Theatre Review: ‘Spring Awakening’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of “Spring Awakening” by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Last month, students who survived the gruesome shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida began demanding change in gun control legislation by holding rallies, planning walkouts to call for legislative action and meeting with the president.  Many supporters have praised them for standing up for the cause and lauding their fearlessness to call out the adults who have neglected to protect them, similar to the characters some of them had been cast to portray in the school’s production of “Spring Awakening.”

With timeliness on its side, MusicalFare opened its production of the revolutionary 2006 musical Thursday evening at Shea’s 710 Theatre, where it was met with frequent cheers and a deserved standing ovation.

. . .the cast passionately performs a controversial, heart-wrenching and vibrant show you’d be sorry to miss.

Director Randall Kramer has assembled a strong group of mostly returning MusicalFare players to perform Duncan Sheik’s musical based on the play by Frank Wedekind.

In 1891 Germany, a group of students including the sheltered Wendla, headstrong Melchior and anxious Moritz, all look to each other for guidance while struggling to adapt to society’s strict expectations and their parents’ and teachers’ views on the world. Sheik’s music is emotional and intoxicating under Allan Paglia’s direction and serves as the soundtrack to a tale of loss, love, youth and revolution.

Leah Berst and Nick Stevens lead the cast as Wendla and Melchior, respectively. Their vocals are impressively on point and they believably portray the accurate confusion, awkwardness and intensity of young love.

Arianne Davidow is Ilse, a mysterious, gentle character who has recently moved to an artist’s colony after being kicked out from her abusive household. Davidow is a vocal powerhouse and shines brightest when interacting with her old, troubled friend Moritz, played by Patrick Cameron. Cameron’s strength lies in his portrayal of Moritz’s crippling frustration at feeling like a failure. While he occasionally comes off so erratic that his words get lost, his intensity is necessary to showcase his troubling journey.

Lisa Vitrano and Jacob Albarella stand out in some of the more arguably challenging roles – all of the adult parts. Tasked with portraying teachers, various parents and other members of society with barely any costume changes, they both expertly navigate between characters adopting distinct vocal styles and pitches.

Kramer’s staging frequently brought the cast into the aisles and, mixed with Doug Weyand’s precise, passionate choreography, made for an immersive and intimate experience throughout the entire show. “Spring Awakening” is not meant to be performed far away beyond a fourth wall, and Musicalfare’s use of the space is excellent.

Even with incredible staging, what quadruples the production quality is Chris Cavanagh’s lighting and sound design. Bursting with color, his light plot was a character in itself and enhanced each song perfectly, shining especially during the rock numbers.

There were a few vocal moments that were lost, perhaps to an intense acting moment or opening night kinks. Chris Schenk’s industrial set of moving pieces, while efficient, had room for improvement, lacking storytelling details other than a sign during scenes at the school.

Regardless of the production’s few flaws, the story of “Spring Awakening” is too important to miss. Led by the strong quartet of Berst, Cameron, Davidow and Stevens, the cast passionately performs a controversial, heart-wrenching and vibrant show you’d be sorry to miss.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.

“Spring Awakening” plays through March 18, 2018, is produced by MusicalFare Theatre and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Spring Awakening’ by MusicalFare Theatre at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of MusicalFare’s ‘Spring Awakening.’ Photo by Chris Cavanagh.

When it comes to choosing programing, theater companies often have questions to ask when choosing the right show. Will this show work for the audience? Will we be able to sell tickets to something different? Will the material offend our audience? Can we successfully pull this off? There are many things to think about. Then, a show comes around like “Spring Awakening,” the 2007 Tony Award winning show for Best Musical. While this show was a Broadway phenomenon, it’s content and story are a little difficult for most theatre companies to perform.

“I had been thinking about this show for a while,” says Randy Kramer, Artistic Director of MusicalFare Theatre, who is also directing the production being presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre, “and it just wasn’t a good fit for our intimate space at MusicalFare. There is a large cast, and many musicians, and the show is written in a style that was just a little too much for our theatre.”

For those who might not be aware, “Spring Awakening” is a rock musical that took Broadway by storm during the 2007 season, with music written by Duncan Shiek and book by Steven Sater. The show tells a story of a group of young adults as they experience a life where they are constantly told what they should be doing and how they should be feeling. While adults try to run their lives, they experience their own desires and want to break away from the mold of what is expected of them. While the topics in the show may be dense at times, Kramer says that the situations depicted in the story are real.

