Theatre Review: ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical’ at RBTL Auditorium Theatre

The cast of “Summer : The Donna Summer Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”, which began its national tour in Rochester, NY this week, starts out with a diva-level performance and a bass beat that you feel in your heart. The opening number, “The Queen is Back”, promises that this is going to be a hard-driving performance—but changes gears to be much more subtle through the middle and then changes back again at end.  

The show follows the footprint of jukebox musicals such as “Beautiful: The Carol King Story”, and “Mama Mia” which use the star’s portfolio of hit songs to tell the story of their life. “Summer” takes the audience through Donna’s childhood in the 50’s which were grounded by a loving family and church; her early career in the 70’s where she had a ground floor seat creating the disco genre with songs like “Love to Love You Baby” and “MacArthur Park”; and culminating in her diva years when she develops the strength to take better control of her career and her life. The part of Donna Summer is played by three actresses—one for her childhood (Olivia Elease Hardy), one for her mid-career (Alex Hairston) and one for her diva years (Dan’yelle Williamson). There were scenes in which the director craftily put multiple Donnas on stage to sing duets and trios together. All three actresses had powerful voices that filled the Auditorium Theatre to its dome but it was diva Donna, and her powerful command of her instrument, who was arguably most reminiscent of Donna Summer.

The emphasis on Donna’s irritation at being associated with her first hit, “Love to Love You Baby,” and being known as the “Queen of Disco”—as she shot up the charts and began to live a life in luxury—seemed a bit hollow. On the other hand, the treatment given to Donna’s childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a church member, mid-life physical abused by her first husband, and the devastating mishandling of her finances seemed to deserve more gravitas than was given. There was a very brief mea culpa moment in the show that revisited anti-gay statements made by Donna during a performance in 1983 that garnered strong public backlash. This incident was actually a protracted story at the time that stained the icon’s image, especially among some of her biggest fans in the gay community. The story also included little-known or forgotten tid-bits about the star’s life like when her managers originally wanted to have Cher record “Bad Girls” and Donna’s lukewarm attempt at acting in “Thank God it’s Friday”. 

The vocals, disco-funk music (Music Director, Amanda Morton) choreography (Choreographer, Sergio Trujillo), and costumes (Costume Designer, Paul Tazewell) will thrill any Donna Summer fan. The final two numbers, “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance” sent the audience out the doors dancing and singing their way to their cars (I know I wasn’t the only one).

Run Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission

Age Recommendation: 12+

 “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” runs until October 5, 2019 at the Rochester Broadway Theatre League Auditorium Theatre. For tickets and more information, go to http://www.rbtl.org.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Waitress’ at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre

Jeremy Morse, Molly Hager, Jessie Mueller, Aisha Jackson and Stephanie Torns (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The moment I saw the cherry pie curtain I had a feeling this show was going to be something special. And when I heard the line, “Home is where your ass is.”, the tone was set.  The recipe for the performance was going to include equal parts hilarity and harshness. Jenna, Dawn, and Becky (Christine Dwyer, Melody A. Betts, and Ephie Aardema) are waitresses at Joe’s Diner in a Southern Indiana town where Jenna is known for her pie-baking prowess.

This show delivers every moment. Do not miss it.

Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves but Jenna bakes her emotions into each pie. On the outside, her strength goes into maintaining the sensitive balance in her marriage to a violent and controlling man. That is only a small slice of this rich portrayal of each character’s struggle to be true to themselves and insist on the love they deserve. The story shows three women supporting one another as they face these challenges with grace, and not so gracefully. In the course of the show you get to know them deeply and root for them to find happiness.

I could write 5 paragraphs just gushing over the amazing, split-second timing of the choreography—which included creatively-realized sets whipping under, over and around the ever-moving and ever-singing cast—it was magical! I loved the sets; especially the little diner kitchen that barely had enough room to fit Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), the rather imposing cook.

The characters suck you in because they are so relatable and each one very clearly lets you know who they are. You enjoy your time getting to know them for so many reasons. Their voices are top notch for the up-tempo numbers like “What’s Inside”, “Bad Idea” and “Club Knocked Up”. The more serious moments are offset by Betts’ comedic timing and Aardema’s perfectly delivered one liners combined with a searing side-eye. But they are just the appetizers to Jeremy Morse’s hilariously quirky portrayal of Ogie—the lovesick Civil War reenactment understudy who hopes to win Dawn’s affections. Seriously, I laughed harder than I can remember ever laughing at a performance. Earl, Jenna’s husband is just creepy and menacing enough for you to hate him. You know you would protect your girlfriends from such a guy and you want to protect Jenna.

