An 11 Year Tradition: The Nutcracker at Shea’s

The 11th annual production of The Nutcracker (Nov. 30 and Dec. 1) is a delightful collaboration between Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Neglia Ballet Artists, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

It’s a triple win for the value of cultural partnerships: Buffalo’s most beautiful venue, our world-class orchestra, and a ballet program that features local students and has enough star-power to attract a stunning line up of guest artists is the best of all possible worlds.

If that isn’t enough, the production is lovely from the moment we hear the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s luscious score to the moment the gilt-fringe curtain falls.

Then there’s the whole Christmas spirit going on, too. Shea’s carefully curated elegance is tastefully decked out in white lights and pine bough. The audience is full of families with little ones in their holiday best.  The whole vibe is wonderfully infectious and a harbinger of the holiday month to come.

The story is familiar: it’s Christmas eve at the Stahlbaum house and friends and family members gather for gifts. The mysterious (read: slightly creepy) Herr Drosselmeyer (Paul Mockovak) arrives with life-size toys and magic tricks, and a special gift for the Stahlbaum daughter Marie (Director Sergio Neglia opts to call her Marie as his mentor George Balanchine did; most other productions call her Clara.) It’s a nutcracker and Marie is entranced. Brother Fritz breaks it in a jealous moment and Drosselmeyer repairs it post haste. Marie falls asleep with her gift and is awakened by a frisky mouse…and a room full of rats. The Nutcracker comes to life and with an army of soldiers (and some help from Marie) he slays the rat king and his band of vermin. More Drosselmeyer magic saves the Nutcracker as a handsome Prince and fast-forwards young Marie to young adulthood. They dance their way around the world through heritage soloists and sweets.

It’s the local kids as the mice, rats, snow flakes, angels, cupcakes, baker, and soldiers with  the impressive cast in the featured roles;  they meld perfectly as storytellers and interpreters of Neglia’s choreography.  Neglia himself is the Nutcracker, an imposing figure. Standouts were youth dancers Zoe de Torres Curth, (Marie) a Buffalo Seminary student who moved here from her native Argentina to study with Neglia, and Nardin Academy senior Ava DiNicola,(one of the three Mirlitons) both dancing in featured roles.

Dancers are athletes, artists, and storytellers; to convey a story without words is an art in itself. Neglia and this troupe remind us of this graceful and powerful complexity.  It’s easy to be drawn into the story and be swept away by the music and the dance.

The scenic design is exceptional: Lynne Koscielniak is responsible for the original renderings and Dyan Burlingame (the resident set designer for Road Less Traveled Productions) with Jon Shimon, Michele Costa (her theatreFiguren skills created character masks and the toys, too) and Roger Schroeder created additional imagery in the first act. Burlingame also designed the lighting which featured some lovely hues that highlighted Donna Massimo’s jewel toned costume designs.  It’s all well balanced, like a painting come to life.

An act one glitch: during a lovely duet, the gentle fall of on-stage snow became a Lake Effect squall for a moment as too much faux snow fell in a big flurry.  Like good Buffalonians, the pair danced on.

Buffalo is ballet starved for sure: those of us of a certain age remember the days of yore at ArtPark when a ballet company was in residence each summer. We were treated to traditional and contemporary works as regularly as the current regime brings in ‘70s and ‘80s rockers.  Times changes and companies like Neglia Ballet Artists help keep dance accessible to a broad albeit niche audience.  Neglia is also training tomorrow’s dancers and dance audiences that will keep the art form alive here. Bravo!

The Nutcracker is a full and well-paced two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Details at http://www.negliaballet.org.

Theatre Review: ‘Come Back To The Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ at New Phoenix Theatre

The New Phoenix Theatre production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean opened on Friday.

Even though this story has history, having made a Broadway run and adapted to film with what may have been a stellar cast, I entered Friday with zero familiarity.  Arguably, you might quarrel that a fair review of any play would require one to perform a little research, if not have some actual experience with the story, be it from stage, screen, or text.  Otherwise, how to gauge its success? Or, you might squabble that going into a play with zero experience with it makes for zero expectations. The production rises or falls on its basic merits as entertainment value.  

