Theatre Review: ‘Parade’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

The cast of “Parade” at ART of WNY.

Often it’s the true stories that make the most compelling shows on Broadway. Shows like “Evita,” “Hamilton,” “1776,” (coincidentally one word titles) add music to the drama of real life. “Parade” currently staged by the American Repertory Theater of WNY, is the 1913-15 story of a man wrongfully accused of killing a young girl who works for him. It’s also another look at corrupt politicians, ethnic profiling, groupthink, and how love is professed when it’s most needed.

“Parade” is worth it. The messaging will linger with you

When “Parade” opened in 1998, it was composer Jason Robert Brown’s (“Songs for a New World,” “ The Last Five Years”) first Broadway show, and while it was critically acclaimed, its Broadway run and 2007 London revival were short, and it’s less common in the local production canon. It’s unfortunate: it’s a solid story with strong and meaningful messages.

ART of WNY’s production was hampered by poor acoustics and uneven sound balance on its opening night that can hopefully be addressed for the rest of the run. It needs to be. There’s precious little dialogue: the story is told in Brown’s carefully crafted lyrics and ear-appealing melodies in his operatic musical style that prevails across his work.

Director Matthew Refermat took some liberties with the casting: the original Broadway show had a large cast that was pared down for the London re-staging.  Refermat shaved it down further so all actors play multiple roles except for the accused Leo Frank and his wife Lucille, well-played by actual husband and wife Jordan Levin and Melissa Levin.  This was Refermat’s best casting decision: Jordan is the perfect choice to portray the transplanted Brooklyn Jew Leo, who married the charming Southern belle Lucille. He’s skinny, bespectacled, erudite, hardworking. She’s charming, vivacious, a daughter of Atlanta. They perfectly misconnect in the first act, when he’s too work-focused and she wants to enjoy Southern traditions (“why do they celebrate a war that they lost,” ponders Leo as Atlantans wave their confederate flags at the annual confederate memorial day parade). He’s not at home in “The Red Hills of Home” in what should be a stirring opening number, unfortunately dogged by the unbalanced sound and microphones that couldn’t keep up which made Brown’s lyrics unintelligible.

The double-casting of the ensemble muddied the power of each role: the subtle costume variations didn’t help establish clear identities either. For example, Lucas Denies opens the show as a young man who discovers a book about this landmark case, and by doffing a hoodie, he becomes the suitor of young Mary Phagan who meets her death moments later. Their clever duet “The Picture Show” takes place on a trolley seat, actually the cedar chest that is the unifying, multi-purpose set piece. The deceased later morphs into a reporter’s role and other minor players, merely by tucking her braids into her collar and donning a unisex cardigan.  Ditto Nicholas Lama, a strong singer and real presence as the manipulative prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, fades in the background in lesser roles. Powerhouse baritone Brandon Williamson assumes three key roles, but again the sound quality hampered both his performance and perception when he sings. He’s a force, though, when as a fugitive lawyer Dorsey guides his testimony to sound the death knell for Leo.

Another standout was Tim Goehrig, first playing the newspaper reporter hungry for a story and Governor Slaton who encourages the prosecutor to get the conviction, but then later reviews the case and commutes Leo’s sentence.  It took mental effort to sort out when Goehrig was either person, although his voice rose above the din well.

There were a few inexplicable moments in lighting, and at least one continuity issue: when the police come to the Frank house to arrest Leo, he’s reminded – twice – to put on this shoes…which he is already wearing.

The audio issues were a little better in the second act, save for an odd reverb in Jordan Levin’s mic, which made him sound like the voice from the beyond at times. Fortunately this wasn’t the case for the moving ballad “All the Wasted Time” beautifully performed by the Levins. Melissa’s voice just soars and it’s stunning.

There were other bright spots in this cast, including some very young and first-time ART of WNY cast members, particularly Talia Mobley, a high school sophomore. These are the casting risks that pay off for the actor and the audience alike.

