Come to the Cabaret – a Second Generation Triumph

What I love best about Second Generation Theatre is the company’s commitment to make bold artistic choices. Company partners Kristin Bentley, Kelly Copps, and Arin Lee Dandes make thoughtful and interesting choices that successfully blend familiar and newer works to make a dynamic season.

This season’s finale production, Cabaret, was a prescient (more than three year ago) choice, against our country’s – and more recently – our community’s realities. A brief deep background if you haven’t seen it on stage, screen, or the source document book: Germany in the late 1920s was seeing its golden days tarnish as Nazism was on the rise. Clifford Bradshaw, an aspiring novelist from America, travels the Berlin for inspiration and is caught up in the country’s changing socio-political times.

SGT’s production is earthy and intense, well-cast, perfectly executed, and meticulously presented. From its simple set expertly designed by Primo Thomas and appointed by Diane Almeter Jones, to the stark lighting schema by Chris Cavanagh, the technical elements visually and aurally pull you into this world immediately. And then comes Allan Paglia’s orchestra, and the Emcee, Joe Russi in a true tour de force performance. Sly and sassy, furtive and cunning, he’s the human barometer we see change with Germany’s political climate.  Russi’s performance is downright brilliant start to finish, from his sweet-sexy smiles to his chilling interpretation of “I Don’t Care Much.”

Next up are the ‘ladies’ of the Kit Kat Club, the seedy social center of the story. This rough and tumble kick line is the backdrop for the most (IMHO) detestable character in the Broadway canon, Sally Bowles, the British chanteuse who steals Clifford’s ambiguous heart. Cassie Cameron has this role. She half speaks, half growls her songs from the delectable Kander and Ebb score which punctuate her character’s “I’m all about me” personality.

Adding to the cold heart club is Frau Kost, wickedly played by Amy Jakiel. The across the hall neighbor of Clifford and Sally in Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house, she’s a busy prostitute who embraces New Germany politics: her off-hand remark to Herr Schultz at an engagement party is a revealing moment in the story. Her fierce “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is rage on stage set to music.

So much anger…but there’s heart-warming moments of love in this sad story, too.  Pamela Rose Mangus is a delight as Fraulein Schneider, boarding house owner who has the heart of Herr Schultz, the local fruit shop owner, played by Steve Jakiel. For me, theirs was the real heart of this production. They were a couple caught in two worlds; their love of home and heritage, Fraulein’s fear for the future, Herr ‘s naivete that this Nazi thing is a political whim. Jakiel and Mangus share a lovely, charming on-stage connection. Their tender duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More” was sweet and loving. Mangus has two other pivotal moments: her act one song “So What” countered against her wistful second act song “What Would You Do” is Kander and Ebb magic. Her passion, her confusion, her love for a fine man whose country is about to betray him…all spot on.

The other stand out is Dan Urtz as Clifford. He blew us all away last season in Road Less Traveled Productions’ Hand to God as the Satan-possessed teen puppeteer…and now he’s the American who is witness to a changing world. Another dynamic performance at the other end of the spectrum, including a showplace for his wonderfully rich voice.

Director Kristin Bentley got it all right with this production, as did choreographer Kelly Copps. They create a whole little world on that small Shea’s Smith Theatre stage. It works. The stage movements they created are stunning and beautifully detailed. Despite all the goodness, it’s not an easy show to watch. You know what’s coming for these characters. You know it’s not good. You know it’s inevitable.

Spoiler Alert: it’s the final moment that grabs you and lingers As an audience member, it’s disconcerting. You want to applaud wildly. Call the cast back for more appreciation. But you can’t. And they won’t come out again. The impact is strong, palpable. And it’s completely by design.

Cabaret is a full two hours with a 15-minute intermission. It runs until June 26. Find details at http://www.secondgenerationtheatre.com.

Love and the universe onstage at Shea’s Smith Theatre

If COVID’s theatre blackout period delivered one positive thing, it’s the option for regional theatre companies to successfully present smaller cast, one act productions. As much as I love a full-on, two and a half hour show with an intermission, these one act, two and three-handers are a little slice of stage heaven.

The latest one is Constellations by Nick Payne, beautifully presented by Second Generation Theatre at Shea’s Smith Theatre.

It’s a show of scenes, often repeated multiple times with the same set up, same script, and different outcomes, all skillfully directed by Michael Wachowiak. If you’re a fan of the TV series This Is Us, you’re comfortable in this format of flashbacks and flashforwards, where scenes may not immediately make sense, but coalesce in surprisingly simple and evocative ways.

