“To the New Girl…” at New Phoenix Theatre

Sarah Emmerling as Elissa

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

And if that woman has your address  – physical or email – there’s a good chance you’re gonna hear from her.

Sharing pearls of personal wisdom between the about-to-be-ex and the trade-in is the premise behind To The New Girl from the Former Mrs. ___: Sound Advice for my husband’s new wife or mistress on stage now at the New Phoenix Theatre. Playwright and filmmaker Samantha Macher wrote the stage version in 2011 (she later adapted it to a film) with 10 different women actors delivering epistolary monologues. The one thing they all have in common:  they have something to say to the person who now is the proverbial apple of her husband’s eye.

Each monologue is a story onto itself and the actors range in age, marital (or not) commitment, and social status. Infidelity is the great equalizer here.

The staging is simple: maybe one or two set pieces are moved to a dark stage with as many props per scene. It’s stark which adds extra emphasis on the works and the delivery.

It starts off innocent enough, with even a bit a humor. Zoe (Jessie Miller) is a former internet dominatrix whose beau has an adult baby fetish (yup, he’s the baby) and she aghast that there’s another woman in town willing to play mama. Next up is Miriam (Kathleen Recchione), a Jewish grandmother whose husband announces at Seder that he’s starting over…with a Catholic woman. Bethany (Vanessa Shevat) is calculating as she is charming as she plans how to manage her televangelist husband’s fling with…a man. Davida Tolbert is Sheila, a woman who can’t bring a pregnancy to term who learns her husband’s  new interest gave birth to twins. Her anger fierce, her disappointment in her body is palpable, and she manages to land some of the only purely funny lines of the night (“I hope your baby is as fat as Oprah in the ‘90s…”).  Ciara Davie is Faye, the youngest of the team, whose ex is a felon holding her engagement ring hostage. Alexis (Kari Becker) is the wealthy social climber, who coldly tells her daughter’s nanny that her husband’s abuse is part of the gig. Karen (Kathryn Schneider) is the teacher who finds a former student is her husband’s new study buddy.  Melanie (Pandora Kew, also the co-producer) is completely enraged as she offers strong warnings to her replacement, as sheshares horrific details of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. Elissa (Sarah Emmerling) dons her bridal gown as she reflects on her husband’s admission of longing for his high school sweetheart. Mary Craig ends the show on wistful, bittersweet note as Give ‘Em Hell, Harriet, whose loving husband Harold lives his final days in a nursing home as his withering capacities direct him to a fellow patient.

It is an emotional roller coaster with 10 different highs and lows of heartbreak, disappointment, anger, and a twist of revenge planning, too.  With only a few minor quibbles (Elissa’s bed might have been angled differently and Karen’s story seemed a bit disjointed) , each actor does a solid job telling their character’s story, from Alexis’ frosty facts of privileged life  to Zoe’s kitten-with-a-switch outrage. It’s Kew and Craig who make you sit a little straighter in your seat. Kew is visibly trembling with anger from the moment her light comes up. Her jaw is tensed so tightly the words growl from her lips. Two scenes later, Craig is tender and loving as her memory is fading from her husband’s mind. They were married 57 years (58 in August), she says, and as he turns his affection to someone else, he is still her great love. This was the perfect way to end this often biting and bitter show. Sometimes love shouldn’t, couldn’t fade away, even in the ultimate betrayal.

Permit me one minor rant here: I love everything there is about WNY theatre, from big to small, Theatre District across town to the ‘burbs. All live theatre is good (even when it’s not) and deserves support and engagement. That’s my main reason for volunteering as a reviewer (I’m the first to admit I’m not the theatrical authority, I’m just a Buffalo gal who wants to encourage others to support local theatre). It’s not lost on me that the house at New Phoenix was pretty light in its second weekend, while a few blocks east, another theatre was packed and enjoying a stunningly presented fantasy about two other less than real women. There is room for fantasy and reality in life and on stage. It’s my hope that the fantasy seekers also make the time and allocate personal resources to see locally produced shows, too, whether it is another musical, drama or comedy.  Rant over.

“To the New Girl…” runs a tight 90 minutes with no intermission until October 3. Visit www.newphoenixtheatre.com for details and tickets.

First Look: ‘Annapurna’ at New Phoenix Theatre

Michael Lodick left a legacy to Buffalo’s theatre community in many ways. Before he passed away last year, he added another regional premiere to the New Phoenix Theatre season.