It’s good to see Don Jenczka behind the upright piano leading the band: Brown’s known for his strong piano lines and Jenczka is up for it. The band (percussion, woodwinds, and two French horns) is also on stage, and overpowered the singers in this acoustically challenged venue. Perhaps the band would have been more successful in the loft space above the stage that was used as Leo’s jail cell.

Despite these challenges, “Parade” is worth it. The messaging will linger with you:  it takes generations to change a society and break free from history’s shackles. People from different cultures are just…different, not to be feared. And when a partner loves you enough to fight for you when no one else will, the rest doesn’t matter.

Running Time:  Approximately 3 Hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“Parade” runs to April 13, 2019 and is produced by American Repertory Theatre Of Western New York. For more information, click here. 

Theatre Review: ‘Meet Me In St. Louis’ at American Repertory Theatre Of Western New York

“Meet Me In St. Louis” is the much loved story of the Smith family’s adventures in the early 20th century in St. Louis, Missouri. The stories, which were written by Sally Benson, were turned into a golden age of Hollywood musical in 1944. The film starred Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien and featured a lovely score by  Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane which included “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Over the years, “Meet Me in St. Louis” has also been produced as a TV show and a Broadway musical. ART of WNY is presenting it now in another art form, as a radio play.

The American Repertory Theatre of WNY’s production of “Meet Me In St. Louis” is being performed in the newly reopened Theatreloft space on Elmwood Avenue at Anderson Place. There’s quite a history to this facility! It was the original home of Jane Keeler’s Studio Theatre in 1927. More recently, the Ujima Theatre Company performed at Theatreloft. It’s nice to see the space being used again.

The pretense of this production is that it is 1940 and “Meet Me In St. Louis” is being performed as a radio play before a live studio audience. “Applause” and “On the Air” signs are used to good effect. The concept gets a bit muddled as the evening progresses, and the actors drop their music stands and scripts to sing and dance all over the stage. The radio actor characters who were established at the top of the show also get lost in the shuffle.

The evening’s standout performance is by Candace Kogut who would be perfect casting as Rose, the oldest sister, in any production of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Ms. Kogut’s singing and acting are on target throughout and she strikes the right tone for slightly over the top old-fashioned radio performing. The role of Rose is much larger in this production than it is in the film version.

Joe Russi as the juvenile lead has the production’s best singing voice, and his reprise of “The Boy Next Door” is one of the evening’s highlights. Courtney Maj, in the Judy Garland role, is pretty and sweet but stuck throughout the evening in a prim and unflattering dark costume. Ms. Maj’s singing voice is hard to hear. She isn’t helped, however, by having to sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” virtually in the dark.

In the film, Tootie is delightfully precocious and everyone’s favorite. In this production, Kelly O’Hara gives the role a harsh edge.

Joseph Spahn does a yeoman like job — singing, acting, and providing the evening’s sound effects.

This production is light on the dialogue and heavy on the songs. It’s almost a musical revue. The score of “Meet Me In St. Louis” is peppered with early American folk songs and Christmas carols and there’s even a tap dance! The production is best musically when the entire ensemble sings together.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one intermission.

“Meet Me In St. Louis” runs until December 22, 2018. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Fool For Love’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

The cast of “Fool For Love” at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York.

The American Repertory Theatre of Western New York (ART of WNY), one of the region’s many small non-profit theatre companies, is embarking on a new frontier after recently signing a 10 year lease at the 545 Elmwood Avenue Theatreloft. After eight nomadic seasons of roaming from theatre space to theatre space, ART is finally settling down, and to kick off this new era they’ve selected “Fool for Love,” one of celebrated playwright Sam Shepard’s most deeply intimate plays. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience on opening night in the new space, and while we were few in number (not uncommon for a weeknight opener), we were rapturously attuned to the drama unfolding on stage.

ART of WNY’s production of “Fool for Love” is a real powerhouse, and definitely some of their best work to date.