Either way, Jimmy Dean never makes an appearance.  Neither does James Dean. Not really a surprise. Even with zero expectations, a play about pure pork breakfast sausage or 50’s film icons was never anticipated.

It’s basically about broken lives come together.  Set in a small town in Texas at, you might guess, a Five and Dime store where not only are sundry goods sold but also coffee shop food and drink at a lunch counter.  The set of New Phoenix is meticulously rendered, with throw-back appropriate swivel stools, hanging lights and fan, corded wall phone and yes, a life-sized cut-out of the 50’s heart-throb, James Dean.

The occasion taking place is a meeting of a group of friends who were coming of age when Dean was alive, around the time of his filming of the movie, Giant.  The movie had apparently been filmed all those years ago just outside of the town where the play’s action takes place.  Those 30 years earlier, this group of friends had formed their own fan club, “The Disciples of James Dean”. They had agreed to meet 30 years later, at the Five and Dime where they had spent much of their adolescence.

Enter the 40-something Mona, played by Lori Haberberger, whose admiration for Dean is extreme.  So much so that she’s named her only child Jimmy Dean. In fact, we learn, that from the time of her son’s birth Mona has claimed she was seduced by James Dean himself during the filming of Giant, and that Jimmy Dean is his child.   

It’s not true, of course, but you would not know that by Haberberger’s portrayal.  She plays the character with a hint of disturbing over-the-deep-end drama that keens us into thinking something is wrong here.  Yet everybody knows it but her.

The rest of the characters let it play as a fact of Mona’s life, 30 years in the making.  Mona’s mother Juanita, played by Mary Moebius, the God-fearing proprietor of the Five and Dime, chooses to remain blissfully ignorant of the un-truth.  The rest of the Disciples have all moved on.   

Their comeback to the Five and Dime is lead by Sissy, expertly played by Buffalo theatre mainstay, award-winning actress, Lisa Ludwig.  Sissy is, in a word, sassy. And Ludwig plays her with an outstanding command of the stage, dialogue, and physical prowess, complete with an affecting southern accent and swagger.

Nearly matching Ludwig’s stage presence is Kerrykate Abel as the well-to-do Stella May, whose confidence and simple truth wisdom is a fantastically thick disguise of Stella May’s discomfort with her outwardly successful life.

The Disciples are a group of six companions, whose truths and confessions come out across the stage, veiled in uncomfortable lies and long held blissful assumptions about just what those 30 years have meant and what happened and who they came to be, 30 years after James Dean held their fancies.  

The play uses flashbacks from those days of the Disciples of Dean  – a young Mona being played by relative newcomer Jessie Miller, and a youthful Sissy being played by the accomplished Jamie Nablo.   As the young and adult Sissy, Nablo and Ludwig’s command are expertly meshed. The two performances bridge the 30-year gap of the character so convincingly you’d think they were mother and daughter in real life.   Sissy’s 30-year gap of young to old is packaged with care by these two stellar performances.

The actual stage flashbacks to 30 years earlier are not quite as seamless.   In the opening minutes of the play a flashback occurs and, still establishing a purchase on the play, it presents some unsure footing.   That is partly because the flashback mingles the younger actors from 30 years earlier with the very same older actors in the real time of the play, without an obvious visual transition.  The first time we see the young Mona, it’s presented as such a matter of fact walk-on that, at first, one might assume she is just another character in the present action of the play.  

Whether that’s a matter of stylized storytelling or production limitations —  early on it’s bewildering as the present action moves forward. Later in the play it becomes an integral, recurring approach.  But early on it takes a little time to gain one’s footing because of it, but once you’re grounded in the story and characters, the impact lessens and the seam closes.  

What you’re left with is a sometimes poignant, sometimes raucously fun look at how a group of small town folks reconnect to find their lives diverted, yet remain irrevocably bound by their early years of common ground and truths come to light.  The folks at New Phoenix have brought together a group of excellently seasoned performers to the stage, managed by some inventive newcomers managing the stage. Together they bring an altogether vigorous, entertaining show as filled with vibrant performances as it is with uncommon twists.   