I thought each character was so well played I will feel remiss skipping one, although, for brevity’s sake I must. Dr. Pomatter, played by Steven Good, nailed his funny and awkward obstetrician’s role. Just what we want in an OB, right ladies? Lucky Jenna. And lastly, the aging OCD owner of the restaurant, Joe (Richard Kline), has you laughing as he sneakily sets you up to strum that last heartstring you didn’t know was yet un-strummed.

This show delivers every moment. Do not miss it.

Show Run-time: 2 hours and 30 min, including 1 intermission

Age Recommendation: 13+

“Waitress” runs June 4-9 at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre, Rochester NY. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Hamilton’ at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre

When John Szablewski previously reviewed “Hamilton” at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre for the Buffalo Theatre Guide, he purposely went into it with limited prior knowledge of the show and without having listened to the soundtrack. Contrary to Szablewski’s fresh take, I would consider myself a “Hamilton” fanatic. In fact I was among those considering selling a kidney to pay for tickets in Buffalo, and ended up successfully purchasing my own VIP seat in the very last row of the balcony. Coming from an experience where I had to use binoculars to live my musical theatre dream, I was ecstatic to have the chance to review “Hamilton” at the RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre in Rochester, NY. I wanted to see for myself if seating really does make a difference for this theatrical phenomenon.

. . .a must see whether you’re sitting last row of the balcony or front and center orchestra. . .

In case you haven’t heard of this show before, which would be quite impressive, “Hamilton” tells the story of Alexander Hamilton from age 19 through to the end of his life. It also includes other historical figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and King George. What’s truly impressive about this show is how it is able to tell the tale of the American Revolution and all that followed through an unchanging set and minimalistic costumes. “Hamilton” depends on the actors to thoroughly paint the picture through powerful music, intricate choreography, and raw emotional connections to the characters.

The audience’s support is immediately felt upon Alexander Hamilton’s (Edred Utomi) first entrance in the opening number when everyone bursts into applause. You immediately root for that main characters and feel moved by them and their stories. Utomi portrays Hamilton with the perfect balance of confidence, bluntness, and humility. The color-blind casting is so incredibly refreshing and allows for a diversely talented cast. Josh Tower as Aaron Burr keeps the show moving through his narrative as one musical number seamlessly transitions into the next. The ensemble is one of the most impressive parts of the show. Their constant presence on stage is accompanied by strictly timed choreography to music that is bursting with different beats, meters, and styles. I continued to watch the ensemble in amazement and wondered how they continued to throw themselves into the show so tremendously without becoming exhausted before the end.

Another key element of this show and its plot is the character of Eliza Hamilton (Hannah Cruz). Although Aaron Burr and Hamilton seem to be the primary focus, the show is arguably as much about her and her story as it is them. We follow Eliza as she falls for Hamilton, becomes his wife, and then must stay strong and supportive as he fights for his beliefs in a way that isn’t always entirely graceful. Hannah Cruz’s emotional dedication to the character and what she is going through is amazing. She makes you feel every word right along with her and has a powerful voice and presence.

Bryson Bruce is extremely likeable and hilarious in both of his roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Peter Matthew Smith proves to be an audience favorite as King George, providing the perfect amount of comedic relief throughout the show. Paul Oakley Stovall is the perfect George Washington and accurately captures the expectations one has for one of the nations most loved founding fathers.

Truly this show is a must see whether you’re sitting last row of the balcony or front and center orchestra. Every angle of this masterpiece provides an exciting experience and a new perspective on the gorgeous staging and powerful music. Musical numbers are entirely clever, catchy, and expressive. I’ve no doubt this show will live a long and prosperous run alongside other classics like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked.” Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius and provides a show that is all of the hype it receives. Musical fanatics and theatre newcomers alike will be singing Hamilton praises and searching for another opportunity to return again!

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

Advisory: Some adult language and suggestive content.

“Hamilton” runs until May 12, 2019 and is presented at the RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre in Rochester. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’ at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre

If musicals aren’t for you—this is your musical! I am often put off by musicals that are just a framework into which song after song are stuffed—whether good, bad, logical, benign or poignant. I know I should be able to suspend my disbelief and go along with people breaking into song as they cook dinner, but I’m drawn in by good dialogue as much as good, well-placed musical numbers and I think the best musicals come from the combination of the two. “Beautiful” has that combination with the additional perks of satisfying character development, well-timed humor, acting that resonates, singing that knocks your socks off, spot-on costuming, wigs and makeup, and sets designed to put you in the mood of the era.

