Theatre Review: ‘Mamma Mia!’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of “Mamma Mia!” at Kavinoky Theatre.

My reviewer’s reserve lasted about 20 minutes, and after that, I couldn’t help myself.  I started singing along.  And I wasn’t alone.

That’s the power of “Mamma Mia!” on stage at Kavinoky Theatre until January 28. You can’t help riding the ‘70s wave again and belting out those toe-tapping ABBA tunes.

Overall, it’s a fine production of a familiar musical with a fabulous cast. It’s the perfect choice for a cold winter night, too.  Does this reviewer recommend it? I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do!

Director Lynne Kurdziel Formato put together a powerhouse cast of 23 actors who are on fire with fun in this one. And what a cast. Arianne Davidow is luminous as curious child Sophie, who is determined to figure out her paternity before her wedding.  Debbie Pappas Sham plays ex-rock singer single mom Donna Sheridan to the hilt. Her cover of “The Winner Takes it All” is more poignant and soulful than the original. Her galpals from her Donna and the Dynamos days – Tanya and Rosie played by Loraine O’Donnell and Lisa Ludwig – are hysterical. Tender and caring as they croon “Chiquitita” and having a blast reliving their past in “Dancing Queen” (Truly, what girl hasn’t sung into her, um, curling iron like a rock star in the privacy of her bedroom?), the trio’s voices are wonderfully melded. Then we meet the other trio – the potential Dads that Sophie secretly snuffed out from her mom’s diary. And…(read that as dot dot dot), they are sublime. Matt Witten (fresh from his smooth and slimy salesman gig in Road Less Traveled Production’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”) is Bill Austin the globetrotting writer who never settles down. Doug Weyand is the suave Brit Harry Bright (he nails the accent consistently, too, which is impressive).  When he and Donna pair up for “Our Last Summer,” it’s sweet with old memories. Peter Palmisano is the hot-as-heck architect Sam Carmichael who covers “Knowing Me, Knowing You” expertly.  He and Donna make good work of “SOS,” too.

The whole ensemble is remarkable. Scan the crowd for familiar faces like Kelly Copps, Arin Dandes, and Bobby Cooke: you’re used to seeing them in featured or starring roles. Here they are happy to sing and dance along with an energetic troupe of emerging actors. It’s great to see so many students and recent grads blending seamlessly with their more experienced cast members. What a great tribute to the outstanding theatre programs in our region! Indeed Sky, the husband-to-be played by William Hin is finishing his senior year at the University at Buffalo: he and Davidow are a winsome pair. I hope he sticks around after grad: he can grow into all kinds of roles in our robust theatrical community.

David King’s simple Greek isle set is enhanced with the new LED curtains that display lush scenery views. This is old hat for director Formato: she’s worked with this technology in Europe for years. The swirling shapes and cheesy floating hearts are distracting: I liked the authentic blue sky-white sand beach scenes better.

There’s more than a few winning moments: Rosie and Bill (O’Donnell and Witten) have real chemistry when they pair up on “Take a Chance on Me.” Tanya (yes, that’s Ludwig under the brunette bobbed wig) has the guys eating out of her hand in “Does Your Mother Know.”

One tiny wrinkle is the music: keeping true to the Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus tunes is mandatory, so the sound (three electronic keyboards plus piano bass, guitar, and some percussion) sometimes sounded tinny and over processed. Stick to the center of the house or the balcony and focus your ears on the voices on stage.

Overall, it’s a fine production of a familiar musical with a fabulous cast. It’s the perfect choice for a cold winter night, too.  Does this reviewer recommend it? I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do!

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15-minute intermission.

“Mamma Mia!” runs until January 28, 2018 and is presented at The Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

‘Mamma Mia!’ Introduces New Tech at The Kav

Ah, the craggy coastline of Greece.  The bright sunshine.  The brilliant blue of the Mediterranean.  In January.  In Buffalo.

When “Mamma Mia!” opens at The Kavinoky Theatre on January 5, your eyes will be treated to these vivid images, thanks to state of the art LED curtains. Kavinoky is the only local theatre using this innovative technology.

“They are similar to the screens you see at rock concerts that project large images behind the stage,” says Managing Director Loraine O’Donnell. “This is a total game changer for our set design in the theatre.”

The curtains function as LED TV screens with the ability to show moving or still images in versatile configurations. “Mamma Mia!” will have a 10-foot swath that will stretch across the stage with two smaller panels on either side.

