Theatre Review: ‘1984’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of “1984” at Kavinoky Theatre.

19 days.

That’s how long the creative team at Kavinoky Theatre had to select and stage “1984” as the replacement for “To Kill a Mockingbird” when it was forced pulled the show from the season schedule.

. . .a powerful onstage drama. . .

Kavinoky’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell couldn’t quell the tremor in her voice as she recapped the whirlwind timeline from the day she received the cease and desist email to Friday’s opening night. She credited the cast and crew – particularly director Kyle LoConti – for making theatre magic happen. The production trajectory is usually significantly longer (think months, not days) and it takes a special level of commitment and craft to create the experience that is “1984.”

I’ll be blunt: Chris Avery (Winston) and Patrick Moltane (O’Brien) deserve Artie Awards this year for their stunning and powerful performances. The entire cast did the proverbial yeoman’s job on a short timeline with some heavy material, but these two performances were intense.  These two particular roles were dialogue-heavy and not the typical conversational give-and-take between characters. Some of their scenes were brutal, almost hard to watch, and boy, did they play it.

“1984” is based on George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel where he projected a world filled with newspeak under the watchful eye of big brother where thought police made short work of individualism and independent thought. Global war has divided the world. The “Party” meant fear…yet everyone had to be a party worker. Love was forbidden. Propaganda was prevalent.  Civilization was bleak.

This production was created by another two Brits (Orwell was British), Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, who worked most of the content through improvisation with a London cast.  It’s a clever set up: the story begins when a book club in the year 2050 is reading a book that looks back on this cruel world. As they discuss and reflect, this imagined world comes to life on stage and on dazzling, dizzying LED screen across the stage. This is where the propaganda flows freely, from chocorat (think chocolate),  and thick skinned oranges, and lots of off the wall political ramblings. O’Donnell and LoConti wisely and kindly found a place for everyone in the large “Mockingbird” production by casting them on stage or on this screen, even the youngest actors. Video designer Brian Milband made extraordinary use of the LED panels, sometimes pixelating and distorting the images to add extra creepiness. There are times when the images go dark, and the panels are bare: this is when they are at their eeriest, actually.  That feeling of the stark barrenness behind the imagery is compelling. The set itself is a black box with a few tables, industrial-looking stools, and minimal props: often simplicity is the hardest to pull off and set designer David King and prop manager/set dresser Diane Almeter Jones won this round. Brian Cavanagh had lights flashing and dimming and the house lights up and down at precise moments, again contributing to the “we’re all being watched” ethos. There’s a moment when the house lights were up that Winston implores the audience to help him and accuses us of just sitting there….a powerful, silent, poignant moment.

Alexs Malejs gives a well controlled performance as Julia, another Party member who wins Winston heart. She’s sturdy soldier and passionate lover. Costume designer Jessica Wegryzn dressed her in a drab khaki dress, with pops of bright red when needed. Similarly O’Brien is black-suited with crisp accents: he’s all business all the time.

It’s Kyle LoConti ‘s superb direction, risk taking, and energy that pulled all these elements together – in just 19 days – that created a dynamic work of theatre art. Brava to her bold vision and tenacity.  

More blunt talk: this show won’t be for everyone. It’s fierce and strong with some disturbing moments that will linger with you (do yourself a favor and book some free time when you leave, talk to friends, have a beverage, empty your mind for a spell). As Kavinoky embraces its new mission statement to broaden its reach across genre and bring a wider variety of shows to its audience, audience members need to remain open to new experiences on this venerable stage. O’Donnell has it right: a mix of classic drama, musicals, comedies that blend new and familiar offerings should build a strong and diverse audience base with something for everyone.  This is a production that deserves to be seen: give yourself that opportunity. Embrace something bold and different. Use this experience to create an important dialogue about the value of personal opinion, our freedoms as Americans, and how incredibly blessed we are in Western New York to have bold theatre choices and talented professionals available to us.

