The Other Josh Cohen is a Delight

What do you do when your apartment is burgled, your job kinda sucks, money is tight, and love eludes you? Worst of all, your only possessions are a “hang in there” cat calendar and the Neil Diamond III CD (“the best songs are on one and two”)? Well, if you’re Josh Cohen, you just keep on keeping on.

The Other Josh Cohen, on stage at MusicalFare Theatre until May 22, is a completely loveable story about a guy who hates February 14 and 15 equally because Valentine’s Day and the Ides of February just aren’t his days…until a series of circumstances turns it all around.

This is 90 minutes of absolute delight on a stage, with music, including a Neil Diamond appearance. I mean, come on…what’s not to love? Director Randall Kramer gets this all right with a superb cast and  a adorably quirky and endearing story by David Rossmer and Steve Rosen

There are actually three Josh Cohens involved here. The story unfolds in retrospect as Narrator Josh (Zak Ward) details a critical time when Last Year’s Josh (Joseph Donohue III) encounters the ‘other’ Josh (Brandon Barry) when Other Josh’s mom sends a hefty check to Last Year’s Josh’s almost-empty apartment. What to do? This big chunk o’ change could turn Last Year’s Josh’s life around….but then again….so can doing the right thing.

Along this journey we meet Last Year Josh’s parents, his landlord, his neighbors, the other Josh’s mom, Darth Vadar, and a few women not meant for any Josh. In between there are plenty of laughs (not belly busting slap stick guffaws, but the delectable, sly chuckling kind that are more enduring and infectious), and some really good tunes. The earworm for the night is “Samuel Cohen’s Family Tree,” a story song that sets up the family lineage with a tune that will remind you of Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” If you’re not smiling by the second chorus, well then, it just sucks to be you.

The band members (all three Josh actors) plus music director Theresa Quinn, Robert Insana, and Solange Gosselin) are on stage and do double and triple duty as various cast members.  It’s a hoot to watch them effortlessly glide from role to role. Quinn is the standout stepping out from the behind the keyboards to be Josh mom I and II and Neil. Insana kills it when – as Josh’s dad – he meticulously voices his answering machine. This band is tight, the vocals are excellent, and it’s all easy on the ears. Chris Cavanagh kept the set simple and effective and used some subtle lighting to shift the mood as needed.  Costumer Kari Drozd dressed Narrator Josh and Last Year’s Josh identically: it’s only in the demeanor and quiet wisdom (and facial hair) that you see the difference. It all worked.

Underneath the gags and gimmicks, there’s a message for the ages: goodness will always win, and patience pays off.

The Other Josh Cohen runs 90 minutes without an intermission. Visit www.musicalfare.com for details and tickets.

American Rhapsody is Beautiful Music

George Gershwin’s iconic “Rhapsody in Blue” was an orchestral celebration of the American cultural melting pot when it debuted in 1924. The exquisite blending of jazz with a strong nod to classical music is still beloved for its syncopated rhythms (Gershwin said it was inspired by the clicks and clacks of trains) and its soaring, melodic themes. MusicalFare artistic/executive director Randy Kramer parlayed that inspiration with one of his own in American Rhapsody, onstage now. Kramer developed his concept into a 90-minute story counterpointed with such outstanding musicianship.

Admittedly, the story is thin with some unsettling undertones: a classically trained pianist (Kramer) wants to deepen his understanding of Rhapsody in Blue prior to performance, so he pays a jazz pianist and club owner (Richard Satterwhite) to join him in his “piano room” (a baby grand and a less than grand upright) for a conversation of sorts. “I just thought we’d play for each other,” couches the classical pianist as he sits at his shiny instrument, leaving the jazz man to the upright. Jazz man was having none of that, and proceeds to share quotes and insights about America in the ‘20s, the people who were making music then…and how and why the notes came together. It’s not racism, perhaps just race ignorance that kept the classical pianist from seeing jazz man’s points at first. Jazz man picks books off the shelf and reads quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other luminaries and is surprised at how much the classical pianist doesn’t know about how music is really ‘made.’ And there’s the heart of our story.

