‘The Mousetrap’ at Lancaster Opera House

It’s supposed to be hard to put your finger on the guilty party in a whodunit.  In the fashion of murder mysteries, the perpetrator could be any of the characters who take the stage.  And who done it becomes, by the end of the production, glaringly clear. The realization can be satisfying, bewildering, disappointing, or even painful in the end.   If you knew it all along, well, you get kudos after the performance for being some kind of armchair sleuth.   

Without giving too much away, in Lancaster Opera House’s current production of the Agatha Christie murder mystery, Mousetrap, pretty much everybody does it.

Matthew Rittler does it with an enthusiastic performance of the character of Christopher Wren, with an animation and flair that speaks not only to the mysteriousness of his character’s true identity, but also with a humor that brings fun to the play the other characters don’t get much chance to deliver.

Jaimee Harmon does it with poise and presence in her depiction of central character, Mollie Ralston, the better half of the married couple who are proprietors of the guesthouse where all the action takes place.  

Nathanial Higgins does it with his articulate and convincing portrayal of Detective Sergeant Trotter, whose scrupulous questioning of all the houseguests guides us down the varying pathways of finger-pointing guilt.

Jackson DiGiacomo, who plays the other half of the guesthouse proprietors, Giles Ralston, does it with and overtly proper being of a man who doesn’t exactly welcome opening his house to a band of transient guests, but is determined to make a go of it as a business.

That’s only four of the players in the total band of eight.  Yet all are guilty of realistic energy, of flowing through challenging dialogue with altogether fitting portrayals of their characters – to include the elderly and proper Mrs. Boyle played by Susan King; the youngish and purposefully strong Miss Casewell, played by Anne Roaldi Boucher; the stout and exacting military Major Metcalf, played by David C. Mitchell; and the unexpected and deceptively clever foreigner Mr. Paravicini, played by Monish Bhattachayya.   You can point your finger at any of them.   

And you can turn your gaze to the set – fully pleasing, realistic to the period and painstakingly rendered, complete with crown moldings, appropriate lighting, logs for the fireplace, velvety drapes and latched swing-open windows, and a great looking radio through which we first learn of murder, over the “wireless,” that happened not far from the guesthouse.   You even suspect the gifted Set Designer, David Dwyer, may have added the creaking wood floor to the Opera House stage, it’s all so well done, the detail is remarkable.  

The story finds the Ralston couple welcoming the cast of patrons to their home, which has been recently converted to a guesthouse for their new business venture.  The couple has been married only a year, still loving newlyweds, still learning about one another. It immediately becomes evident there’s been a murder not far from the guesthouse, but the fact goes largely unnoticed amidst a blizzard of a snowstorm and the stream of guests arriving.  

The characters are distinct, each idiosyncratic their own right, making them intriguing enough to bring suspicion onto them.  It’s not until the appearance of Detective Trotter that the plot gets rolling, the possibility of another murder becomes evident, and suspicion begins to fall everywhere. All the marks of a murder mystery are there.  The talent is a mix of seasoned local actors and crew, and very promising relative newcomers. Whether the audience finds the outcome satisfying, puzzling, or disappointing is hardly the matter. There’s a satisfaction in the journey given Mousetrap’s outstanding performances and Lancaster Opera House’s first-rate production for casual theatergoers or armchair sleuths.   

The Mousetrap is about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission, and is currently running through February 9.  More information is at http://lancasteropera.org/


Theatre Review: ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ at Lancaster Opera House

Lancaster Opera House debuted its first musical of its first season completely in residence last weekend with cult classic “The Rocky Horror Show.” Richard O’Brien’s creepy, hilarious and sometimes insane show is well performed by a talent-ridden cast, featuring plenty of fresh faces.

A celebration of a cult classic…

We open with, what else, “Science Fiction Double Feature,” which is sung live by an usherette and hints at some of the bizarre events our main characters are about to experience. I doubt there’s ever been a version as good Megan Mahaney’s, which was a great start to the show.