“1984” is a powerful onstage drama that was the result of a just as powerful off-stage drama. Team Kavinoky handled both initiatives with inimitable style. The tour de force dystopian drama onstage and the sophisticated and reasonable way O’Donnell et al managed the Mockingbird interruption are both extraordinary examples of how to manage quality theatre and a public relations crisis. And all it took was just 19 days.

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

“1984”  is onstage to April 7. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘1984’ by George Orwell at Kavinoky Theatre

In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells his young son, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

Loraine O’Donnell, Kavinoky Theatre’s executive artistic director has lived with this sentiment the past week, since another production company sent her a ‘cease and desist’ email which pulled the plug on Kav’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” a scant two weeks before opening night.

To recap, there is a legal dispute brewing over the rights of the stage adaptation of this beloved American novel. Kavinoky had a signed contract to mount the 1969 Christopher Sergel production. Even though this is not the adaptation currently on Broadway, the production company who owns those rights has threatened legal action against any theatre company – professional and community, around the world – if other productions are mounted during the Broadway run. Read the full story here.

O’Donnell and director Kyle LoConti had to pivot. Quickly.  Pulling a production from the season schedule was not an option.

“It’s very frustrating,” O’Donnell sighed.  “We started thinking about what show can we do with this existing, beautiful set?”  Then she had a brainstorm: why not stage the 2013 adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian drama “1984.”  It’s a classic drama, it’s in schools’ curricula (this is important as many local schools had already booked weekday ‘Mockingbird’ performances), it would be a regional premier, and its brief stay on Broadway ended in October, 2018. And the content couldn’t be more timely: fake news, propaganda, corrupt government, and Big Brother watching over all. “I’ve had this in my thoughts for years,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell and LoConti made the decision to push the start date back a week to March 15, too, which will allow an extra week of prep without throwing the balance of the season off kilter.

This version of “1984 by George Orwell” was adapted by two Brits, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, “who became entranced with the novel’s appendix, which hardly anyone reads,” says O’Donnell. “The play begins when the year 1984 ends and it continues to 2050 in flashes.” Much of the script was developed in rehearsal, from improvisation by the first cast.

LoConti was on-board as director. Almost every member of the ‘Mockingbird’ cast would have roles too, except for the six children (originally cast in two teams of three) and two cast members whose schedules couldn’t accommodate the new run dates.

This sparked another inspiration: instead of tasking the uber-talented Kav set designer David King to start from scratch and build out the stage again, Kav could use its high-tech LED screen panels to full advantage, stretching 20-feet across the entire width of the stage.

Kavinoky’s LED screen is unique in the region, too. The theatre purchased the panels in 2017  (The purchase of the LED curtains are supported by a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo with funds from its J. Warren and Charles Donald Perry Memorial Fund) and O’Donnell said at the time that this innovative technology would be a game changer for the theatre. So far the panels were used as accents or complements to full out sets, particularly in “Mamma Mia!” last season and “Sweeney Todd” this season. This time the curtains will be the focal point. “Brian Milbrand, our video guy, is so excited about this, it’s right up his alley,” said O’Donnell.

The plan is to display the propaganda that is central to the story on the LED curtain, and to depict some of the more graphic elements of the script in creative ways. The six children and two adult actors who couldn’t participate in this production, will be seen in cameo videos this way, as well.  There will be live feed cameras on stage, too, to show the characters’ point of view, and screens in the audience, to give an authentic “big brother is watching” you feel to this immersive experience. O’Donnell said the audience “will have the idea of being constantly watched and monitored.”

O’Donnell is quick to praise the commitment and devotion of the cast and the Kav crew, with particular props to LoConti as the director. “Kyle went from directing a beautiful piece of theatre on her bucket list to something she probably didn’t want to direct. And in a very few days, she’s done a lot of research and preparation. She is amazing.”

O’Donnell is enthusiastic. “This will be a quick three week rehearsal period,” she said, “And it’s spectacular play.”

And that, Atticus Finch, takes courage, and the ability to see it through to the very end.

“1984 by George Orwell” is onstage March 15 to April 7. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for tickets and details.

First Look: ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ at Kavinoky Theatre

It takes grit to put America’s most revered work of literary art on stage, especially when another version is currently playing on Broadway.

When Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell programmed “To Kill a Mockingbird” for Kavinoky Theatre this season, she smartly obtained the rights to Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s celebrated novel. Kav was the last theatre in the country to capture the rights to this production before Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation opened in New York. Buffalo theatre aficionados may recognize the Kav’s production as the last show on stage at Studio Arena Theatre in 2008, produced in collaboration with Road Less Traveled Productions and directed by RLTP’s Scott Behrend.

This earlier adaptation of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel (voted America’s favorite book in PBS “The Great American Read” initiative last year) is more aligned with the adaptation staged every year in Lee’s native Monroeville, Alabama. It’s true to the novel, which is mostly revered and sometimes reviled for its poignant portrayal of injustice and racism in America’s deep south. Sorkin’s Broadway version has different point of view. O’Donnell says, “Aaron Sorkin changed Atticus Finch to be a rougher, tougher version of himself.”  In the Kav’s adaptation, O’Donnell says, “Atticus is the moral center. He doesn’t change. He knows what’s going to happen.”

Kavinoky’s director Kyle LoConti agrees.  She says even if the rights were available, “I don’t think [Sorkin’s] is the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ I am interested in telling,” Lo Conti says thoughtfully. “Our interest is being faithful to Harper Lee’s novel.”

This doesn’t mean we’re watching a 281-page novel turn its pages on stage. LoConti says, “Any adaptation from book to play is a ‘selective retelling’ since trying to cover everything in the book would be prohibitively long. This stage adaptation, I believe, selects the actions that reveal the most about the relationships of Scout to her surroundings,” she says.

In this production – like the book and the movie – Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, is recalling the events in her hometown as her father, attorney Atticus Finch, prepares to defend a black man at trial when he’s accused of raping a white woman. LoConti says, “The adult Jean Louise Finch is clearly looking through the eyes of an adult, and I hear so much of Atticus when she speaks, but when she is deep in the retelling of a particular incident, we also get to hear the young Scout coming through in her narration. It is crafted so deftly by Lee that it happens before we know it.” Actor Aleks Malejs will portray adult Scout.

Chris Avery will play Atticus Finch, Robyn Baun will portray Mayella Ewell, and Xavier Harris will portray Tom Robinson in the leading roles. Scout, her brother Jem and friend Dill will be played by two teams of young actors. LoConti says, “The show really demands a lot from these six, so we needed actors that could hold their own with the adult cast…basic acting skills of course, but also the ability to inhabit these complex and beautifully written characters.”

While the novel or movie or stage adaptation may be familiar to most of the audience, the message is timeless. Author Lee published the book in 1960 about events that happened in 1933. Says LoConti, “It’s a beautiful coming of age story,  set in a less beautiful time and place. It is also a story that, sadly, still needs to be told and considered today.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is on stage at Kavinoky Theatre March 8-31. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and tickets.

Theatre Review: ‘Spamalot’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of “Spamalot” at Kavinoky Theatre.

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is one of my all time favorite movies. In 2005 I learned about the Broadway Musical adaptation “Spamalot” when it was on the Tony Awards, and instantly fell in love. I have seen the show a handful of times, and it always brings me joy. The songs are goofy, the story makes little sense, and the characters are always over the top. This is a perfect show to allow actors to go above and beyond, and it should be filled with loads of belly laughs. That is, when the actors just give it their all, but sometimes, when the entire principal cast doesn’t give it their all, a bit of the spammy magic gets lost.

“Spamalot” is a goofy good time. . .Go find your Grail, and see this show!

“Spamalot” tells the tale of King Arthur and his knights of the round table who are given a quest by God, to go and find the Holy Grail. Simple huh? Riddled with gags, zany antics, and big Broadway musical numbers, this show is sure to tickle your funny bone, and it does.

The ensemble is phenomenal in this show. Playing numerous characters, each member of the ensemble bares it all on stage, taking on the feat of bringing to life a well known story. Standouts include Kevin R. Kennedy and Doug Weyand, who get a million laughs each at the many characters that they play in the show. Kennedy’s intellectual historian and Prince Hubert are crowd favorites. Weyand’s Mrs Galahad, Guard Taunter, and Hubert’s Father are priceless.

