Theatre Review: ‘Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class’ by Rocking Horse Productions at The Meeting House

Sydney Perkins is Sister Robert Anne in “Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class.”

Rocking Horse Productions has recently moved to the charming Williamsville Meeting House for a season of Theatre in the Village. I attended the opening performance of Dan Goggin’s Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class: A One Nun-sense Musical Event. The Rocking Horse season will continue in March with the musical revue Forever Plaid.

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class is one of ten popular Nunsense musical shows which include a Christmas show, a country western show, a Hollywood show, and even Meshuganuns – an all faith show! This time around Sister Robert Anne has broken away from the other nuns for an evening to teach a class in how to create your own cabaret act. The many songs in this one woman show are a collection from the rest of the Nunsense series.

. . . a crowd pleaser and got a well deserved standing ovation from the enthusiastic opening night audience.

Sister Robert Anne is one tough cookie! She was born on the wrong side of Brooklyn and raised in a jazz club. Taking the veil hasn’t changed her a bit. She’s feisty, out spoken, and full of pep. The vivacious Ms. Sydnie Perkins plays the role in this production and she’s a powerhouse! Miss Perkins is full of energy – singing, dancing, working a puppet, getting a lot of milage out of her feather boas, and hobnobbing with the audience. She’s a keg of dynamite and her sparkly performance will put a smile on your face. She bounces through the novelty numbers and is very effective with the ballads.

Musical highlights of the production are “What Would Elvis Do” in which Sister is backed up on stage by a chorus line of audience volunteers and the ballad “I Left Him There” which is delivered with great heart by Ms. Perkins.  

John Szablewski is both the Musical Director and the jovial Father John who, in addition to providing spritely and steady piano accompaniment, is the evening’s unofficial MC. We all enjoyed his reactions to the proceedings, his little touches (including the funny glasses), and his occasional humorous ad libbing with Sister Robert Anne.

Direction is by Leigha Marie Eichhorn and choreography is by Mary Loliger. It’s hard to know who did what because the production is practically all musical, but Ms. Eichhorn and Ms. Loliger have put together a seamless and happy romp with lots of variety and never a dull moment.

The classroom set with desk, chalkboard, and St. Anthony is by Chuck Ziehl and costumes (including Sister’s sequined black sneakers – a fun touch) are by Janet Ziehl. Producer Douglas H. Kern has found a lovely new home for his theatre company and aptly selected a season of small scale shows to present in this pleasant, intimate setting. One word of advice for future audience members – bring a seat cushion with you.

There’s a lot of audience interaction in this show! When the house lights come up, be prepared to dance and sing with Sister. And, here’s a tip — if you volunteer to participate in the show, Sister Robert Anne might give you a prize. I got the key to heaven which, you have to admit, is a pretty darn cool thing to have!

The theme of the show is “every day of the week is a Saturday when you’re doing what you choose.” It was clear that both Ms. Perkins and Mr. Szablewski are happily doing what they chose and equally clear that the audience wouldn’t have chosen to be anywhere else. Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret is a crowd pleaser and got a well deserved standing ovation from the enthusiastic opening night audience.

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class runs 90 minutes including one intermission. 

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class runs until November 18, 2019. Click here for tickets.

Theatre Review: ‘A Christmas Story’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

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The cast of “A Christmas Story” by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House.

What is it about “A Christmas Story.”  There’s no sweet holiday message, no fa-la-la, no chestnuts roasting.  Fact is, there’s a good amount of humbug. There’s the hapless Ralphie and his dysfunctional family, the bully, the fact that Santa has an un-jolly disposition, and that the theme is predicated on one lad’s desire to get what he wants for Christmas rather than any kind of higher notions of good will toward men, or women, or kids.  

. . . a play, a story, and a night out for the whole brood willing to disregard that “thing that tells time.  

But this story endures every holiday season.  The movie has marathon runs on cable television.  There’s that familiar stripper-like leg lamp, that tongue stuck to a frozen light pole, and that “official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and the thing that tells time.”    And there’s that notion that the Christmas holiday season, even for a kid, may not be all fun and games, even if nobody puts an eye out.

With such a continuing legacy, it’s no surprise that Rocking Horse Productions brings “A Christmas Story” to the Lancaster Opera House stage.  Because even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’re probably aware of it and some of its imagery. And Rocking Horse doesn’t seem to have skipped over much of it.  At about two and a half hours it seems nothing has been left out.