If musicals aren’t for you—this is your musical!

“Beautiful” chronicles the early years of Carole King’s songwriting career. Initially, she didn’t see herself as a lyricist and partnered with—and soon married—lyricist Gerry Goffin (played by Dylan S. Wallach). She and Gerry wrote dozens of memorable hits sung by the top artists of their time. Songs such as their first hit song, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (The Drifters), “The Locomotion” (Little Eva), and “One Fine Day” (The Shirelles). The lead, Sarah Bockel, virtually channels Carole King with her flinty tones and slight tremolo. Early on in the production, she is a young, unpolished singer. Carole King’s style never became “polished” but it mellowed and grew simultaneously. In Bockel’s portrayal of the later years of Carole’s career—when she is performing her own numbers for audiences—you still see the simplicity of her style but it is with power she evokes your emotions.

It’s refreshing to be told a story about an extraordinarily talented person who is driven, from an early age, to do or be something NOT because they were desperate for a way out of a dismal situation but because they were brilliant at it and loved doing it. Carole King was an exceptional child, starting college at the age of 16. She probably could have been successful in any endeavor she pursued—even as a woman in the 50’s. She loved writing music and she was driven to be in the music business. Her simple, hard-working, and focused demeanor was far from flashy. You could even describe her as matronly amid the sequined dresses and lacquered hairdos of the musical acts her songs helped launch. The audience is rooting for Carole and Gerry’s partnership and marriage even when things get rocky. They are likable, albeit flawed, people. You also get to know and like their song-writing rivals—the team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (Alison Whitehurst and Jacob Helmer). This rivalry turns into a life-long friendship that you are glad Carole has during the hard times.

The director, Marc Bruni, handles the scenes with care (without the kitsch). He brings out the innocence of the 50’s, the coming of age of the 60’s, and the mellowing of the 70’s. There are delightfully funny moments in many scenes, often delivered by a hypochondriacal Barry or Carole’s stalwart mother, Genie Klein (Suzanne Grodner). But it’s the songs that make you feel so good. If you were born before 1980 you probably can sing along to most of the songs King & Goffin, and Mann & Weil created. Songs like “It’s Too Late”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Up On The Roof”, “A Natural Woman”, “Take Good Care Of My Baby”, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”, and “Beautiful”. The vignettes showcasing the singing groups of the era got my foot tapping and I had to control the urge to get up and dance. Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? This show does!

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

“Beautiful, The Carole King Musical” runs until January 27 at the Rochester Broadway Theatre League’s Auditorium Theatre in Rochester NY. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Les Miserables’ at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre

“One Day More” The National Touring Company of “Les Miserables.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The only thing I had known about “Les Miserables” was what I had heard on the “Forbidden Broadway” cast recording. “At the end of the play you’re another year older.” I thought that was funny, but I didn’t realize that it was actually true. That show was long. It is phenomenal, but my goodness, it goes on forever. To my amazement, the show is masterfully written and is masterfully performed. This show is an experience that I will never forget.

It is breathtaking, it is beautiful, and most importantly, it is timely.

“Les Miserables” is based on the Victor Hugo novel, taking place during the French Revolution and telling the tale of Jean Valjean (Nick Cartel) as he tries to redeem himself in society after spending the last nineteen years in slavery for a crime that he committed. After becoming a factory owner and changing his name, Valjean meets Fantine (Mary Kate Moore), who has an illegitimate daughter and on her deathbed, Valjean says that he will find her daughter and care for her. Valjean finds Cosette (Jillian Butler) at an orphanage of sorts, and purchases her, looking out for her wellbeing and raising her as his own. If this seems confusing, it is. I had to read the synopsis at intermission, and then it clicked!

The music in this show is hauntingly beautiful and I could not believe how much music there is in this show. It never stopped, and flowed effortlessly from one number to the next, barely leaving time for applause, and you know what, I loved it. I realized during this production just how much time we spend applauding during musicals. I love showing my appreciation and love to the actors on stage, but when the music segues to the next song, it keeps me in the moment and I stay tuned to the story. I never thought about this until this show.