“Annapurna,” the dramedy by Sharr White, opens on Friday, April 26. Lodick selected the show and cast it before his untimely death, and was to direct it, too. “He was such an eclectic, eccentric and weird person,” said his friend and New Phoenix executive director Richard Lambert. “It’s his good instincts and his seeing out what isn’t readily available or popular, with an eye toward making something popular and understandable. That was him.” This season is dedicated to Lodick’s memory.

Lodick cast Lisa Ludwig and John Profeta for the two-person cast: Terry Kimmel will direct. “Megan Mullalley played the role on Broadway ,” Lambert said. “Lisa is perfect for this. She’s acerbic yet sweet and funny, exactly right.”

“Annapurna” is the story of a couple, 20 years divorced. The wife comes back to challenge her husband and to discuss their child who he hasn’t seen in 20 years.  The couple has to come to terms with their past in order to move on. Lambert says the show is quite dark and actually very funny.

Putting this show in this season and the carefully selected cast – always a challenge for a two-hander that’s dialogue-heavy – has Lodick’s handprint all over it.  When it comes to casting a show, Lodick’s instincts and choices were solid, even though it’s speculative art. Lambert said, “You rely on other people’s talents to make it a draw.   It’s always a crapshoot when you’re putting a season together. “

In “Annapurna,” it’s the force of personality in the characters that build the story. It’s a plot based on their interaction as a family 20 years ago, with unresolved conflict. Lambert said, “Both characters have a heart. They’re articulate and smart and caring, and they had their past differences. Now their present situation is different.”

In the end, it’s a leap of faith – along with trusting your gut and knowing your audience – that the show and casting you select will deliver the production you expect. “Every element of the theatre is a gift, “ said Lambert. “You’re lucky to cast a play and find the cast and the director that makes it work. It’s a lot of baby gifts wrapped up in a big box.”

But Lambert paused as he reflected on the work that Lodick prepared for this season and “Annapurna” in particular, and said, “But I think this one is going to work.”

“Annapurna” opens April 26 and runs over four weekends to May 18. Visit www.newphoenixtheatre.org for details and tickets.

Theatre Review: ‘That Championship Season’ at New Phoenix Theatre

The cast of “That Championship Season” at New Phoenix Theatre.

Friday night, I went to the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park to see their production of Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, “That Championship Season.”

This is a drama that takes place in small town America in the 1970’s or 1980’s. Middle aged men, members of a winning basketball team when they were in high school, have a reunion with their coach. The lives of these men have taken surprising twists and turns since their high school days. Their god has always been winning – whatever the cost – and they’ve paid a high price as they’ve tried to travel the road to success.

. . .a tight production with a uniformly strong cast and excellent direction.

The acting ensemble is top notch with Richard Lambert as a slimy politician, John Kreuzer as a mealy school principal, and Victor Morales as a narcissistic business tycoon. Greg Natale is amusingly inventive and frighteningly realistic as an active alcoholic. And Mark Donahue is a force of nature. He blasts onto the stage like a hurricane and gives a wonderfully dynamic performance as their coach.

There’s first class direction by Kelli Bocock-Natale. The pace is brisk with breathless emotional highs and lows, and our attention never flags. There are a couple of stage punches that could use more oomph, but this is quibbling. Ms. Bocock-Natale is one of WNYs best stage directors and the production rests easily in her capable hands.

Production values are solid. Chris Wilson has wisely designed an unusual two-sided set that keeps the audience close to the action. Costumes are by Matt Gilbert; lights and sound are by Chris Cavanaugh.

Several times during the evening, actors smoke onstage. Audience members who are sensitive to cigarette smoke, might want to bring an inhaler or sit in the back row.

My main challenge is with the play itself. I know that it has won multiple awards and, in the early 1970’s, when this play was first produced, many people still had an idealized view about small town America and so “That Championship Season,” with the character’s rough language and extremely offensive put downs of women and minorities, was a real eye opener. Today we’re, unfortunately, all too clear about the widespread bigotry throughout our country, and so I’m not sure what a present day audience is supposed to take away from this play. Yes, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia are timely topics, but the play offers no insights or hope.

That being said, this is a tight production with a uniformly strong cast and excellent direction.

Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including two intermissions.

“That Championship Season” runs until April 7, 2018, and is presented at New Phoenix Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Way Back When’ at New Pheonix Theatre

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Jon Summers and David Lundy in “Way Back When” at New Phoenix Theatre.

New Phoenix Theatre  has quite the interesting and intimate performance space. It’s full of color and warmth, inviting each audience member into a whatever setting the current production demands. For this month’s “Way Back When,” a selection of one-act plays, that setting is a heavenly home above the clouds, a vibrant garden and an earthy cabin, providing the backdrop to three simple yet lighthearted and humorous stories.