We are immediately introduced to newly engaged Brad (Angelo Heimowitz) and Janet (Madelyn Teal), whose car breaks down on the way to visit their former science teacher to share their happy news. Once they reach a nearby castle, they are welcomed in by Riff Raff (an unbelievable Matthew Rittler), Magenta (a sassy Heather Reed) and Columbia (a lively Kate Mulberry), who lead them in “The Time Warp,” kicking off a night they’re sure to remember.

Soon after the “Time Warp,” on struts Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter (Joe Russi). Russi, simply put, is a star. His range is unbelievable, as is his ability to strut the stage in heels and a corset. Russi brings depth to a character that might appear one-dimensional, captivating every audience member to the point where each of his songs garnered long applause and cheers.

While I love Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as much as the next person, you can’t deny that the stars of the movie aren’t the strongest singers. With director David Bondrow’s cast, every song is taken to new heights and is impeccably performed by the cast, especially Russi, Teal and Rittler. Timmy Goodman’s choreography is interesting and appropriately simple at times, and the quintet of Phantoms/Transylvanians is perfectly haunting and humorous throughout the show.

The Opera House stage is known for being small, but David Dwyer utilized the theater’s back brick wall in his two-level design, which made a huge impact on the stage’s size. It felt larger than usual with room to breathe; so much, in fact, that I bet a few more ensemble members could have fit comfortably.

This production is a true celebration of a cult classic and is being performed (rightfully) at the spookiest time of year. If you’re a Rocky Horror fan, you’ll love every minute.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes including a 15-minute intermission

“The Rocky Horror Show” runs through November 3 at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information and tickets, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Sister Act’ at Lancaster Opera House

“Sister Act” is one of my favorite movies. It is a film that my family cherishes and one that I watch as many times as I can. It just has a feeling of nostalgia that takes you to a good place when you might be feeling low. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to review the national tour of the Alan Menken musical adaptation that took Broadway by storm. There are subtle changes, but it works, and the music is great. When I saw last year that the Lancaster Opera House was going to produce the show, I was excited.

. . .audiences will find something that they really enjoy in this production.

“Sister Act” is the musical adaptation of the Touchstone Pictures film of the same name, and tells the story of Delores Van Cartier (Zhanna Reed) a lounge singer who is dating a mobster, Curtis Jackson (Preach Freedom) and who witnesses a violent murder. After running to the police, Officer Eddie Souter (Lorenzo Shawn Parnell) puts Delores into the witness protection program to save her from meeting her maker. The best place to send her? A convent, where she has to pretend to be a nun, but after getting to know the ladies in the convent, and finding that her talents as a singer can help them save their church, Delores’  cover is compromised.

The opening night performance of this run had its fair share of bumps in the road, but I like to focus on the positives. The ensemble, and the orchestra, helped carry a show that sometimes could not count on it’s leads to keep the story driving forward. It is some of the supporting cast that have the most memorable of performances. David Bondrow is hilarious as mobster Joey. Along with Joe Russi’s Pablo and Brian Brown’s TJ, the trio is the highlight of the production, getting laugh after laugh, and quite possibly having the best songs in the show. They help keep the energy high and the audience engaged.

Lorenzo Shawn Parnell is a crowd favorite as Officer Eddie Souter. Parnell plays the lovable loser, turned hero in the end, well, and instantly gets the audience on his side. His performance of “I Could Be That Guy” stops the show.

Mary Rappl Bellanti is fantastic as Mother Superior. The character is quite different than the Maggie Smith character we know so well from the film. Bellanti makes it her own. She is stern, she is rough, but she is also loving. You will definitely enjoy her performance.

Preach Freedom is the perfect choice for mob boss Curtis Jackson. Freedom’s voice is so powerful and deep, you are scared for your own life in the audience. He will be back on the Opera House stage soon, I guarantee it.

Madalyn Teal is the sweetest Sister Mary Robert you could ask for. Teal nails the character’s arc right on the head, and gives a heartwarming and powerful performance. When she stands up to Mother Superior in act two, a tear comes to your eye.

