Love, Linda at MusicalFare is Wunderbar

In brief: It’s de-lovely.

That made-up contraction by the inimitable Cole Porter is the perfect way to describe “Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter,” on stage at MusicalFare Theatre  to July 18.

Debbie Pappas gracefully commands the stunning set with her elegant portrayal of Linda Lee Thomas Porter, Porter’s wife of 35 years,where she tells her story in words and selections from her husband’s songbook.  Pappas  is every inch the Art Deco-era social maven, in a satiny, sparkly gown, triple strand of pearls, Revlon red lipstick and just-so curled bob.  But oh it’s the music, whimsical (and sometimes plaintive) words, and her magnificent voice that make this experience so special. That’s what this show is: an experience where for an hour and five minutes, you’re immersed in a salon of storytelling and song in a period appropriate atmosphere.

The narrative is woven around the songs with compelling simplicity. Unlike the typical musical where the songs advance the storyline, the song selections – representing all parts of the Porter canon – mesh with her story in surprising ways.  For example, she speaks of her husband’s homosexuality and his dalliances with a forthright and gentle hand, punctuated by “Let’s Be Buddies,” written for “Anything Goes.” Perhaps a bit wistful  and not as jovial as the lyrics portend, it’s a poignant moment with a smile and a heart full of love.  

The narrative hits the high (and low) notes of their marriage, their social circle, mutual love for Paris, her disdain for Hollywood, and his passion for the good life. It’s the music, that glorious music, with familiar tunes like “I Love Paris,” “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine” and a dozen more that is so grand. Theresa Quinn is behind the screen at the piano and her interpretation is lush as ever.  Nick Corallo on drums is fun, albeit sometimes a distraction in the softer moments.  Pappas’ voice is clear and powerful in each number, giving each song its own distinct tone and mood.

Chris Cavanagh created a beautiful set that’s reminiscent of a circa 1920 parlor. Images of Porter and production handbills fill two screens. The sisters Drozd – Kari and Susan – nail the attire and the look. Director Norman Sham is working with pure gold from the team to the material with his Wunderbar real-life wife. As the song says, “C’est Magnifique.”

“Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter” runs an hour and five minutes with no intermission, to July 18. COVID protocols are in place and the audience seating is thoughtfully spaced. Visit for tickets. It’s so good to be back.


‘Cookin’ at the Cookery’ at Musicalfare

Ember Tate and Zoe Scruggs in ‘Cookin at the Cookery.’ Photo by Bethany Burrows.

The more I see musical revues, the more I really enjoy the style. Cookin’ at the Cookery, playing at MusicalFare through March 8th, is no exception.

I wasn’t really familiar with Alberta Hunter going into the show, and shame on me for saying so. She’s a Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Hall of Fame member, began performing in her early teens in Chicago after leaving Memphis to become a singer. After almost twenty years away, she came back and began a residency at the Cookery.

The show is told through vignettes, with Zoe Scruggs playing “adult” Alberta and also Alberta’s mother, while Ember Tate plays “young” Alberta and a slew of other characters. The Albertas share the narrative duties, as George Caldwell’s magnificent band carries the audience through the story.

To say that Scruggs is a little young to play 82-year-old Alberta Hunter is an obvious understatement, and yet, for 2 hours I believed every second. Scruggs is rare in her vocal prowess, she’s truly a jazz singer and handles the material and persona with ease. Her comedic timing is also excellent, and the sparse audience by MusicalFare’s standards were nonetheless engaged immediately. Tate has a difficult job to her role, as she portrays a very young Alberta. While Tate’s other characters are magnificent (including an unbelievable Louis Armstrong) and her turn as Hunter on a USO tour stops the show (Hunter would be proud), I found she took a little time to settle in to her portrayal of Hunter as a child.

A few line flubs did nothing to take away from the sheer magnitude of the stage presence of these two women, telling an important story about a truly remarkable woman. Without being overtly politic, I felt queasy listening to Scruggs as Hunter describe the perils of the pre-Civil Rights South and recognizing just how little we’ve learned. An especially poignant line comes when Scruggs and Tate co-narrate about segregation and make a statement about just seeing people as people, regardless of race.

