First Look: ‘Moon Over Buffalo’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

The farce is one of the oldest forms of theatre. Mistaken identities, inconceivable situations, lots of door slamming, and deep belly laughs. Farces are shows that keep the audience on the edge of their seats in hysterics, and keep the actors out of breath. Over the top characters, lots of mugging, and breaking the fourth wall are very common in these types of shows. Luckily for audience members, the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild is mounting a farce that is sure to keep you laughing. “Moon Over Buffalo,” by Ken Ludwig, took Broadway by storm in 1993 when it premiered, bringing Carol Burnett back to the Great White Way.

“I was not aware of the show until I was asked to direct it,” laughs Gary Gaffney who is directing the production, “I love to direct comedy, so when I was asked to do it, I gave it a read and loved everything about it.”

The show tells the story of a traveling repertory theatre group who is visiting Buffalo, New York in the 50s, and who all believe that Frank Capra is coming to see their production to cast two leads in his next big motion picture. Timing couldn’t have been worse because whatever can go wrong does go wrong. An affair, an interesting coffee recipe, a deaf grandmother, a clueless fiance, and a scheduling mishap cause for a night at the theatre that none of the characters will ever forget.

“This show is challenging,” says Gaffney, “there is a ton of chaos that happens on stage that needs to be organized so that the audience thinks it’s chaos, but the actors are in full control.”

The rehearsal process is grueling, timing is everything. “With every comedy, the timing is one of the most important things, and we needed to make sure that every door slam, every comic bit, every line, was delivered to get as many laughs as possible,” says Gaffney. “I have a great group of actors who are working very hard.”

The show is sure to get laughs. ”The cast has some trouble keeping it together during rehearsal because the show is so funny,” says Gaffney. “I know the audience will feel the same way. They will be able to clear their worries away for a few hours and will probably have sour cheeks from laughing so much.”

“Moon Over Buffalo” opens March 15, 2019 and runs until March 31. It is presented at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild’s Ellicott Creek Playhouse (The former St Edmunds). For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Witness For The Prosecution’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

The cast of “Witness For The Prosecution” at NRTG.

Niagara Regional Theatre Guild, one of the oldest community theatre companies in New York State, is currently presenting the British courtroom drama, “Witness for the Prosecution” based on a story by Agatha Christie. The most famous version of “Witness for the Prosecution” was Billy Wilder’s 1957 film adaptation starring Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, and Charles Laughton. The play depicts a murder trial, and it is rich with twists and turns.The story was written almost 100 years ago, but it still has a very absorbing plot line.

Production values are solid. . .

This is a good choice of a play for community theatre companies as the cast size is large and there are lots of meaty character roles. Director Les Bailey has mounted an enjoyable and satisfying production.

Opening night there was a full house and this was impressive, considering the weather challenges we’ve had in WNY this week. I wonder how many other theatre companies in town could boast of having a full house this weekend! Patrons seated near me assured me that the houses were always full and that they consistently have a great time at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild productions. Indeed, the atmosphere was warm and friendly, and the whole audience was invited to the after party. Snacks are provided during intermissions with a basket for donations. The cast, in costume, stood outside the auditorium doors to thank the audience for attending. This is community theatre at its best!

Leading the cast is Paul Bene who is wonderfully imposing, both physically and vocally, as Sir Wilfred, the barrister. He is ably supported by handsome Ryan Morgan who plays the man accused of murder and Sarah Fratello who is appropriately implacable as his “cool as a cucumber” wife.

Other stand-outs in the company include the always masterful Michael Starzynski, Michael Breen as the stalwart Carter, and Michelle Holden as the physician. Ms. Holden’s British accent is impeccable, one of the evening’s best. Katherine Parker has a delightful turn as the Scottish housekeeper.

Production values are solid: sets by Bob Brady and Dan Zerpa, costumes by Nancy Watts, lights by Les Bailey, and sound by Katie Fitzgerald.