Jazz man’s readings and reflection come to life as the beautifully constructed stage set – the work of Chris Cavanagh –  turns into an early 20th century music lesson, performed by Stevie Jackson, Dwayne Stephenson, Davida Evette Tolbert, and Josh Wilde. Their songs take us from Spirituals to the earliest Stephen Foster ditties, to Scott Joplin’s rags to timeless tunes of Irving Berlin, WC Handy, and Eubie Blake: their performances are visual and aural delights. The highlight: Tolbert’s “St. Louis Blues” was belted out to perfection and her Art Deco beaded gown was just as stunning. Who doesn’t love a fascinator with a feather? Good work, costumer Kari Drozd. Cavanagh made stage magic happen when the picture window of the ‘piano room’ morphs into a stage for the singing quartet. He used some familiar and fun lighting techniques, too, to bring silhouette forms to life.

At one point, jazz man is pretty fed up by classical pianist and seemingly storms out…which sends the classical pianist to the keyboard and a passionate performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C# minor.” Jazz man is still listening…and that’s their breakthrough moment.

Spoiler alert: the performance ends with Kramer’s lovely rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue.” While you miss the familiar orchestra part, Kramer (with off stage support from music director/pianist Theresa Quinn, Jim Runfola, and Ron Paladino) is an extraordinary pianist and watching him play all night was a delight.

Kramer’s piano playing, the set, the costumes, and the snippets of American music history make American Rhapsody a good night in the theatre. It’s a fast moving one act, no intermission, and it’s onstage now to March 27. Find tickets and details at www.musicalfare.com. You’ll like it as much as a school boy loves his pie.

All is Calm is Elegant at MusicalFare

It’s odd to think that the true spirit of Christmas – a wish for peace on Earth and  goodwill to all peoples – can be found in a story about war. But that is the essence of  All is Calm, now onstage at MusicalFare Theatre.

It’s a real story taken from a moment in World War I history. In the first few months of the war (“we thought it would be over by Christmas,” is an oft-repeated line in the show), British soldiers were acclimating to life in the trenches in that most frightening location of The Great War: No Man’s Land. Something happened on Christmas night, 1914: British soldiers on the Western Front heard singing and saw flickering lights coming from the German troops.  They bravely crossed this chasm of battle and joined in with carols of their own. Weapons were laid down, beverages, snacks, and stories were shared, language and cultural barriers were set aside. The men declared their own unofficial Christmas truce that lasted but a few days and was ne’er repeated again.  Playwright Peter Rothstein captured the simple elegance of this snapshot of humanity with this script.

If the story sounds familiar, you’re either a student of world history, you paid attention to the stories told by your grandparents, or you were in the Subversive Theatre Collective Audience in 2014 to see local writer Gary Earl Ross’ take on the same story, The Guns of Christmas.(Hat tip to the Theatre Companion for reminding me.)

Rothstein’s script is built on a series of statements from soldiers with each quote closed out with their name and rank. I’m a big fan of epistolary writing, and using this tactic felt like we were reading a soldier’s letter to someone back home. Associating words to people gave the story its heart. The production also uses the power of music to support this (sometimes debated) moment in WWI history. Music Director Theresa Quinn’s magical piano playing is absent, but her church choral director skills are apparent. There’s a whole lot of ensemble singing going on, and it’s all done a cappella. At times it’s a little bit barbershop quartet harmonics, other times I hear full-fledged British boy choir-layered harmonies in the familiar WWI tunes, including “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Pack Up Your Troubles,” and “When This Bloody War is Over.”  It’s all so very good. Peppered between are stand out solos from the familiar voices of MusicalFare including Ricky Needham, Darryl Semira, Marc Sacco, and Louis Colaiacovo. It’s a tribute to the cast and Quinn’s direction to pull it off as successfully as they all did. There was no music to “help” the singer find his pitch: it’s all up to talent and skill that this cast has in abundance. If an occasional sound wasn’t quite as written, well, heck, blame trench acoustics.

