minute Intermission.

“Hay Fever” runs until June 25, 2017 and is presented at Irish Classical Theatre Company in Buffalo. For more information, click here. 

 

Theatre Review: ‘The Light In The Piazza’ by Second Generation Theatre Company at Lancaster Opera House

Che bella.

Absolutely everything about this production of ‘The Light in the Piazza’ – a Western New York premiere – (it played at the Shaw Festival a few years ago) is simply beautiful. The starkly elegant set, the period perfect costumes, the casting, direction, and the music create a romantic and poignant night in Italy.

. . .simply beautiful

Director Loraine O’Donnell’s decision to pull the production off the elevated Opera House stage and put it on a thrust stage was inspired. This created a great audience vibe: we were part of Clara and Fabrizio’s love story. And what a love story!   It plays like a contemporary Italian opera with flashes of Fellini cinema Italiano, too, as you’re drawn into this story of starry eyed love and parental protection. Mother and daughter Americans Margaret Johnson (Debbie Pappas Sham) and Clara Johnson (Kelly Copps) are vacationing in Florence in 1953, re-visiting the tourist spots from Margaret’s honeymoon. “It’s a city of statues and stories,” says Margaret as daughter Clara is sketching things that catch her eye. Clara is a “special child,” Margaret explains. To our eyes, Clara is a beautiful adult, but her charming childlike qualities soon appear.  In a moment of theatre magic, Clara’s wide-brim hat flies away, to be caught by Fabrizio (Anthony Lazzaro).  Their eyes meet, halting sweet words are exchanged, and Clara is determined to see him again.

Ah, love. Ah, parental agita over family secrets and cultural differences. The story unfolds as Clara and Margaret meet Fabrizio’s family. Marc Sacco is a hoot as the philandering brother Giuseppe. He has the facial expressions and moves down pat.  Rebecca Runge as his wife Franca tries to warn Clara about life with a passionate Italian man in “The Joy You Feel.” Runge’s rich voice soars. Katy Miner is the matriarch with the spotlight in Act Two’s “Aiutami” (translation: help me). Matt Witten is the solid papa, proud, strong, protective in his own way.

It’s Margaret, Clara, and Fabrizio who win and warm the audience’s collective hearts. Pappas Sham is the stoic Southern mom: her tenderness as she sings “The Beauty Is” is breathtaking. Copps as Clara is that curious combination of innocent and passionate as she discovers love and struggles to claim her maturity. Lazzaro plays Fabrizio with a gentle wisdom and a powerful voice for love.

Allan Paglia led a string-dominated chamber ensemble that was lush and lovely, and stood up well to the powerful vocal talent in the cast.

The show’s music and lyrics were written by Adam Guettel and he lived up to grandfather Richard Rodgers’ roots by including an overture and entr’acte which are rare in contemporary musical theatre. But the whole show is that exquisite and rare moment, where musical styles collide and meld, language barriers are crossed, and true love triumphs.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

“The Light in the Piazza” runs until June 18, 2017, is produced by Second Generation Theatre Company and is presented at The Lancaster Opera House in Lancaster. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Wicked’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The original Broadway cast of “Wicked.”

Stephen Schwatz’s pop culture phenomenon, “Wicked,” is a show that continues to play to sell out crowds of theatre fanatics all across the world. The story of the witches of Oz before Dorothy dropped in, continues to break box office records and is still a favorite amongst audiences of all ages. The glitz, the glamor, and the brilliant visual effects make “Wicked” a show that just has to be seen. But one can only wonder if the show that has been playing on Broadway and touring North America for the last decade still lives up to its hype. The answer: yes, yes it does.

“After all these years, “Wicked” is still full of magic.”

Schwartz’s brilliant score still captivates in this powerhouse of a production. Right from the getgo, the ensemble’s performance of “No One Mourns The Wicked,” sets the tone for what is to come. The signing is performed effortlessly by this fantastic ensemble. Every song builds and contributes to this haunting tale of what actually took place in Oz, and how Elphaba became the Wicked Witch of the West.