. . .a delightful, faith-filled escape to the theater.

Betsy Bittar directs these productions of Grant Golden’s “Creation” and “Way Back When” and Rebecca Ritchie’s “In the Beginning.” Thanks to a strong quartet of actors, each play is progressively more entertaining than the last and, most notably, provides a deeper questioning of one’s faith.

“Creation” tells the story of God’s creation of Earth through his time home with his wife (aptly named “Mrs. God”) and their differing opinions on what makes a good planet. “In the Beginning,” a more Earthbound tale, showcases Eve after Adam’s death as documentary filmmakers are shooting a movie about his life. An encounter with his long-forgotten first wife, Lillith, makes for a very fresh take on the traditional story and seems to have an effect on Eve’s perspective on life. The evening closes with “Way Back When,” telling the tale of God testing Abraham’s faith.

David Lundy portrays God in two of these pieces, bringing a relatable and humorous take to a commonly divine figure, especially in moments when he brags to his wife about creating a new planet and naming the most ferocious creature (a T-Rex) after himself. Lundy’s use of typical husband stereotypes work well against the idea of God as a holier than thou figure and is a strong character throughout the evening.

Pamela Rose Mangus takes on two strong women, Mrs. God and Lillith, and boy, she does not disappoint. Tasked with having to differentiate two very opinionated women, she balances the delights and frustrations of being Mrs. God against Lillith’s cynical, darker demeanor with great ease.

Kathleen Rooney plays both Eve and Abraham’s wife Sarah, but it is her performance in the former that is a standout of the night. Rooney’s Eve visibly transforms as she begins to question her role in the creation of the world alongside her husband and brought a lot of depth to what the Bible depicts as a fairly two-dimensional character.

Rounding out the quartet is Jon Summers, who was quite the surprise as Abraham after a fairly kitschy debut as Jacob, Eve’s documentarian. He’s able to change clothing and character quickly, giving a very honest performance as a man forced to question his faith when asked to kill his son.

John F. Kennedy designed a simple yet effective set which worked well in the confines of the theater space, especially considering it was used for three plays.

“Way Back When” is a delightful, faith-filled escape to the theater. These four talented actors will surely warm you up during this chilly winter.

Running time: 2 hours including two 10-minute intermissions.

“Way Back When” plays through at February 24th at New Phoenix Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: “Cinderella” at New Phoenix Theatre

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The cast of “Cinderella” at New Phoenix Theatre.

It’s not often that we are treated to new original works in the Buffalo theatre community. Sure, every once in a while a new original show pops up, but we are fans of our classics and contemporary shows by seasoned playwrights. When a new original show emerges, it is always exciting to see the work grow and see the actors and creative team build a new theatrical experience. This is currently happening at New Phoenix Theatre, where they are working on a fresh and contemporary adaptation of “Cinderella.”

“This has been a fun process,” says Kelli Bocock-Natale, artistic director of New Phoenix Theatre, who also adapted, conceived, and directs the show. “The cast has brought forth great effort and they have helped shape the show. I’m really excited about it.”

For those who may have been living under a rock for the last, million years, “Cinderella” is the original rags to riches story of a girl who asks her Fairy Godmother to go to the Prince’s Ball. When Cinderella arrives at the Ball, she meets the handsome prince who falls in love with her. After having to leave the Ball before midnight, the Prince misses his chance to find Cinderella, and must look throughout the town to find the new love of his life.

Bocock-Natale wrote an adaptation of “Cinderella” in grad school as a project, aiming the show toward children. “I brought the script in, and through the rehearsal process it has grown. I took things I liked from other adaptations, and incorporated them into this one. I have a talented cast of nine actors who all tell this huge story. This is an ensemble piece, and all the actors contributed to create the new content in the show,” says Bocock-Natale.

Bocock-Natale says that she wanted to take the tale and throw in a few modern twists. “We don’t have your average Prince Charming. Our cast is very diverse. We simplified the story, but the entire tale is there.”

When it comes to creating a new adaptation of a story that so many are familiar with, it is important to make it unique. “Our show is very physical, when it comes to the comedy,” says Bocock-Natale, “Many of the actors play many parts in the show to tell the story. This is definitely not a Disney version.”

Not being a Disney version is not to be a red flag, Bocock-Natale says that this show is going to appeal to both children and adults. “We have something for everyone. I think everyone is going to enjoy the way we tell the story. In these times, it is good to see a show that you can enjoy with your family.”