Susan Drozd staged and directed this crew with military precision. There were beautiful moments when weapons were sharply, deliberately placed just so. Each actor held a firm gaze to the back of the house when delivering lines, speaking to everyone and someone else just beyond the backwall.  Chris Cavanagh’s dramatic lighting and battle noises were the perfect foils for designer Dyan Burlingame’s trench set. Kari Drozd managed costume design and it was fun to watch the men using simple leg wraps, hats, and coats to become other characters. This was an important detail in the story and signaled their transition from camp soldier to one in active battle. Actors represented multiple roles, too, and were adept at shifting accents and dialects as well.

All the elements come together to create a moving and powerful human experience.

The well-paced, one act (no intermission and just under 90 minutes) production ended with a reminder, from British poet Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem The Fallen: “We will remember them.”

All is Calm is onstage until December 12: tickets and details are at www.musicalfare.com.

Sidebar: MusicalFare, like every other space in our community,  has many protective policies in place. Vaccination cards and IDs are checked before you enter the theatre. Facemasks are required. There’s touchless ticketing, too. All good stuff that should encourage audience members to feel safe and welcomed. The one thing that irks me is the lack of the printed program. I totally get it: it’s another way to limit contact between patrons and volunteers, both of whom may be at risk. Digital programs may inadvertently cause a new epidemic: cell phones on during the production to follow the song list. Seriously. I was surrounded by multiple program perusers and even over heard one person comment about how convenient it was to ‘see’ the program now. Patrons, it’s OUR responsibility to manage our need to know during a show. Peruse before curtain, please, or when you get home. The Patti LuPone Rules still apply: phones off and away during a show, please. Theatres created digital programs to protect you, and not to give you a new way to distract actors and your fellow patrons. The pre-show video with actors demonstrating how (and how not) to wear a face mask, however, was a hoot.

Patience is Indeed a Virtue for All for One Productions

For the cast and crew of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the past 19 months must have been pure agony. The show was shut down opening night (thank you, Covid) after months of prep by All for One Theatre Productions, (the collaborative comprised of Shea’s 710 Theatre, MusicalFare Theatre, Irish Classical Theatre Company, Theatre of Youth, and Road Less Traveled Productions). Imagine the agony of sitting on this exquisite production. It was truly worth the wait.

Based on British author Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, playwright Simon Stephen’s script  begins with a neighborhood tragedy: a teen discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed. The distraught owner is quick to blame the teen. Thus begins a two-hour journey of a painful truth, deliberate deception, and a young man’s search for order in a very disorganized world.

Samuel Fesmire gives a mesmerizing performance as Christopher, the accused neighbor. While not specifically called out, Christopher appears to live on the autism spectrum, high-functioning and brilliant with mathematics, and sometimes childlike in his need for routine and order. He walks in straight lines and turns at precise right angles, marks his steps as he walks (“Remember your rhythms,” says is teacher Siobhan played by Sara Kow-Falcone), and cubes prime numbers to reduce stress. Fesmire’s movements capture the tics and quirks of someone whose mind is always racing.  Kow-Falcone’s carefully measured passion and commitment to her student paint the perfect picture of an ideal teacher.

While searching for Wellington the dog’s killer, Christopher learns some hard truths about his dad (Anthony Alcocer),  his mom (Candice Kogut) and Wellington’s owners (Wendy Hall and Ben Michael Moran).   Moran and Hall also do double duty as part of the ensemble, too, playing minor characters and set pieces. That’s actually a pretty cool part of the production. People are often miming walls and doors on the Spartan grid set. Even in the opening scene, lighting outlines Wellington’s dead body along with the murder weapon. 

No surprise that a collaborative performance has a super-size production team. Director David Oliver and assistant director Lucas Lloyd built a good team with Lynne Koscielniak doubling up on scene and lighting design, Christopher Ash and Brian McMullen on the projection (there’s plenty of that, too, against the grid set), Gerry Trentham as movement director, and Jean Toohey as dialect coach to keep the British accents on point and in check.  It this was a band, it would be described as tight.

Overall, it’s a fine interpretation of the novel and a good depiction of what it’s like to live in a world that you often don’t understand when you’re otherwise abled. Fesmire as a Christopher will win your heart as you empathize with his daily challenges. I was less focused on the parental lying and infidelity: the acting quartet handled that well. It’s a tribute to the production company and its choice of show to see marquee actors like Pamela Rose Mangus and David Marciniak in ensemble roles here, too.

