Theatre Review: ‘Hitmakers: Origins of Classic Rock’ at JCC CenterStage

The team at the JCC CenterStage Theatre has done it again with Hitmakers: Origins of Classic Rock! Picking up where last year’s British Invasion tribute left off, this year’s production explores what happened to rock and roll from the late ‘60s through the ‘70s. The cast delves into the spirit of this genre, belting out songs that were the anthem to so many of our lives. I may be a decade short from truly “growing up” during this time, but these were the songs of my childhood. By the time I came around to truly knowing this genre, it’s name had changed from Rock (having dropped the roll when it became much edgier) to the Classic Rock we all know and love today. The cast, both new and returning members, does not disappoint in their renditions!

As the audience makes their way to their seats, songs like “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles and “Crazy on You” by Heart play in the background, prepping us for the awesomeness that is about to ensue. The band makes its way on stage, followed closely by the performers giving us a background into the show. We find out how after the British Invasion, American rock and roll changed from the single performer to the group, Americans taking their cue from the success of bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Rock and Roll dropped the “roll” and as returning cast member Rich Steele tells us, it became a “time to be Wild!” He breaks out into a fantastic Steppenwolf tribute of “Born to be Wild” and this heady ride begins, keeping the audience rocking right up to the final song. The lineup explores music from The Doors, Jethro Tull, The Doobie Brothers, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and so many more.

As always, the cast is fantastic, but before I get to them, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the band. Headed up by conductor, piano and keyboards player Casey L. Filiaci the musicians in this production bring down the house! Mark Balestra on guitar, Dave Cohen on drums, Mark Terranova on bass and Leah Zicari on guitar, banjo and mandolin are phenomenal! They all played off each other well, are cohesive and collaborative. Without them, this show would not have been as kickin’ as it was.

Now onto the cast! Newcomers Melissa Boyack, Sarah Del Favero, Courtney Weather Schutt and Eric Schutt enhance the voices of returning members Marc Cataldi, Darren Frazier, Rich Steele and Josh Wilmot. Although each rendition/tribute feels like it’s better than the last, there were a few stand out pieces for me. Boyak’s, Del Favero’s and Weather Schutt’s rendition of The Weight has a soulfulness in it that adds to The Band’s original version. Cataldi’s Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers Band was spot on and his and Frazier’s Your Song by Elton John was phenomenal. Wilmot’s version of Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love was awesome and I LOVED Schutt’s version of The Door’s People are Strange!

Last year’s show was phenomenal and I think this year’s is even better. Bring a friend and rock out to the perfect way to heat up a cold February evening!

Run time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

Hitmakers: Origins of Classic Rock  is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre until February 16th. Get your tickets at https://jccrochester.org/events/special-events/centerstage-theatre

Theatre Review: ‘Raging Skillet’ at JCC CenterStage

Set in an on-stage kitchen at the book launch of Chef Rossi’s same titled memoir, Raging Skillet is a raucous good time that pulls at the heartstrings. Both a story of a chef’s professional journey as well as a tale of mother daughter relationships, this production will have you laughing and singing along one minute, and missing your mom the next.

As the audience makes its way into the theater they’re greeted by Rossi’s partner,  DJ Skillet (played by Laron Dewberry) setting up the kitchen, prepping ingredients and spinning tunes. Right before Rossi (played by Stephanie Roosa) enters the stage, DJ Skillet invites a handful of audience members to come and sit on stage in the pop-up restaurant he’s set up. If you can, take him up on the invitation. You’ll get to be part of the action, grooving out with Rossi at various points, as well as sample some of the food being prepared (such delectable treats as Rossi’s first ever recipe – pizza bagels, shiitake tacos, a Manischewitz spritzer as well as, gasp, chocolate dipped bacon (actually vegan bacon prepared by the Grass Fed Vegan Butcher Shop). Rossi enters, greeting the audience and “restaurant” goers. She immediately launches into introductions of herself and DJ Skillet, peppering her stories and descriptions with expletives, showing the audience that the stereotype of the foul-mouthed, cursing chef holds a bit of truth to it. Titling herself HBIC (Head B***h In Charge), she gives the audience the definition of what makes a great caterer as opposed to just a good one, “We head bang your taste buds!” 

Rossi makes her way into the on-stage kitchen to begin preparing some treats for the audience when she is interrupted by her mother (played beautifully by Davida Bloom) making her way on stage. Rossi is stunned but keeps up her banter, “Mom, What are you doing here? You died in 1992!” To which Mom replies, “Jewish mothers never die!” What follows is a trip down memory lane – delving into Rossi’s childhood, her beginnings as a chef and her often tumultuous relationship with her mother.