Actors Kristin Bentley and Chris Avery are Marianne (the physicist) and Roland (the beekeeper), meeting by chance at a friend’s barbecue. This is a love story with a side of physics.  Yes, physics. Not the nerd love of Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler of Big Bang Theory fame. (I know, another TV show touchpoint.) In this show the focus is on the people and the science is backburnered. Love and the universe knit together in a sadly romantic and simply stunning way, because in physics “We have all the time we ever had,” said Marianne.

I think if you would see the script written in a linear, traditional format, perhaps it might only fill a few pages. The repetition – separated by blackouts of varying duration – and the actors’ change of placement give the story an interesting arc that bends like a FM radio wave, wrapping over and around obstacles to reach our listening ears. Wachowiak’s direction here is sublime: the actors move from sitting to standing, stage right to stage left, a step away and 10 paces back, in these spaces between light and dark. Audio effects (the rumble of the Earth’s plates, perhaps) mask their footfalls and movement. It’s like watching still life art come to life.

Bentley and Avery play their roles exceptionally well. Bentley is animated and charming as Marianne, and she focuses like a laser when she talks about science. Avery’s Roland makes notes when he’s describing the world of bees and they bond over their mutual love of order, he for his bees and she for the orders of the universe. She talks about relativity and string theory, he talks about bee habits and how pollen is captured. Their story is sweet, but sometimes the universe has its own plans.

Lighting director Chris Cavanagh also designed the sound and these production elements were as important as the script and actors. Together this ensemble created an exquisite experience.

Constellations is onstage until March 26, running 75 minutes, no intermission, at Shea’s Smith Theatre. Details and tickets at www.secondgenerationtheatre.com.

Photo provided, Mark Duggan Photography

A Sure Sign of Spring: Shea’s Announces Next Season’s Schedule

Shea’s Buffalo Theatre is going back to its roots as a movie house with the M&T Bank 2020-21 Broadway Series. Six of the seven mainstage offerings either began their lives on the silver screen or have already been made into films. Venerable producing partner Albert Nocciolino joined Shea’s  President  Michael G. Murphy to announce next year’s season at a subscriber’s event held Tuesday night.

An exciting kick off to the season – and another economic boon for Buffalo – are two national tours are launching on Shea’s stage. This also means that Shea’s will host the tech and stage crews for extended stays, with an estimated $3 million in regional economic impact for the region, says Murphy, along with creating work for local theatre technicians.  This is made possible by a New York State program that incents Broadway productions to launch from an upstate – in our case a Western New York – theatre, an opportunity enjoyed by our city coffers for five years.

The first of these productions is “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Richard Thomas, August 15-22. This is Aaron Sorkin’s script which was produced this season at the Kavinoky Theatre. Thomas – long remembered for his TV character John Boy Walton – will star as Atticus Finch.

Next up and the second national launch is the stage version of the 1982 comedy “Tootsie,” October 3-10. It’s the same fun story: an out of work actor wins roles when he dresses in drag, with a score written by David Yazbeck who also the score for “The Band’s Visit” coming to Shea’s this April, along with “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

The next movie on stage in “Pretty Woman The Musical,” where the hooker with a heart of gold wins over emotionally remote rich dude. All the scenes you loved in the 1990 movies are tied together with a score by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime song writing partner Jim Vallance.

The 2019 Tony award winning revival of “Oklahoma” is on stage January 26-31. The New York Times called it the “the coolest production of the year is from 1943” because of its inventive restaging of an American classic and the fresh arrangements of the lovely Rodgers and Hammerstein score.

Another classic,  the Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” follows March 23-28.

The season’s juke box musical is “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Life and Times of The Temptations,” dances on stage May 11 to 16.

Closing out the season is another hit from the snowy silvery screen, “Frozen,” June 16-27.

Two special engagements round out the season: “Hamilton” returns November 3-20. Season subscribers may opt to include this as part of their season; and “Dear Evan Hansen,” April 13-18.

Murphy also announced the new seasons for Shea’s other theatre properties.  For the third season, O’Connell & Company will be in residence at Shea’s Smith Theatre. This season begins with “Nunsensations A-Men,” January 8-17, followed by “SUDS: The Rocking ‘60s Musical Soap Opera,” March 5-14, and the return of “Betsy Carmichael’s BINGO PALACE, “ April 29-May 2. Also in residence at Shea’s Smith is Second Generation Theatre. This company’s season begins October 16 with the play “Constellations,”  until November 1, followed by Jason Robert Brown’s lush musical “Songs for a New World” February 5-21, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel adapted for stage “The Secret Garden,” May 21-June 6. 