I’m quibbling now, but there were a few little things that could have been improved. Pacing and energy sagged at times – especially in the chambers scenes. I would have liked the judge to have a louder, more powerful gavel. Music could have helped to cover the complicated set change in Act III. And a more realistic wig for the Cockney lady, as well as a scar, would have added to the realism of that character. It would have been interesting to have a less relaxed, less naturalistic approach to the material and gone for a more stylized tone with film noir touches.

The audience had a thoroughly good time, however. Tickets prices are reasonable, parking is free, the parking lot is large, and the theatre has just made plans to install air conditioning for their springtime shows. Everyone is looking forward to the rest of the season — the comedy “Moon Over Buffalo” and the musical “Me and My Girl.”

Running time:  2 hours and 45 minutes with two brief intermissions.

“Witness For The Prosecution” runs until February 16, 2019 and is presented at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

The cast of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at NRTG.

Interactive theatre can go one of two ways. It can be exciting for the audience, or it can be terrible for the audience. Luckily, if it is done well, the audience will be able to connect with the material and will have a great experience, and that is exactly what happens with the current production at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

. . .a goofy good time.

Niagara Regional Theatre Guild continues their season lineup with the 1985 smash hit musical, with book, lyrics, and music by Rupert Holmes. The concept is based on Charles Dicken’s unfinished novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” where when he passed, he left no clue as to how the story would end, or what would come of the story’s protagonist. Holmes decided that the show would be decided by the audience and that they would vote on how the story would end, and who would be called the murderer, allowing each performance to end differently and be unique. Throwing in the Music Hall traditions of Dickens’ time, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is a goofy good time.

Overall, the actual story of the show is not very interesting. I actually found myself getting lost a few times, but the true entertaining portion of this production are the characters that the actors play when they aren’t telling the Drood story. The actor characters are full of life and excitement, greeting the audience as they entered and getting them ready for the evening at hand.

Leading the show as Mr. William Cartwright, the chairman of the Royale Music Hall, is Fran Newton who keeps the show rolling along nicely, getting plenty of laughs, and teasing the audience with one liners and puns. Newton does a fantastic job in this role, and you can tell that he is having a great time playing for the crowd.

Playing the villain of the piece, John Jasper and the actor Mr. Clive Paget, is John Panepinto, who takes on this part of getting booed and hissed at every time he enters the stage on the chin. He has great comedic chops and has a great mug that he uses to acknowledge the audience during his scenes. He is very entertaining to watch.

Carolyn Quigley takes on the role of Edwin Drood in the piece, along with the role of Miss Alice Nutting, the famous gentlemen impersonator. Quigley is just quirky enough to pull off this part and keep the audience entertained during the dry story of Edwin Drood. We might not always know what the Dicken’s story is about, but we do know that Quigley is going to make it very entertaining, and keeps us engaged.

Notable standouts in this production go to Chris Cummings as Durdles, the groundskeeper of a cemetery who is also the comic relief in this story, and Christopher Andreana as Bazzard who gets laughs from the moment the audience enters the theatre, all the way to the final bow. These two are hilarious and will keep the deep belly laughs coming all throughout the performance.

With the characters playing the actors and the characters they are portraying in the play within the play, I would have liked to see a greater differentiation between the Drood Story and the performer. Sometimes the two just meshed together and it took a few minutes for me to realize that the actors were speaking, and that the show was not happening. A sharper change would have really let the two stand out, but overall, the show was entertaining.

If you like a good whodunnit, then you need to get to the Ellicott Creek Playhouse to see NRTG’s fun and enjoyable production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” You won’t want to miss it!

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” runs until November 18, 2018 and is presented by NRTG at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

We hear every now and then of how a famous author died before they finished a work. Publishers scramble to get the rights and to see if there is a way that it can be finished so that they can capitalize on the projected profits. This is similar to what happened with Charles Dickens, who was working on his novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” when he passed away, without giving any hints at how he was thinking the book should end.

Rupert Holmes took this idea and ran with it, creating a musical murder mystery where the audience gets to choose how the story unravels and who the murderer is. It is a play within a  play. “The audience gets to vote on key questions throughout the show to pick how things happen,” says Fran Newton, who is directing the production. “The ending changes every night,” he laughs.