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is two hours with a 15 minute intermission. It runs now through December 21.  More information is at https://www.newphoenixtheatre.org

A Child’s Christmas in Wales: Third time is a charm for ICTC

Tyler Eisenmann as Young Dylan, Brandon Barry, Music Director Joseph Donohue III and Nicole Cimato. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

Long before there were hours of football on TV and the ubiquitous electronic devices in the hands of teens at the dinner table, families made Christmas memories by spending time together. They would sing songs, tell stories, indulge in the art of conversation, and help rescue various kitchen catastrophes. You know, like when your new-fangled gas stove blows up and makes a foul (fowl?) mess of Christmas dinner.

” Thank you, ICTC, for this early gift.”

These moments are at the heart of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company now to December 15. Based on the prose of Dylan Thomas, his 1952 reflections were adapted for the stage 30 years later by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell.

It’s a simple work, really. Thomas’ stories about his boyhood Christmas celebrations could be anyone’s stories. The happy sounds from a houseful of relatives, those memory snapshots of racing around outside with cousins and pals, poignant thoughts of the older generation now passed…all part of the Christmas canon. ICTC does this show really well.  Director Chris Kelly has the dream team of local actors on stage for this, starting with Joseph Donohue III and Brandon Barry (from The Albrights)  providing the music. They give a contemporary nod to some Christmas classics, starting with the plaintive sweetness of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  Vincent O’Neill is grown up Dylan; his reminiscing is wistful, almost ethereal. Young Dylan is Tyler Eisenmann, totally in the moment enjoying his youth and family foibles.  Michele Roberts as Mother; Ben Michael Moran as Father; Nicole Cimato as Hannah with her ever-present flask; Christian Brandjes as Gwyn; Karen Harty as Nellie; Brittany Bassett as Brenda; Renee Landrigan as Glenda; Gregory Gjurich as Tudyr; Charmagne Chi as Bessie; and Megan Callahan as Elieri wear their roles like perfectly knit woolen mittens. Highlights are Chi’s rendition of “The Holly and the Ivy” in its pure loveliness and Roberts’ comic chops when she’s coping with that new-fangled gas stove in her kitchen.

I always appreciate ICTC’s artful and minimal staging; it’s elegant to suggest a living room, the streetscape and countryside with almost very few set elements. Set Designer Primo Thomas feeds our imagination with this beautifully. Director Kelly then has to lead his cast through imaginary spaces and places under a canopy of flickering lanterns suspended overhead. These small touches, with sparse pine bough and buffalo check bows suggest countryside and homemade décor. Perfection. With a cast this talented, it looks effortless.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is all about sentiment and nostalgia in the season where heart-felt memories ground us and remind us that hearth and home are best. Thank you, ICTC, for this early gift.

The show runs slightly over two hours with one 10-minute intermission. Find details and tickets at www.irishclassical.com.

Theatre Review: ‘Guys and Dolls’ at UB Center for the Arts

UB’s Department of Theatre and Dance has put on some real showstoppers during the past few seasons and kept that tradition going with their most recent production of “Guys and Dolls,” guest directed by Keith Andrews.

A stellar production of a classic musical”

“Guys and Dolls” follows the overlapping stories of high-roller Sky Masterson, who falls in love with mission worker Sarah Brown, and lovable rapscallion Nathan Detroit, engaged for 14 years to Miss Adelaide, a headliner at the Hot Box Club.

The four actors leading the show in those roles were perfectly cast and shine brightly throughout the show. Rory Tamimie leads the pack as Sky with an incredible voice and suave demeanor to match. Anna Fernandez does a great job in trying to resist his charms as Sarah, determined to not fall in love with a gambler. Sarah’s iconic songs including “If I Were a Bell,” require a legit soprano to belt them throughout the show and Fernandez definitely delivers.

Hannah Keller portrays Ms. Adelaide, the finest of her roles on the UB stage to date. I’d suggest running to grab tickets for her incredibly strong, sassy and confident version of Ms. Adelaide. Keller belts out “Adelaide’s Lament” with ferocity and incredible vocal power while still maintaining Adelaide’s iconic voice and personality. Michael Wells is a great match for Keller as Nathan Detroit, the gambler who seems to constantly run out of luck, and exercises great comedic timing and smooth vocals in a role made famous by Frank Sinatra and Nathan Lane.