Leading the show as Jean Valjean is Nick Cartel who has a voice of steel. His range is mind blowing as he controls his vocal prowess to hit magical notes. Cartel’s performance is raw, emotional, humane, and perfect.

Josh David is deliciously evil as Javert, the constable who is out to find Valjean to bring him back for skipping parole. You dislike him, but love every time he enters the stage. His vocal ability sends chills down your spine with how fantastic they are. He does not disappoint.

Éponine played by Paige Smallwood and Cosette played by Jillian Butler, are both phenomenal women who know how to entertain and who both bring tears to your eyes when they sing. They are both absolutely beautiful.

Overall, the show is long, but as a student of theatre, and let’s face it, who isn’t, this show should be on everyone’s theatre bucket list. It is breathtaking, it is beautiful, and most importantly, it is timely. When the tour comes to you, go see this show!

Running Time: 2 Hours 45 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“Les Miserables” closed on November 24, 2018, and was presented at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre in Rochester. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘A Bronx Tale The Musical’ at RBTL Auditorium Theatre

When someone mentions A Bronx Tale, it almost inevitably elicits a response from those gathered around. It started as a one-man show featuring Chazz Palminteri, whose real-life story the narrative mirrors. He also created the character of Sonny in the acclaimed film, a directorial debut for Robert DeNiro (who also starred as Lorenzo, Calogero’s father) So when adapting the film, it makes sense that Palminteri and DeNiro be involved. Together with Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, Palminteri has done a wonderful job with that adaptation. DeNiro and Broadway legend Jerry Zaks co-directed the Broadway production, which has started its national tour in Rochester, NY in the beautiful RBTL Auditorium Theatre.

. . . the national tour of ‘A Bronx Tale’ is a blessing.

‘I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway production twice, once two days before the opening night performance, and once about a month before the production received its closing notice. Both times I saw the production, Chazz was not only present but engaged with every SINGLE fan who approached him. It’s clear he loves this show. The love for the material reflects in this national tour production, from directors and creative team to swings and ensemble members. This is no doubt aided by the fact that eleven members of the twenty-seven person cast were involved with the production on Broadway. The ensemble has endless energy, and each member of the cast is on the same page with the “Bronx style” humor of the book; sometimes loud, sometimes crude, always honest. Palminteri’s book has traces of the film, and it pops. It feels organic and real. Menken’s music is good enough to outshine some of Slater’s campier lyrics, which might be the only weakness to the show.

As the adult Calogero, who also serves as the show’s narrator, Joey Barreiro is the right balance of edgy and virtuous. He approaches the part with a wide-eyed eagerness that works to humanize “C” in a way I don’t know if I’ve noticed before. His juvenile self, played in this production by Frankie Leoni, is a plum role for a young male on Broadway. The actor must be a true triple threat, and Leoni is up to the challenge. His performance benefits from being honed on Broadway.

Joe Barbara, as Sonny, is also fresh from the Broadway production. He is a softer Sonny than I’ve seen and reads closer in age to Chazz than original Broadway Sonny Nick Cordero. That being said, I appreciate Barbara not playing the caricature and really diving in to the material to find new moments. As Calogero’s forbidden love interest Jane, Brianna-Marie Bell’s powerful voice soars through Menken’s score. She’s the paragon of a healthy and powerful singer, and her duet with Barreiro in Act Two is a performance highlight.

All these excellent performances aside, the one that captivated me on Broadway was that of Richard H. Blake. Now I’ll admit that my bias is at work here, Blake is one of the most genuine performers and human beings I’ve had the privilege of interacting with. Blake’s reprisal of his Broadway role, Lorenzo,  stops the show. His rousing call to Calogero at the end of Act One to shun the life of “These Streets” is not only well-sung, but transitions seamlessly between dialogue and song. Blake tackles Lorenzo with ease, his real-life fatherhood no doubt informing some of his scenes with the young Leoni. Helping his character development along is Michelle Aravena as Calogero’s mother, Rosina in her Act Two “Look to Your Heart (reprise)” Aravena is a skilled singer and performer, and the family chemistry between Barreiro, Blake, and Aravena is exactly what Palminteri intended in his book.

All in all, the national tour of A Bronx Tale is a blessing. The show didn’t run nearly long enough on Broadway, in my opinion, so the opportunity to see the production again in person was one I jumped at. If you’re okay with significant adult language and situations, you should jump as well.

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“A Bronx Tale The Musical” runs until October 21, 2018 and is presented at the RBTL Auditorium Theatre in Rochester. For more information, click here.