“Fool for Love” is a high-intensity love story of an on-again off-again co-dependent couple, Eddie (Eric Michael Rawski) and May (Candice Kogut, who also serves as ART’s Artistic Director). After being gone for an undisclosed amount of time, Eddie returns to May’s hotel room in the Mojave Desert and begs her to take him back. Guarded from more than a decade of disappointment, May painfully tells him to leave. A battle of wills ensues as the two fight against their desire for each other. Drinks are poured, doors are slammed, and innocent outsiders are dragged into the scuffle. Weaved into the story is Eddie and May’s father (Old Man”, played by Steve Jakiel), who perches above the stage for much of the play, acting more as a memory and interjecting throughout the story to add context to Eddie’s childhood recollections. When May’s friend/date/gentleman caller Martin (Nick Lama) shows up to pick May up for their date, Eddie and May begin delving into their past, their families (it’s revealed about halfway through the play that they’re half-siblings), and the dark origin story of why they’re inextricably linked.

“Fool for Love” is a deeply intimate play in every sense of the word. Eddie and May are the textbook definition of a toxic relationship, exhibiting a breathtaking level of co-dependency fueled by alcohol, sexual tension, childhood trauma, and back-and-forth emotional manipulation. In the hands of sub-par actors, this play simply doesn’t work, which is probably why you don’t see it produced often. Anyone familiar with Sam Shepard knows that his iconic plays all traffic in themes of family dysfunction, broken relationships, and quasi (sometimes literal) incest. “Fool for Love” is no exception, making Eddie and May’s chemistry the linchpin in whether or not this play works. Thankfully, Rawski and Kogut have developed a beautiful chemistry on stage, explosive and combative one moment and tearfully distant the next. They’re really quite excellent, and this show simply wouldn’t land with audiences otherwise. Fun sidenote: Rawski—in my opinion—bears a striking resemblance to Sam Rockwell, who played Eddie in the most recent Broadway production of “Fool for Love” in 2015. Seriously, if he lost the moustache they’d be indistinguishable.  

Equally good is Steve Jakiel’s “Old Man.” This is a tricky character to master, because he spends large swaths of the show sitting silently and sipping his drink, unseen and unheard by Eddie and May. When he first speaks it’s with long, rambling, sometimes incoherent monologues. When he enters the fray of the hotel room about halfway through the show he’s unseen by Martin and largely unacknowledged by May. And during the last third of the show, when the awful sins of his past are unearthed by May and Eddie, he’s largely unaffected and indifferent at first, quickly transitioning to vehement denial. It’s an incredibly tricky needle to thread, and Jakiel does it exceptionally well.

“Fool for Love” is an actor’s play, full stop. While Matt LaChiusa’s sets look nice, this play can ultimately be done in a naked blackbox theatre if it’s well cast. That’s not meant as a slight to LaChiusa (seriously, the sets are good), it’s a testament to how important the play’s dynamics, delivery, and emotional peaks-and-valleys are.  And even more importantly, the story must be effectively delivered because it’s chalked full of nuance and subtext. The mirroring of Eddie and his father’s life trajectories; the intersection of romance, sex, and sibling love; power struggle, masculinity, and everything else you can imagine. You need thoughtful, disciplined, and intentional actors to bring these themes to the surface. Short of a couple sequences that could have used a little more room to breathe, the cast batted a thousand on the night I was in attendance. This production is brilliantly cast and beautifully acted.

ART of WNY’s production of “Fool for Love” is a real powerhouse, and definitely some of their best work to date.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

“Fool for Love” is playing at the Elmwood Avenue TheatreLoft until November 17th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

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Christopher Teal as Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York.

I’m going to start this off by saying this, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is my favorite musical. I am very protective of my favorites. When I was in high school, my aunt took me to see the show with Ted Neeley in the title role. It was life changing. I have a few different cast recordings. I play the songs on piano. I’m obsessed.

. . .a well meaning effort by ART.

Started as a concept album by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of Jesus’ last weeks before he was crucified. The score,  which has made it’s mark on pop culture with songs like “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” “What’s The Buzz?”, and “Superstar,” is fantastic.

American Repertory Theater of Western New York takes on the challenge of producing this work for their intimate space. If you have read my reviews in the past, you will know that I have said that there is no such thing as a small musical. Putting on a musical is a monumental task, and when you take on a huge challenge like producing a well known show, you are taking a very large risk. How does ART’s production hold up? Well, it’s a good effort, but doesn’t hit the mark.

