“Art” on Stage at O’Connell & Company

It’s so good to finally write these words after the longest intermission ever: welcome to a new theatre season, Western New York.

O’Connell & Company started the season with a surprise: a comedy and not the typical musical. “Art” was written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton. It was first performed in London and Broadway in the 1990s.

This three-hander has a curious plot: Serge (played by John Kreuzer) buys a pricey modern painting. It’s a tone on tone canvas which could easily be named” Polar Bears in a Blizzard Eating Marshmallows.” His friend Marc (Rolando M. Gomez ) doesn’t get it: to him, it looks like a “white piece of $hit” and he can’t get past his friend’s attraction to it. The third friend, Yvan (Joey Bucheker) tries to mediate his two friends’ verbal battle on this canvas, which later spirals into deeper conflicts.  Ah, but Yvan has his own drama-within-the-comedy: he’s about to be married and is also adapting to a career change, too.

Director Victoria Perez uses some clever and attractive stage devices at the very beginning and end of this one-act piece.  Here the characters shares their point of view in monologues in front of a projected white rectangle of light between the soft-focused muted floods of color.  It does just what it needs to do to direct your focus.

Between the effecti ve beginning and end motiffs, there’s a long and rather loud middle section that is mostly progressively higher pitched yelling. The barbs fly as Marc and Serge drag the canvas and their friendship through the mud. Regrettably their vocal pitch keeps rising, too, almost to the level of hausfrau chick-fighting. It’s easy to lose focus here and forget the bickering buddies are supposed to be professional men of means having an emotional and intense (and metaphorical) discussion.  The frenetic energy leads to a well-staged fist fight that felt almost too slapstick:  ratcheting down the shrill screeching might have brought more tension to this moment.

It’s the painting itself that helps settle the riff: Serge demonstrates his friendship and Marc steps up, too, in a surprising moment that would make any art collector shudder.  

There were a couple opening night distractions. An intermittent buzz in the audio will need to be worked out and there were a few dropped lines here and there that were artfully covered by this veteran trio. Costuming and set design (I didn’t understand that it was supposed to flip between three apartments until I read the playbill) were functional but not commanding: the painting itself (by artist Sara Jo Kukulka) and creative lighting by Reuben Julius grabbed attention.

O’Connell & Company has all the right protocol in place for making patrons feel comfortable coming back inside, including an online playbill. Executive artistic director Mary Kate O’Connell’s onstage greeting is verbal hug and ‘welcome home’ that we’ve been waiting for.

“Art” runs 90 minutes with no intermission until September 19.  Click here for details.

‘Nunsense: A-Men!’ at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The musical comedy ‘Nunsense: A- Men!’ is at the Smith Theatre weekends through February 2. This is an O’Connell & Company production. ‘Nunsense A-men!’ is the original ‘Nunsense’ show with all the characters portrayed by male actors, instead of the usual female actors.

The original ‘Nunsense’ is a musical by Dan Goggin that opened off-Broadway in 1985 and ran for over 3,000 performances – making it the second longest running off-Broadway show in history. Only ‘The Fantasticks’ had a longer run. ‘Nunsense’ is so wildly popular that there have been six sequel shows and five spin-offs. The different versions have been performed in 26 languages with thousands of performances world wide.

As in all the ‘Nunsense’ shows, the storyline is slight and goofy, but the tunes are bouncy and the lyrics are wickedly funny. The thin plot is about a small band of nuns in Hoboken, New Jersey who are putting on a musical review to raise the money to bury four sisters who are currently in the freezer! Poison stew, leprosy, and a production of ‘Grease’ all come into play. Don’t worry about the story – just sit back and enjoy!

Director Mary Kate O’Connell has mounted a pleasant, seamless production. Incidentally, Ms. O’Connell was the very first person to play the Reverend Mother in ‘Nunsense’ here in WNY – starting a long tradition in our community of revivals and sequels of the show. O’Connell & Company break the fourth wall many times and they have thrown in a healthy dose of audience participation. Ad libs  are okay, too, and it all adds to the merriment of the production.

The cast of five are all strong musical theatre performers and, as much as possible, they are playing it straight. This is not campy – it’s Nunsense and the actors happen to be male, not female.

Michael Starzynski is primly commanding as the mother superior until the end of the first act when she is flying high – that’s when Mr. Starzynski has a chance to let loose and he really shines! Free Willy!

