Theatre Review: ‘The Toxic Avenger’ with Second Generation Theatre Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

Second Generation Theatre Company kicked off its second season in residence at Shea’s Smith Theatre with a brilliant production of “The Toxic Avenger.”

“Hilarious and outrageously good…”

Based on the 1984 cult classic film, “The Toxic Avenger” follows the town underdog as he seeks to stop global warming and rid New Jersey of toxic waste. It’s a rock musical chock full of great songs and larger than life characters, and thanks to Doug Weyand’s cast and choreography and Allan Paglia’s musical direction, delivers one of the most entertaining productions I have ever seen.

Steve Copps leads the show as Melvin/Toxie, and boy, does he kill it (literally). His rich voice soars through power ballads and rock songs, becoming the most unconventional hero New Jersey never asked for. He shines right from the start, especially when he runs into Bethany Burrows’ Sarah, the town’s blind librarian. Burrows gets to fully flex her skills as a comedienne, managing to connect to the audience and get us on her side without ever making eye contact with anyone.

If you still need a reason to see this show, go for Jenn Stafford. Besides her character skills and powerful vocal range, she. Is. HYSTERICAL. She made me laugh so hard I could barely breathe, and I could have watched her for hours. She also has the stamina of Wonder Woman, transitioning SO quickly between Edna and the Mayor that she will take your breath away.

And then there’s Raphael Santos as Black Dude and Dylan Zalikowski as White Dude, who are just unstoppably funny as their dozens of characters. Santos shines brightest as the resident mad scientist (who’s also a phenomenal dancer) and Zalikowski as a folk singer who performs the title track.

The set, lights and fog effects are some of Chris Cavanagh’s best work, transforming the intimate Smith Theatre into the toxic-waste ridden streets of New Jersey. LED lights can easily be overused due to their abilities, but this production’s lights were well-balanced and on point.

There wasn’t a single thing I didn’t love about “The Toxic Avenger” – it’s just so hilarious and outrageously good. This is easily going to be one of the best productions of the Buffalo theater season. I don’t know what else I can say other than go get tickets for multiple performances, because you will want to go again and again.

Running Time: Approximately two hours including a ten-minute intermission.

“The Toxic Avenger” runs through November 10 at Shea’s Smith Theatre. For more information and tickets, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Nine’ by Second Generation Theatre Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The cast of “Nine” at Shea’s Smith Theatre.

I’ve waited for this one all season.

Second Generation Theatre Company closed its sixth season with an electric production of ‘Nine. ‘ With a book based on Fellini’s film  8/12 and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, ‘Nine’ is the story of Guido Contini, star filmmaker who is facing his 40th birthday with an urgent need for a hit film. And an equally urgent need to charm every woman he meets while pledging undying love to his knowing wife. Just your typical Italian love story…with a chorus of nuns, one prostitute, and two giggling German visitors.

. . .another triumph for this company.

This is a woman-dominated cast and production team, which makes the subject matter – a philandering man melting down in the pre-#metoo 1960s – all the more poignant.  So good to see the women in Buffalo’s theatre community together like this. There’s no irony here: the production is a product of its time. SGT and company have elevated the conversation here.

Director Victoria Perez assembled a near-perfect cast for this. Ben Michael Moran is Guido, wiry, passionate, conflicted, and irresistible, and Moran plays this well. Aimee Walker is his wife Luisa, wise and faithful with a stunningly resonant alto voice, she shows her fierce love for Guido early on with a heartfelt performance of “My Husband Makes Movies.” Walker owns the stage as soon as she steps into the spotlight. Her range of emotion in this piece alone is wistful and protective,  and the power behind her voice is amazing. Director Perez had pure gold to work with here: Walker’s posture and stance in every scene is strong, from her walk to her sleek upswept hair, to her elegant attire.

Equally solid is Kelly Copps as Carla, the primary girlfriend. She commands one of the best scenes in the production: in “A Call from the Vatican,” her voice is perfectly controlled as she performs a sultry aerial ballet between two swaths of suspended flowing fabric. She shows her vulnerability in act two’s “Simple.”  

Lisa Ludwig is Liliane LaFleur, Guido’s chief investor for the film that he still hasn’t written. While he’s trying to pick a concept out of his head, she knows just what she wants:  a song and dance movie that captures the essence of her elegant “ Follies Bergere.” A duel-melody patter piece, Ludwig and Sabrina Kahwaty nail the complex rhythm and precise placement of each lyric. Kahwaty’s voice and articulation is perfection. I love the way she almost spits out the words “a film” as she shows her disdain for Guido’s style. She’s one woman Guido can’t charm.

Lise Harty’s costume choices reflect the era and the vibe, from Luisa’s sophisticated couture, to Carla’s barely there underwear, to Liliane’s Chanel-inspired layers of pearls. I wish she stuck with the black and white color scheme throughout, although the pops of colors in the mid-century costumes of the ensemble pieces were fun.