“Guys and Dolls” also includes noteworthy performances by Thomas Evans as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Daniel Pieffer as Benny Southstreet. The two shine on the title number, playing off each other well and Evans brings the house down during the ever popular Act II number, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

The set was mostly bare and angular two-story buildings that served as the canvas for some amazing projection work by Alex Sansolo and Steven Zehler. Between the glowing theater signs of Times Square, the building exteriors and a collage of newsprint, the design quality was truly outstanding.

Additionally, Nathan R. Matthews led an incredible orchestra, performing the full score with such brass and precision that is sometimes hard to come by in local theaters these days.

If you’re in the mood for a fun and heart-warming classic musical, then look no further. “Guys and Dolls” is a stellar production of a classic musical led by a phenomenal quartet.

Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours including a fifteen-minute intermission.

“Guys and Dolls” runs through November 24 at UB Center for the Arts. For more information and tickets, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Jersey Boys’ at Shea’s Performing Arts Center

(l to r) Jon Hacker, Eric Chambliss, Corey Greenan and Michael Milton. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Full disclosure: I love jukebox musicals…and I hate the song “Sherry.”

Yes, I know “Sherry” is the song that catapulted Frank Valli and The Four Seasons to fame in 1962 and that it’s an early indicator of songwriter Bob Gaudio’s immense talent. It’s not the song’s fault that my ears have suffered more than their share of off-key falsettos warbling “Sherry Baby” to me through the years.

. . .this one is a winner. 

The dreaded song, however, has a starring role in “Jersey Boys” now stage at Shea’s Performing Art Center only until Sunday… and deservedly so. This is a super-slick, entertaining show packed with pop hits from the 1960s to the late 1970s with a wee bit of pop music history thrown in for good measure.

This production (not part of the regular Shea’s subscription package) is a blast. It’s bright and the right amount of loud, with a tight on-stage band, and a great cast of singers.  Jon Hacker hits the right high notes as Frankie Valli with his tenor and tremulous signature falsetto. Eric Chambliss as songwriter-keyboardist Bob Gaudio is the perfect combination of talented erudite and pop music talent wrapped up in a good guy package. Corey Greenan as band organizer-bad boy Tommy DiVito has a laughably bad downstate Italian-American-Bronx accent, but he has the swagger and charm that goes with the real deal. Michael Milton as bass player Nick Massi has great deadpan delivery as the quiet guy in the back. Near the end of the show, he lands ‘the’ line of the night: listen for it to fully appreciate what it’s like to be the one out of four who is the easiest to overlook.

If you tuned your transistor radio to WKBW 1520-AM back in the day, these are the songs you heard in what disc jockeys called ‘heavy rotation.’ They were the hits that sold records and concert tickets and inspired other guy and girl groups to give it a go. Great pop tunes like ‘Rag Doll,’ ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry,’ ‘Walk Like a Man,’ ‘Dawn,’ and ‘C’mon Marianne’ were the leaders in the Four Seasons canon and live on today in our hearts and oldies stations everywhere.  You’ll hear some full songs and some stripped down versions in this production and this cast delivers them well and leaves you wanting more.

The downside of some  jukebox shows is the script. “Jersey Boys” is the life story of band itself (yup, four guys from New Jersey) and this script is the Cliff’s Notes version of their lives and careers together, with a couple dashes of personal biography tossed in. This script is pretty much a few maybe-almost-true words to knit the song list together. In this case, it’s OK: it’s the music I came to hear. You only need a passing familiarity of their history to connect with the ‘it’ factor that made them the icons they are. Legend has it that Valli and Gaudio formed their partnership with a handshake only…no lawyers, no paperwork, New Jersey style…and even in the litigious 21st century, their deal is still solid.  If the backstories area little manufactured to make good theatre, well, here it’s forgiven. Just give me another chorus of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.’

As touring shows go, this one is a winner. Be prepared to get on your feet at the end and sing along a bit. It’s just one tune (the show needed a longer ending mega mix), but you’ll leave the theatre with a smile on your face.

“Jersey Boys” runs a little longer than two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Get online quickly for tickets for this limited run, http://www.sheas.org.