Here’s where I get on my soapbox; I mentioned the sparsely attended performance because Buffalo audiences as a whole have a habit of only attending shows where there is “title recognition.” Not enough people witnessed these incredible performances Wednesday evening, and it’s disappointing. Support this production, which is MusicalFare at its best. Support local theater as much as you clamor to get Shea’s tickets or go see all the Oscar nominated movies. There are so many local companies to choose from, and its a shame to see even a single empty seat at MusicalFare’s astounding production of Cookin at the Cookery, running through March 8th.

For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘West Side Story’ at MusicalFare Theatre

The cast of “West Side Story” at MusicalFare. Photo by Doug Weyand.

“West Side Story” is about as timeless as a musical can get. A romantic score with classic songs, dreamy ballet sequences and a story about star-crossed lovers and their warring families. When you start stripping away some of the more traditional theatrical elements of the musical, like a bare-bones set and smaller orchestra, it forces the audience to sit in the discomfort and heartbreak of the story. 

MusicalFare kicked off its 30th season with its relatively stripped-down production, utilizing their intimate space to expose the violence, racial tension and raw emotion that runs in the veins of this story. Chris Kelly directed the cast of 20, working with Victoria Pérez, co-founder and Artistic Director of Raíces Theatre Company, to ensure cultural authenticity throughout the show, including the movement and casting of the Sharks. 

. . .Real and raw . . .

We’re immediately thrust into a high energy modern dance sequence to meet the Jets and the Sharks and their respective leaders, Riff (Matthew DeVita) and Bernardo (Alejandro Gabriél Gómez). The rising tension between the groups only escalates when Tony (Ricky Needham), a former Jet and Riff’s best friend, arrives at the local dance and only has eyes for the captivating Maria (Dominique Kempf), Bernardo’s sister.

Needham has the voice of an angel. He soars during “Maria,” singing with such delicious vibrato and strength at the top of his range that you’ll swoon in your seat and wish you were the Maria he’s singing about. His tenderness in certain moments with Kempf’s beautiful Maria was lovely, especially in their ballet duet leading into the “Somewhere” sequence. 

Kempf shined as Maria, excelling most in expressing Maria’s naiveté as she tries to navigate new feelings of love for Tony amidst a world that wants to separate them.

Blaise Mercedes is the firecracker Anita – Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend. She commands the stage with a unbelievable spark, strutting in Kari Drozd’s best costumes in the show and showing off a sexy, powerful voice, which shines in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” and sends a chill down your spine when the Jets corner her in Doc’s store. The only flaw from opening night was her microphone, which went out during most of “America.” She nailed the performance visually, but backed by an otherwise welcome addition of percussive instruments to the orchestra, she was nearly impossible to hear.

The energetic young cast was full of standout characters, especially the hilarious Rheanna Gallego as Anybodys and the powerful Brendan Didio as Action. Bobby Cooke and Philip Farugia, the latter of which served as musical director, did well doubling as the adult characters in moments of levity and gravity.

Lynne Koscielniak’s set design did the limited space well, with a distressed brick alley and chain link fencing serving as every backdrop and bare dress mannequins and milk crates as various props and furniture. Chris Cavanagh’s lighting shined especially brightly on the set during the “Somewhere” sequence.

While some of the risks MusicalFare took with its season opener, like the set and some of the staging, paid off, others fell flat. There were a few times when the uneven numbers between the Jets and the Sharks members felt too unbalanced to go unnoticed (we’re talking 6-7 Jets vs. 4 Sharks at times). Additionally, with the exception of “America,” the small orchestra that MusicalFare audiences are accustomed to simply can’t live up to the full potential that Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score is known for. Additionally, while Nancy Hughes’ choreography, and Bobby Cooke’s additional choreography hits high notes in “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” I missed some of the more predictable dance choices that I expected from a show that is well-known for boys doing ballet in Converse sneakers.

All in all, MusicalFare’s “West Side Story” is raw and real. The vibrant and talented cast will surely entertain you; just don’t leave home without a tissue or two. 

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 35 minutes including a 15 minute intermission

“West Side Story” runs through October 6 at MusicalDare Theatre in Amherst. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘First Date’ at MusicalFare Theatre

The cast of “First Date” at MusicalFare Theatre. Photo by Chris Cavanagh.