The show’s timing may feel uneven at times (the first act felt long and a trusted colleague felt act two dragged) but like Christopher, once you feel the rhythm of the story, it makes sense.

Thanks to All for One for bringing this powerful show to the 716 and not giving up on it when Covid  was threatening, This is good stuff.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a solid two hours with intermission and is onstage at Shea’s 710 Theatre to November 14.  Details and tickets at www. sheas.org.

Tootsie – Now on Stage at Shea’s

Full disclosure: I generally don’t enjoy productions that morph from screen to stage.

I prepared myself to embrace Tootsie, now on stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, with an open mind, and pushed my 1982 movie memories to the back of my brain. So a show with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (writing for screen to stage shows is his thing, having done so for The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrel, Women on the Verge…, and The Band’s Visit which is next on stage at Shea’s), seeing Buffalo gal Dominique Kempf in her first national tour, and the opportunity to be back in Shea’s again after a long intermission, how can it be bad?

Truth be told, it wasn’t horrible. Nor was it the best thing I’ve seen in this venerable house. Yazbek’s score was lively and clever, albeit not terribly memorable, beginning with an overture (a wonderful throwback that most musicals skip nowadays…there was an ent’racte, too) and a bright and snappy opening number. Straight up we meet Michael Dorsey (played by Drew Becker), a struggling stage actor and waiter who has high-minded opinions about the roles he is offered – and regrettably loses –  thanks to his passion for truth and depth. His roommate and aspiring playwright Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant) is his deadpan sidekick. Grant has some of the best lines with perfect delivery, too. He even cleaned up Bill Murray’s iconic observation of his roommate’s dual persona ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38lkRCedEys).

Up next is Michael’s ex girlfriend Sandy Lester (Payton Reilly), a whirlwind of neuroses and emotions as she clamors for acting roles, too. Her repeated “What’s Gonna Happen” theme song is a study in rapid fire words and feelings in a funny sort of jumble. Sandy is pursuing a role in a sequel to Romeo and Juliet, and she when isn’t cast, Michael decides to audition, too…in the persona of Dorothy Michaels, a good ol’Southern girl who speaks her mind and by golly don’t people start listening. He wins the role and influences a plot pivot and title change. Michael as Dorothy is admired and liked and heard…and is falling in love with his leading lady (Ashley Alexandra) who thinks Dorothy is her new mentor. But the cast dumb-as-a-post hunk Max (Lukas James Miller) is falling for Dorothy, too. What’s a girl/guy to do?

In between all this, there are lovely costumes (the ‘50s styles glam gorgeous billowy ball gowns), some wonderful choreography, and plenty of funny bits. There is some meat behind the plot, too: self-realization and the value of true friends and digging deep to do what’s right all will prevail. It was also great to see Ashley Alexandra in her leading role: she’s a full figured woman cast in a part that – in a less inclusive world – might have gone to someone else. Brava. What I didn’t love were the overly long pregnant pauses to milk the laughs for an extra beat or two.

This is the first national tour for the Tony Award-winning show and the cast projects a strong ensemble vibe. It was wonderful to see Kempf on this stage, after enjoying her outstanding work at MusicalFare Theatre’s Ragtime, and West Side Story.

The story may be ho-hum but the energy is high and overall it’s entertaining. And Shea’s, it’s just good to be home.

Tootsie runs a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission; it is onstage until October 16: visit sheas.org for details.

It’s a New Camelot at MusicalFare

“Camelot” at MusicalFare. Picture courtesy of the theatre.

Sometimes the simple joys of maidenhood are experienced in a comfortable theatre watching a classic piece of American musical theatre re-imagined on stage. Who thinks that? C’est moi, of course.

MusicalFare Theatre opened its 2021-22 season on a resonant high note with Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot taking a fresh new spin.  If the title conjures up imagines of President John F. Kennedy and his bride listening to the album with the voices of Richard Harris, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet (le sigh), fie on those 1960s memories! This re-imagined version still has all the chivalry, passion, and infidelity you love with a lively new beat and a more casual vibe.