“Cinderella” opens on November 17 and runs until December 16, 2017. It is presented at New Phoenix Theatre in Buffalo. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo

Theatre Review: ‘My Old Lady’ at New Phoenix Theatre

Pictured left to right: Eileen Dugan, Anne Gayley and Richard Lambert in ‘My Old Lady’ at New Phoenix Theatre.

If you’ve followed my reviews for the last few seasons, you will know that I am a huge advocate of a good story. A good story is really the foundation that is needed to make a show memorable and enjoyable. You can have the world’s best actors, but when you have a story that no one can relate to, the entire theatre experience can be destroyed. Luckily, in New Phoenix Theatre’s opening production of the 2017-2018 season, ‘My Old Lady,’ audiences are treated to a story that is touching, funny, interesting, and most importantly, entertaining.

. . .wonderful acting and brilliant storytelling. . .Do yourself a favor, go see this show!

“My Old Lady” written by Israel Horovitz, tells the story of Mathias (Richard Lambert) who, after his father died, was bequeathed an apartment in Paris. Mathias is an unpublished author who literally has no money to his name. His plan? Go to Paris, flip the apartment, and go back to New York. His plan is foiled when it is revealed that the apartment has a pair of residents, Chloe Girard (Eileen Dugan) and her mother Mathilde Girard (Anne Gayley). They don’t have a desire to leave because of an agreement Mathias’ father made with Mathilde, which stated that he would pay for her rent and apartment fees until she dies. She’s 92. As time passes, Mathias finds the truth of the agreement, and must decide what is more important, money, or love.

The New Phoenix production of ‘My Old Lady’ is refreshing and extremely enjoyable. Director Michael Lodick mounts a production that engrosses the audience in a study of the human condition. The story moves, and you are instantly interested in the characters and have no trouble relating to them. The story might be a little far fetched, but your suspension of disbelief is fully enacted during this wonderful evening of entertainment.

Richard Lambert leads the show as Mathias. Lambert does a terrific job bringing the pain of his character’s past to the stage, but complements it with amazing comic relief. While some of Lambert’s character traits are depressing looking for. Lambert gives an entertaining performance that does not disappoint.

Anne Gayley brings a powerful performance to the stage as Mathilde. Gayley takes on the role of a saucy little old lady, and the audience instantly loves her. Her storytelling is fantastic, and her comedic chops are sharp. She is a joy to watch.

And finally, Eileen Dugan plays the role of Chloe. Dugan takes on the role of the overly protective daughter in this piece, and pulls out all the stops in doing so. Her chemistry with Gayley on stage is fantastic, but the tension that she builds with Lambert is really what makes this story build. She does a wonderful job in this role.

I must point out the effect set design by Chris Wilson. The set gives us just enough detail to be active theatre goers, and allows for us to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

Out of everything in the production, my only concern was the rather long scene changes, but this is a small price to pay to see wonderful acting and brilliant storytelling taking place. New Phoenix starts their season off on a high note. Do yourself a favor, go see this show!

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15 Minute Intermission.

“My Old Lady” runs until October 7, 2017 and is presented at New Phoenix Theatre on the Park in Buffalo. For more information, click here.

 

First Look: ‘My Old Lady’ at New Phoenix Theatre

When it comes to Buffalo, it is not uncommon to hear ‘there is always a Buffalo connection.’ It probably has to do with the fact that Buffalo is one large living room. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone has a story as to how they know, or once knew, everyone. Buffalo in general has this unique way of casting a spell over it’s residents and making sure that there is a sense of pride about being from here and knowing your fellow neighbors. When it comes to the theatre community of Buffalo, it is one smaller living room. Relationships are made and last a long time because the community is so strong. This can be said for the nearly thirty theatre companies that mount productions annually in the city. One company, that has been mounting productions for over the last two decades, is New Phoenix Theatre.

“It is our twenty-two year anniversary season,’ says Richard Lambert, the executive director of New Phoenix Theatre, “we are celebrating a home-coming and welcoming back many people in the theatre community who got their start here.”

They kick off their first show of the 2017-2018 season, “My Old Lady” by Isreal Horowitz. “We wanted to go back to the beginning of where we started, says Lambert, “we are excited to have Anne Gayley and Eileen Dugan back on stage, both of whom starred in the first show here.” Lambert is referring to the New Phoenix’s inaugural production of “Keely and Du” in 1996.