Director Lynne Kurdziel Formato is familiar with this technology, having used similar devices in Europe. For “Mamma Mia!,” adding new technology to an Edwardian-style house that’s presenting a contemporary production is an interesting combination of forces that will add great dimension to an already rich production. She says, “Scenery of this nature gives you a sense of time and place. The curtains as part of the scenery will operate in a number of different ways. It allows scenic elements to move in a more cinematic ways, and has movement as you transition from scene to scene.”

“Mamma Mia!” is a regional premiere, with a stellar line-up featuring some of the region’s finest singers and actors, with Debbie Pappas as Donna, Arianne Davidow as daughter Sophie,  Loraine O’Donnell and Lisa Ludwig as friends Rosie and Tonya, and Peter Palmisano, Doug Weyand, and Matt Witten as the trio of maybe-dads. Kurdziel Formato says the ensemble is replete with actors who also play leading roles in other companies. She says, “It’s an extraordinary ensemble and incredible professional cast.”

She says, it’s the perfect show for our times. “In the dead of winter in Buffalo, coming to see and hear an uplifting show about pursuing  your dreams and how it’s never too late to change your pathway, a  show like “Mamma Mia!” offers positive reinforcement that life is good. “ And if that doesn’t do it, all those danceable, sing-a-long-able ABBA tunes are there in full force.

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.

“Mamma Mia!” runs January 5 – 28, 2018 and is presented at The Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.


Theatre Review: ‘The Crucible’ at Kavinoky Theatre


The cast of “The Crucible” at Kavinoky Theatre

“We are what we always were in Salem,” John Proctor cries out in Act II of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” “but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!” Proctor (Adriano Gatto), guilty of adultery, realizes that his act unwittingly empowered the single minded girl whose dalliances with unashamed sexuality and “dark spirits” have sparked witch trials — trials that now threaten to snatch up Proctor’s long-suffering, all-forgiving, and unflinchingly truthful wife Elizabeth (Aleks Malejs). Later in the scene Proctor returns to the thought: “We are what we always were — but naked now!”

. . . masterful performances will carry away all the audience’s doubts, quibbles, and objections about this admirable production.

Proctor is talking about the witch trials. Because Arthur Miller is the author, Proctor is also talking about 1950s American anti-communist hysteria, another “crucible” in our history, which would sweep up and imperil Miller and some of his closest friends around the time of the play’s composition (1953). And because we are the audience and our year is 2017, John Proctor is also talking about the American Kangaroo Court culture and its Tweeter in Chief, where to prosecute is to hold power, to accuse is to claim privilege, and there is only safety in the transference of blame.

“The Crucible” is about all of this — “lock her up,” and loyalty oaths, and so on — and, yet, it isn’t. Though at times electrically relevant, there is something deeper than the frissons of recognition that play across our skin when we hear lines like this. The play is almost an American ur-narrative, for in plumbing the Salem witch trials and 20th century anti-communist frenzy, Miller taps into the dynamics of fear, doubt and superstition always active, if latent, in our politics; and he drives to the wellspring of insecurity in American civil relations, which probably began when John Edwards preached to us that few are saved, most are damned, and your neighbor’s heart might hold more wickedness than your own. The play’s “relevance,” then, is never the point. “We are what we always were in Salem.” Director Robert Waterhouse recognizes this, and signals — with subtle costume changes, the appearance of an ahistorical flashlight — that the play is not tied to any time or times.

This production opens with projected images of black and white bodies engaged in forest rites, played over a string-and-percussion cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Here, Brian Millbrand’s projections and Geoffrey Tocin’s sound — at best illustrative of elements only alluded to in the text, at worst overassertive — accidentally highlight shortcomings of both the play and the production. While superficially related to the plot of “The Crucible,” “Sympathy for the Devil” treats the taboo, anti-social, destructive, and heedless sexuality that is ostensibly at the heart of John Proctor’s misdeed as well as Salem’s hysteria. (There is a Bacchae somewhere in this script.) Here the song signals what the play will not explore. The nature and dynamics of John Proctor’s relationship with his former servant Abigail Williams, and the reason Abigail and the other girls drink blood and dance naked in the woods, these thematic elements number among many — including racial othering, class and democracy, the subjection of women, Calvinism and the American character — that break the surface of the plot and dialogue but ultimately fall outside the narrow scope of Miller’s fiery focus. This is part of the reason for the play’s belabored ending, as John equivocates over declaring, signing, displaying, and “destroying” a confession: Miller comes to the end of his play and realizes he has not taken the time to understand his protagonist’s motivations.