I’ll jump right into it: the world of the modern musical is CRAZY. It’s not easy to compete with “Hamilton,” or “Dear Evan Hansen,” or even “Hadestown.” When “First Date” appeared on the scene in 2013, it had to fight with new shows like “Beautiful” and “Bridges of Madison County” as well as shows that had gained momentum like “Matilda” and “Kinky Boots.” I’m only mentioning this because it wasn’t easy from the get-go for “First Date,” which featured “Chuck” star Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez (whose popularity was sky-high because of Smash). It ran 34 previews and 174 performances. I don’t like to make a review a criticism of the material itself (because cutting or editing is a violation of the license agreement) but this musical struggles, and not even an excellent production at MusicalFare can combat its weaknesses. As I mention script or score flaws below, please don’t say “I guess we shouldn’t see it.” Say instead “let’s see what happens when a company comes together and produces a flawed work” because, after all, humanity is flawed.

. . .an excellent production. . .

On paper, it seems like the perfect show for MusicalFare’s intimate space, and in several ways it is. Chris Cavanagh’s unit set is creative and impressive while practical. The show is licensed in a small cast format, which means that ensemble members Kevin Kennedy, Dudney Joseph Jr., and Dominique Kempf are working overtime. It provides leading vehicles for MusicalFare regulars Michele Marie Roberts and Marc Sacco, whose unbelievable chemistry stemming from years of friendship is put to wonderful use in this production. 

As I mentioned, Roberts and Sacco take on these roles with aplomb. They breathe as much truth and life into a hackneyed libretto as is humanly possible. The mostly boring score has highlights and MAN does this cast take advantage of them when they come. “Safer” is a song I’ve heard a couple of times at auditions; it’s a wonderful ballad about why Casey (Roberts) is a self-saboteur. Roberts’ rendition is A++, pitting her outward strength against her inner self-doubt. Sacco, too, sings about a note he found from his mother in “In Love With You.” The rest of the show is riddled with interjections of various stereotypical characters singing novelty songs, and yet something about the performances from Kennedy, Joseph Jr., and Kempf make them ring a little truer. Joseph Jr., in particular, stops the show with “I’d Order Love.” Much of the credit goes to Doug Weyand for directing the reality out of these moments and choreographing them carefully. They work in the little world of this piece, and Weyand doesn’t shy away from their camp.

Here’s the thing about “First Date,” and in particular this production. It doesn’t always have to be “Dear Evan Hansen.” Sometimes, it can be a nice pop musical about two people in a situation many if not all of us have experienced: a first date. 

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

“First Date” runs until August 11, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Fun Home’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of “Fun Home.” Photo by Jesse Sloier.

If you want to quickly check this review to see if you should see “Fun Home” presented by Musicalfare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre, the answer is not only should you…you MUST.

. . .[a] must-see production. . .

Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron adapted Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel to create “Fun Home.” The Broadway production took home five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Direction of a Musical (Sam Gold). As Alison’s father Bruce, Michael Cerveris won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. The show is a modern memory play, narrated by 43-year old Alison and detailing her life journey, coming to terms with her sexuality just as her father struggles with his own complicated feelings.

I criticized Musicalfare’s production of “Ragtime” earlier this year for lack of orchestra, but this production of “Fun Home” has no trace of that flaw in it. A delightful 7-piece orchestra under the command of Musical Director Theresa Quinn plays the Tesori score to perfection, and that’s not a word I use lightly. She and director Susan Drozd have assembled a team of Broadway caliber actors; Drozd’s work here might fly under the radar because the structure of the show works so well on its own, but she is to be commended. Every moment has driving forward momentum and makes excellent use of the unique space at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Musicalfare’s cast is so good it’s almost unbelievable. Carrying most of the show’s load as the “present day” Alison, WNY transplant Robyn Lee Horn just flat out gets it. She understands Bechdel’s sense of style, sometimes interjecting a one-liner to lighten a mood, sometimes presenting the tragic moments of the tragicomedy by stating them simply. And yet, in the musical number “Telephone Wire” towards the end of the show, she shows an unbelievable range of emotion. As she stands observing Chris J. Handley’s master class “Edges of the World,” we watch her experience the turbulent moment ourselves, as she stands in the aisle.