Michele Marie Roberts is perfect in her role of “The Lady Of The Lake.” She has a fantastic comedic ability, and has no shame making some hilarious artistic choices. Her performances in “Find Your Grail” and “What Ever Happened To My Part?” stop the show. She is top notch.

Arin Dandes is hilarious as Patsy, King Arthur’s confidant and horse sound effect maker (Patsy bangs two coconuts together to make horse noises while Arthur trots along). Her facial expressions and gestures are characters in their own right. Dandes makes the character her own, and she is absolutely entertaining. Her performance in “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” is entertaining and fun as well!

Louis Colaiacovo was born to play Sir Robin, the brave. Well, the knight who bravely soils himself and who would rather be part of a musical theatre troupe instead of a brotherhood of knights. He is equal parts silly and charming and has a great voice. His performance of “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway” is phenomenal, and you laugh and smile every time he enters the stage. He is a wonderful addition to the cast.

Greg Gjurich plays King Arthur in this show, and while King Arthur is meant to be the straight man to all the nonsense happening around him, Gjurich seems a little disconnected with the material, and at times looks like he is phoning it in. He brings it together in act two, however, when everything in the story starts falling a part, and he is all alone in a Dark and Very Expensive Forest. His performances of “Find Your Grail” and “I’m All Alone” are enjoyable.

This production had it’s opening night flaws, including some technical issues with the LED screen that projected images behind the action, a few sour notes from the orchestra, and some microphone issues, but overall, the show is a fun night out, which I did enjoy.

David King’s set design and Diane Almeter Jones’ props and set dressing really set the tone for this obscure and hilarious show. You can see the work that went into this production, and it does not go unnoticed. The small details really make this show all the more enjoyable.

Overall, “Spamalot” is a goofy good time. I just wish all of the leads were in on the goofiness and brought their A games. I can only assume that this will be rectified as the show continues it’s run. Go find your Grail, and see this show!

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

“Spamalot” runs until February 3, 2019 and is presented at the Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Monty Python’s Spamalot’ at Kavinoky Theatre

A couple years ago, Arts Services of WNY participated in “Arts and Economic Prosperity 5,” a data review and analysis of 126 cultural and not-for-profit organizations that proved that the arts heavily contributes to our region’s economic  growth. The arts sector is a $352.1 million industry that supports all levels of employment, businesses of all sizes, cultural tourism, and the ever-important quality of life.

Slice that number down to one theatre and one production. “Kavinoky Theatre is an economic engine for a lot of businesses,” says the theatre’s executive artistic director Loraine O’Donnell.  ‘Monty Python’s Spamalot,’ the second of two large-scale musicals on the theatre’s schedule this season, opens Friday, January 11. O’Donnell says the show costs more than $100,000 to produce, mostly spent two months before opening night, and mostly with local vendors and businesses.  Places like DC Theatricks (for dozens of costumes, from tights and tunics to flowing robes), Scheule Paint Company (gallons of paint for David King’s elaborate set), area restaurants that craft dinner-theatre packages, and even the corner convenience store (ice ice, baby) play important cameo roles in this show.

“ ‘Spamalot’ is one of the largest musicals we’ve produced here,” O’Donnell says. “There are 19 actors on stage, plus a 10 piece orchestra, and four assistant stage managers to help the cast with more than 100 costume changes and plenty of scene changes, too.”

In other words, it takes a 12th century English village to make this production happen.

‘Spamalot’  is the stage adaptation inspired by the 1975 film ‘Monty Python and the  Holy Grail.’ While Kavinoky isn’t the first theatre to produce the show locally, as the region’s largest producing house, its audience expects an extraordinary experience. This means hiring union musicians (“they’re the same musicians who play in the orchestra pit at Shea’s,” O’Donnell says), creating a visual experience to match, and hiring top-notch local actors, and crew.  Or to paraphrase a song from the show “You Won’t Succeed in Buffalo if you don’t make it awesome.”