John Kreuzer is fantastic as Monsignor O’Hara, the head of the church that is on it’s way to be shut down. He has the best comedic chops, and delivers every one of his jokes with perfection.

And so we come to Delores, played by the young Zhanna Reed. Miss Reed is new when it comes to practicing her craft. She has a great voice, and a big personality. Her performance of “Raise Your Voice” is great and will be the song you find yourself humming as you leave the theatre. For the most part, she does an adequate job as Delores, but has much room for growth when it comes to the subtle parts. The one that stands out to me the most is when Delores walks into the room as Curtis is shooting his victim, and she nonchalantly keeps talking as if this did not phase her one bit. If she was so accustomed to seeing Curtis whack his victims, there would be no story for this musical to tell! Perhaps this is an area for Director Kevin Leary and Miss Reed to revise, but other than some opening night jitters, I think Miss Reed has wonderful potential to be a mainstay in our theatre community!

All in all, the show is a take it or leave it for me, but I think that audiences will find something that they really enjoy in this production. The orchestra  and the ensemble alone are worth the price of admission!

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

“Sister Act” runs until June 23, 2019 and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Baby’ at Lancaster Opera House

Having babies can be a messy business.  The question is whether a play about having babies would come to life on the stage.  The simple answer is yes.

. . .a delightfully easy on the eyes and ears production.

But if giving life were that simple, everybody would do it.  Not everybody can. And not everybody would, even if they could.   Lancaster Opera House does inject life in its production of the 1983 musical, Baby.  It has a lot going for it:  Let’s just mention the original Broadway production in the 1980s had several Tony Award nominations including best musical and original score.  While we’re at it, know that director Nathan Miller has brought together a very talented group of players/singers to labor out this lyrical journey from conception to birth.  

The play is about nine months in the lives of three couples, all facing the prospect of child birth before them.   First off is the young couple in idealistic love, dreaming of how their lives will go forward and determined to not let the birth of their child derail the trajectory of their real goals and dreams.  Next up is the established married couple, having tried to get pregnant for some time and, we learn at the start, appear to have finally been successful. And then there is the forty-something couple who, after having raised four children, find themselves unexpectedly pregnant with differing opinions on what lays ahead.   

Everything here is on time – actors, orchestra and sound, lighting, stage management – not a dim bulb, loose string, or wasted word in the bunch.  And while the main six players of the cast seem to share almost equal stage time ably, the apparent lead of Leah Berst, as Lizzie, one-half of the idealistic young couple, stands out as a strong and extremely talented voice.  Most of Lizzie’s duets are played alongside her love, Danny, played by Trevor Bunce. Between them, it’s hard to pick a better half. Together, they share a chemistry that is solid and convincing and, well, seemingly full of loving admiration.  They regard one another with a longing and passion that speak just below the lyrics and lines, of a pair truly in love, while never seeming to become melodramatic about any of it. These are joyful performances.

They are all for the most part joyful performances.  There are bits of sadness and tragedy in the plot, but in fact none of it appears melodramatic which, given the subject matter and the paths the characters take, seems like a possible pitfall expertly avoided.  There’s just enough clever realism here in script and lyrics, and all the actors keep it grounded there.

The emotion, splattered with a great deal of hilarity, uncertainty and downright joy, all come to life through some poignant, thought-provoking, and often hilarious lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.  And it’s all pulled off in a finely tuned fashion by Mr. Miller and crew.

If one were to pick out a weak note, it’s that while the characters seemingly come to us as three separate and random couples on three different, sometimes unexpected paths, the plot reveals to us that they had known one another previously.  It’s almost a too-small world — maybe, and a too-small point. We’re not after a strong plot here. We’re looking for the world made smaller by music.