At Shea’s 710 Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions will stage “Slow Food, “a comedy, September 10-27. MusicalFare Theatre follows with the musical “In the Heights,”December 3-20. The theatre collaborative All for One Theatre Productions (MusicalFare Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions, Irish Classical Theatre, Theatre of Youth) bring love and comedy to the stage with “Shakespeare in Love,”February 11-28. Irish Classical Theatre brings” Farinelli and the King,”a drama, to this stage April 8-18. Finally MusicalFare Theatre returns with the regional premiere of Kinky Boots, May 6-23.

Full descriptions and ticket information is online at www.sheas.org.

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Theatre Review: ‘Big Fish’ by Second Generation Theatre at Shea’s Smith Theatre

So here’s the thing about…musicals. When they’re good, they’re great, and Second Generation Theatre landed a big one with the regional premiere of “Big Fish.” In true SGT style, there’s a stellar cast, perfect costumes, a simple but effective set, and a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

. . .full of laughs, sweet moments, and reflective take-aways.  

“Big Fish” isn’t a household name musical. It had a short run on Broadway in 2013 followed by a London run a few years later. A couple tunes are regularly heard on Sirius’ Broadway channel. Its origin is a 1998 novel which  Tim Burton made into a film, and all three iterations share the basic storyline with its colorful characters and multi-leveled messages. It’s good to see this story on a Buffalo stage.

The musical version captures the best of the story: a complicated father-son relationship, pure and love, and the story of a bigger than life everyman whose quiet acts of goodness were coated in tall tales and boisterous stories.

Lou Colaiacovo is Edward Bloom, the adventure seeking traveling salesman who spins a world of fantasy that embarrasses his feet-planted-firmly on the ground son Will,played by Ricky Needham. Michele Marie Roberts is Edward’s wife, who catches his eye across a crowded circus. Yes, it was love at first sight, and she ditches her fiancée (Edward’s teen nemesis) to marry her beguiling dreamer. The ensemble are the characters in Edward’s real and amplified world. Standouts are Victoria Perez: her solo, ‘The Witch’ is big and rich and almost scary fun. She strides across the stage with a flamenco stamp in her step, snapping her fan, and gazing into her crystal ball. She’s fierce and fabulous. Stevie Jackson is giggly and sweet as Jenny Hill, the cheerleader girlfriend Edward left behind. Jacob Albarella is a stitch as the circus ringleader by day and werewolf by night. You have to love the erudite Karl the Giant (Dave Spychalski) and his clomping Frankenstein shoes.

The uncredited star of the show is the river in Edward’s dot-on-the-map Alabama hometown. You don’t see it or hear it, but it’s there. He’s skipping stones  across it as the show opens. It’s the setting for his witch encounter. It’s the site of the dam that will flood out the old town. It’s where Will brings him before he takes his last breath. More than a common metaphor for life and rebirth, the river flows through some of Edward’s biggest tales and defines his immortality.

Director/choreographer Michael Walline made perfect choices for his cast. Colaiacovo and Roberts are loveable as husband and wife Edward and Sandra. Roberts’ stunning voice soars as she sings about the ‘Magic in the Man’, a send up to true love. Her subtle winks and knowing smiles are full of Alabama lamb southern style. Their ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Time Stops’ duets are tender and loving. Colaiacovo makes fine work of the ‘Be the Hero’ and ‘Fight the Dragons’ anthems, and the prescient  ‘How it Ends’ is especially poignant. Needham is appropriately straight laced and pragmatic as Will who finally learns that “once you understand the stories, you understand the man.”

“Big Fish” is full of laughs, sweet moments, and reflective take-aways.  With a story that’s a little bit “It’s a Wonderful Life” (one man can change a lot of lives)and “The Music Man’ (smart women see beyond the façade of  the men they love), you’ll be pulled in to the world where these loveable characters dwell, and maybe give a second thought to relationships and those mysterious moments that define the people we love and maybe don’t really know.

This is SGT’s first show at Shea’s Smith Theatre. The built-out thrust stage makes sense for this room and show, and Walline uses the space beautifully, although sightlines weren’t always optimal. Opening night had some microphone glitches and a perhaps a couple musical challenges. The rest of the experience did all the things good theatre should evoke.  SGT has a great season planned, so in the words of the man himself, “Here’s to what’s next.”

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15-minute intermission.

“Big Fish” runs until October 28, 2018, is produced by Second Generation Theatre and is presented at Shea’s Smith Theatre. For more information, click here.