Director Matthew LaChiusa has chosen to set his interpretation of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in a utopian time. Cast members wear awesome steam punk attire, and there are sprinklings of electric cables in Elaine Heckler’s costume plot. The concept is entertaining and exciting. At first, I thought, this was something that I have seen before, but it actually is very unique and fits into the music of this rock opera well. In his director note in the program, LaChiusa says that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice knew that this story could take place in anytime, and he is absolutely right.

The four piece band led by Donald Jenzcka, plays the score well. These musicians are able to keep the sound full, and not blow the audience out of the water with volume. In intimate spaces like ART, sometimes the sound balance is off with musicals,  but here the musicians keep the show enjoyable.

The ensemble in this show is absolutely fantastic and the strongest part of the production. They each sing well and bring a welcomed energy to the characters that they are playing. Standouts include Jack Kreuzer and his live guitar playing, Rich Kraemer for his overall stage presence in playing a automatic assault weapon wielding soldier, and Nick Lama steals the show as Pontius Pilate. Actually, Lama is the strongest singer and actor in this show. Lama is only on stage for a few minute spurts at a time, but is easily remembered.

So, now for the difficult part. “Jesus Christ Superstar” has three main leads that should carry this production. Judas, Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. These roles can make or break a production, and this is why casting is so important when presenting a well known work. Starting with the role of Jesus, portrayed by Christopher Teal. Teal starts off the show at a high point, and is believable as Jesus. I had high hopes because I really liked his performance in “What’s The Buzz” and “The Temple.” Teal does well as the calm man, but stays at that level and doesn’t truly engage in the audience to get us to be on his side. I had trouble connecting with him, and sadly, that took me out of the experience, especially when Jesus is sentenced to be crucified. When it comes to Act Two, Teal has trouble sustaining the notes in a few of the songs, especially in “Gethsemane” and speaks most of the lyrics. 

Mary Magdalene, portrayed by Candice Kogut is sweet, and her performances of “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” are entertaining, but again Kogut doesn’t captivate me as an audience member to be on her side through her struggle. I want to join her and accompany her on her journey to save Jesus from a terrible demise, but I have trouble creating an emotional bond.

Judas Iscariot is portrayed by Anthony Alcocer. Alcocer connects most with the audience, but treads a fine line between showing raw emotion and overacting. His performance of “Heaven On Their Minds” is fantastic, and his singing in “Superstar” is wonderful, but he holds back from hitting the high notes, or sustaining because of the microphone modulation.  Out of the three leads, Alcocer does a very admirable job, but a little more direction could make him the Judas I know he set out to be.

Overall, this production was a miss for me, but it is a well meaning effort by ART. The cast enjoys themselves, and the audience got a show. This production chooses to not hold a curtain call at the end of the performance, and that causes for a bit of an awkward experience for the audience, but it is a great metaphor for the material.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15-minute intermission

“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs until March 31, 2018 and is presented at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Stupid F*cking Bird’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

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The cast of “Stupid F*cking Bird” at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York.

Last night, I went to ART of WNY to see the Buffalo premiere of Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F*cking Bird”, a comic modern spin off of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

. . .a solid production of a quirky play.

Posner is an award-winning playwright whose many works include a modern adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” called “Life Sucks.”  As you may have surmised, you need to be comfortable with profanity in order to kick back and enjoy Posner’s plays!

This is an intelligent play, and it’s full of surprising twists and turns. The fourth wall is frequently broken, and there is even some honest to goodness audience participation. In fact, if the audience doesn’t participate, the play won’t begin!

The objective of “Stupid F*cking Bird” is to do “an old form better,” and the characters, their moods, and their relationships are based on “The Seagull” and take it to another level. The dialogue keeps spinning back to life, love, and art with an occasional nod to politics and social issues.

This is a solid production of a quirky play. It’s well directed with imaginative touches by Michael Lodick, and there is a uniformly strong cast.