The solo and duet numbers are the better vocal performances: the all-female ensemble – alternately portraying spa staff, nuns, and town gossips – are so soprano-heavy it’s also shrill at times.  Charmagne Chi has some featured moments, rocking a turbin. Mary Gjurich is another standout as Guido’s mother. She’s the calm and pragmatic Italian mama with a killer voice.

A standout of the night was Guido’s duet with actor and former lover Claudia. Moran and Arianne Davidow’s voices meld beautifully in “Unusual Way.” Davidow pours her heart into the Yeston’s lyrics “you made me whole.” It’s liquid platinum.

Max Goldhirsch is the only other guy in the cast and is adorable as 9 year old Guido. One of his key scenes is his introduction to, ahem, the physicality of love, with prostitute Saraghina. Nicole Cimato gave this plum role her best shot, but I missed the inherent irony of a mature, robust actor with a richer and stronger voice lustily singing “Be Italian.” Yes, another irony would have been Perez sliding out of the director’s chair for this one. She would have nailed it.

There were a few opening night hiccups with music director’s Allan Paglia’s quintet (I loved the cello against the voices, so lovely) that I’m sure are already fixed. Chris Cavanagh’s tiered set works well to add dimension to this small stage, and the tiers are needed to give the audience some better sightlines. Shea’s Smith is an interesting venue but there aren’t many good seats in this house.

This company and this cast rise above built environment obstacles and ‘Nine’ is another triumph for this company.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 10-minute intermission.

‘Nine’ is onstage until June 30, 2019, is produced by Second Generation Theatre Company and is presented at Shea’s Smith Theatre. Find tickets are http://www.sheas.org.

Theatre Review: ‘Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches’ by Second Generation Theatre Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The cast of “Angels in America” at Shea’s Smith Theatre.

I am among one of thousands—probably millions—of theatrephiles for whom “Angels in America” (written by Tony Kushner) is an incredibly important and beloved modern play. I came to it much later than most; I first watched the HBO miniseries circa 2014(ish) on a whim, over 10 years after its release, 23 years after Angels’ theatrical premiere at the Eureka Theatre Company , and 21 years after both its Broadway debut and its Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I knew essentially nothing of the story, only that the HBO adaptation starred Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, both of whom are national treasures. Instantly in love, I followed up the miniseries by reading the abridged play, then the unabridged play, then every book I could find about the play (including Isaac Butler and Dan Kois’ masterful The World Only Spins Forward). I present this barrage of personal backstory only to say that I came to Second Generation Theatre Company’s production with extremely loaded expectations.

. . .powerful and gripping. . .

Until last night I had never seen a live staged production of “Angels in America,” and it’s no wonder; it’s simply not produced very often, particularly by non-professional theatre companies. Probable reasons include:

  1. Telling the story requires either staging a mammoth 7-hour 2-part play (Angels is comprised of Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika), or staging only Millennium Approaches—which many companies do, and is the route Second Gen chose— and leaving your audience with an incomplete story.
  2. It’s extremely difficult to stage from a technical standpoint, particularly the scenes featuring the angel.
  3. The play is not exactly light fare; it tackles philosophy, religion, politics, life, death, sexuality, AIDS, abandonment, and what it means to be a human in America, among others. Doing justice to the show requires thoughtful, talented actors who are up for an immense challenge.

Second Generation Theatre Company and its talented cast were up for this challenge, and their production is a powerhouse.

“Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches” is set during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in New York City during the late 80’s. We first meet Louis (Anthony J. Grande) and Prior (Ben Michael Moran) and Harper (Kristin Bentley) and Joe (Steve Copps), two couples whose relationships are on the rocks: the former because of Prior’s AIDS diagnosis and Louis’s inability to cope with illness, the latter because of Joe’s closeted homosexuality and Harper’s incessant fears and hallucinations, as well as her addiction to Valium. As we follow these couples’ trials, we come across a handful of other colorful characters, including Roy Cohn (David Oliver), a malicious, secretly gay Republican lawyer, political power broker, and mentor of Joe’s who is dying of AIDS; Belize (Dudney Joseph Jr.), Prior’s ex-lover and a former drag queen who is stuck in the middle of Prior and Louis’s failing relationship; Hannah (Mary McMahon), Joe’s straight-laced, no-nonsense Mormon mother from Salt Lake, and The Angel (Kristen Trip Kelley), a divine emanation who appears to Prior as a messenger of God to inform him that “The Great Work” is about to begin. Using these characters as mouthpieces, Kushner characteristically dives deeply into political and intellectual themes.

For the sake of conserving column inches I’ll refrain from going down the innumerable thematic rabbit holes that “Angels in America” presents, because that would quickly turn this review into a dissertation (which I’m certain has already been written by legions of MFA students).  God’s rejection of man and the subsequent AIDS virus, community and abandonment, religion (Judaism, one of the world’s oldest religions and Mormonism, one of the world’s newest religions), identity (particularly sexual and racial identity), the list is endless. But the overarching theme of “Angels,” which Second Gen’s production encapsulates beautifully, is that the world only spins forward, rather we like it or not.