Co-directors Carlos R.A. Jones and Victoria Perez set the show in a tropical setting, with a group of beachy-clad friends hanging out and putting on a show. Outside of Ex Calibur, swords became wood poles and shields are pieces of found driftwood. King Arthur’s crown was a fedora with a bird of paradise rising from the hat band. The call to battle was sounded from a seashell. Music director Theresa Quinn matched the mood with Latin and island rhythms for every tune.  Chris Cavanagh’s set was sandy-perfection, complete with a waterfall and a boardwalk. Camp shirts, neon rompers, and floral prints replaced armor and flowing chiffon gowns.  The whole effect was oddly reminiscent of early stagings of Godspell (without the clown clothes and street setting). It was fun and inviting after our 18 month intermission.

Jones and Perez couldn’t have found a better cast. Gabriella McKinley is stunning as Guenevere. Her voice is incredible: rich when she’s in her lower register and lilting and controlled when her soprano soars. Her duets with both King Arthur (Darryl Semira) and Lancelot (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez) are lovely and Quinn’s arrangements graciously accommodate the vocal shifts for each pairing. Semira’s King Arthur is disarming and charming, boyish at first glance and rooted and mature in both conviction and confusion. Gomez’s  take on Lancelot is earnest and his gentle passion in the role’s signature song “If Ever I Would Leave You” is beguilingly beautiful.  

The ensemble is fun, with gender-crossing double roles for every member. Arin Lee Dandes is at her best as the cunning Mordred. Every movement and stage cross is a dance and it’s so fun, you almost forget to despise Mordred’s scheming.

Jones and Perez created something very special; they asked us to suspend our memories of past stagings or the movie and see past those images. What if Camelot was created in a different space by different people? Does that make the musings and vision of a King any different? Quinn’s interpretations brought a  freshness to the score that was lovely to hear, too. Her band – Joe Donohue on guitar and violin, Jim Runfola on reeds, and Jim Linsner on drums – was just right and fine.

If you have any qualms about coming inside for theatre, MusicalFare diligently checked vaccine cards/Excelsior passes and required facemasks, there are no more physical tickets, and playbills are irksomely online only. Relax and escape to this most congenial spot.

Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is onstage now until October 15; the show runs a good two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets, playbill, and temptingly lovely videos are online at www.musicalfare.com.

A Sure Sign of Spring: Shea’s Announces Next Season’s Schedule

Shea’s Buffalo Theatre is going back to its roots as a movie house with the M&T Bank 2020-21 Broadway Series. Six of the seven mainstage offerings either began their lives on the silver screen or have already been made into films. Venerable producing partner Albert Nocciolino joined Shea’s  President  Michael G. Murphy to announce next year’s season at a subscriber’s event held Tuesday night.

An exciting kick off to the season – and another economic boon for Buffalo – are two national tours are launching on Shea’s stage. This also means that Shea’s will host the tech and stage crews for extended stays, with an estimated $3 million in regional economic impact for the region, says Murphy, along with creating work for local theatre technicians.  This is made possible by a New York State program that incents Broadway productions to launch from an upstate – in our case a Western New York – theatre, an opportunity enjoyed by our city coffers for five years.

The first of these productions is “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Richard Thomas, August 15-22. This is Aaron Sorkin’s script which was produced this season at the Kavinoky Theatre. Thomas – long remembered for his TV character John Boy Walton – will star as Atticus Finch.

Next up and the second national launch is the stage version of the 1982 comedy “Tootsie,” October 3-10. It’s the same fun story: an out of work actor wins roles when he dresses in drag, with a score written by David Yazbeck who also the score for “The Band’s Visit” coming to Shea’s this April, along with “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

The next movie on stage in “Pretty Woman The Musical,” where the hooker with a heart of gold wins over emotionally remote rich dude. All the scenes you loved in the 1990 movies are tied together with a score by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime song writing partner Jim Vallance.

The 2019 Tony award winning revival of “Oklahoma” is on stage January 26-31. The New York Times called it the “the coolest production of the year is from 1943” because of its inventive restaging of an American classic and the fresh arrangements of the lovely Rodgers and Hammerstein score.