We dive in and out of Rossi’s Orthodox Jewish upbringing, although Rossi and Mom acknowledge it wasn’t always “Orthodox.”  “Mom was the queen of finding loopholes in being Jewish,” Rossi states at one point, followed by a shrug from Mom. Occasionally the memories are tender, but often they are filled with strife and explode into arguments on stage, opening old wounds for both. Throughout the exchanges, DJ Skillet takes on supporting roles – Rossi’s first girlfriend who was chased out of her apartment at knife point by Mom, a sales lady in a southern discount department store on the day Elvis died, a distraught neighborhood mother who doesn’t want Rossi influencing her daughter, Rossi’s father, a Russian mobster who gave Rossi her first big break. We see glimpses of the experiences that formed Rossi, and chuckle at her irritation towards her mother’s naivete and intrusive ways, knowing that parents (and often specifically mothers) can bring a sense of embarrassment, frustration and outright anger throughout our lives. It isn’t until Mom storms off after Rossi explodes in an expletive rant about her mother’s meddling that we start to realize we may not have the full picture. (Do we ever?) DJ Skillet starts to lay into Rossi about how maybe she should have a little more respect for Mom. Mom storms in, thrusting a book into Rossi’s hands, “I wrote a book too!” she yells. Quickly turning on her heels to leave again. It’s then we, and Rossi, see who her mom was before she was Mom. Often the voice of reason throughout, DJ Skillet implies that maybe Rossi needs to take a step back in her judgment of Mom and realize for all her faults, she loved Rossi dearly and did her best to make sure she had a good life. As Rossi states, and I’m paraphrasing “As I was running away, I didn’t realize that maybe Mom wanted to come too.”

Throughout the awesome ‘80s soundtrack, hilarious stories and celebrity sightings, one thing that comes through loud and clear in Raging Skillet is Rossi’s love for her mother, Mom’s never ending influence upon her life and a longing of sorts to have her criticism and complaining back. Bravo to the cast and crew for an uproariously good time that leaves you wanting to go home and call your mom, and Brava to Rossi for being such an amazing story teller!

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Raging Skillet is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre until December 22nd. Get your tickets 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: ‘Oklahoma!’ at JCC CenterStage

Oklahoma!,” written in the early 1940’s, portrays a small farming town in the Indian Territory before Oklahoma received statehood in 1906. It highlights old fashioned ideals such as men are brave, women have their place, and this social contract is the underpinning of a successful and strong country. As the territory marches toward the formal veneer of statehood amidst general lawlessness, the men and women are grappling with upholding a veneer of propriety amidst feelings of love and lust.

The singing was wonderful throughout.

The two main characters are a farm girl, Laurey Williams, and a young rancher, Curly McLain, who would like to be her beau. Laurey (Abby Rice), and her friend Ado Annie Carnes (Jennie Gilardoni) are of marrying age but have very different perspectives on relationships with men. Laurey is a bit naïve, and is charmed by a farmhand with a dangerous reputation, Jud Fry (Benjamin Pesce). Laurey feels Curly (Jordan Bachmann) is a little too cock-sure and agrees to go to the box social dance with Jud to spite him. Ado Annie has been playing the field a bit while her beau, Will Parker (Chris Martin), is away in Kansas City. A peddler, Ali Hakim (Drew Jensen), and she have been flirting to the point that Ado Annie’s father strongly suggests they marry. Will returns to town in time for the box social dance hoping to claim Ado Annie’s hand.

The plot follows these two lovers’ triangles through darkness, fear, bawdiness, laughter, and one long and strange laudanum-induced dream sequence that was a little like how I imagine an acid trip might feel. The classic songs we all know, even if you have never seen “Oklahoma!,” weave through the show accompanied by lively dancing and exciting, acrobatic fight scenes. The singing was wonderful throughout. Mr. Bachmann and Ms. Rice performed beautiful renditions of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” The live musical accompaniment—including banjo, guitar, and violin—was just the right touch to bring this musical down on the farm. Go see it and absorb the optimism of young people marrying and states being formed amid the chaos of life.

Approximately 2 hours, 45 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission).

“Oklahoma!” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at JCC CenterStage Theater in Rochester. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Indecent’ at JCC CenterStage

The cast of “Indecent” at JCC Centerstage.

Set throughout the first half of the 1900s, “Indecent” takes the audience on a journey of a play within a play. On the surface, this production is about Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance and the controversy surrounding it. Written in 1906 in Yiddish, the play dealt with the love between a prostitute and the daughter of the brothel owner. It included Jewish prostitutes, a lesbian scene and the throwing of a Torah across the stage. While God of Vengeance is a forever present character winding its way throughout “Indecent,” the audience actually gets to see very little of the original play aside from the closing Torah scene and eventually the infamous “rain scene”. (To see the original play, check out the free event at CenterStage on April 10th at 7PM).

. . .the CenterStage cast does an excellent job . . .