First Look: ‘A Child’s Christmas’ in Wales at Irish Classical Theatre Company

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Tyler Eisenmann as Young Dylan, Brandon Barry, Music Director Joseph Donohue III and Nicole Cimato. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

There was the time when it was snowing in Wales, and Dylan Thomas recollected it as a beautiful, memorable moment, because “it always snowed at Christmas.”

From these sweet memories, Thomas penned “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a work of short prose that was later retooled for the stage. Irish Classical Theatre Company’s latest production of this Christmas classic opens on Friday, November 22.

Ironically director Chris Kelly admits that he never saw this show on stage. “In fact, I never read it until Vincent (O’Neill) approached me about directing it,” Kelly says. He was immediately taken by the story’s warmth and universal appeal. “We all have families, biological or chosen,” he said, “And we gather to celebrate regardless of our religious beliefs. Often, we find our families are a delightful and maddening cast of characters. It is a heart based patchwork of different Christmas memories stitched together.”

Some of the region’s most familiar stage actors are in the cast, including O’Neill as the mature DylanThomas, Michele Marie Roberts, Ben Michael Moran, Christian Branjes, Charmagne Chi, and Greg Gjurich. And they are ready to embrace the spirit of the season with a pine-cone-covered vengeance. Chi – cast as Aunt Bessie -, says, “ I love theater and I love Christmas so doing a Christmas show was a no-brainer. Christmas is magical and so is this show. It’s this simple, rustic, intimate, family Christmas that the audience gets to peek into. Like those ornaments that are houses but when you turn them around, you can see all the adorable things happening inside? That’s this show, if this show was an ornament.”

Gjurich (Uncle Tudyr) agrees, saying,“This production is oh-so-special for a couple of reasons. The whole sense of nostalgia of family gatherings during the holidays brings back such fond memories of my own Christmases, and (and most especially) the privilege to work with old friends and new!  Everyone (management, tech crew, actors) is just so dang talented, collaborative and FUN.”

For Michele Marie Roberts (Mother),  she “adores every relatable holiday moment that’s played onstage. Arriving to dinner, gifts, dozing off after dessert, singing carols around the piano. It’s a truly beautiful, nostalgic piece of theatre that allows you to experience the magic of Christmas through the eyes of a child. And yes, I can’t wait to share this one with my kids.”

ICTC has staged “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” three times previously, and O’Neill says this production sticks with a traditional approach. But be prepared! O’Neill says, “Chris Kelly is such an inventive director (as audiences discovered in his brilliant and playful ‘Sense and Sensibility’last season ) that we can expect a very fresh and creative staging of the piece, without losing an iota of the Christmas spirit which infuses the play. The cast has for the most part worked closely with Chris in past productions, and is very open to improvisation and to adopting a refreshingly physical approach to the production. And with the musical expertise of Joe Donohue and Brandon Barry in the mix, audiences can expect a vastly entertaining experience.”

It is Thomas’ words – so elegant in their simplicity – that makes this collection of stories so vivid, real, and heart-felt. O’Neill says, “Thomas is a consummate word-magician and shares (James) Joyce’s Celtic delight in word-play as he weaves a musical tapestry of language which captures the very essence and spirit of Christmas. It is a privilege to play the role of Dylan Thomas himself.”

Sounds like the perfect way to transition from fall into the spirit of the season. Share it with someone you love.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” opens Friday, November 22 and runs until December 15. Tickets and details at http://www.irishclassical.com.

Theatre Review: ‘Elf The Musical’ at MusicalFare Theatre

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The cast of “Elf The Musical” at MusicalFare Theatre. Photo by Doug Weyand.

MusicalFare Theatre’s production of Elf the Musical opened last night on the Daemen College campus. Elf the Musical, which has a book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan and a score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, is based on the popular Christmas film that starred Will Ferrell and Bob Newhart. The musical version of Elf had a short run on Broadway during the 2010 holiday season and it has toured the country several times since then.

. . . a joyous production  – musically solid, bright and cheery, and a great way to get into the spirit of the season.

Elf is a light-hearted fantasy. It’s the story of Buddy, a human who crawled into Santa’s bag when he was a baby. Buddy has been raised by elves in North Pole, but now that he is grown up, he decides to find his roots and he travels to New York City to meet his biological family. 

MusicalFare has knocked itself out with this colorful and energetic production!