I mention Handley’s performance in “Edges of the World” because it’s the culmination of an expertly crafted performance. Thank goodness In addition to his role as Associate Artistic Director at Alleyway Theater, he’s the head of Theatre School of WNY and imparting his exquisite technique to young actors in the area. I’m a big Cerveris fan, but I found Handley’s performance as Bruce to be even more captivating. The audience feels every challenge Bruce faces, and his penchant for honest delivery makes for an incredible performance.

Medium Alison, the manifestation of Alison’s college self, is here played with ease by Renee Landrigan. Landrigan is one of Buffalo’s most versatile actors, and she, Horn, and Young Alison (Jane Hereth) have obviously spent some serious time working to unify their mannerisms. Landrigan embarks on self-discovery with a delightful optimism, aided by her college girlfriend Joan (played ably in this production by LauRen Alaimo).

Hereth’s performance as Young Alison has a strength well beyond her years. It’s an extremely difficult role, vocally and in terms of acting, but Hereth has no trouble. 710 is a HUGE space for a young actress to fill, but Hereth’s “Ring of Keys” fills it no problem. As her brothers, Joseph Bielecki and Jasper Brown make the best of their limited stage time. Brown is especially excellent, though it’s in his blood (his mother is also a Buffalo actress and successful singer-songwriter, and his grandfather Music Directed Ring of Fire in the same auditorium when it was Studio Arena).

Rounding out the cast is Steve Copps, who moves character to character with ease. He’s an essential function of the storytelling and doesn’t make too much or too little of each moment.

The must-see production only runs through May 19th, so get your tickets now.

Run time: 1 hr 40 with no intermission

“Fun Home” runs until May 19, 2019, is produced by MusicalFare Theatre and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre

Some nights are worth re-living again and again. Like December 4, 1956, the night four on-their-way-to-being-musical legends came together to make some music in the Sun Music recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Yes, you’re a witness to history, because this is the night Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins jammed at the place that launched their careers

Get there by March 31, and prepare to love it. . .

That’s the premise behind “Million Dollar Quartet,” initially produced by MusicalFare Theatre in 2017 for its Amherst mainstage, and now MusicalFare brought it downtown to Shea’s 710 Theatre.

And that’s the story. This is a music show, peppered with a little storytelling and some 1956 asides, you’re here to hear the hits and this cast doesn’t disappoint. The actual night 62 years ago lasted more than four hours: Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux who wrote the book based on Mutrux’s concept, condensed it down to under two hours with 23 hits. While it’s short on dialogue (you won’t miss it, trust me)  pay attention because there’s a little music and social history shared in real time.

With a couple exceptions, this is the same extraordinary cast from MusicalFare’s 2017 production. Jeffrey Coyle is star-maker and Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. Coyle’s take on Phillips is the perfect combination of loveable lug and shrewd businessman, and he’s a hoot to watch as he bops around the stage.

Brandon Barry reprises his role as Carl Perkins, posturing great guitar licks against his disappointment-based anger with Elvis Presley whose cover of “Blue Suede Shoes” eclipsed his original release in the ears of listeners. (Side note: Perkins’ version was released a month before Presley’s, soared  to #2 and spent 21 weeks on the music charts, while Presley’s cover only topped out at 20 with as many weeks on the charts. It was that night on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” however, that turned this into an Elvis signature song.) Barry’s got the playing chops and the right vibe to portray Perkins, the father of rockabilly, whose impact on music was tremendous but is more often overlooked.

The tall, dark, brooding swagger of Johnny Cash lives in Andrew J. Reimers’ performance. Close your eyes and listen: his vocal line in “Peace in the Valley” is like goin’ to church and then he swings back with a fierce “Folsom Prison Blues.” There’s tenderness in his “I Walk the Line,” a love song to his first wife, his first country hit that crossed over to the pop charts, too.

It’s the brash upstart Jerry Lee Lewis that tries to grab that night in the studio, and it’s Joseph Donohue III who makes it so on stage. The wild mop of hair and flashy red shoes are only the set up to his wildfire piano playing. He’s a maniac force on stage, too, sitting on the edge of the piano bench and pulling the piano back in place as it threatens to skid away from his fast-flying-fingers, with a whole lot of braggin’ going on, too.