The Niagara Regional Theatre Guild is made up of volunteers, and like the Stratford Festival in Ontario, the company performs in numerous shows during the season, so that each production is balanced with talent and crew. “Volunteers help build the set and put in hundreds of hours throughout the season doing various tasks to help the theatre,” says Newton, “For those volunteers who put in the necessary hours, they are allowed to vote on one of the shows we will produce during the season. This show was their choice.” Newton goes on to say that they love this policy and it helps build excitement into the volunteer base.

This show is interactive, which means that the audience has a great deal of say on how the evening progresses. “The script has lots of notes on things that the writer suggests, like improv, or if the actors lose track of their lines, we have a character on stage who is the ‘stage manager’  and they can give them their lines. It is a pretty funny piece,” says Newton.

With every musical comes unique challenges, and this show is no different. “Because every actor could potentially be the killer at the end of the show, we needed to allow time for each actor to rehearse the closing song,” laughs Newton, “that was our biggest challenge. Making sure everyone got enough rehearsal time.” The actors literally know if they are the killer, minutes before the number starts. “There is very little time to get nervous, you just have to go with it.”

Newton continues to say that the music is haunting and there are plenty of fun numbers in this show.

Due to the fact that the audience is able to choose how the show progresses, there are over one-hundred potential endings for this production. “You could come see the show ten times and each time see a completely different show,” says Newton.

This show is one that also has some technical challenges. “We have a thrust stage in our theatre, and for this show we built a proscenium, and we also have some effects that we need to pull off that are really exciting to the technical team,” says Newton, “I love when a show excites everyone involved.”

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” opens on November 2, 2018 and is presented by Niagara Regional Theatre Guide at the Elliott Creek Playhouse. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Hello, Dolly!’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

When it comes to the traditional, bubbly musical comedy, the name Jerry Herman is one that usually comes to mind. Herman’s quirky music scores, and catchy tunes are ones keep his work in the vault of musical theatre for millions of theatergoers a year to enjoy. “Hello, Dolly!” is one of those crowd favorites. A campy story with fun songs that you hum to yourself on your way out of the theatre. Who can ask for more than that? Niagara Regional Theatre Guild kicks off their 2018-2019 season with a fun night out by performing an American classic.

. . .NRTG has a hit on their hands. . .

“Hello, Dolly!” tells the story of Dolly Levi (Dianna Kolek), a fast talking, con-woman, who has her eyes set on marrying one of the richest men in Yonkers, Horace Vandergelder (Marc Rufino), but in order to do it, she needs to manipulate his life, and the lives of those around him to make it all come true. Dolly is a larger than life presence that everyone falls in love with, but can she find love in the end?

NRTG takes on a monumental feat with this show, and does an admirable job. Bringing the community together to star in this show of love, loss, and adventure, director Joe Fratello assembles an enormous ensemble to help tell this story. When I say enormous, I mean enormous. The ensemble works to create great atmosphere in Dolly’s world, but I wonder if maybe a less is more approach could have also worked. There were so many people, and it didn’t seem to add or take away from the production.

Leading the show as Dolly is Dianna Kolek. Kolek takes this role and makes it entertaining, putting smilies on the faces of the audience. Mechanically speaking, Kolek is wonderful when she sings and performs, but there is just one thing missing, the exaggeration of Dolly’s larger than life personality. As a con-woman, and a fast talker, I was looking forward to seeing Dolly use her quick wit and quick tongue. Kolek does an admirable job, but this little push could have really brought her performance to the next level.

Marc Ruffino gets great laughs as Horace Vandergelder. Right from the get-go, Ruffino is a crowd favorite. His mannerisms, exaggeration, and stage presence is hilarious for this role, and he gets great response with the mugging that he does throughout the second act. Ruffino does not disappoint.