For O’Donnell, walking that tight rope between best quality and best value is a true balancing act. Ticket sales only provide part of the theatre’s income stream: the rest comes from private donors, corporate sponsors, and grants which are increasingly competitive to earn. “In this business, breaking even is considered a triumph,” O’Donnell says. “That’s why it’s so important to get people through the doors.”

Inspiring its audience with quality productions is at the heart of Kavinoky’s newly-defined mission to produce a mix of the classics, musicals and new works in order to expose our patrons and D’Youville students to the diverse creativity in all genres of theatre. O’Donnell says, “We’re going to continue to do two musicals a year.  It helps grow the subscriber base and musicals bring in new people.  Last season ‘Mamma Mia’s!” single ticket sales increased by 50%, and subscriptions increased by 20%.” While musicals have higher production expenses, O’Donnell says, “You have to spend money to make money.”

For ‘Spamalot,’ the Kavinoky has assembled a cast of some of Buffalo’s finest musical theatre talent: Gregory Gjurich as King Arthur, Louis Colaiacovo as Sir Robin, Dudney Joseph as Sir Galahad, Bobby Cooke as Sir Bedevere, Steve Copps as Sir Lancelot, Arin Lee Dandes as Patsy, and Michele Marie Roberts as The Lady of the Lake, with an ensemble including  Kelly Copps, Arianne Davidow, Doug Weyand, and others, directed and choreographed by Lynne Kurdziel Formato.

As we might expect, the cast is enthusiastic about the production and the timeless Monty Python clever wordplay. “Yes, it’s great to be king in the kingdom of Kavinoky with such spectacular subjects…and nobody had to vote for me,” says Gregory Gjurich, borrowing a line from  about his role as King Arthur. “I love the Monty Python movies. I aspire to any chance to work with Lynne, the Kavinoky, and plus they offered me the role, so I said hey OK! (That doesn’t happen often).”  Similarly psyched is Michele Marie Roberts, otherwise known as The Lady of the Lake. “I’m a working mother of two from Kenmore, and I volunteer monthly at Bingo,” she says. So when Lynne Kurdziel Formato and Loraine O’Donnell ask you to play an egomaniac diva at the Kavinoky with an amazing cast, you do it.”

‘Spamalot’ is on stage from January 11 to Februarry 3.  For tickets, call (716) 829-7668 or visit kavinokytheatre.com.

Theatre Review: ‘A Doll’s House, Part Two’ at Kavinoky Theatre

David Oliver as Torvald and Kristen Tripp Kelley as Nora in: “A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2” at Kavinoky Theatre.

When we last saw Nora, she was walking out the door and slamming it behind her.

After 15 years, Nora’s on the other side of the same door, this time knocking to be let in.

And so begins “A Doll’s House Part Two,” now on stage at the Kavinoky Theatre until November 25.

Ibsen’s original “A Doll’s House” is the story of Torvald and Nora, their marriage, a long-term deception, and a grand realization for Nora, with a revolutionary notion for women in 1879.

This quartet did an admirable job . . .

That stormy departure put Nora on a new path in playwright Lucas Hnath’s  continuation. Sometime between the front door slamming behind her and her confident knock-knock-knock 1 5 years hence, she changed, another great stride for a woman in her era. She is no longer man’s possession. She will not be trivialized. She is earning her own money, successful albeit anonymously in her  career, and is blissfully alone and content. Cue pop singer Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit “You Don’t Own Me.”

If only her family believed her.

It would be more convenient if Nora was dead, or at least was believed to be dead.  After so many years away from her family, most people in town speculated she was dead anyway, but without a death certificate on file, there was no way to prove it.

Well, therein lies the problem.

If Torvald finally agrees to a divorce, that’s an acknowledgement that Nora was alive for all those years, ignoring her children and her womanly duties. If she was really just dead, well, she’s somehow not accountable for her self-made, avant garde life.  Daughter Emmy – who has no recollection of her mom – is advocating for the death option. Her betrothed works at the same bank as her father, and it would be face-saving for her. Nora is not buying this, nor is she convinced that her daughter should be wed so young and to a banker, no less.