As Reverend Mother’s ambitious assistant, Jake Hayes gives a peppy, good-natured performance. He leads the finale with great energy and gave the cheering audience a rocking good time.

The rank-and-files nuns are also solid. Daniel Lendzian is a powerhouse as starstruck, streetwise Sr. Robert Anne. Nick Lama is appropriately sweet and vacant as Sr. Mary Amnesia and his crackerjack  puppetry is one of the highlights of the show. Joey Bucheker is ebullient as the Donna McKechnie of the convent. His performance is topped off with an impressive tour jete on toe shoes! 

There is spritely choreography by Mr. Bucheker and all the production values – including the set by Bill Baldwin and lights by Kimberly Pukay are fine. The top notch musical direction and keyboard accompaniment is by Joe Isgar and Robert Mazierski on the drums.

Once in a while, the dialogue is a bit risqué, but this is essentially a family show for preteens on up.

‘Nunsense A -Men!’ is a solid and entertaining production that is sure to warm your heart on a cold January night.

The show runs 2 hours including intermission.

‘Nunsense: A-Men!’ runs until February 2, 2020, and is presented at Shea’s Smith Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Memories and Martinis’ at O’Connell & Company

Anyone who grew up loving music and stories and plays will admit to the same truth: their bedroom was a theatre, their bed was a stage, stuffed toys and dolls were members of the audience, and heartfelt solos were sung into hairbrushes.  For Mary Kate O’Connell, these early days spent singing, dancing, and acting with her beloved sister Patti became the roots of her career and the foundation of ‘Memories and Martinis,’ her first cabaret show onstage at O’Connell & Company.

. . .a delight. . .

Yes, it’s her first cabaret (not counting the ensemble piece ‘ DIVA by DIVA: A Celebration of Women’ which she writes and produces  and is now in its 17th season) show that reflects on her life, both on stage and off. With her dear friend and musical director Chuck Basil and her dog Rosy sharing the stage, it’s all Mary Kate, her warmth, her wit, and her stories. Very fitting – and maybe a bit surprising – that she opens the show with a Beatles classic, “In My Life.”  It’s poignant and a perfect place to start a life ‘til now story.

She takes you back to her family’s North Buffalo home and her bedroom productions with Patti, and the bond they shared as the youngest (and only girls) in a house full of five older brothers. Patti, “my best birthday present ever,” Mary Kate says wistfully, recalling the day her parents put baby Patti into Mary Kate’s arms and she was allowed to stay home from school to meet her only sister.

She reflects on loving the movies and music of Doris Day, and meeting Rosemary Clooney, and her first trips to New York City with her parents and sister, having dropped the boys off at West Point along the way, and the rush of her first Broadway show and seeing Carol Channing on stage.  Fast forward to 1971 and her teen years, getting her first pair of blue jeans and listening to Carole King’s album ‘Tapestry.’ From there it was time to launch her professional career, doing theatre in downtown Buffalo, meeting Buffalo big band leader Irv Shire and songwriter son David Shire.

There are plenty of stories like that in this show, some universal reflections, and some that are deeply personal. You feel the love she has for the family she was born to and the families she creates within the context of her work. You see their faces, too, on the walls of the set Matt Myers designed.

She and Basil have great rapport on stage, and his accompaniment is a glorious constant, sometimes barely there as a cozy music bed. He is a tremendous talent and he lends his voice to some fine tunes, memorably the Donald O’Connor track to “You’re Just in Love” from ‘Call Me Madam.’

Rosy, Mary Kate’s miniature poodle and constant companion is at her side  – and sometimes in her arms – throughout the show. Dressed in sparkling canine couture, Rosy dozes and wiggles and whimpers at times and it’s hard not to love someone so darn cute. She has her own story, as a 2.6 lb rescue who came to Mary Kate needing nurturing and a home.

Each performance has a guest friend who joins Mary Kate on stage: Annie de Fazio, a cast member from ‘1776’ was there for night two to swap some stories. I would have loved to hear a song or a duet.