There is a rollicking and right on the money combo of musicians directed by Theresa Quinn and they add much to the proceedings. Director Michael Walline has done a great job.The show is long, but my attention never flagged. This is a polished, complicated production and opening night was flawless. Mr. Walline choreography is cute and fun. There are lots of dances – I especially enjoyed the inventive opening number with the elves.

Chris J. Handley, looking like a cross between Danny Kaye and Harpo Marx, is fine in the demanding central role of Buddy the Elf. He runs the gamut from pixilated to amusing to soulful and, Mr. Handley gives such an exuberant, effervescent performance that I’d be surprised if he isn’t nominated for an Artie Award.

Buddy’s New York family, Jennifer Mysliwy, Johnny Kiener, and Louis Colaiacovo as the frequently frenzied father – offer able support and I especially enjoyed a rare quiet moment when the wife and son sang their letter to Santa “I Believe In You.” Stevie Jackson is the petite blonde object of Buddy’s affection and her solo is well performed and provides us with a much needed break from the holiday hoopla. Nick Lama is a very capable Santa, the narrator of the show, and Alex Watts packs a punch as an employee who is utterly captivated by Buddy.

There is a high spirited and talented small chorus, and they are kept very busy all night – singing, dancing, skating, tapping, and changing costumes. Backstage must be a madhouse! They are the hardest working chorus I’ve seen on stage in a long time!

The spiffy all-purpose scenery, complete with convenient cubby holes, by Chris Cavanagh enables set changes to be quick and fluid, and there is prodigious and effective use of back screen projections. Sound and lightning by Mr. Cavanagh are also first rate.

Kudos to Kari Drozd for the extensive costume collection with some real winners including the girls’ 1950’s style white and gold full skirts in the finale and, in contrast,  Ms. Mysliwy’s chic, flattering modern wardrobe.

My only quibble is with the script, not the production.  The plot meanders, and, outside of Buddy, we really don’t get to know any of the characters well or feel for them. There is no time for character development because there are so many production numbers. They are all well performed but, after a while, it’s too much of a good thing. It’s like eating 10 desserts! 

A word of warning – I would think twice about bringing the youngest family members to this show as they’d be exposed to the disillusioning sight of the disgruntled drunken Santas who open the second act. It’s a funny scene but not for those who still believe.

All in all, however, MusicalFare’s Elf the Musical is a joyous production  – musically solid, bright and cheery, and a great way to get into the spirit of the season.

Elf the Musical runs two hours and 40 minutes including a 15 minute intermission.

“Elf The Musical runs until December 22, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: “Division Street” at JCC Centerstage

The cast of “Division Street” at JCC Centerstage.

I had the great honor of experiencing the world premiere of “Divisions Street”, written by Jason Odell Williams (“Church & State”, “Handle with Care”) who returns to Rochester to collaborate once again with JCC Artistic Director Ralph Meranto for this provocative three-actor show. The two previously collaborated on 2016’s “Church and State.” The three roles are played by David Andreatta (Rob), Esther Winter (Nia), and D. Scott Adams (Trey).

. . .enlightening. . .

The play is set in present day. The plot—in a nut shell—is about celebrity couple’s interracial marriage (Rob is a white Jew and Nia is black with no clear religious affiliation) and how their respective careers are hitting opposing inflection points. Rob has been nominated for a Golden Globe for a movie role as a racist cop who shoots an unarmed black youth. Nia’s career has gone from shooting start status to stagnant. The play takes place in real-time, in the 90 minutes before the limo comes to pick them up for the Golden Globes. The play is described as a bold comedy-drama about race, media influence and the Hollywood movie machine but it is so much more.

Adding to the tension of a pressure cooker of a night is Rob and Nia’s long-time friend and co-producer of the movie Rob has been nominated for, Trey. He was the character over whom I did the most head-scratching. He is a white man who has adopted all the affectations of a black hip-hop artist—not because he grew up in the culture but because he chose the culture. At first, I wondered if that was realistic. Then I harkened back to a friend from high school who was so into the Beatles that he adopted an English accent and the gentlemanly demeanor of Paul McCartney. Kind of strange for a kid in a suburb of New York City in the late 80s but he never wavered and continued that way into adulthood.  