What’s a girl to do?

From the moment Nora – handsomely played by Kristen Tripp Kelley – strides through the door, she’s the light in the room. The fiery vermillion dress and snazzy red and black high button shoes scream  dominance. Her gait isn’t mincing, as one might expect if one is corseted in form-fitting attire: it’s masculine, almost to the extreme, as if she’s let go of her femininity entirely, instead of evolving away from the porcelain princess in the manor house. Watch how she sits, squarely on the seat, not perched on the edge,  knees not locked for propriety. She’s man-spreading in her former turf.

Anne Gayley is Anne Marie, the live in help,  who added child rearing to her job description when the former lady of the house walked out. There’s no role Gayle can’t play: her Anne Marie is in service, yes, and her role in the house is important, as the influencer over the next generation.

David Oliver is Torvald, the husband who is shocked at Nora’s return and is still as befuddled about her reasons for leaving as she was 15 years ago. Oliver is convincingly benign. Leah Berst is a sparkplug as the young adult daughter Emmy, the only child (of the three), to ‘re-meet’ Nora, of whom she has no recollection. Berst does as a fine job as the calculating, bride-to-be who isn’t listening to her mother’s explanation of why she shouldn’t feel the need to marry so young or at all.

This quartet did an admirable job with Hnath’s  less convincing story. While a 21st century audience will embrace the strong feminist foundation of Nora’s new story, his script is almost too contemporary, too vernacular an extension of Ibsen’s work. With the exception of Anne Marie, it feels like Hnath wrote every character to be vaguely unlikeable, even Nora, who  I desperately wanted to like. After all, she’s earning a fine living as a writer (much to Anne Marie’s surprise), and she wears red with the proper swagger. As far as story and characters, I much preferred Hnath’s 2015 “The Christians,” masterly produced last season by Road Less Traveled Productions.

That being said, the Kavinoky production is fine. David King’s set is subtle, mostly grey scale with reverse hombre walls (it darkens on the way up), to illustrate how Nora took the color out of the home when she left. The door – the portal to a new life – is at center stage, always in clear view. You can’t ignore its significance when it’s always in your view. Robert Waterhouse’s direction is clean and precise.  Next to Nora’s glam dress, if I had to pick a highlight, it would be the rare on-stage opportunity to hear Gayley – Buffalo’s elegant grande dame of theatre – dropping F bombs like it’s her job.

A side note: while technology surrounds us, live theatre is your chance to leave it off or behind altogether.  I heard three different mobile phones ringing – admittedly softly – during the show. Indeed the patron in front of me and the patron on the opposite side of my theatre companion that night both were scrolling through their news feeds after the house lights were down.  Seriously. Use this downtime to read your program or soak in the ambiance or even softly converse with your companion. As an audience member, your responsibility is to be in the moment. Read about theatre etiquette here.

Running Time: 90 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult Langauge

“A Doll’s House, Part Two” runs until November 25, 2018 and is presented at Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ at Kavinoky Theatre

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Loraine O’Donnell and Matt Witten in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street” at Kavinoky Theatre.

The stately Edwardian charm of the Kavinoky Theatre is transformed to 19th century London, evidenced by eerie smoke drifting from the under an animated scrim. That’s your first impression ofSweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” onstage until September 30.  It’s a foreboding and mysterious way to begin a riveting, vaguely disturbing, and thoroughly enjoyable production. Kavinoky picked a phenomenal way to begin a new season.

. . .nothing short of extraordinary.

This is a singer’s show. The plot is strong and intense, and it’s the music that leads it along. Like Sondheim’s earlier work “Passion,” this feels like a period opera for a contemporary audience.

The rigorous Sondheim score requires every member of the cast to have outstanding vocal chops. This cast didn’t disappoint. Like last season’s “Mamma Mia!,” (probably the only similarity between these two shows) there were plenty of familiar faces – usually seen in leading or featured roles – in the ensemble. Charmagne Chi’s soprano soars when the score permits. She, with Kelly Copps, Ben Michael Moran, Dudley Joseph, and the rest of troupe have powerful and exquisite vocal blend.