Another classic,  the Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” follows March 23-28.

The season’s juke box musical is “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Life and Times of The Temptations,” dances on stage May 11 to 16.

Closing out the season is another hit from the snowy silvery screen, “Frozen,” June 16-27.

Two special engagements round out the season: “Hamilton” returns November 3-20. Season subscribers may opt to include this as part of their season; and “Dear Evan Hansen,” April 13-18.

Murphy also announced the new seasons for Shea’s other theatre properties.  For the third season, O’Connell & Company will be in residence at Shea’s Smith Theatre. This season begins with “Nunsensations A-Men,” January 8-17, followed by “SUDS: The Rocking ‘60s Musical Soap Opera,” March 5-14, and the return of “Betsy Carmichael’s BINGO PALACE, “ April 29-May 2. Also in residence at Shea’s Smith is Second Generation Theatre. This company’s season begins October 16 with the play “Constellations,”  until November 1, followed by Jason Robert Brown’s lush musical “Songs for a New World” February 5-21, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel adapted for stage “The Secret Garden,” May 21-June 6. 

At Shea’s 710 Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions will stage “Slow Food, “a comedy, September 10-27. MusicalFare Theatre follows with the musical “In the Heights,”December 3-20. The theatre collaborative All for One Theatre Productions (MusicalFare Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions, Irish Classical Theatre, Theatre of Youth) bring love and comedy to the stage with “Shakespeare in Love,”February 11-28. Irish Classical Theatre brings” Farinelli and the King,”a drama, to this stage April 8-18. Finally MusicalFare Theatre returns with the regional premiere of Kinky Boots, May 6-23.

Full descriptions and ticket information is online at www.sheas.org.

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Theatre Review: ‘Elf The Musical’ at MusicalFare Theatre

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The cast of “Elf The Musical” at MusicalFare Theatre. Photo by Doug Weyand.

MusicalFare Theatre’s production of Elf the Musical opened last night on the Daemen College campus. Elf the Musical, which has a book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan and a score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, is based on the popular Christmas film that starred Will Ferrell and Bob Newhart. The musical version of Elf had a short run on Broadway during the 2010 holiday season and it has toured the country several times since then.

. . . a joyous production  – musically solid, bright and cheery, and a great way to get into the spirit of the season.

Elf is a light-hearted fantasy. It’s the story of Buddy, a human who crawled into Santa’s bag when he was a baby. Buddy has been raised by elves in North Pole, but now that he is grown up, he decides to find his roots and he travels to New York City to meet his biological family. 

MusicalFare has knocked itself out with this colorful and energetic production!

There is a rollicking and right on the money combo of musicians directed by Theresa Quinn and they add much to the proceedings. Director Michael Walline has done a great job.The show is long, but my attention never flagged. This is a polished, complicated production and opening night was flawless. Mr. Walline choreography is cute and fun. There are lots of dances – I especially enjoyed the inventive opening number with the elves.

Chris J. Handley, looking like a cross between Danny Kaye and Harpo Marx, is fine in the demanding central role of Buddy the Elf. He runs the gamut from pixilated to amusing to soulful and, Mr. Handley gives such an exuberant, effervescent performance that I’d be surprised if he isn’t nominated for an Artie Award.

Buddy’s New York family, Jennifer Mysliwy, Johnny Kiener, and Louis Colaiacovo as the frequently frenzied father – offer able support and I especially enjoyed a rare quiet moment when the wife and son sang their letter to Santa “I Believe In You.” Stevie Jackson is the petite blonde object of Buddy’s affection and her solo is well performed and provides us with a much needed break from the holiday hoopla. Nick Lama is a very capable Santa, the narrator of the show, and Alex Watts packs a punch as an employee who is utterly captivated by Buddy.

There is a high spirited and talented small chorus, and they are kept very busy all night – singing, dancing, skating, tapping, and changing costumes. Backstage must be a madhouse! They are the hardest working chorus I’ve seen on stage in a long time!

The spiffy all-purpose scenery, complete with convenient cubby holes, by Chris Cavanagh enables set changes to be quick and fluid, and there is prodigious and effective use of back screen projections. Sound and lightning by Mr. Cavanagh are also first rate.