This play takes on a lot of complex issues. It made my head spin trying to imagine how I would feel if I were participating in each of the tension filled conversations that were happening before my eyes. There were moments of humor interjected to lighten the mood but, as a privileged white woman, I held my breath through the humor. This play successfully does what theatre should do. It forced the audience to empathize with conflicting points of view and introduced ideas many of us have not previously explored. It is unapologetic as it puts a spotlight on racial identity, perception, and misunderstandings. This enlightening play gave my guest and I much to talk about afterward. And as one of Nia’s lines so simply and hopefully states, “It’s nice when people listen, learn, and change”.

“Division Street” runs approximately 90 minutes and is performed without an intermission.

The show runs through Nov. 17 at the JCC Centerstage in Rochester, NY. For more information, visit: https://jccrochester.org/centerstage

 

Theatre Review: ‘Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class’ by Rocking Horse Productions at The Meeting House

Sydney Perkins is Sister Robert Anne in “Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class.”

Rocking Horse Productions has recently moved to the charming Williamsville Meeting House for a season of Theatre in the Village. I attended the opening performance of Dan Goggin’s Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class: A One Nun-sense Musical Event. The Rocking Horse season will continue in March with the musical revue Forever Plaid.

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class is one of ten popular Nunsense musical shows which include a Christmas show, a country western show, a Hollywood show, and even Meshuganuns – an all faith show! This time around Sister Robert Anne has broken away from the other nuns for an evening to teach a class in how to create your own cabaret act. The many songs in this one woman show are a collection from the rest of the Nunsense series.

. . . a crowd pleaser and got a well deserved standing ovation from the enthusiastic opening night audience.

Sister Robert Anne is one tough cookie! She was born on the wrong side of Brooklyn and raised in a jazz club. Taking the veil hasn’t changed her a bit. She’s feisty, out spoken, and full of pep. The vivacious Ms. Sydnie Perkins plays the role in this production and she’s a powerhouse! Miss Perkins is full of energy – singing, dancing, working a puppet, getting a lot of milage out of her feather boas, and hobnobbing with the audience. She’s a keg of dynamite and her sparkly performance will put a smile on your face. She bounces through the novelty numbers and is very effective with the ballads.

Musical highlights of the production are “What Would Elvis Do” in which Sister is backed up on stage by a chorus line of audience volunteers and the ballad “I Left Him There” which is delivered with great heart by Ms. Perkins.  

John Szablewski is both the Musical Director and the jovial Father John who, in addition to providing spritely and steady piano accompaniment, is the evening’s unofficial MC. We all enjoyed his reactions to the proceedings, his little touches (including the funny glasses), and his occasional humorous ad libbing with Sister Robert Anne.

Direction is by Leigha Marie Eichhorn and choreography is by Mary Loliger. It’s hard to know who did what because the production is practically all musical, but Ms. Eichhorn and Ms. Loliger have put together a seamless and happy romp with lots of variety and never a dull moment.

The classroom set with desk, chalkboard, and St. Anthony is by Chuck Ziehl and costumes (including Sister’s sequined black sneakers – a fun touch) are by Janet Ziehl. Producer Douglas H. Kern has found a lovely new home for his theatre company and aptly selected a season of small scale shows to present in this pleasant, intimate setting. One word of advice for future audience members – bring a seat cushion with you.

There’s a lot of audience interaction in this show! When the house lights come up, be prepared to dance and sing with Sister. And, here’s a tip — if you volunteer to participate in the show, Sister Robert Anne might give you a prize. I got the key to heaven which, you have to admit, is a pretty darn cool thing to have!

The theme of the show is “every day of the week is a Saturday when you’re doing what you choose.” It was clear that both Ms. Perkins and Mr. Szablewski are happily doing what they chose and equally clear that the audience wouldn’t have chosen to be anywhere else. Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret is a crowd pleaser and got a well deserved standing ovation from the enthusiastic opening night audience.

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class runs 90 minutes including one intermission. 

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class runs until November 18, 2019. Click here for tickets.

At long last: To Kill a Mockingbird at Kavinoky Theatre

“To Kill A Mockingbird” plays at The Kavinoky Theatre until December 8.