Thomas LaChiusa is perfect as the charismatic playwright and does masterful work in the role. Rick Lattimer is pleasant as the lovelorn Dev, and Scot A. Kaitanowski is affecting as the down in the depths doctor. Diane DiBernardo is both amusing and biting as the aging actress.

In the central role of the woebegone would-be writer, Connor Graham tackles both the comedy and drama with aplomb and his audience interaction is impressive and fun.

Candice Kogut is fine as the hopeless Mash who is in love with the young writer, but Ms. Kogut so strikingly attractive that one wonders why the writer doesn’t give Mash a tumble. The casting in this production is unusual. Typically, Masha in “The Seagull” is played by a dark-haired young character actress, and Nina is a gorgeous, willowy blonde like Ms. Kogut.

For the first two acts, Emily Yancey is a peppy Nina, playing the role more like a quintessential ingénue in the vein of Luisa in “The Fantasticks” than the airy, fragile Nina who men want to bring down to earth. Ms. Yancey is right on target in Act 3, where she strikes the appropriate ethereal tone because Nina is the seagull — a beautiful, defenseless, soaring white bird.

The set by Matthew LaChiusa and Thomas LaChiusa is good, especially for the outdoor scenes, and there’s effective lighting by John Shotwell.

The play is entertaining and well produced, and it gives you a lot to think about it.

Running Time: 2 hours, including at 15-minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult language and content.

“Stupid F*cking Bird” runs until November 11, 2017 and is presented by American Repertory Theatre of Western New York. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Roommates’ at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York

There are plenty of “buddy” shows on stage, but local playwright Mark Humphrey’s “The Roommates” isn’t your typical “three guys in a man cave” show.

Humphrey’s script has some clever language and his plot takes some interesting twists.

This is a world and regional premiere and it’s suited to this small stage. Even the music bleeding in through the walls from tavern next store lent some authenticity to the ramshackle off-the-beaten path apartment where broke gambler Paul (Michael Starczynski) is hiding out from loan-shark Elliot (Brett Klaczyk). The story is a simple one: Paul is behind in paying off his gambling debt. Elliot shows up one night to collect and brings along his sideman Booke,  menacingly portrayed by Victor Morales. Elliot leaves. Paul and Booke start to bond over books, TV shows, college memories, and the psychological intrigue behind the popular team building exercise,the trust fall. And then it gets real. And real weird.

Starczynski is fine as fumbling, quivering Paul, investment manager gone sleazy and ace poker player “until the cards went cold.” Gambling was his hobby until it turned into his obsession (a disease, he says) and he uses his status as a financial planner as his personal piggy-bank until he’s found out.  The second act shows the depth of his skill, as his character dynamic completely changes.

Klaczyk has the smooth moves of the underworld down pat. Finely dressed with a silk handkerchief keeping his finger prints off the doorknob and cell phone, he uses his voice as his first weapon and modulates his volume to invoke surprise. A classic and very worthy maneuver.

Morales – as always –  steals every scene (although on opening night, he seemed to struggle over a few dropped lines) with his tall and commanding frame, piercing eyes, and “fearless and fearsome” (as he says of his character) demeanor. This trio is tight and they move through Humphrey’s story with a bit of wariness. Maybe they miss the tension, too.

Humphrey’s script has some clever language (“one word: embezzler, close to the word imbecile” comes to mind), and his plot takes some interesting twists. I love a good psychological thriller (I can see “Sleuth” and “The Mousetrap,” twenty more times and still get breathless), and while “The Roommates” has some of those elements, that edginess just isn’t there. True, there are startling moments and director Drew McCabe takes full advantage of them, but you aren’t always on the edge of your proverbial seat.  The set, too, has the requisite shabbiness of a hideout, but the eggplant and hot pink paint job is just odd, especially with a vintage china cabinet and random tchotchkees piled in and on it on one wall. One thing to note in the printed program: the place is described as Elliot’s apartment: it’s really Paul’s. Elliott is that strange knock at the door that leads us to the start of our story.

Running Time: 90 Minutes with a 15 minute intermission.

“The Roommates” – the regional and world premiere – is onstage September 7-23, 2017 at American Repertory Theatre of Western New York. For more information, click here.