Two highlights in the show are the performances of Richard Plotkin and Angelo Heimowitz as Cornelius and Barnaby, respectfully. These two are the comedic relief and bring forth fantastic choices to get crowd response. They shine in the end of act one, in the scene in Mrs. Molloy’s Hat Shop as well as in act two when they take their dates to Harmonia Garden Restaurant and cannot pay for their meals. Hilarious performances by these two.

Ivan Docenko’s music direction is wonderful and the cast sounds great when they sing. There could have been a little more enthusiasm during the “Hello, Dolly” number from the chorus, but that is a small detail.

One thing that I need to mention are the scene transitions. Scene transitions are very difficult and very important to keep the audience engaged and the keep the story moving. There is room for improvement here, when the scenes change in the show. Some of the transitions are long, and these take me, as the viewer out, of the story. I am sure that these will tighten up as the show continues.

Overall, I really enjoyed this production, and I think that NRTG has a hit on their hands. I would encourage anyone to go see this hugely successful community effort.

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

“Hello, Dolly!” runs until September 30, 2018 and is presented by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Children of Eden’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

The cast of “Children of Eden” at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild.

“Children of Eden” is one of those rare shows that, despite being a massive commercial flop at the time of its inception, is still performed frequently today (curiously “Jesus Christ Superstar,” another show with heavy religious themes, also fits this description). Its Biblical content, family-friendliness, and need for a large cast of both children and adults makes it a favorite of community theatres and church groups today, despite its initial 1991 Royal Shakespeare Company production being so poorly-received that it never transferred to Broadway or the West End. Its author Stephen Shwartz is a theatre titan, having also written “Godspell,” “Pippin,” and “Wicked,” and whose mantle is adorned with Grammy, Tony, and Oscar statues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of these accolades are for “Children of Eden.”

. . .spectacular performances. . .

“Children of Eden” is a two-act musical whose first act tells the story of Genesis; specifically Adam (M. Joseph Fratello) and Eve (Amy Sturmer) in the Garden of Eden, with Act Two focusing on Noah (John Panepinto) and the flood. “Children of Eden” starts with the very beginning: the creation of the universe. Father (aka God, played by Adam English) breathes life into his children, Adam and Eve, and learns that the hardest part of being a loving Father is letting go. It’s a lesson that translates into the parenting of Cain (Chris Cummings), Abel (Lucas Smith), and Seth — and is reiterated once again as Noah parents his sons Shem (David Lewis), Ham (Dan Cycon), and Japheth (Dan Zerpa) in act two. The story explores the difficulty of choice, the importance of passion, the value of questioning, the hardships of fatherhood, and the pain in allowing those you love to take risks and face the consequences.

“Children of Eden” is an exceedingly odd piece of theatre, particularly the first act. The show fluctuates between the borderline cultiness of white-robed God (whom the characters simply refer to as “Father”) and incestuous Adam and Eve, to cartoonishly silly songs sung by a snake chorus. Particularly odd was how much the show’s authors deviated from original biblical text, such as making Adam and Eve siblings (which serves no purpose in the story, other than to add a thin veil of creepiness) and the circumstances surrounding why Cain killed Abel.  The author’s depiction of God as petty and a little condescending, rather than all-knowing, was another big head-scratcher.

The many shortcomings of this show aren’t a reflection of Niagara Regional Theatre Guild (NRTG)’s production and cast, which were actually quite good, particularly in Act Two. Panepinto (Noah), Kim Ehrenburg (Mama Noah), Zerpa (Japheth), and Cassandra Bigouette (Yonah) all gave spectacular performances, both acting and singing.  Vocal numbers “In Whatever Time We Have”, “Children of Eden”, and “The Hardest Part of Love” were beautifully performed. The show’s technical and lighting design was excellent, especially during Act One as Adam and Eve contemplated pulling fruit from the tree.

Bravo to this talented NRTG cast, who did as well as anyone could expect with such bizarre and lackluster source material.

Running Time:  2 hours and 40 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

“Children of Eden” is being presented by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse until May 20, 2018. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Present Laughter’ by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild at The Ellicott Creek Playhouse

The cast of “Present Laughter” by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild at Ellicott Creek Playhouse.