Kudos to Kari Drozd for the extensive costume collection with some real winners including the girls’ 1950’s style white and gold full skirts in the finale and, in contrast,  Ms. Mysliwy’s chic, flattering modern wardrobe.

My only quibble is with the script, not the production.  The plot meanders, and, outside of Buddy, we really don’t get to know any of the characters well or feel for them. There is no time for character development because there are so many production numbers. They are all well performed but, after a while, it’s too much of a good thing. It’s like eating 10 desserts! 

A word of warning – I would think twice about bringing the youngest family members to this show as they’d be exposed to the disillusioning sight of the disgruntled drunken Santas who open the second act. It’s a funny scene but not for those who still believe.

All in all, however, MusicalFare’s Elf the Musical is a joyous production  – musically solid, bright and cheery, and a great way to get into the spirit of the season.

Elf the Musical runs two hours and 40 minutes including a 15 minute intermission.

“Elf The Musical runs until December 22, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Late In The Evening: The World According To Paul Simon’ at MusicalFare Theatre

The cast of “Late In The Evening: The World According To Paul Simon” at MusicalFare Theatre.

You might have large expectations for “Late in the Evening,” a MusicalFare production based on the works of Paul Simon, if you are a fan of Simon the musician and songwriter.  And MusicalFare, with its cozy close proximity seating to the stage is a venue that holds even more promise.

. . .an absolute banquet for the eyes and ears. . .

And you might be justified.  Billed as a world premiere play pulled together from music of, arguably, one of America’s greatest songwriters of the modern era — the initial draw is there.  The music, that is, and how a catalog of songs spanning decades can be fit to a story of some unified account. And even if you don’t like Paul Simon, the upside, you know at least some of his tunes.

Expect to be introduced to some rarely heard songs from Simon’s catalog, some memorable gems, and some critically acclaimed hits.  Expect the rhythms of a devout and gifted band, the guitar and gravelly haunting voice of the main character, Duncan, sung by the accomplished and talented local musician, Zak Ward.  Expect some interpretive choreography by an experienced troupe, highlighted by lighting that is, at times, austere and vibrant to the ever-changing moods of the music. Expect a talented cast committed to this production and their craft.  

Just don’t expect a story to carry you along.  Michael Walline, who directs, choreographs, and by circumstance was tapped late in the creative process to craft the play’s premise, had his work cut out for him.  How to put one of popular music’s most inventive wordsmith’s to a singular narrative flow. Walline sets the story in the main character of Duncan, a homeless veteran who is taken on a journey through the back story of his life by a young boy.   Using pictures that the audience never sees, hung about the set, the boy (Noah Bielecki) gives them to the down and out Duncan, which prompts the songs into being.

The account of Duncan’s life, however, is never really apparent.  And the songs, at times, seem misplaced in trying to grab any narrative flow.  

At one point, midway through the first set, we’re presented with Duncan recalling apparently being drafted into the service with – oddly — the song “You Can Call Me Al,” which seems like trying to tie together a manuscript with a dried up rubber band – a stretch too far, and the thing snaps and scatters.  There’s more than one instance where this happens.

To be fair, the play, like most great music, is open to interpretation – purposefully so, on both accounts.  And a truly engaging performance, in this case by Dudney Joseph, Jr. as Al, softens the sting just a bit.

In Act Two, we’re taken on a piecemeal journey of Duncan through relationships with the women in his life good, bad, and indifferent.  These sequences are highlighted by truly stellar duets between Ward and Emily Prucha in “You’re The One” and Ward with Dominique Kempf in “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.   These and several other tunes through Act Two seem to bring a more narrative flow to the piece. Even if one or two break the flow, there’s more of a foothold helped along by even more stylized choreography and ambiance.   But is it enough.

Essentially, if you see MusicalFare’s Late in the Evening, you can expect an absolute banquet for the eyes and ears.  There are some beautifully rendered scenes, creative and at times surprising song renderings.   More than that, the production boasts stunning scenic and transitional moments of sound and light by designer Chris Cavanagh.   