Like the movie and book, the play is narrated by an adult Ralphie, retelling for us the events and his thoughts and feelings of a particular Christmas in 1950s Indiana in which his only wish was to get a bb-gun for Christmas.  Adult Ralphie, Ralph Parker, the narrator, is played by Chuck Both who, being on stage narrating or in supporting bit roles for nearly the entire production, does well with the massive amount of lines he has. A feast of words.  That’s not to say that a missed cue here and there, and one or two false starts with a line now and then, were not there, but no one’s eye was put out because of it, and his overall performance was robust and delivered with enough force that a man might use in retelling some of the most frustrating parts of his youth.  Relatively new to being on stage, Both’s presence is both the foundation of the story and a gift to it. One that should only get better with time.

The kids were no delinquents either.  Ralphie (Joey Bielecki) and his friends were all charming in their roles, and often seemed like they were having fun, especially when they made their way across the stage in a bone chilling Indiana winter blizzard.   All of the kids in the production did relatively well, and both of the parts of Ralphie’s female classmates, Ester Jane (Tiffany Nowak) and Helen (Isabella Bindermann) were standouts. Having played in LOH’s production of Annie, the two young actresses brought an age-appropriate maturity that contrasted perfectly with the rough-around-the-edge antics of the young male roles.  

The adults weren’t without certain antics.  Most notably was Marc Ruffino in the part of the father, Ralphie’s “Old Man”.  Ruffino is enthusiastic, playing the zealous king of the Parker domain, who is both enforcer and blissfully oblivious to his own follies.  Ruffino’s Old Man plays up his father-knows-best persona and child-like wonder, making us believe he’s not the tyrant whose wrath Ralphie fears.  

But adults are a mystery to young Ralphie, and he consistently misreads them.  Including his teacher, Miss Shields, played wonderfully by award-winning actress, Katie Buckler, and his mother, played by Katherine Parker.

What it is about “A Christmas Story” at Lancaster Opera House is the narrator, adult Ralphie, appearing in the glow of light at stage left and stage right, above stage, and in the Parker kitchen, telling us about his recollection of this sequence of events — one Christmas point in time.  He is the driving force of this show. The story plays in, and in front of, the Parker house, which never leaves center stage. Scene changes are small vignettes at the front of the stage, where the actors engage the audience more directly. Overall the set and lighting was well thought out and executed, although one of the kitchen walls on stage left blocked some of the action from the view of patrons sitting house right.

Like the film and book, this production may bring some adults to retrospective moments of their own youthful Christmas’ past, and children and kids to their own funny and frustrating present.  Because this story had moments where the kids in attendance cheered for Ralphie, and laughed at the adults. So did the adults. And for that reason it can be said that “A Christmas Story” is a play, a story, and a night out for the whole brood willing to disregard that “thing that tells time.”  

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

“A Christmas Story” runs until December 9, 2018, is produced by Rocking Horse Productions and is presented at Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ by Rocking Horse Productions as Lancaster Opera House

Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road. There is not a single person alive who does not know the story of Dorothy and her adventures in Oz on her journey to meet the Wonderful Wizard. A girl has troubles at home, a tornado sweeps her up, and she falls into the merry old land of Oz. Now, she needs to find her way home. All this in a single day! I would need a nap half way through.

. . .an admirable feat.

“The Wizard of Oz” is one of my favorite movies, and out of curiosity, I just read the book by L. Frank Baum last year. Talk about a dark children’s novel. Anyway, there are high expectations when an audience comes to see a live production of this show, and Rocking Horse Productions produces an admirable effort, that just needs a little buffing around the edges. More on that later.

Director Jane Navarro assembles a quartet of leads that bring this story to life on the very small stage at the Lancaster Opera House. Leading the show as Dorothy is Sara Marioles Mitch who does a wonderful job emulating the late Judy Garland, and still makes the role her own. Marioles Mitch’s performance of “Over the Rainbow” is well done, and her voice is nice to hear as it rings throughout the theater.

Sean Murphy as the Tin Man is a wonderful choice. Murphy emulates the same vocal prowess as Jack Haley in the film. Murphy’s tap dancing during “If I only Had a Heart” is heart-warming (get it), and he is an audience favorite right from the get-go.

Robby Syruws plays the Scarecrow in this production, and does a fantastic job. Syruws also emulates the voice of Ray Bolger in the film, but still makes the character his own. His performance of “If I only Had a Brain” is humorous and he brings a great stage presence to the role.