Nick Stevens assumes the Elvis Presley role: Steve Copps who nailed the look, the sound, the swivel hips and curled lip in 2017, is up the street in Second Generation Theatre’s production of “Angels in America.” Stevens did a decent job of crooning the hits, but his overall performance was less dynamic.

Arianne Davidow is the (fictitious) lady in the studio, Dyanne, who arrived on the arm of Elvis, and she smokes up the stage with her sultry cover of “Fever.” She’s a sassy voice of reason, too, and shares some quiet wisdom with Coyle, almost like a conscience on stage.

Dave Siegfried and Brian McMahon round out the cast as the drummer and stand up bass player. They lay down the back beat and land a few good deadpan moments, too, just like a back up band should. And it’s so good to hear an actual trapset again, in this day of electronic drums.

This is one of the better jukebox musicals, and 710’s intimate venue emphasizes the goodness of it all. Chris Cavanagh tweaked Chris Schenk’s original set to fit the 710 stage and it certainly feels ‘50s enough, down to the vintage microphones.  Cavanagh’s lightening and sound worked, save for a couple opening night glitches and an audible hum for several minutes mid-show. Susan Drozd’s costumes and wigs were dead on, down to Dyanne’s platinum curls.

Producer/director Randy Kramer and Music Director Theresa Quinn brought out the best of this  cast to create a fun night of theatre. Get there by March 31, and prepare to love it, because as Sam Phillips said, “It really was such a night.”

Running Time: 2 Hours with no intermission.

“Million Dollar Quartet” runs until March 31, 2019 and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here. 

Theatre Review: Ken Ludwig’s ‘Baskerville’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre


The cast of Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” a Sherlock Holmes Mystery, at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Who says a time-honored literary work has to be a serious drama on stage? No one. Ever.

Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville”  A Sherlock Holmes (Comic) Mystery , produced by MusicalFare, is onstage now at Shea’s 710 Theatre and it’s a flat out hoot. You know you’re in for a treat when two performances are added to the run long before opening night.  Yes, it’s that funny.

. . .a flat out hoot.

It’s the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story with Holmes (masterfully played by Todd Benzin) playing it straight as the master solver of all crimes. Holmes and faithful companion Dr. Watson (Chris J. Handley) are told of a frightening series of events on the foggy moors. A creature with a resonant howl and giant footprints is scaring the bejeebers out of the locals, according to Dr. Mortimer, one of several roles played by Marc Sacco, who also shares the sad Baskerville saga. So the investigation begins. While Holmes and Watson are on the prowl, it’s Sacco and castmates Patrick Cameron and Maria Droz who morph in and out of more than three dozen characters. This is the real show within the show. With a flip of cap a man becomes a woman. Doff the dress and you’re a Castilian hotel desk clerk (the lisp and the accent are a stitch). It’s flurry of wigs, hats, props, and costumes that fly on and off, sometimes on stage in a sleight of hand that’s magical to watch.

Kari Drozd and Susan Drozd must have had a blast wrangling all these bits and pieces. The cast sure had a frenetically good time getting dressed, undressed, and over-dressed. This is a really physical show, too, full of funny details. Watch as Maria Droz flies a bird at a propitious moment and as Patrick Cameron  – as a deceased Baskervillian – flips his dead body over.

Lynn Koscielniak’s set is simple and strangely effective. There’s a mysterious black box effect downstage and a series of moveable risers that function as set pieces throughout. The whole house is really part of the set as actors roam the theatre and lights and smog follow. The black stage and white crisscrosses (metaphors for the web of deceit, perhaps) are mesmerizing, as are the Holmes quotes scripted across the floor. Don’t be too curious: even after the performance ends, if you step on stage to piece together the words, you’ll be reminded to exit.

“Baskerville” is one wild romp of fast paced fun and frolic. The slow steady pace of Benzin, the soft-sell sidekick of Handley, and zaniness of this uber-talented cast make this a night to howl at the theatre. Hang on to your deerstalker and catch this show before  May 19!

Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission.

Advisory:  Black lights and strobe lights are used.  

Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville” A Sherlock Holmes Mystery runs until May 19, 2018, is produced by MusicalFare Theatre, and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.