An uneven ensemble accentuates these flaws: Some central cast members fail to dig down and discover nuance where the script gives little direction. Switching Peter Palmisano (Judge Hathorne) and David Lundy (Rev. Samuel Parris) might have yielded interesting results. Abigail Williams’ character is underdeveloped and Shelby Ehrenreich’s performance, though energetic, draws on a limited emotional palette; the same could be said of John Fredo’s Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth. That said, one of the most gripping scenes in the play comes when these two, caged, collide: Danforth feels himself losing control of the proceedings and, therefore of his political power; Williams fights to retain her precarious place at the center of the witch hunt, which is the only form of privilege her society will permit her. Fredo and Ehrenreich give outstanding performances here.

Highest honors go to the Proctors, though: Adriano Gatto (fresh off his endurance performance in Irish Classical’s “Design for Living”) powerfully embodies John, who in Miller’s script is something like a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer, a man of reason as well as fallen human passions and weaknesses, a skeptic who keeps Church and State both at arms length, and who treats people as individuals rather than members of collectives. In Gatto’s performance the yeoman hero becomes as complicated and compelling an American figure as Jefferson himself — towering, wounded, guilty, aware of his guilt, tragically resolute and tragically unresolved. Aleks Malejs likewise conveys every shade of Elizabeth Proctor’s complicated character. She becomes something like a tragic American demi-goddess — all-seeing, all-knowing, all-forgiving, but aware that these powers will be insufficient to save her husband or herself. Beside the Proctor’s woundedness and love, the trial will sometimes seem silly and incidental.

Though occasionally slow and imbalanced overall, at its emotional crescendos (which are not, usually, the play’s loudest parts), masterful performances will carry away all the audience’s doubts, quibbles, and objections about this admirable production.

Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, 15 minute intermission.

“The Crucible” runs until November 26, 2017 and is presented at the Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘The Crucible’ at Kavinoky Theatre

“The Crucible” opens November 3 at The Kavinoky Theatre.

How do you captivate students (and enrich the learning experience) and still appeal to your general audience? It was a serious consideration for The Kavinoky Theatre this season. Both audiences are important: season subscribers and single ticket buyers are with you now, while today’s students are tomorrow’s patrons.  The Kav addressed this by going back to basics with a 21st century twist:  Arthur Miller’s classic American drama “The Crucible” will open at the Kav on Friday, November 3, and will include some dynamic multi-media elements created by video artist Brian Milbrand.

“We were looking to stage an American classic,” says the Kav’s managing director Loraine O’Donnell. “Education is part of our mission. ‘The Crucible’ is still widely taught, and is part of the Common Core. Bringing classes to the theatre helps teachers teach drama in another way. The teachers have a study guide to spark class discussion, and then seeing the production makes it come alive.” When classes visit the Kav on school time, the production is followed by a talk-back with the actors. “Kids are intuitive,” says O’Donnell. “They ask sophisticated questions, beyond things like ‘how do you learn your lines.’ Maybe that comes with being exposed to more theatre.”

“The video elements are woven into the production to help advance the story and establish time and place,” says O’Donnell. Students will connect with video, too, particularly visual learners who sometimes need more prompting to engage with reading-based studies.

The general audience is already familiar with the Kav’s creative use of video. Milbrand used stunning and powerful images in “Grounded,” the story of a fighter pilot on drone duty. Robert Waterhouse, director of “The Crucible,” saw the production and was inspired to integrate video into this production. Waterhouse also built a historical timeline against Miller’s account of the Salem witch trials to help draw the audience back to the 17th century.

O’Donnell says, “We’ve made our own world with the costume choices,  inspired by Mennonite, Amish, and maybe some Islamic influences.” Blurring the lines (look carefully at the videos: you may see some intentional, contemporary flashes there) suggests that the story isn’t all history: perhaps in some isolated places in this world, this story is still emerging.

The Crucible will open at The Kavinoky Theatre November 3 and run through November 26, 2017. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance of Buffalo

Get Spooked at The Kav

When you buy a theatre ticket, the price you’re paying only covers a portion of the expense of mounting the production. This means theatre companies have to be resourceful and creative when it comes to fundraising. Sure, corporate sponsorships are important, and the annual fund campaigns can’t be ignored, and grants can and do help. It’s the extra things, the special events, that give the theatre an extra pop of revenue while engaging audiences in new ways.