The featured actors are flat out magnificent, showing range and dynamics that showcase Sondheim’s vocal gymnastics. Matt Witten as Sweeney, Loraine O’Donnell as Mrs. Lovett, Anthony Lazzaro as Anthony Hope, Aleks Makejs in her Buffalo debut singing role, and Peter Palmisano as the creepy Judge Turpin, pull you into this story with every note and spin you into the web of deceit and revenge.

Sweeney’s story unfolds as the ragtag street people of London pull down the scrim to reveal a dank and dreary cityscape. He is fresh off the boat from a dozen years away, and while his fresh-faced traveling companion, a sailor aptly named Anthony Hope, is excited to be there, Sweeney’s feelings about London run deeper, “its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit and it goes by the name of London,” he sings. Matt Witten’s resonant voice and solid diction hammer at Sondheim’s staccato rhythms and clipped lyrics. This may be his finest performance yet, with steely resolve under a gentleman’s reserve, and a voice that handles every elegant and complicated riff that Sondheim wrote. It’s perfection.

The same can be said about Loraine O’Donnell’s portrayal of Mrs. Lovett, baker of the worst pies in London. She’s bold and brassy with her big voice filling the house. Listen closely to her act one song “Wait:” her character is reflective, her voice is rich, lower, and thinking again of Sondheim’s “Passion,” when she played Fosca on the O’Connell & Company stage years ago. She and Witten nail the comedic duet “A Little Priest,” too. The story is so intense you almost forget to laugh at the clever humor and wordplay. She can “take” a song, too: she’s sweet and loving when young Tobias (Lucas DeNies) shows  his devotion singing the tender “Not While I’m Around.”

It’s Malejs who is is the surprise of the evening in a singing role as the prescient beggar woman. She creeps about the city, somehow all knowing that something is even more wrong is this grimy, impoverished, corrupt corner of the world.  Her “Beggar Woman’s Lullaby” will break your heart.

Director John Fredo expertly moves this large cast around stage, and his actors all do double duty moving David King’s set pieces about, from pie shop to insane asylum, to street scenes.  Moody lighting designed by Brian Cavanaugh, a larger-than-expected orchestra led by Allan Paglia, and plenty of stage-tech magic add layers to the production.

This is an ambitious production and Kavinoky’s team is nothing short of extraordinary. Make this the first show of this season’s local theatre season journey.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30-minutes with a 20-minute intermission.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” runs until September 30, 2018 and is presented at the Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Forget Me Not (Or Minding June’s Story, A Family Tale)’ at Kavinoky Theatre

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Family memories, World War II history, and the troubled recesses in the human psyche converge in “Forget Me Not,(Or Minding June’s Story, A Family Tale)” a new play written by Buffalo’s own Diane Almeter Jones. The play is making its regional premiere this weekend at the Kavinoky Theatre.

. . .a powerful and thoughtful work.

It’s a powerful and thoughtful work. The story flits between the 1940s and 1980s, spanning three generations, based on emotional artifacts from the playwright’s family. At times, it’s not easy watching. The opening scene is disconcerting: the 1980s granddaughter, sequestered in a high-ceilinged attic packed with family mementos, looks like she’s ready to harm herself. Her husband’s voice through the door startles her, announcing that her beloved grandmother has died. She hurriedly pushes down her sweater sleeve and begins pacing the space. In a waking dream, or some absurdist reality, the attic is now alive with spirits, perhaps powered by Grandma June’s collection of postcard and letters, treasured in a flowery box. Her Grandma June,  Grandpa Harry, his brother, and in a curious and funny moment, the blessed Mother with a Madonna blue robe, an Irish accent and a bottle of chianti, are revealed in clever entrances and exits that rarely use the attic door.