If you follow along a certain creek meandering through Tonawanda, you’ll eventually happen upon the Ellicott Creek Playhouse.  It stands to reason, then, you would be following along Ellicott Creek. The whole thing gives you a new appreciation for the folks who name things like creeks and playhouses.  The straight-up wisdom and simplicity of it.

. . .they have brought together a mix of some veteran players and relative newcomers to their stage to give us a straight-up engaging, at times hilarious comedy. . .

The Ellicott Creek Playhouse is home to Niagara Regional Theater Guild (NRTG) which, in one form or another, has been in the practice of theater for 95 years.  It stands to reason, then, they have been doing something right for a very long time. One of those somethings is that the venue as a whole is a just right mix of welcoming community space and practiced trades-people of theater.  And springing forth from that one-something comes the NRTG’s current offering of Noel Coward’s play, “Present Laughter.” You could say NRTG brings the wisdom of experience.

The straight-up simplicity of it – “Present Laughter” was written in the 1930’s and made it to the theater in the early 1940’s.  It has been produced and brought to stage many times since, in many venues, right up to the near present on Broadway. So “Present Laughter” must be a thing that can provide audiences with laughter in the present, whenever the present.  

The present is current.  And the play, set in the 1930’s, follows several days and evenings in the life of English actor Garry Essendine (Marc Ruffino).  Essendine is an actor full at heart, given to dramatic flights of fancy and impromptu quotes from parts he’s played and not played in his efforts to maintain his hold on, and tame the mayhem of, the stream of players that surround him.  It is a life in which he is the center. His hold is precarious at times, making the action a romp through the challenges to Essendine’s self-absorption.

The challenges come in the forms of his maid, butler, secretary, and ex-wife to name a several – all adding to Essendine’s dismay and playing off his dramatic discord.  With the entire ensemble, Ruffino juggles very well a charm, pinache, desperation, and contrived melancholy to create a very pleasing, funny, and a just short–of-over the top character.  He carries a fine mix of sensibility, physical-facial comedic recognition to bring the audience along. He brings the audience into Essendine’s plight, at times, almost talking to them, then turns and plays it with just enough pomposity to remind the audience that Essendine is at least partly the cause of his own dismay.

If Ruffino’s character keeps the challenges to his vanity from becoming mayhem, Brian Tabak’s rendering of the infatuated and oddly bookish playwright, Roland Maule, presents a character that paces and preens over Essendine like some mad cat in heat, to the audience’s delight.  He brings another level of mayhem. So raucously comical was Tabak’s initial scene that when his character came to appear again, the audience responded with a hushed, “Uh-oh.”

The plot is predicated on Essendine keeping his world of acting, ego, and self-admiration together.  His inner circle of hired hands and theater cohorts help him keep it alive, because they do need him.  But when the lovely Joanna Lyppiatt (Lori Panaro) enters to try and seduce him into a love quadrangle, it threatens all of it.  Because Essendine’s band of characters do care for each other, they are not just colleagues.

The exchanges between Panaro and Ruffino are as well-matched as the characters themselves, both knowing what is at stake but both confident in their own natures.  Panaro’s performance mixes a perfect amount of confident class while with an alluring, un-sweet portion of a self-assured manipulator.

You can probably look up exactly what happens if you wish, as it’s likely that a lot has been written about this play.  But this production, taking place in the present, and put forth by a group that’s been around longer than the play itself, is a far more enjoyable experience.  In fact, it’s at times hilarious farce, at times cleverly written, and each turn is well played.

The NRTG production lends itself to all of this in its welcoming, unassuming gathering of people, and space that lends itself to an intimacy with the players.  The stage is surrounded on three sides by audience seating. And the actors are most often just above, just below, or right at eye level with the audience — a treat with all the non-verbal antics that fill the lines of the script.  The set is nicely done with all the necessary props needed to support the action, and with some clear effort to giving the 1930s English studio a touch of realism.