And it is.  What’s more than plausible about “Baby” is the realism of these characters’ situations, how they cope, how they feel about them, the truths and insights they speak and sing of.  Certain not all the bases are covered. But regardless of whether you’ve been either half of a pregnancy, you’re likely to come away with some small notion of what it’s like to navigate that messy business.  And Mr. Miller and crew, the cast, and orchestra playing from the balcony, flooding the curved design of the Lancaster Opera House, come together in a delightfully easy on the eyes and ears production. It could not have been made more clean or entertaining.   

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

“Baby”  is currently running through March 3, 2019 and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House.  For more information, click here.

Lancaster Opera House brings “Deathtrap” to the stage.

What do you do when you’re hired to direct a flawlessly scripted Ira Levin play that is one of the most produced thrillers in history and was the longest running thriller on Broadway?

Nothing. Except pick  a great cast, and keep the work simple, elegant, and pristine.

And that’s just what Katie Malinson did with “Deathtrap,” which opened Friday, January 18 at the Lancaster Opera House. With a theatre workhorse like “Deathtrap,” that has played on professional and community stages all over the world, any adaptations or tweaks would detract from the intricate script. Malinson says, “I just focused on letting the play work. It doesn’t need to be messed with. It was a matter of finding the right cast.”

Malinson’s cast – Paul Todaro as Sidney Brule, Lindsay Brandon Hunter as Myra Brule, Joe Isgar as Clifford Anderson,  Kathleen Rooney as Helga ten Dorp, and Steve Jakiel as Porter Milgrim – keeps her on her toes, she says. “They are veteran collaborators with great instincts and insights.”

Levin’s script (winner of the 1978 Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and a 1978 TONY Award nominee) is the real star of the show. A playwright, his wife, his student, and a mystical neighbor is an interesting dynamic, and their motivations are still fresh, even  41 years later. “The notion of doing anything for fame and fortune is still applicable,” Malinson says.

For Rooney, her role as Helga the neighbor, is well nuanced. “All the characters in the play are not as they seem. There’s humor in Helga, but also determination and ambition.”

This sets up an important element story, too. Malinson reminds us that “Deathtrap” is written as a comedy-thriller. “We have to keep the comedy and the friction alive. There’s a fine line there. I really like the dark humor in the script.”

In the end, who dunnit?  It’s a classic.

“Deathtrap” is onstage at Lancaster Opera House to January 18-27. Visit www.lancopera.org for details. Some performances are already sold out!


Theatre Review: ‘A Christmas Story’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House


The cast of “A Christmas Story” by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House.

What is it about “A Christmas Story.”  There’s no sweet holiday message, no fa-la-la, no chestnuts roasting.  Fact is, there’s a good amount of humbug. There’s the hapless Ralphie and his dysfunctional family, the bully, the fact that Santa has an un-jolly disposition, and that the theme is predicated on one lad’s desire to get what he wants for Christmas rather than any kind of higher notions of good will toward men, or women, or kids.  

. . . a play, a story, and a night out for the whole brood willing to disregard that “thing that tells time.  

But this story endures every holiday season.  The movie has marathon runs on cable television.  There’s that familiar stripper-like leg lamp, that tongue stuck to a frozen light pole, and that “official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and the thing that tells time.”    And there’s that notion that the Christmas holiday season, even for a kid, may not be all fun and games, even if nobody puts an eye out.

With such a continuing legacy, it’s no surprise that Rocking Horse Productions brings “A Christmas Story” to the Lancaster Opera House stage.  Because even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’re probably aware of it and some of its imagery. And Rocking Horse doesn’t seem to have skipped over much of it.  At about two and a half hours it seems nothing has been left out.

Like the movie and book, the play is narrated by an adult Ralphie, retelling for us the events and his thoughts and feelings of a particular Christmas in 1950s Indiana in which his only wish was to get a bb-gun for Christmas.  Adult Ralphie, Ralph Parker, the narrator, is played by Chuck Both who, being on stage narrating or in supporting bit roles for nearly the entire production, does well with the massive amount of lines he has. A feast of words.  That’s not to say that a missed cue here and there, and one or two false starts with a line now and then, were not there, but no one’s eye was put out because of it, and his overall performance was robust and delivered with enough force that a man might use in retelling some of the most frustrating parts of his youth.  Relatively new to being on stage, Both’s presence is both the foundation of the story and a gift to it. One that should only get better with time.