It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Some may think it’s also a sin to script-tamper with a Pulitzer Prize winning novel’s oft-staged theatrical adaptation, but that’s exactly what Aaron Sorkin did in his 2018 adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s currently playing on Broadway and in a unique twist of fate, it’s also on stage at Kavinoky Theatre to December 8.

. . . this cast shines like the Alabama moon at its brightest.

If you missed the story last season, the Kav was all set to stage the 1963 Harper Lee-approved adaptation. Kavinoky’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell had what she thought was the iron-clad permission to open the show, despite the opening of its new Broadway adaptation. Due to some legal squabbling between Lee’s estate and the Broadway producer, O’Donnell received a ‘cease and desist’ order within days of opening night, which even made it to the front page of The New York Times. Because, as the adage decrees, ”the show must go on” O’Donnell, Production Stage Manager Norm Sham, and Director Kyle LoConti and the cast quickly, agilely and expertly mounted a stunning version of George Orwell’s 1984 in just 19 days. Within a couple weeks, the Broadway producer had a change of heart and offered O’Donnell the opportunity to add the Sorkin adaptation to the theatre’s 40th anniversary season.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong story, beloved space in American literature, and compelling messages prevail. Sorkin’s staging is different from the ‘original’ stage version that closed Studio Arena Theatre’s 2008 (and final) season.  There’s an adjusted point of view here that actually brings even more relevance to 2019 audiences in a sad and compelling way. It’s very worthy, and the Kavinoky cast  members– mostly the same as last season, minus the children – are powerful in their roles.

Sorkin gives a stronger voice to some key characters which add new depth to the story. The family housekeeper Calpurnia is –in the 1930s southern tradition – a black woman who has served this family for decades. Because Lee wrote this in the late 1950s, (before the Civil Rights Movement) her head would have bowed and her comments were to herself. This Calpurnia shares her point of view clearly and it’s not lost on her employer Atticus Finch. Sorkin brings a different sensibility to Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black man, too.  Sorkin has nuanced Atticus; he’s still his children’s hero but his very human flaws reflect other conflicts.

Under LoConti’s direction, this cast shines like the Alabama moon at its brightest. While this reviewer is not a fan of adult actors portraying children, Aleks Malejs as Scout, Michael Seitz as Jem, and Jacob Albarella as Dill are feisty and fidgety perfection. Malejs in particular dug deep into her inner child to surface the body language and affectations of a six-year-old tomboy. Albarella is charmingly irritating as Dill, the neighbor’s nephew. Watch his expressive face as he admits some painful truths of his childhood. Chris Avery as Atticus Finch is stalwart, kind, and seeks the justice that needs to be served from a world that hasn’t quite gotten over the Civil War, 70 years prior. Sorkin/Avery’s Finch isn’t an ideologue, per se, although you sense from him a yearning for something more. He has his match in Shanntina Moore as Calpurnia. Moore’s Calpurnia has a dignity that makes me want to know more about this character’s story than anyone else. When Scout’s later monologue talks about law school, who was her exemplar?: her father and his law career or Calpurnia and her need for social justice? Robyn Baun’s performance as Mayella Ewell was captivating; she turned from defensive, to fearful, to ‘don’t tread on me’ daughter of the true south effortlessly. She was the teenage victim of abuse whose hand was forced to lie about what happened in her home. She nails it.

There are wonderful pops of Sorkin dialogue sprinkled throughout, particularly some of Judge Taylor’s waggish remarks expertly delivered by Peter Palmisano. Kevin Kennedy as the southern sheriff Heck Tate and Xavier Harris as the accused Tom Robinson, David Lundy has landowner Link Dees, and John Profeta as Boo Radley delivered solid performances. It was Patrick Moltrane as Mayella’s drunk and angry pappy that makes you remember what a scared and scarred society this small southern town really was.

My one disappointment was the constant movement of set pieces. Last season’s set looked solid and stunning in the style of the Kav’s resident set designer David King. King also is credited with this set design of elements moved about by the actors themselves on a fully lit stage; this was loud and at times frenetic.

O’Donnell said on opening night that ticket sales are very brisk with several shows approaching sell out status. Get online now and book your seats: you won’t be disappointed.

To Kill a Mockingbird runs a little over two hours with a 15 minute intermission until December  8. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and tickets.