NRTG has been at it a long time.   With its latest production, they have brought together a mix of some veteran players and relative newcomers to their stage to give us a straight-up engaging, at times hilarious comedy, and they do it in a welcoming setting for any comedy loving, theater going, creek meandering patrons to enjoy.

Running Time: Approximately 2 Hours 20 minutes with two brief intermissions.

“Present Laughter” runs through March 25, 2018 and is presented at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse. For  more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘All My Sons’ by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild at The Ellicott Creek Playhouse

The cast of “All My Sons” at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild.

Arthur Miller’s depiction of the American dream is one that not only aggravates me, but it is one that makes me wonder, what the heck Broadway audiences were excited to see live in 1947 when “All My Sons” opened. The story starts off so sweet and fun, and boy, does it get dark and dense pretty quickly. I realize that Miller liked to work in themes of real gritty lives, looking for the dramatic stories to share about troubled tainted pasts, but wow. There is no fluff in this show at all. And you know what? Just because his depiction of the human condition in the 40’s is a little rough, I still find myself entertained and drawn to his work. Is Arthur Miller one of my favorite playwrights? No. But the man knew how to grab you by the throat, and keep you entertained, and invested in his stories. That being said, the entertaining production of “All My Sons” produced by the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild, complements Miller’s work by providing a riveting and entertaining night at the theatre.

. . .complements Miller’s work by providing a riveting and entertaining night at the theatre.

“All My Sons” tells the story of the Keller family. Your typical suburban family. Friendly, hospitable, welcoming. This facade is greatly portrayed, but things start getting iffy when a storm  comes to town. I use this figuratively and metaphorically. A tree that was planted in the backyard, in honor of son Larry, falls down in a storm. Larry has been missing for three and a half years, and mother Kate (Kunji Rey) believes that he is coming home from the war. Joe (Michael Breen) and son Chris (Louie Viscose) are both in agreement that Larry is never coming back. Chris also has a motive in believing this, because he has fallen in love with Larry’s girl, Annie (Sarah Fratello) and wants to marry her. All is good with the world until Annie’s brother George (Angelo Heimowitz) returns to town and brings news of his father’s anger, for he has been in prison, serving time for a crime that Joe, may or may not have framed him for.

The drama in this piece is absolutely fantastic, and director Fran Newton does a wonderful job hammering out the beats, and keeping the audience engaged and ready for the next breath. The cast feeds off of each other’s energy, and while a few of the interchanges between characters seem forced, and the tension isn’t always built up to a powerful climax, the overall show is very enjoyable.

Leading the show as Joe Keller is Michael Breen, who does a wonderful job playing the patriarch. You love Breen’s character, and feel really upset at the end of act two when a pivotal story plot is revealed. Breen plays Keller as a human being, a damaged human being who is easily relatable to the audience, and also asks the audience to decide if what Joe did was just, or cowardly. He is fantastic to watch on stage.

Kungi Rey as Kate is a great choice. She plays the motherly figure in this piece well, and is a joy to watch work. She keeps the naivety alive through the show, and punches you with her actual understanding of the events that Joe may be be guilty of. She does a wonderful job.

Louie Visone and Sarah Fratello as Chris and Annie, respectfully, have wonderful chemistry and keep the story flowing nicely with their new blossoming romance. They trigger the meat of the story, and keep the audience guessing throughout the entire show. They contribute to the drama well.

Angelo Heimowitz as George is perfect. Heimowitz comes in, guns a blazing, and is ready to fight. His demeanor, and his desire for blood is wonderful for this drama, and even thought he is only on stage for the second act, his presence is not forgotten. He leaves you with his image, and understands how powerful good acting can be.

Overall, this production is one that really hit me. It is what good storytelling is all about. Granted, this show was close to two and half hours long, but at no point was I bored, tired, or ready to leave. The cast at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild does a wonderful job with this production. Go see this show!

Running Time: Approximately 2 Hours and 10 minutes, with two 10 minute intermissions.

“All My Sons” runs until February 11, 2018, is produced by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild, and is presented at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse. For more information, click here.