The kids were no delinquents either.  Ralphie (Joey Bielecki) and his friends were all charming in their roles, and often seemed like they were having fun, especially when they made their way across the stage in a bone chilling Indiana winter blizzard.   All of the kids in the production did relatively well, and both of the parts of Ralphie’s female classmates, Ester Jane (Tiffany Nowak) and Helen (Isabella Bindermann) were standouts. Having played in LOH’s production of Annie, the two young actresses brought an age-appropriate maturity that contrasted perfectly with the rough-around-the-edge antics of the young male roles.  

The adults weren’t without certain antics.  Most notably was Marc Ruffino in the part of the father, Ralphie’s “Old Man”.  Ruffino is enthusiastic, playing the zealous king of the Parker domain, who is both enforcer and blissfully oblivious to his own follies.  Ruffino’s Old Man plays up his father-knows-best persona and child-like wonder, making us believe he’s not the tyrant whose wrath Ralphie fears.  

But adults are a mystery to young Ralphie, and he consistently misreads them.  Including his teacher, Miss Shields, played wonderfully by award-winning actress, Katie Buckler, and his mother, played by Katherine Parker.

What it is about “A Christmas Story” at Lancaster Opera House is the narrator, adult Ralphie, appearing in the glow of light at stage left and stage right, above stage, and in the Parker kitchen, telling us about his recollection of this sequence of events — one Christmas point in time.  He is the driving force of this show. The story plays in, and in front of, the Parker house, which never leaves center stage. Scene changes are small vignettes at the front of the stage, where the actors engage the audience more directly. Overall the set and lighting was well thought out and executed, although one of the kitchen walls on stage left blocked some of the action from the view of patrons sitting house right.

Like the film and book, this production may bring some adults to retrospective moments of their own youthful Christmas’ past, and children and kids to their own funny and frustrating present.  Because this story had moments where the kids in attendance cheered for Ralphie, and laughed at the adults. So did the adults. And for that reason it can be said that “A Christmas Story” is a play, a story, and a night out for the whole brood willing to disregard that “thing that tells time.”  

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

“A Christmas Story” runs until December 9, 2018, is produced by Rocking Horse Productions and is presented at Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Oliver!’ at Lancaster Opera House

When I was in grade school, my music teacher liked to show videos. Musical videos. There wasn’t a large selection in his arsenal and the one that we watched over, and over, and over, and over again was “Oliver!” We watched “Oliver!” so many times that the VHS tape wore out, and then he purchased it on DVD. Lucky us. Needless to say that while in elementary school, you are forced to endure many things that you typically wouldn’t want to endure. This film was one of them. But, just like my first time seeing the film “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it wasn’t until I saw it live on stage that I enjoyed it. This goes for “Oliver!” now as well. Seeing it live is much more enjoyable, and the Lancaster Opera House’s production is phenomenal.

. . .the Lancaster Opera House’s production is phenomenal.

Based on the novel “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens, Lionel Bart created a musical adaptation of the story in the 60’s which had very good commercial success. Oliver is a boy who lives in an orphanage, asks for some more gruel, gets sold to an undertaker, falls in line with a bunch of lovable criminals and, then gets adopted into a wealthy family. It’s that feel good story that we love to hear. He should probably audition for “American Idol” or something.

Director David Bondrow assembles a phenomenally talented cast for this very enjoyable adaptation of the show. The show uses a very minimal set, with no wings on stage, or curtains. Typically I wouldn’t find this acceptable in a show, but I see what Bondrow was doing here, and it is very impactful. It is actually brilliant. You’ll see what I mean when you purchase your tickets.