Myers’ set design is simple, almost like the walls of a family room, with plenty of photos of Mary Kate’s family and friends, a stunning baby grand piano, a couple of stools and a bar for the martini glasses (her first one was over lunch with Buffalo’s grande dame of theatre, Blossom Cohan, who said a dry martini with three olives on the side was like lunch, another tale from Mary Kate’s canon). There are framed quotes on the wall, too, an homage to her late mother the quote-a-holic and a reflection of her DIVA by DIVA scripts.

Also on stage – but never mentioned – was a collection of awards. Several Artie Awards (one from just this year, for O’Connell & Company’s all-female production of ‘1776’), Arts Council awards, and Mary Kate’s Athena  Award from a few years back. Because when you’re the real deal and you live your life as an exemplar, you don’t need to come out and talk about it.

‘Memories & Martinis’ is a delight of a show. With plenty of heart, lots of music and stories,lots of laughs, and just a few tears, it’s gentle and sweet with a whole lot of heart, like Mary Kate herself.

Running Time: 2 hours with a 10-minute intermission,

“Memories and Martinis runs through June 23, 2019 and is presented at O’Connell & Company. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company

The cast of ‘1776’ at O’Connell & Company.

“Hamilton” may be the buzzy American origin story that everyone has been talking about since its premiere in 2015, but did you know that a different—albeit much less flashy—musical forged that path almost 50 years earlier? While “political procedural with the occasional chorus line” might be a more accurate description than “musical” for “1776,” it undeniably gets O.G status when it comes to Broadway depictions of the founding fathers. “1776” doesn’t have “Hamilton’s” cannons and rap battles, but O’Connell & Company found a different way to infuse this dusty, decades-old musical with life: cast it with all women.

. . .a unique, fresh take. . .

“1776,” the 1969 musical by Sherman Edwards and by Peter Stone, is a large ensemble show featuring all of the founding fathers you’ve heard of–and likely some that you haven’t–as they toil over many months to craft a Declaration of Independence that appeases the varied priorities and interests of delegates from all across the 13 colonies; particularly, whether or not to continue the practice of slavery. The show is largely seen through the eyes of John Adams (Pamela Rose Mangus) as he struggles to persuade his colleagues to vote for independence.

If you talked to 100 theatre lovers, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find more than one or two who would name “1776” as their favorite musical; I certainly wouldn’t be one of them. For a musical there’s shockingly little music (it actually holds the record for the longest time in a musical without a single note of music played or sung – over thirty minutes pass between “The Lees of Old Virginia” and “But Mr. Adams”, the next song in the show). There’s not a great deal of romance, action, or even meaningful conflict between the delegates. Truthfully, it’s more-or-less three hours of voting. But given how dull the source material is, O’Connell & Company manages to squeeze laughter from the audience through well-honed individual character development and comedic timing from this cast of talented women.

All 21 women in this production of “1776” bring a unique, fresh take to their as-written male character. From Edward Rutledge (Emily Yancey), the syrupy southern gentleman from South Carolina, to the Pennsylvania firebrand John Dickinson (Mary Craig), it’s easily evident that each member of this cast took the time to research their character, develop relevant mannerisms, and distinguish themselves from their fellow delegates, avoiding the common pitfall of less-talented “1776” casts: not enough deliniage between characters.

It also helps that, rather than 21 crusty old white dudes who all look and sound the same (as is often the case with lesser-quality productions), this cast of “1776” features a cohort of witty, sharp, diverse women who breathe some life into the show. While they’re all great, Pamela Rose Mangus’ John Adams and Mary Kate O’Connell’s Benjamin Franklin are standouts, both frequently eliciting raucous laughter from the audience and getting lost in the peculiarities of their characters.

While “1776” is one of the less musical musicals out there, this production features talented singers who excel at both the large ensemble numbers like “Sit Down, John”, as well as the slower ballads such as “Till Then.” They’re aided by an economically-sized on-stage orchestra that also sounds quite good.

I had the interesting experience of being in the audience for this production of “1776” exactly 24 hours after seeing “Hamilton” at the Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, and while they’re vastly different musicals with little more than their historical time period in common, it’s refreshing to see such bold, artistic, and progressive spins put on the story of America’s founding. And while not exactly an edge-of-your-seat thriller, O’Connell & Company’s production of “1776” is funny, features a talented cast, and maximizes the good aspects of what is otherwise a pretty dry piece of theatre.

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

“1776” is produced by O’Connell & Company and is playing at the Park School of Buffalo until May 19, 2019. For tickets and more information, click here.