Director Michael Lodick says that he was looking for a play that would be a good fit to bring Gayley back to the New Phoenix stage. “Anne is the Maggie Smith of Buffalo, and when I read this script, I knew it was right for her.”

“I had watched a film called, “My Old Lady,” says Lodick, “and in the credits it said that it was based on Isreal Horovitz’s stage play. I knew that this story was one that I wanted to explore.”

“My Old Lady” tells the story of a man who is bequeathed an apartment in Paris, but who finds that he must live there with an elderly woman who has lived there for many decades.

This is Lodick’s directorial debut at the theatre. His work with the company is primarily as a set designer. “This is a great joy to be directing here,” says Lodick, “I love the space as a designer. I love the space from the audience standpoint, and it is a great privilege to be working with Anne, Eileen  and Richard on this stage.”

“My Old Lady” is just one of many regional premieres this season in Buffalo. “All families and extended families have different versions of history, and those results when discussed are monumental. Three characters in the show think they know the past, but they really don’t,” says Lodick, who adds that the show has many relatable elements that audiences will be able to connect with. “We all know our own particular truths.”

“My Old Lady” opens on September 15, 2017 and runs until October 7, 2017. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance of Buffalo.

Theatre Review: ‘Kalamazoo’ at New Phoenix Theatre

Marc-Jon Filippone as Irv and Betsy Bittar as Peg in ‘Kalamazoo’ onstage at The New Phoenix Theatre.

“Love is lovelier the second time around,” according to lyricist Sammy Cahn. I was humming this timeless Jimmy Van Heusen tune in my head and thinking about Cahn’s words while watching The New Phoenix Theatre’s final production, – “Kalamazoo” – to close its 21st season.

” ‘Kalamazoo’ will win your heart with its uplifting message and poignant reminder that we’re never too old to fall in love, start over, and be engaged in the life you didn’t expect.”

Finding love in our golden years is the basis of this sweet and funny two-hander starring Betsy Bittar as Peg and Marc-Jon Filippone, two unlikely matches who meet through a video dating service. Peg admits straight up that she loves birds, and twitters on (in the old fashioned way) about her delight in birdwatching.  She dreams of visiting a bird sanctuary in Kalamazoo (“doesn’t it sound like a magical place?” she wonders).  She’s widowed, mother of five girls, and a practicing Catholic, down to volunteering at Bingo night. Irving lost his beloved wife Rosie to cancer and – at the urging of his son David and his husband Robert – is looking to get out there again.  He says he’d like to meet a shiksa. Peg doesn’t want to meet a Jew.  Her sentences are sprinkled with malaprops. He’s pretty direct. Somehow the service connects them, and there they are, in a Mexican restaurant sipping from a giant margarita glass. They banter, they share, they almost flirt before they bicker a bit. Irv is blunt: sex perhaps?, as good girl Peg is adament with all the passion her Baltimore Catechism upbringing taught her. Yet the next scene finds them waking up together in a Holiday Inn. In the same bed. With vague memories of dancing, sharing the worm from the tequila bottle (“it’s like Lady and the Tramp with tequila,” swooned Peg) and other more permanent reminders of a wild-for-the-middle-aged-night. Oy. But something isn’t right. Maybe they aren’t ready to move forward after all?

Or are they? Their next date is a day at the beach with amateur metal detectors, cruising for lost coins and bits o’metal.  A found ring leads to a hurried proposal of sorts, and wedding plans that just seem too….planned.  Just when you think the story is about to go all cliché, there’s the break out scene, where Peg and Irv show their fears at starting over, and perhaps losing that special connection to their beloved first spouses. It takes courage to be that vulnerable again, and Filippone and Bittar have a good time letting us know that it’s OK to hate the process of aging and still love life’s journey, too.

Director Sheila McCarthy lets the strength of her actors and the simplicity of the script shine. The minimalist set is the perfect backdrop for Sam Crystal’s array of props and Kelli Bocock-Natale’s versatile costume choices. I mean, who wouldn’t wear a sombrero on a first date to a Mexican restaurant? That tiny detail is a great glimpse into Peg’s character:  a little out there and earnest to the core, just as Irv’s sweater vest is practical and classic.

‘Kalamazoo’ will win your heart with its uplifting message and poignant reminder that we’re never too old to fall in love, start over, and be engaged in the life you didn’t expect. Or as Irv said, “life is abundant, and you’re never too old to be young again.”

Running Time: 90 Minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

“Kalamazoo” runs until May 27, 2017 and is presented at New Phoenix Theatre in Buffalo. For more information, click here.