Fran Landis leads a fantastic orchestra that plays the familiar tunes perfectly. The singing and music in this show is technically perfect. The attention to detail in the score and the vocals cannot go unnoticed, and the caliber of talent that is on the stage is mind blowing. This is the perfect production. You could not ask for more in a musical, and the Opera House delivers. . .big time.

Leading the show as Oliver is Joel Fesmire, who is fantastic in this part. His performance of “Where is Love” tugs at your heartstrings and his voice is wonderful. It brings a tear to your eye to see such a young man performing with no fear on stage. I know adult actors who wish they had this courage. He plays the role of Oliver very well, and I am looking forward to seeing his career unfold in Buffalo.

Kevin Leary is fantastic as the lovable anti-hero Fagan. His mannerisms and prowess on stage are admirable for this part, and he is very entertaining with his comic delivery and slimy demeanor. “You Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two” is one of my favorite songs in the show and he surly did not disappoint in his performance.

Ian Michalski is fantastic as Mr. Bumble. Along with Rebecca J. Runge’s Widow Corney, the two have great comic chemistry on stage.

Seth Phillyaw is Artful Dodger and this kid is brilliant. As a sophomore in high school, he too shows no fear on stage and makes wonderful artistic choices. His instinct is right on the money and his performance of “Consider Yourself” is a crowd favorite.

I cannot tell you how awesome this show is, you have to go see it for yourself, and judging by the opening weekend crowd, you should get your tickets right away, because this is a show that you definitely do not want to miss.

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

“Oliver” runs until November 18, 2018 and is presented at Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ by Rocking Horse Productions as Lancaster Opera House

Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road. There is not a single person alive who does not know the story of Dorothy and her adventures in Oz on her journey to meet the Wonderful Wizard. A girl has troubles at home, a tornado sweeps her up, and she falls into the merry old land of Oz. Now, she needs to find her way home. All this in a single day! I would need a nap half way through.

. . .an admirable feat.

“The Wizard of Oz” is one of my favorite movies, and out of curiosity, I just read the book by L. Frank Baum last year. Talk about a dark children’s novel. Anyway, there are high expectations when an audience comes to see a live production of this show, and Rocking Horse Productions produces an admirable effort, that just needs a little buffing around the edges. More on that later.

Director Jane Navarro assembles a quartet of leads that bring this story to life on the very small stage at the Lancaster Opera House. Leading the show as Dorothy is Sara Marioles Mitch who does a wonderful job emulating the late Judy Garland, and still makes the role her own. Marioles Mitch’s performance of “Over the Rainbow” is well done, and her voice is nice to hear as it rings throughout the theater.

Sean Murphy as the Tin Man is a wonderful choice. Murphy emulates the same vocal prowess as Jack Haley in the film. Murphy’s tap dancing during “If I only Had a Heart” is heart-warming (get it), and he is an audience favorite right from the get-go.

Robby Syruws plays the Scarecrow in this production, and does a fantastic job. Syruws also emulates the voice of Ray Bolger in the film, but still makes the character his own. His performance of “If I only Had a Brain” is humorous and he brings a great stage presence to the role.

Joe Castiglia plays the hilarious Cowardly-Lion. Castiglia has the comedic chops to deliver the funny one-liners in this piece, and also performs “If I Were King Of The Forest’ beautifully.  He has fun on stage, and the audience is happy to come along for the ride.

The ensemble in this show does a marvelous job telling the story. The Munchkins are cute, and are definitely a crowd favorite. The “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” number is so precious it brings a tear to your eye. You will absolutely love them.

Overall, this is an admirable feat. The sets by Chuck Ziehl, Derrik Reynolds, Chuck Both, and Douglas Kern are fantastic. These are probably the most elaborate sets I have seen in a Rocking Horse show in some time. They have pulled out all the stops in telling this story and it shows.

Choreography, Daniel Doctor brings a familiar choreography to the piece, and also brings some unique additions, like using dancers to portray the Yellow Brick Road. I have to admit it took me a few minutes to catch on to this concept, but it was definitely memorable. He also used dancers to create the tornado that sweeps Dorothy up. It was a very creative choice, and too is memorable.

