Sylvia Howls Along at Niagara University

I’m putting this right up front: “Sylvia” on stage at Niagara University’s William P. and Marie Leary Theatre in the Elizabeth Ann Clune Center for Theatre is a completely student run production.

NU’s theatre department is indeed the stuff of legends and I respect that. All our regional stages and beyond are all the better by having NU alumni engaged.

That in itself begs me to assess this production at a higher level.

The production itself is fine: A.R. Gurney (another local legend) penned this comedy in 1995 (set in the 1980s) and –regrettably – like many Gurney scripts, the intent  may stand the test of time, but most of the nuances date themselves by the end of its respective decade. Case in point: the Manhattan skyline backdrop includes the Twin Towers. A note in the playbill that place-sets the production would have helped give this context to the audience. Speaking of the playbill, it’s a tradition to include a bio of the playwright here: this one didn’t. Gurney is only mentioned in the director’s notes, and sadly, it’s a direct lift from a Wikipedia citation about the play. Seriously. Google “AR Gurney Sylvia” and the first hit is Wikipedia and this ‘quote’ is in the second paragraph. Note to director: dig deeper, please.

The small cast – a quartet of undergrads – do a fine job telling the story of a man in search of his midlife crisis, his career-focused wife, and the stray dog who comes between them. The fourth actor has a hoot of a time flipping between three characters who are male, female, and decidedly binary. Julia Miskines is adorable as Sylvia, cocking her head just so, frisking around, and using words as barks and whimpers to communicate her love for Greg, disdain for Kate, and her everyday doggy needs. She’s expressive and funny as heck. Andrew Salamone as Greg is fine in the role intended to be bland. Ditto Isabel Merkel as Kate the spurned-for-fur wife. Justin Durrett is Tom the pal from the dog park who later dons a dress as Phyllis Kate’s snooty friend (Sylvia gives a dog’s highest endorsement to this one), and Leslie the androgynous-by-design therapist.  This gives Durrett a nice stretch as an actor, particularly since he’s a mere freshman.  He’s the one to watch. The tech crew did fine work, costumes were spot on, and the over-all look of the show was just fine.

A major distraction was the use of stage crew as improv comedy devices. They roamed the stage to give it a soft opening, posing as dog wardens searching for a stray. They were mercifully not miced up, so their comments were sotto voce and limited. They had a loud cheering section in the audience; this peanut gallery whooped and hollered every time they performed their real tasks changing out set pieces. Yeah, I know; they’re students who want to support and appreciate their friends. And it was a Friday night on a college campus. But actors take their roles and their craft seriously; be there, be supportive, show appreciation, but carrying on like you’re at a little league game makes you an annoying audience member. 

Supporting student productions is essential to help build the next generation of artists: for that, I will keep going back.

Sylvia pants along for two hours with 15-minutes to take yourself for a walk. It runs for three performances on  Feb. 28-29; details at https://theatre.niagara.edu/shows/current-shows/show/198

Theatre Review: ‘Freaky Friday’ at Niagara University

Freaky Friday is one of those story people don’t realize they know. For my generation, the movie starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis brought the story to life. For this generation, we have the Kitt, Yorkey, and Carpenter tuner that starred Emma Hunton and Heidi Blickenstaff which became a Disney Channel Original Movie.

I feel badly about this, but my generation had a significantly better version. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have already won their Tonys, so if Freaky Friday doesn’t necessarily live up to the lyrical brilliance of Next to Normal, we can forgive them. The show is a little clunky despite numerous rewrites, but the Niagara University production is anything but.

It’s refreshing to see young actors play so honestly, and that’s what we have in this production. Director Steve Braddock and choreographer Terri Filips Vaughan have given the outlines, but they’ve left it up to the cast to color inside them. An expertly directed band by, sequestered down the hall, is directed by Dr. Bridget Moriarty. Both her musical ensemble and the ensemble on stage sound terrific.

As angst-ridden and misunderstood teen Ellie, Lindsey Pastuszynski ably illustrates the difficulties of being a modern-day teen. As her busy bread-winning mother Katherine, Sonia Angeli manages to keep the “plates all spinning” (that’s a Next to Normal reference). It’s when the infamous “switch” happens that these two performers shine. Both ladies are great in their roles, but Angeli in particular shines. The book is thoughtful enough that it gives Angeli’s character an emotional act two moment which she does not take lightly. It’s an incredibly mature and aware turn for her.

