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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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: ‘Frost/Nixon’ at Irish Classical Theatre

Adriano Gatto as David Frost and Jack Hunter as Richard M. Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”. Photo is by Gene Witkowski.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear:  opening night for Irish Classical Theater’s production of “Frost/Nixon” sold out.

. . .a fascinating story, expertly told, acted, and staged. . .

One bet is there’s some interest in the not so long ago historical subject matter.  And what better venue than ICTC’s in-the-round for a play whose central event is the face-to-face, 1977 post-Watergate interviews of former President Richard Nixon by British talk show host, David Frost.  

But it’s more than that.  As a retelling of history goes, it’s often about perspective.  And what lives on most of the play’s stage are behind the scenes action leading up to, and between, those historic interviews.  We are given the circumstances of Nixon (Jack Hunter) a full three years after his resignation. Nixon and his talent agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Ray Boucher) negotiate the terms and conditions of the extensive interviews, not the least of which is the payday Nixon stands to make.

For Frost (Adriano Gatto), whose 1977 circumstance is an easy-going, light on substance talk show host and playboy with a struggling career, the stakes are perhaps even greater.  For Nixon, it was in part about re-establishing his public persona. As a seasoned politician, his belief is that he will handle the playboy Frost with some ease. For Frost, the question is not whether he is up to the challenge, but also about whether the whole thing would leave him broke.

But Frost’s production team of advisors wonders more about the challenge in front of them.  ABC News political journalist Bob Zelnick and political writer James Reston, who narrates the play, confront Frost about their concerns.  They fear Frost will seem the weak interviewer, and too-easily let Nixon skirt around him with political savvy, and let him off the hook for what they believe to be his crimes.   

Jim Reston is played by Adam Yellen, whose duties as both narrator of this story and recurring character come literally from all sides of the ICTC stage, and he appears with fervent activism, anger and, when he comes face to face with Nixon, a comic moment of deference to the former president.  It’s just one reminder that these are human beings and not just historical public figures.

Likewise Gatto comes to play.  He gives Frost’s devil-may-care persona a hint of under-surface doubt, barely noticeable, as the interviews go by.  Frost and Nixon are opponents, and Hunter’s Nixon gets the best of Frost at first. Hunter shines, embellishing his Nixon character with a troubled, sometimes intoxicating passion, as a self-deprecating, self-described political punching bag, vulnerable, tired, yet a still hardass opponent.  Hunter doesn’t sweat the demanding role one bit.

Never are the leads played as caricatures, or as personas, or as what we may think we remember we know about them.  They are played as characters, opponents in a struggle, which becomes even more persuasive through the scenes leading up the final interview on Watergate.

What happens in that interview is the stuff of history.  It can be referenced in media and on the stage as point in fact.  How the players get there, what leads up to it, how it comes to be the way it did come to be, is all the stuff of good theater, a mix of  fictionalized as well as historically accurate storytelling. What the ICTC and director Brian Cavanagh do is pump life into this scarred bit of American history, and, sure, in doing so bring even more appropriate fare if one is given to drawing parallels to today’s political scenery.   Give the ICTC credit if that is even a minor reason for staging “Frost/Nixon.” For if one is given to drawing parallels, these characters of history might make you question whether duping the public’s trust are high crimes, misdemeanors, or forgivable muggings. And whether one commits them as an effect of the conditions heaved upon them, or they are of their own dreadful making.   

A sold out opening night may speak to that kind of aim to understand history in the present as it relates  to the past. But one thing is perfectly clear – it is just as likely that this is a fascinating story, expertly told, acted, and staged that makes it even more worthy, so get a ticket while you can.  The fact that it is based on real history is even more compelling.

Running Time: 2 Hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

“Frost/Nixon” is currently running through March 24.  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.