Sean Polen’s orchestra plays the music with such great attention to detail. I really enjoyed hearing the familiar songs, with the nice full sound of a large orchestra.

Alright, so this show is a great effort, but here comes the buffing around the edges part. The storytelling and the acting are great, but the scene transitions, and there are many, really add a lot of unwarranted time to this almost three-hour production. Now, I am sure that these will be shortened as the run continues, but I found myself losing interest every time the lights went down and we waited for the scenes to change.

Other than the scene changes, this show is an enjoyable night out, and what better way to start off the 2018-2019 season than to take a trip to Oz?

Running Time: Approximately 3 Hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“The Wizard of Oz’ runs until September 23, 2018, is produced by Rocking Horse Productions, and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Annie’ at Lancaster Opera House

I’ll be honest – I’ve seen ‘Annie’ more times than I care to admit. Annie is cute, the dog is cute…. it’s all cute. However, I was drawn to the Opera House production based on their renaissance over the past few years. David Bondrow’s development of the resident company has been exciting to watch and it continues to churn out high quality productions – a tradition it continues with its latest production of “Annie.”

This production is definitely worth a trip to the Lancaster Opera House.

“Annie” is based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” and follows a hopeful girl as she dreams of finding her real parents who left her at the orphanage. While she and her friends try to avoid the wrath of Miss Hannigan, who runs the orphanage, Annie is selected to spend the Christmas holidays in the home of billionaire Oliver Warbucks, who opens his heart to Annie.

Tiffany Nowak stars as Annie, and boy, is she a star. Nowak effortlessly belts out the musical’s iconic song, “Tomorrow” soon after a rousing rendition of “It’s the Hard Knock Life” alongside some really talented young actors. Nowak is optimistic and beams happiness and hope. Bondrow, who directed the production, made a stellar choice in casting her.

Tim Hartman steps in as Oliver Warbucks, commanding the stage with his height and deep baritone. He’s vocally strong and comedically stronger. Though it’s clear by his comfort level in this role that he’s done it a few times before, he paired greatly with Nowak and enraptured the opening night crowd.

Chrissy Vogric-Hunnell is Grace Farrell, Warbucks’ secretary. Her soprano voice soars and she brings a classy, bright performance to the stage. She’s especially good in moments alone with Annie and with Warbucks, bringing a little extra focus to their developing relationships.

And then there is Anne DeFazio as Miss Hannigan. Her Miss Hannigan is loud, unstable and visibly cold-hearted, making her a perfect choice for the show’s main villain. Watching her unravel during “Little Girls” is delightful, as well as seeing her scheme alongside her brother Rooster (a smarmy Marc Sacco) and his dim-witted arm candy Lily St. Regis (a delightfully annoying Meghan Cobham) in “Easy Street.”

The adult ensemble is vocally outstanding, ensuring that the less familiar songs and scenes from the musical are just as worth watching as the iconic ones. Particularly charming is Ricky Needham’s appearances as President Franklin Roosevelt. While I’m not quite sure why his character voice drifts to a British dialect at times, he makes the character larger than life and leads an impressive multi-part harmony in one of the “Tomorrow” reprises with members of his cabinet. Nathan Andrew Miller also transforms a character of few words, Drake (Warbucks’ butler) into a memorable, chuckle-inducing performance.

Before this production, I’ve never bothered to notice choreography in any production of “Annie,” but Heather Reed’s work here is delightful. It is memorable and fun, playing up the best bits of every song.

While initially I wasn’t a fan of David Dwyer’s static set, I soon fell in love with its versatility thanks to the texture and color choices he made as well as the use of the New York City skyline as a frame for each of the doors and wall panels.

Tiffany Nowak’s bright-eyed and vocally impressive “Annie” is surrounded by an incredible ensemble well worth the price of a ticket. This production is definitely worth a trip to the Lancaster Opera House.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and twenty minutes including a fifteen minute intermission

“Annie” runs through June 24th at Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Rounding Third’ at Lancaster Opera House

Little league.  Two things that nearly every kid who ever took up the game of baseball must have been told at one time or another:  One: Keep your eye on the ball. Two: Keep your head in the game.