“Angels” is a show of complicated, multi-faceted characters, each of whom play an essential role in the dense narrative tapestry of this play, sometimes operating independently of each other but often colliding. Each performer in the Second Gen cast gave a nuanced and powerful performance.

Grande’s Louis juggles sarcasm and Jewish wit with desperation and confusion. Kristin Bentley’s Harper is wonderfully neurotic and frantic, but also clear-eyed and intentional. David Oliver’s Roy Cohn is icy as a cadaver, but still manages to elicit laughter with his mile-a-minute cussing and pompousness.

The production’s standouts, however, are Dudney Joseph Jr., who perfectly captures the glam and confidence, but also the warmth and boundless humanity, of Belize; and of course, Ben Michael Moran’s Prior Walter. Prior is maybe one of the most difficult characters to play in any modern drama, an Olympic event for any actor. Prior grapples with a devastating virus and the abandonment of his lover, communicating with both angels and the ghosts of Prior Walter’s before him. Moran is commanding as he plays Prior’s fears, anger, warmth and humor. He’s s a joy to watch.

In addition to having an thorough understanding of Kushner’s play and bringing the best out of his talented cast, director Greg Natale also manages to stage this play in the intimacy of the Shea’s Smith Theatre, no easy technical feat.

I’m not sure if Second Gen is planning on staging “Part II: Perestroika” next season, but I sincerely hope they’ll consider it, because this cast and production team are certainly capable of finishing this immense story. Second Generation Theatre’s production of Angels is powerful and gripping, a story that everyone living in 21st century America needs to see. Buffalo is quite lucky to have this timely production for the next few weeks.

Running Time: Just over 3 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Second Generation Theatre Company’s production of Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches is playing at Shea’s Smith Theatre until March 24th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Light In The Piazza’ by Second Generation Theatre Company at Lancaster Opera House

Che bella.

Absolutely everything about this production of ‘The Light in the Piazza’ – a Western New York premiere – (it played at the Shaw Festival a few years ago) is simply beautiful. The starkly elegant set, the period perfect costumes, the casting, direction, and the music create a romantic and poignant night in Italy.

. . .simply beautiful

Director Loraine O’Donnell’s decision to pull the production off the elevated Opera House stage and put it on a thrust stage was inspired. This created a great audience vibe: we were part of Clara and Fabrizio’s love story. And what a love story!   It plays like a contemporary Italian opera with flashes of Fellini cinema Italiano, too, as you’re drawn into this story of starry eyed love and parental protection. Mother and daughter Americans Margaret Johnson (Debbie Pappas Sham) and Clara Johnson (Kelly Copps) are vacationing in Florence in 1953, re-visiting the tourist spots from Margaret’s honeymoon. “It’s a city of statues and stories,” says Margaret as daughter Clara is sketching things that catch her eye. Clara is a “special child,” Margaret explains. To our eyes, Clara is a beautiful adult, but her charming childlike qualities soon appear.  In a moment of theatre magic, Clara’s wide-brim hat flies away, to be caught by Fabrizio (Anthony Lazzaro).  Their eyes meet, halting sweet words are exchanged, and Clara is determined to see him again.

Ah, love. Ah, parental agita over family secrets and cultural differences. The story unfolds as Clara and Margaret meet Fabrizio’s family. Marc Sacco is a hoot as the philandering brother Giuseppe. He has the facial expressions and moves down pat.  Rebecca Runge as his wife Franca tries to warn Clara about life with a passionate Italian man in “The Joy You Feel.” Runge’s rich voice soars. Katy Miner is the matriarch with the spotlight in Act Two’s “Aiutami” (translation: help me). Matt Witten is the solid papa, proud, strong, protective in his own way.

It’s Margaret, Clara, and Fabrizio who win and warm the audience’s collective hearts. Pappas Sham is the stoic Southern mom: her tenderness as she sings “The Beauty Is” is breathtaking. Copps as Clara is that curious combination of innocent and passionate as she discovers love and struggles to claim her maturity. Lazzaro plays Fabrizio with a gentle wisdom and a powerful voice for love.

Allan Paglia led a string-dominated chamber ensemble that was lush and lovely, and stood up well to the powerful vocal talent in the cast.

The show’s music and lyrics were written by Adam Guettel and he lived up to grandfather Richard Rodgers’ roots by including an overture and entr’acte which are rare in contemporary musical theatre. But the whole show is that exquisite and rare moment, where musical styles collide and meld, language barriers are crossed, and true love triumphs.

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

“The Light in the Piazza” runs until June 18, 2017, is produced by Second Generation Theatre Company and is presented at The Lancaster Opera House in Lancaster. For more information, click here.