Joe Castiglia plays the hilarious Cowardly-Lion. Castiglia has the comedic chops to deliver the funny one-liners in this piece, and also performs “If I Were King Of The Forest’ beautifully.  He has fun on stage, and the audience is happy to come along for the ride.

The ensemble in this show does a marvelous job telling the story. The Munchkins are cute, and are definitely a crowd favorite. The “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” number is so precious it brings a tear to your eye. You will absolutely love them.

Overall, this is an admirable feat. The sets by Chuck Ziehl, Derrik Reynolds, Chuck Both, and Douglas Kern are fantastic. These are probably the most elaborate sets I have seen in a Rocking Horse show in some time. They have pulled out all the stops in telling this story and it shows.

Choreography, Daniel Doctor brings a familiar choreography to the piece, and also brings some unique additions, like using dancers to portray the Yellow Brick Road. I have to admit it took me a few minutes to catch on to this concept, but it was definitely memorable. He also used dancers to create the tornado that sweeps Dorothy up. It was a very creative choice, and too is memorable.

Sean Polen’s orchestra plays the music with such great attention to detail. I really enjoyed hearing the familiar songs, with the nice full sound of a large orchestra.

Alright, so this show is a great effort, but here comes the buffing around the edges part. The storytelling and the acting are great, but the scene transitions, and there are many, really add a lot of unwarranted time to this almost three-hour production. Now, I am sure that these will be shortened as the run continues, but I found myself losing interest every time the lights went down and we waited for the scenes to change.

Other than the scene changes, this show is an enjoyable night out, and what better way to start off the 2018-2019 season than to take a trip to Oz?

Running Time: Approximately 3 Hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“The Wizard of Oz’ runs until September 23, 2018, is produced by Rocking Horse Productions, and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Charlotte’s Web’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

Theater that is geared toward children isn’t always enjoyable for adults. Some of the performances, especially when the actors are playing animals, can feel too silly and over-exaggerated.

Thankfully, Rocking Horse Productions’ inventive telling of “Charlotte’s Web,” directed by Leigha Eichhorn, defies that stereotype, offering an innocently fun evening at the theater for all ages.

. . .wholesome and heartwarming. . .

Based on the best-selling novel by E.B. White, “Charlotte’s Web” follows the story of Wilbur, the smallest pig in his litter who was saved from slaughter by Fern, his owner’s daughter. As Wilbur gets bigger, he is taken to the Zuckerman’s farm to live until he is fat enough to sell. When Wilbur and Fern find out his planned fate, Charlotte, a spider who lives in the barn with Wilbur, offers her assistance to keep him alive, weaving words like “radiant” and “humble” into her web to attract visitors in hopes that Zuckerman will change his mind.

First and foremost, we have to talk about Danielle Burning as Charlotte. Her voice is gentle and soothing and her body language smooth and calculated. But what makes her performance truly unforgettable is her aerial gymnastic skills. With the use of aerial silks suspended from the rafters, Burning utilizes her strength and grace to mimic Charlotte’s moves through the web, delivering a chunk of her lines while hanging upside down. The audience is in awe every time she does a trick, and adds a layer of magic to the production.

Wilbur is played by an excellent Angelo Heimowitz. With incredible vocal clarity and a vibrant, expressive face he makes for one adorable pig, nailing his pig noises and behaviors in every scene. Coupled with Elissa Neri as Fern, they make for one aww-inducing pair.

All of the animal characters are embraced by their human counterparts who fearlessly commit to whatever vocal stylings or behaviors are necessary to sell their animals. While it is very silly, it is never too hokey or cheesy. Derrick Reynolds gives a standout performance as Templeton the rat, letting his gritty baritone boom to the back of the theater and giving us a little taste of a villain for the story (don’t get me wrong – he’s not really mean, just selfish).

Another interesting technical choice is the absence of produced sound effects for all but one of the background noises for the show. Whether it be birds, fireworks or even a car horn, all of the sounds were performed live by the cast. Some were obviously people and others were impressively deceiving. But most of all, it offered a sort of perfectly homegrown feel to the production.

“Charlotte’s Web” is a wholesome and heartwarming night out for all ages. Even if shows geared toward children aren’t your thing, it is worth seeing just to watch Burning as Charlotte turn tricks on her silky web.

Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes including 15-minute intermission

“Charlotte’s Web” plays through March 25, 2018, is produced by Rocking Horse Productions, and is presented at Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

The cast of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

Even if you’ve never seen “It’s A Wonderful Life,” you’re probably familiar with the story, or the memorable “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” line. The stage adaption by Rocking Horse Productions brought back memories of my childhood, sitting in the living room with my family on Christmas week and marathoning holiday movies, but with a better understanding of “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” concepts like money and hopelessness and finding the strength to get through it all.

. . .charming in its simplicity and it’s family friendly quality.

From what I remember as a kid, the play stays true to the 1946 classic. The show opens on George Bailey, standing at a snow covered railing on Christmas day, ready to end his life. We don’t know why yet, until Clarence Odbody arrives, claiming to be George’s guardian angel. Clarence takes George through events in his life, hoping to show George his accomplishments and remind him of the happy life he has lived. We see a young George with big dreams of going to college, being an architect, meeting his future wife, Mary. We see how, as a child George saved his brother from drowning, addressed a medication mix-up at a job he had, and won a decision against the richest man in town, Mr. Potter, from taking his family business. It’s through these flashbacks that we begin to understand who George Bailey is and his impact in the town of Bedford Falls.

The story comes full circle as George’s uncle Billy takes $8,000 to deposit for George’s company the Building and Loan, and accidentally misplaces it right into Henry Potter’s possession. Potter, the main antagonist of George’s life, seizes the opportunity to hide the money and claim a scandal against George and his company, calling the police on him after George desperately runs to him for a loan, unknowing that he has the money. A mess of events follow, and George laments to Clarence that life would be better if he’d never been born. Clarence makes it so, and takes George through a montage of what life would be without him in it. George’s brother would have died because George wasn’t there to save him, his employer would go to jail because of the medication mix-up, and the Building and Loan would have ceased to exist, prompting his uncle Billy to lose his mind.

I won’t spoil the ending, just in case. This stage adaption of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is very well done, reflecting all the original elements of kindness and family that made the film a classic. However, perhaps because of that, the production falls a little flat, it’s tame, safe, unable to stand out or stay with you after the show is over. Sometimes classics are classic for a reason, but there was a missed opportunity to make the narrative of “It’s a Wonderful Life” stand out for a 21st century audience. This is the same story we’ve all heard before, told through awkward stage cues and a chemistry between Mary (Robyn Baun) and George (Angelo Heimowitz) that wasn’t there until the second half.

Some standout performances came from our villain, Henry Potter (Tim Joyce), and exuberant, money grabbing old man intent on making George’s life miserable. And Michael Breen, who plays the guardian angel Clarence Odbody, quietly captures the audience’s attention with a serene presence and calming tone of voice that sounds sincere and helpful. The set (designed by Chuck Ziehl) is simple yet effective, able to be mixed and matched up to establish new locations and settings (my favorite was the Bailey house, decorated in Christmas décor).

In all, Rocking Horse Productions rendition of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” although not unique or daring, is charming in its simplicity and it’s family friendly quality.

Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” runs until December 10th, 2017 and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information and tickets, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘9 to 5 The Musical’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

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The cast of “9 to 5 The Musical” by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House.

Yesterday evening, I went to the Lancaster Opera House to see “9 to 5: The Musical,” presented by Rocking Horse Productions. Music and Lyrics are by Dolly Parton and the book is by Patricia Resnick. The musical is based on the popular 1980 movie by Resnick and Colin Higgins which starred Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda as office workers who are tyrannized by their lecherous boss.

. . .a pleasant production. . .

This is a story about employees who are being treated so unfairly by their boss that they kidnap him, hold him captive for a month, and take over operations at work themselves. It’s very farfetched and mostly played for easy laughs. Perhaps my sensibilities have changed over the years. This premise seemed entertaining when the film came out. Over time, since sexism in high places is still such a serious and relevant issue, this lighthearted, over the top approach made me feel uneasy.

The strongest suit of this production is the musical direction by Eric J. Van Pyrz – including his terrific nine piece orchestra and the consistently good singing by both the chorus and the leads. The only challenge with the singing is lyrics are sometimes difficult to understand. As good as the chorus’ vocal work is, however, in most of the musical numbers, the chorus’ role is pretty extraneous and sometimes even a distraction. It is no fault of this production; this is just not a well integrated book.