I’ve mentioned the strength of the ensemble, but the real standouts come by way of Caleb Paxton, Ricardo Garcia, and the young Teddy Hibbard. As Katherine’s soon-to-be-husband Mike, Paxton delivers a touching performance, particularly in Act One’s “Vows.” Garcia is a special surprise; I had the pleasure of his talented older brother Alex as a classmate. He brings a very human touch to the criminally underdeveloped Adam, Ellie’s love interest and the high school’s hero. He also brings a dynamite singing voice. Finally, Nichols eight-grader Teddy Hibbard is an unbelievable treat. He’s handling a very difficult role with ease, puppets and all. It’s a real pleasure to watch, and I’m sure he has a bright future in performing if he so chooses.

All in all, this is the type of show a college should tackle. It should, and I believe did, teach valuable lessons about bringing truth to performances while keeping the integrity and spirit of the script intact. Instead of ad-libbing lines they thought were funnier, or winking at the material for a cheap laugh, the entire cast as a whole chose to embrace the piece, warts and all. And that’s fitting, because the show has a similar message. So excuse me while I wipe the tears from my eyes; it may be cheesy sentimentalism, but this excellent Niagara University production of a slightly below excellent piece has heart and truth to spare.

Freaky Friday  runs until November 3, 2019 and is presented at Niagara University. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Firebugs – A learning-play without a lesson’ at Niagara University

Why would Gottlieb Biedermann allow arsonists to stay in his attic?   

Because Biedermann, with his eager desire to do good and help seemingly less fortunate souls can’t seem to see into those souls.  He’s philanthropic to a fault, at the edge of noble, the guy who’s accommodating to those less fortunate than his own middle-class self.  He ignores what seem the obvious truths. He’s not an altogether nice guy, but there’s a blind faith-guilt tugging at him that says he needs to be.  

Well intentioned though he is, Biedermann, played by Ashton DeCaro in Niagara University’s production of The Firebugs, possesses all of the needed characteristics of a person who would allow firebugs to live in his attic, and believe that it would turn out well.  He’s a well-meaning sort, and DeCaro touches the simplicities and intricacies of Biedermann in a charmingly flowing, matter-of-fact ease.  

What Biedermann is not is a subversive, yet there’s something engagingly subversive going on in The Firebugs.  With its frequent presence of a chorus of firefighters in the wings, warning us that that there is trouble on the horizon, the play treks forward through Biedermann’s series of bad moves. 

It’s the two would-be arsonists, a former wrestler and a former waiter, played by Tyler Olson and Andrew Salamone respectively, who are the ones bringing all the trouble to Biedermann’s house.  They come off as a pair down on their luck, so Biedermann allows them in. He’s his own worst enemy.  

But the pair of troublemakers have charm.  They’re friendly, worldly in their own ways, and seemingly amiable.  Salamone, plays his waiter/firebug with a captivating wickedness, the zeal of carnival barker with a smoke and mirrors edge.  But more than that, his persona is animated and purposefully funny, and not-so deceptively evil.  

So there’s that space between where you think: I get this, and then: No I don’t.  There’s allegory in that space, the unclear clues, faintly shone at both sides of the space, but not in a definitive this-thing or that-thing sort of light.  The choruses’ leader, played by Marley Judd, gives hints at what’s afoot, and where Beiderman is going wrong, what’s the matter with Biedermann’s decisions, signaling the impending woe.  Judd delivers her lead with the surety of a firefighter captain, knowingly experienced and dramatically convincing, amusingly attempting to warn us of an inescapable conclusion.

But while the answers to Biedermann’s folly might be in there, the play itself is even more animated, purposefully and amusingly unconventional like Biedermann’s actions, while at times surprisingly entertaining in its overall character.  Niagara University’s production aims to capture its playbill subtitle — “A learning-play without a lesson” – and it does so. Having been written in mid 1900’s, its apparent intent was a jab-like statement about a rising middle-class. But if there’s a “lesson” or statement being made, that’s a moving target at best.  The temptation may be to label the play a simple statement to a naïve middle-class to beware the flashy, deceptive hucksters. But that would not be full disclosure.    