The Kavinoky Theatre found a new way to celebrate its glorious Edwardian space, and connect theatre, literature, and local lore. “A Literary Haunted House, “ Saturday, October 21, beginning at 7pm, features live readings by already-been-on-this-planet authors in this 143-year old building on the D’Youville College campus. Experts think it’s one of the most ‘active’ haunted buildings in the city. The theatre is located in the Koessler Administration Building, originally constructed in 1874, as the original location of Holy Angels Academy and a residence for Grey nuns and students.  A fire in 1879 gutted part of the building: one nun didn’t believe the fire would take the down building and had to be forcibly removed. Experts think she may be the apparition that leads to mysterious lights, sights, and sounds.

But come Saturday, the likes of Bram Stoker, Edger Allen Poe, Edith Wharton, Mary Shelley and others (we know them as Chris Evans, John Fredo, Pamela Rose Mangus, and Kristen Tripp Kelley respectively) will read from their  literary genius in different spaces throughout this grand old building. Listen for the dragging of chains across the hardwood floors, too, and other ghostly surprises.

Tickets are only $25 per person will support the Kav’s outstanding line up of productions that give you chills throughout the theatre season! Call 829 7668 (if you dare…)

Theatre Review: ‘The Producers’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The Cast of ‘The Producers’ at Kavinoky Theatre.

As a story teller, I am drawn to stories that seem over the top and that have goofy concepts. When I was first introduced to the work of Mel Brooks, I couldn’t help but think that this man understood how to tell a story. No matter how ridiculous it might be, his work was unique, fun, and most importantly, entertaining. I was in ninth grade when the musical film adaptation of “The Producers” came out. When I heard the song “Springtime For Hitler” I laughed so hard that I instantly knew that I had to see it live. That chance never came around, until today. Finally, after twelve years of being introduced to the musical “The Producers” I got to see it live.

. . .an extraordinary production. . .Do yourself the favor, go see it!

“The Producers,” written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, tells the story of a down on his luck Max Bialystock (Norm Sham), a has been Broadway producer who has not had a hit in a long time. When an anxious accountant, Leo Bloom (Brian Mysliwy), comes to do Bialystock’s books, he announces that a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit! This sends the pair on a journey to put on the worst play ever written. What do they come up with? A Neo-Nazi Musical called “Springtime For Hitler.”

The Kavinoky’s efforts on this big Broadway show are admirable. Sure there are a few little rough patches, but the good outweighs the bad. David King’s set design is fantastic for this production and allows the countless locations in the story to each feel unique and it keeps a fun aesthetic throughout the entire show. The almost seamless scene changes are amazing, and the cast and crew really sets the bar high for themselves and other productions in the area of this caliber.

Norm Sham leads the show as Max Bialystock, the role created by Nathan Lane in the original Broadway cast. Sham does a great job with the comedic line delivery, and gets all the laughs with the physical slapstick that he brings to the show. His rendition of “Betrayed” is a crowd pleaser, and get’s wonderful laughs as he recaps the show.  

Brian Mysliwy is fantastic as Leo Bloom. Mysliwy sounds just like Matthew Broderick and holds nothing back when it comes to physical comedy, singing, and stage presence. His is absolutely hysterical and he was meant to play this part. Even thought his vocal performance is similar to that of the original Broderick’s, he makes the part his own. His rendition of “I Want To Be A Producer” is spot on. He does not disappoint.

Arianne Davidow plays Ulla, the Swedish actress hired to be a secretary/receptionist for Bialystock and Bloom, to a tee. She beautifully enters the stage and has no problem playing the sex symbol in this show. Her performance of “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” is a show stopper. She is funny, and brings great ‘conflict’ to the story.

Greg Gjurich is wonderful as Roger DeBris, the worst director in New York, hired to assist in mounting the biggest flop in history. Along with Marc Sacco’s Carmen Ghia, the two have wonderful chemistry and are instant crowd favorites, especially in their performances during “Keep It Gay.”

The ensemble backs these actors up and they do a fantastic job playing the countless supporting roles in this show. They are all excellent and deserve a space in this cast. Director Lynne Kurdziel Formato mounts an extraordinary production that will be remembered for years to come. Do yourself the favor, go see it!

Running Time: 2 Hours 45 Minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

Advisory: Some Language and Suggestive Themes

“The Producers” runs until October 1, 2017 and is presented at The Kavinoky Theatre at D’Youville College in Buffalo. For more information, click here.