You can also expect the promise of the expected — a vast array of Paul Simon songs that can be often about spirituality, longing, pain, joy, and humor.  It’s the nature of the beast for viewers to want to put such a presentation into a narrative context, after all, there’s a story here, somewhere, is the implied promise. Overall, to borrow a line from a Simon tune: it just don’t work out that way.

Whether there’s too much room left open to interpretation may not even matter, because you can decide to sit back and relax and enjoy the music, the affect of each, on its own, and the songs as they come at you, one at a time, for what they are individually – masterful interpretations.   

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

Late in the Evening: The World According to Paul Simon  is currently running through May 26, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre.  For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Ragtime’ at MusicalFare Theatre

The cast of “Ragtime” at MusicalFare Theatre. Photo by Michael Walline.

If you’re even a passive musical theater fan, you certainly know the phenomenon that is “Ragtime”. The production running at MusicalFare shows the unfortunate reality that I’m sure motivated the decision to stage it: we need “Ragtime,” now more than ever.

. . .we need “Ragtime,” now more than ever.

The original Broadway production garnered 12 Tony Award nominations, winning for Book, Score, Orchestrations, and of course Audra McDonald’s third Tony award in four years. In the opening number, we meet Father and Mother, who live in a symbolic and literal “house on a hill” with their son Edgar, Grandfather (Mother’s father), and her Younger Brother. Then, we meet Coalhouse Walker Jr., the darling of the Harlem musical renaissance called ragtime. Finally, we meet immigrant Tateh and his little girl, coming to the “land of opportunity.” The story evolves from there, a weaving narrative full of emotion written by some of the best in the business (Ahrens & Flaherty’s score and Terrence McNally’s book have long been my favorite in the MT canon).

MusicalFare’s intimate performance space presents challenges with a show “Ragtime’s” magnitude, but as usual Chris Cavanagh is not to be deterred. His set is creative and simple, making good use of the space. Director Randall Kramer has created a clear vision for this reduced ensemble production, but Michael Walline’s choreography breathes life into the vision. As mentioned, the ensemble in this production is significantly reduced from the original Broadway, and even the 2009 revival, though the design and aesthetic match closely with that revival. The smaller ensemble does not lack in vocal power, and the most poignant moment of the evening comes in the Act One finale “Til We Meet That Day,” especially due to the soaring vocals of Alexandria Watts. They’re a strength of this production.

The principals of this production carry the show as they should. MusicalFare regular (the usher behind me very loudly reminded me) Marc Sacco is terrific in the role of Father, a difficult role at that. Stevie Jackson lives in a world of vaudeville as Evelyn Nesbit. Ricky Needham’s tenor is clear as a bell as Younger Brother, and he conveys the tortured soul that is Younger Brother with ease. Lorenzo Shawn Parnell and Dominique Kempf are vocally proficient, but we miss some of the passion that would indicate their history. Particularly impressive, however, are the turns of Chrissy Vogric-Hunnell and Kyle Baran as Mother and Tateh, respectively. Vogric-Hunnell’s take on “Back to Before” is worth the wait to get to it; her voice soars without feeling forced or artificial, and she earned a well-deserved ovation afterwards. Baran is emotionally connected to the material in a way that immediately draws the audience’s eye, he’s in his element for certain. Charmagne Chi, as is frequently the case, steals the show as Emma Goldman, and that isn’t at all a criticism. If anything, she proves how fit she is for this profession.

But the flaw with this production (and perhaps I’m more critical due to my affinity for “Ragtime”) is the orchestra, or in this case the lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, the musicians are more than proficient. This score simply isn’t something you can justifiably reduce to two pianos and a percussionist and achieve the same effect. Many of the emotional moments in the show fall short without an orchestra. In addition, most of the tempos in this evening’s performance seemed rushed to the point of losing some of the acting moments. I lost out on one of the most powerful moments in the show, “Journey On,” because the trio of actors barely had time to get their phrases out. I’m not a musician by trade, and this is one man’s opinion, but the show seriously suffers due to lack of orchestra, more so than other MusicalFare productions with reduced orchestrations.

Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.

“Ragtime” runs until March 17, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.