As a “learning-play” it fits its billing to a tee, and it’s a success on every level.  It leaves you thinking a bit about its “lesson,” or lack thereof depending on your bent, and so you leave with a feel for the redeeming quality of the experience, and it’s the production itself.  Because what Niagara’s student cast and crew put on display this night was seemingly without troubles, not a single miscue, zero botches of any kind. A learning-play? Perhaps. And perhaps if there were any particular details of delivery or inflection or stage movement, that’s for the students and their instructors to work out.  None could be found from the environs of NU’s Leary Theatre.  

What was found was a dedicated, well-learned and enthusiastic cast and crew at every level.  It’s impressive execution on display — from the choruses’ flawless execution and pitch, to a stage with its pleasingly lit scheme and nicely crafted single set, to a group of both promising and already accomplished actors.  It seems the production could not have been more finely tuned and learned.  

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15 minute intermission.

“The Firebugs” is almost two hours minutes with its 15 minute intermission. It runs through Monday, October 7.  More information is at https://theatre.niagara.edu/shows/current-shows/show/193

Theatre Review: ‘Chicago’ at Niagara University Theatre

There are few musical movie adaptations that are better than “Chicago.” Despite being an incredibly high quality film with both critical and commercial success, it has made many people tougher critics of the stage show because it’s less glamorous. Fortunately, Niagara University Theatre’s sold-out production offers a worthy display of one of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s finest efforts.

. . .a thoroughly entertaining production. . .

The musical is based on a 1926 play by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about the crimes and criminals she reported on. While focusing on the idea of the “celebrity criminal,” the cast performs vaudeville-style numbers to choreography heavily inspired by Bob Fosse, who choreographed the original production.

The cast’s vocals stand out the most in this production. With many iconic tunes spread out among the leading roles, each one was performed with great conviction, diction and impressive belting.

Cassidy Kreuzer is a star-in-the-making. As Roxie Hart, she’s sassy, sexy and strong, bringing a lot of personality to a rather unlikable and occasionally dumbed down character. Her vocals, delivered through an incredibly animated face, are flawless.

Kayla McSorley carries the the darker role of the leading duo as Velma Kelly. While her vocals are stunning and her acting choices spot-on, her dancing had room for improvement, especially noticeable during the finale in a dance duet with the skilled Kreuzer. Despite that, McSorely delivers an entrancing performance of “All That Jazz” and shines alongside Kreuzer in “My Own Best Friend” and Ember Tate in “Class.”

Tate portrays Matron Mama Morton with intoxicating flair. She’s got a killer voice, showcasing her vocal chops from the moment she enters with a boa made of money in “When You’re Good to Mama.” Charles McGregor also delivers a great performance as the sleazy, selfish defense attorney Billy Flynn. His songs require some powerful notes and McGregor’s voice soared.

Other notable performances were Nicholas Edwards’ heartbreaking, innocent Amos Hart and C. Caso’s impressive Mary Sunshine.

Natalie Slipko’s choreography was well suited to the small stage and the talents of the ensemble, giving an appropriate amount of homage to Fosse without choreographing a carbon copy of the existing production. I especially enjoyed “We Both Reached for the Gun” and “Cell Block Tango” as dance numbers.

The only overwhelming criticism I had with the production is the costuming. While well-constructed and period appropriate, they were boring. Velma and Roxie donned a black and grey printed 20’s style dress in the same style as the ensemble women, whose were plain grey. In keeping with other professional productions, no one changed costumes until the end of the show, but the lack of excitement the outfits gave left me wanting some change. For a show that’s known to be dark and sexy, the simple dresses paired with the pants, shirts, vests and ties worn by the male ensemble left a lot to be desired and felt rather conservative given the choreography and style the show is known for. It’s function was okay for the production, but it feels like there was a missed opportunity here.

Vocally impressive and filled with Fosse, ‘Chicago’ is a thoroughly entertaining production anyone with a ticket is lucky to see. Thanks to a well cast troupe, it offers memorable performances by incredibly promising young talent.

Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.

“Chicago” runs through April 29, 2018 at Niagara University. For more information, click here.