Susana Breese is perfect as Judy, the Jane Fonda role. Ms. Breese is pert, pretty, and genuinely funny and she gives a fully realized performance. Her rendition of the transition song “Get Out and Stay Out” is a wow and the high point of the evening.

Anne DeFazio and Emily Styn, who play Judy’s partners in crime, are also strong singers. Ms. Styn is a blonde bombshell in the Dolly Parton vein and Ms. DeFazio plays it more Bea Arthur than Lily Tomlin.

Derrik Reynolds, as the evil boss, oozes the requisite oily passion in his big number, “Here For You.” And Lauren McGowan, as his camel-hunched, knock kneed lovesick assistant, is an absolute hoot! Under that business suit, she’s a tiger and, when she roars, she brings down the house!

Sound by GB Audio is good, although sometimes the chorus drowns out the soloists. And there’s nice scenery by Chuck Ziehl, especially the beautiful bookcase backdrop in the boss’s office.

“9 to 5: The Musical” is a long show – two and a half hours – but director Leigha Eichhorn keeps things moving along.

This is a pleasant production with solid vocal work and the Opera House audience had a good time.

Running Time: 2 Hours and 30 Minutes with one 15 Minute intermission.

“9 to 5 The Musical” runs until September 24, 2017, is produced by Rocking Horse Productions, and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information, click here.

Rocking Horse Productions Celebrates Eleventh Season

For the last eleven seasons, Rocking Horse Productions has been a staple at the Lancaster Opera House. A company that prides itself on casting new and veteran talent, Rocking Horse Productions has been responsible for the start of many theatrical careers in the Buffalo area. A producer of great theatrical content, Rocking Horse celebrates their 2017 – 2018 season by kicking it off with “9 to 5 The Musical.”

“We are excited to be producing this show,” says Douglas Kern, executive producer of Rocking Horse Productions, “it is fun, upbeat, and it is going to speak to many generations.”

“9 to 5 The Musical” is based on the 1980 film, which starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton. A tale of a group of women who are tired of being mistreated by their chauvinistic boss, take matters into their own hands to prove their worth in the workplace. This musical adaptation follows the same plot as the film, and includes a brand new score by Dolly Parton.

“I was a fan of the movie, and I was really excited when Doug asked me to direct this show,” says Leigha Eichhorn who is at the helm of this production, “it’s a fun show that still speaks a current message about equality, and about women who are trying to succeed in the business world.”

This show, which has gone through a transition from its 2009 Broadway run, has songs written by country music legend Dolly Parton, but that should not deter theatergoers who might not be fans of country music. “These songs aren’t your typical sappy country western songs,” says Eichborn, “they keep a positive message.”

In a world where Hollywood film adaptations grace the stage all too often as of late, Eichhorn says that if you are a fan of the movie, you will love this show. “The cast is fantastic and is really bringing the vision to life. The audience will not be disappointed.”

Rocking Horse also is producing the Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” this December. “We are happy to bring this full version of the show to the stage,” says Kern.

This show is under the direction of Jane Navarro, who directed Rocking Horse’s successful run of “A Few Good Men” last season. “It’s A Wonderful Life,’ is a great Christmas tradition, says Navarro, “I am happy to be working with new talent as well as with people I have worked with in the past.”

Navarro says that she is excited to be working with a cast that will reach over thirty people. “Everyone is going to bring something unique to this show that is going to make it very special.”

Navarro says that there is a certain expectation that theatergoers have when going to see a show that is so familiar to them. “You have to toe a fine line between giving the people what they are familiar with, and bringing your own unique twist to the material. ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets it’s wings,’ has to be there, or the audience will be let down.”

Eichhorn and Navarro direct shows later this season as well.  Eichhorn’s next project is “Charlotte’s Web.” “We have never done a show geared toward children before,” says Kern, “so we were honored to be asked by the executive director of the Lancaster Opera House to do so.”

Navarro directs Rocking Horse’s first dinner theatre production, “Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class,” one of the sequels to the successful “Nunsense” shows, written by Dan Goggin.

“9 to 5 The Musical” opens on September 8, 2017 at the Lancaster Opera House.

“It’s A Wonderful Life” runs December 1 – 10, 2017 at the Lancaster Opera House

“Charlotte’s Web” runs March 23- 25, 2018 at the Lancaster Opera House

“Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class” runs January 26 – February 4, 2018 at Ripa’s Restaurant.

For tickets and more information, click here.