What “Indecent” actually focuses on is the journey this play took from the first reading in the salon of I. L. Peretz in Poland, to its original production in Berlin, to its performances throughout Europe and eventually the Bowery Theatre in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan and culminating in its Broadway debut. The cast deftly takes the audience through this journey, welcoming us to the performance as if we are participating in a Yiddish theatre production from the “Old Country.” We are quickly immersed in the scene and then just as quickly transported elsewhere. The back and forth between vignettes of everyday life, historical events, the performance of the play itself, rehearsals of the play and the real life dramas surrounding the original cast can often leave the audience feeling as if they’ve been spun around and now need to find which way is forward. My partner, who joined me in this viewing, found this back and forth confusing, but for myself, this piece was what made this production so poignant. The unsteadiness, the not knowing mirrored Asch’s own uncertainty throughout the play. Why couldn’t Yiddish writing tell the stories of all  the Jewish people, not just the “good” ones? Was he doing the right thing by putting this story out into the public? How could he focus on his play and writings when there was so much horror going on that was being ignored?

Carl Del Buono expertly channels this up and down of emotions in his portrayal of Asch, leading the audience from his young, idealistic days of an emerging writer and playwright, to his success in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to his tortured psyche after observing the beginnings of the Holocaust throughout Europe.

Maya June Dwyer’s Madje is one of the forces encouraging Asch to follow his heart that things can be better, that these stories need to be told. It is Madje’s voice which continually pushes Asch to remember his idealism and to attempt to call him back to himself in the darkest of times.

Stefan Cohen’s Lemml takes on the roles of narrator, stage manager and the voice of hope and belief that there are better ways to do life, the belief that we are all human, inherently good and deserving of love. He mirrors Madje in the beginning and his enthusiasm and joy after the first reading Asch does in Peretz’s salon acts as a counter to the negative reception the play is given from Peretz and his fellow writers. It is Lemml’s belief in the inherent worth of Asch’s words which encourages Asch to fight for the plays production and it is Lemml who continues to believe in the necessity of telling these stories even in the darkest of times.

Underneath all that this play is on the surface, there is the undercurrent of so many facets of life. The want or need to assimilate in a new culture yet hold fast to your identity. The need to be seen as wholly human even when your life does not reflect the dominant thinking. Secular versus religious. Immigrant versus Native. The desire to be seen as an equal, to have worth. The need to have your story told and acknowledged as having value. “Indecent” touches on so many of these themes and the CenterStage cast does an excellent job of taking the audience on this ride of what is moral, what is “right,” what does it mean to be human and experience life fully.

Running Time: 2 hours with no intermission

“Indecent” is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre in Rochester until April 14th. Get your tickets here.

Theatre Review: ‘Hitmakers – The British Are Coming!’ at JCC CenterStage Theatre

The British are coming! The British are coming! Or at least they are in the JCC CenterStage cover band version. For the fifth year, CenterStage creates their take on a rockumentary, this time focusing on the British Invasion of the 1960s. The writing and directing team of Jack Garner, Esther Winter, Casey Filiaci and Ralph Meranto definitely hit this one out of the park.  Although I’m a bit young to have experienced this music in its original live form, this was the music of my formative years. The coming of age music for my parents, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Animals and The Rolling Stones were frequent background music to my early childhood, so I was excited to see this show. I was not disappointed when I looked at the lineup, knowing about 98% of the songs listed.

. . .go see this show, sing along, clap your hands and get up and dance!

Performing with a live band and screen projections of album covers of the era, the nine performers in “Hitmakers” do an excellent job entertaining the audience and singing covers of some of the most famous rock songs of this period. Although all of the performances were done well, there were some that really stood out. Janine Mercandetti’s performance of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” was phenomenal! Her powerful voice adding a depth of soul and grittiness that is necessary for this song to be a success.  Laura Jean Smillie Diekmann’s rendition of “Downtown” could have been mistaken for Petula Clark herself, and Jordan Bachmann and Marc Cataldi’s version of The Beatles “Blackbird” was spot on.

Interspersed throughout the production are historical tidbits which were nice breaks between songs and genres. The audience is told how the American 1950s Rock-n-Roll made its way across the pond to England in the form of bootleg albums and radio broadcasts picked up from passing ships by British teenagers. We learn how the Brits formulated their own version of Rock-n-Roll starting with The Beatles, who eventually made their way back across the pond to the United States in the 1960s. The back and forth, and evolution of this art form including the Blond Blue-eyed Soul Movement with Dusty Springfield, the “satirizing” groups like the Monkees and John Fred and His Playboy Band, and ending with the psychedelics of the late ‘60s helped to spread Rock-n-Roll worldwide.

This is a fun, upbeat performance and definitely one to check out for anyone who loves this music genre. A few of the renditions were a bit kitschy, “Wild Thing” by The Troggs and “My Generation” by The Who come to mind, but over all added to the show as a whole. My only complaint would be the lack of audience enthusiasm. I don’t know how you hear these songs and this music and not sing along, or get up and dance in the aisles! This, of course, was not due to any lack of trying on the performers parts. All of them frequently tried to get the audience clapping or singing along, with little success. (This has been a frequent observation of mine at many musical performances in Rochester, so I don’t think it’s unique to this show in particular.) My advice if you go see this show, sing along, clap your hands and get up and dance!

Run time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

“Hitmakers: The British are Coming”  is playing at the JCC CenterStage Theatre until February 17, 2019 in Rochester. For more information, click here.