Set designer David King’s stage is magnificent here, punctuated with just-right set pieces (Almeter Jones is the Kavinoky’s resident properties manager), from furnishings to a wedding veil. Brian Cavanaugh’s lighting design is skillful: there are stark and bright moments when the characters break from ensemble and tell their story. Director Kristen Tripp Kelley uses these moments wisely: these brief monologues help form their moments of connection with the audience.  The Kav’s snazzy LED curtains display images from the family correspondence and other subtle video snippets. There’s a lot of activity on the stage, too, as characters move from the focal point farmhouse table to the elevated “spotlight” chair: is this another metaphor for rising heavenward, or a way of distancing for clarity and perspective? Kelley’s smart direction keeps the movement from being too frenetic.

The actors, in their multiple roles, give life and voice to Almeter Jones’ family. Anne Roaldi Boucher is charming as shy teen June at times, and strong as the gentle wise grandmother. Her life, her challenges form the backbone here. Zachary Bellus is Harry, the earnest younger brother who is determined to make June proud. Nick Stevens as Harry’s brother Francis, another family soldier, has his own secrets and story. It’s Maria Caruso as Diane (and  the Blessed Mother) who advances the story as the narrator of sorts, the convener of souls who reads from the family correspondence and pulls the distant past into the more recent past.

Almeter Jones developed this project in the 2015 Emanuel Fried New Play Workshop at Road Less Traveled Theatre. Her inspiration was her grandmother’s box of letters and the rich family history it represented. She does her family history proud.

Running Time: 1 Hour 10 Minutes, no intermission.

“Forget Me Not, (Or Minding June’s Story, A Family Tale)” has a fast weekend run on stage at The Kav, closing on June 9, 2018. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Forget Me Not’ at Kavinoky Theatre

In a city that is known for performing the tried and true classics, it is rare that a unique original work makes its way to a Buffalo area stage. Tom Dudzick, A.R Gurney, and Neil Simon are household names in the area, but the name Diane Jones is one that may not be as familiar, unless of course you have read a playbill from the Kavinoky Theatre. The interesting thing, is that Jones will be sharing the title of playwright with these well known names this June when her original one act play, “Forget Me Not” is performed at the Kavinoky Theatre.

“This is a culmination of six or seven years,” says Jones, “I started this script in an Intro to Theatre class at SUNY Buffalo State in 2012, and since then I have re-wrote it, workshopped it, and gotten wonderful feedback.”

Jones’ work, entitled “Forget Me Not” was selected in the Road Less Traveled Manny Fried New Play Workshop, where she was given wonderful guidance to make her script work. “You really learn a lot about your work and how to better it when you go through a process like this,” laughs Jones, “as an artist I was used to critiques, but this was a very rewarding experience.”

“Forget Me Not” is based on a true story of Jones’ Grandmother June, who receives a telegram in 1945, saying that her husband had died in the war. As the story unfolds, June has to learn how to deal with a situation of this magnitude, and also has to deal with being visited by her dead husband.

“I had acquired a box of letters from my Grandfather that he wrote while he was in the war,” says Jones, “and while I was reading them, I thought, this would make a great play. When it came to the war in 1945, no family was untouched by it.”

Jones never met her Grandfather, but she says that through writing this piece, she has had the opportunity to really learn a lot about him. “There was stuff that I learned that my family had forgotten. I read an early draft of the script to my family members, and at the end they were speechless. It really hit home for them, and I knew that this story would be really relatable to others.”

Jones is very excited that she is able to produce her show on the Kavinoky stage. “I feel honored. I call this place my home! I love the collaboration that comes with putting together a show like this. The finished product is nice, but I like the process more.”

“I think the audience will find authenticity in this story, and with that, they will be able to relate,” says Jones, who goes on to say that a similar thing has happened with Tom Dudzick’s “Over The Tavern.” “Dudzick had success with his show because so many people were able to relate to the authentic experience that they remember.”

“Forget Me Not” stars Anne Roaldi Boucher, Zachary Bellus, Nick Stevens and Marisa Caruso. The show is directed by Kristen Tripp Kelley.

“Forget Me Not” runs June 7, 8, and 9, 2018, is produced by Diane Jones, and is presented at The Kavinoky Theatre.  For more information, click here.