Starring Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda and Jessica Vosk as Elphaba, these two ladies take on these iconic roles originated by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, and give a magical performance that will bring you to your feet in awe. These witches have pipes and their magical instruments ring throughout the theatre especially in Vosk’s performance of “Defying Gravity” and Mason’s performance of “Thank Goodness.” They both have wonderful comedic timing and get laugh after laugh while delivering Winnie Hoffman’s heartfelt and hilarious book.

The Wizard, portrayed by Fred Applegate, is a great choice for the man behind the self crafted facade. Applegate brings a goofy charm to the character that we all love to hate, and his rendition of “Wonderful” is admirable.

The ensemble work is phenomenal, and there is no small part in this show. Collectively, this is the best utilized ensemble touring the country this season. All of their hard work and dedication assists in crafting a production that shows no signs of slowing down or going away anytime soon.

The production value is fantastic for the exception of some strange sound level issues that appeared to make the orchestra sound as if it was not balanced with all the orchestrations. I am sure these are just little simple fixes, but at times it was very noticeable, and I am sure all the other die-hard “Wicked” fans would agree. That being said, the vocal strength of the cast makes up for the balance issues, and creates a great evening of theatre.

After all these years, “Wicked” is still full of magic. What could easily become stale overtime, has never been so fresh. This is the fourth time I have seen this show, and I am still entertained and amazed at how powerful this show is. The interesting thing that hit me on my fourth go around, was the topical themes that are possessed in the script. Segregation, rights of citizens, discrimination, diversity, and the search for the truth all make an appearance. Does any of this sound familiar? Go see this show!

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“Wicked” runs until June 4, 2017 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre in Buffalo. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Run For Your Wife’ by Lancaster Regional Players at Lancaster Opera House

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The best thing in any theater community, especially Buffalo’s unique community, are the organizations made up of local professionals who act for the love of theater. Lancaster Regional Players have been presenting community theater for 52 years, and they’ve collaborated with the Lancaster Opera House to present the British farce “Run For Your Wife.” The play centers around a taxi driver, living a double life. He lives happily with his wife, Mary, in Wimbledon. He also lives happily with his wife, Barbara, four and a half minutes away! When he steps in to stop a mugging, he is hit in the head and taken to hospital. The situation begins to unravel when John gives both of his addresses in the course of the incident’s investigation.

“. . .the comedy triumphs, and the audience thoroughly enjoyed the farcical hilarity of the evening.”

The production definitely stays true to its community theater roots, marking the nonmusical debut of one of the actors in the company. Lancaster Regional Players have picked a play that, in my opinion, is dated in some of its humor, but manage to do a decent job in putting it on. David Hall, the director, does his best with a flawed piece of theater, and does a serviceable job with the difficult style that is farce.

Leading this production as John Smith, Scot Kaitanowski shines. As a veteran of numerous productions here in Buffalo, Kaitanowski has a natural knack for comedy. He handles the fast-paced dialogue with ease, and his organic reactions add the extra flair necessary to make the script work.

Joel Murphy, playing John’s Wimbledon upstairs neighbor and assistant in protecting his double life, is the right combination of charming and quick-thinking. Murphy’s greatest strength is his commitment to the character and the comedy; however, he might learn a bit from Kaitanowski in the art of physical reaction.

Rounding out the cast soundly are Suzie Hibbard as Mary Smith and Amy Feder as Barbara Smith. Both ladies are extremely apt in their roles, rolling with the craziness that ensues from the situation unravelling.

In the roles of the police sergeants, Victor Morales and Jackson DiGiacomo are excellent straight men to the farce happening around them. Chuck Basil rounds out the cast as the upstairs neighbor, a 70s stereotype of a homosexual man. Basil conveys the stereotype well, but is unable to bring any kind of humanity to his, by 2017 standards, offensive stereotype. This seems to me like a script fault, so Basil’s performance can hardly by critiqued for it.

All in all, David Hall’s direction has brought the best parts of the flawed “Run For Your Wife” script forward, but it seems to me most of the actors are working against a dated script, especially as it relates to the homosexuality element of the story. That being said, the comedy triumphs, and the audience thoroughly enjoyed the farcical hilarity of the evening.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.

“Run For Your Wife” runs until May 21, 2017, is produced by Lancaster Regional Players and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House in Lancaster. For more information, click here.