Oh sure, you can go on about learning the physical skill and technique of the game.  And maybe one kid has an arm like a cannon. Maybe another kid can hit the ball a mile.  And another has cheetah-like speed. Those things are helpful to playing the game, to be sure.  But the moment you take your eye off the ball and your head leaves the game, and let one groundball squib right between your legs, well, to borrow another word of caution from the little league fields of dreams – silly you — didn’t play the ball, you let the ball play you.  The sad result of not sticking to the two basic things.

The production as a whole keeps its eye on the ball and its head in the game.

Currently playing at the Lancaster Opera House, “Rounding Third” brings a slice of little league to the stage, when two coaches struggle to get themselves and their team through the baseball season to the championship game.   One of the coaches, Don, played by Ray Boucher, is a sort of win-at-all-costs, student of the game, looking to field the best possible team to win it all. His first-year assistant coach, Michael, played by Darryl Semira, is a newbie coach whose son has entered little league for the first time, and who believes the kids are there to have fun, learn comraderie, and all get a chance to play.

As you might suspect, the two coaching styles come to odds through the little league season.  Boucher is solid as Coach Don, who only has one rule for nearly every situation, and therefore has many rules. His character tells the kids that he will never yell at them for making a mistake, but mental errors are a different matter altogether.  Boucher gives Coach Don the right amount of stern conviction, and his character imports humor and sensibility, showing how his philosophy of baseball fits into a way to live life that you can’t help but like him, if not understand him.

Semira’s Coach Michael character knows nothing about baseball’s mechanisms or strategies for winning, and he’s not much concerned about them.   It is a game, and games should be fun. He’s there mostly to bond with his son, wants his son to make friends, and learn how to play the game. While Semira brings to the character an awkward, sort of green naiveté about the game and deference to the other coach’s experience, he also brings a conviction to his character’s own views about the joyful experience and sense of fair play that he believes should be little league baseball.   Likeable to the core.

So which coach is right?  Can a team willing to win any cost have fun and experience joy, and can a team out solely to have fun with a sense of fair play to all hope to win?  The coaches are the only two characters in this play. If you go looking for a team of little leaguers for the answer, you will have to look to yourself, or no further than the person in the seat next to you.  Boucher and Semira both speak to the audience, as if we are the little leaguers, and they do it well. And like a little leaguer, you may find yourself having a favorite coach of the two, one that speaks to you.  As the season plays out on the practice field, in the dugout, the back of Coach Don’s van and team meetings, it’s altogether possible you might surprise yourself.

There are many examples across media and entertainment where how one approaches baseball is symbolic of how one approaches the game of life.   Likewise here. The team meetings and baseball are the backdrop to how Coach Don and Coach Michael carry out the fundamentals of the game. You don’t have to be a fan, or even knowledgeable about the game of baseball to “get it.”  While the story of “Rounding Third” touches all the bases, it also leaves us purposefully and wonderfully in a space just short of home. And Boucher and Semira skillfully take us through what little league can be like for the adults, what the adult world can be like when we are thrown some rather nasty curves.  Somehow, they make us forget there is an actual game going on here and engage us into theirs.

The production is nicely done, somewhat minimally, with the set changes happening quickly and efficiently between the scenes.  The Lancaster Opera House has wonderful acoustics so even the lowest of clicks and clacks of the bat are audible and clear, and the audience’s frequent laughter must have been a pleasing sound for the actors and production crew as well.  If there was a point of wonder, it would be that the background never changed as sets did, and remained as a looming brick wall through every scene. It seems like an opportunity to add just a little more flavor was missed. But it’s hard to call that an error.  The production as a whole keeps its eye on the ball and its head in the game. Go see it, it’s little league season right now.

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

Rounding Third runs until May 20, 2018 and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.