“I think this show really will hit home with audiences, especially with what is happening right now with the student mobilization, after the terrible occurrence that happened last week in Florida,” says Kramer, “‘Spring Awakening’ tells a story of young people being told how to feel, and what to do, and they are standing up and rebelling. There is a similar reaction happening right now in the news.”

While “Spring Awakening” was a box office hit in New York, and went on two national tours, the show never played the main stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. “It was thought to be a little too risqué for our audiences,” says Kramer, “but now it is being given the chance to play at Shea’s 710 Theatre, and to me that shows that there has been progress in the community, to let a show like “Spring Awakening” be seen by Buffalo audiences.”

This is the fifth show that MusicalFare has produced at Shea’s 710 Theatre. “Shea’s President, Michael Murphy, wants to continue bringing interesting programming to the 710 Theatre space, and we are lucky to be performing in a space that is huge, has great history in the community, and that we can expand the scope of this show for the Buffalo audience.

Kramer says the this show will definitely bring out emotions, but that the audience should be positively impacted by the story, and the characters. “I hope that this show gets the audience to talk about issues. Not just the issues that the show brings up, but other issues that are important.

“Spring Awakening” runs March 8 – 18, 2018, is produced by MusicalFare Theatre, and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.

Theatre Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

The cast of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie a bunch of times, but unless you are truly of a certain age, you’ve never seen (or heard) “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” now on stage at Shea’s 710 Theatre and produced by Road Less Traveled Productions.

. . .good night of theatre, you’ll love this production.

First produced as a radio drama in 1947 (the year after Frank Capra made the 1939 short story into a movie) for the Lux Radio Theatre, this version is Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation. It’s set in a fictitious 1946 radio station, WBFR, and Road Less Traveled has outdone itself making sure every detail is in place to take you back. The stage set is late Art Deco, down to the font on the Applause and On Air signs hanging over head, and big head microphones the actors cluster around.

In clever Road Less Traveled style, the show’s opening takes you by surprise, and leads you into your role as a member of the live studio audience for a coast-to-coast radio broadcast. The six actors (Anthony Alcocer, Steve Copps, Kelly Copps, Charmagne Chi, Fisher, and Philip Farugia) aren’t dressed as the familiar movie characters: they are sharply dressed radio stars doing their job on Christmas Eve. And what a job!  Copps and Copps portray George and Mary Bailey, while the other four actors smoothly morph from character to character. Alcocer in particular has many conversations with himself in dueling characters. It’s a joy to watch.

Farugia has the most understated but important role of all: he’s the Foley Artist, the head sound effects guy who slams doors, makes thunder roar, and in an impressive aural and visual moment, vigorously flaps an umbrella to suggest the chugging of a train.

The others add to the soundscape, too. This is the fun stuff for the post-radio generation to watch. Flicking a deadbolt lock is the ticking of a clock. A scrub brush on a washboard is a sled wooshing down a hill. Watch Kelly Copps’ face as she sloshes her hands into the bucket of water, and later attacks the same basin with a plunger. The actors (and their characters) are having a good time.

The Copps couple (real life spouses) are charming as the Bailey husband and wife, aging in place from kids to teens, adults. Chi is perfectly sultry as the vampish Violet (“why this old thing,” she says when George admires her dress, “ I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.”) and winsomely whiny as at least two Bailey kids. If Fisher’s Mr. Martini sounds more Jamaican than Italian, his smooth baritone chops are perfectly angelic as Clarence ordering mulled wine (heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves).  The only quibble is Alcocer as Uncle Billy, who drawls more like a southern belle than sounding like the befuddled old uncle. Otherwise he nails the smarmy radio announcer patter and malevolent Potter characters scowls easily.

Director John Hurley brings out the best in his cast: the ensemble babble to simulate crowd noise is effective, and the frequent stage crosses to get to the mics and the “green room” (where the actors retreat to knit or read when not needed at the mics) are fluid and natural.

This kind of show – while seemingly simple – is built on complex layers of details.  The “commercial breaks” in the broadcast were value-added mentions for the production’s actual sponsors, delivered in classic vintage radio style. Heavy color saturation in the costumes, well-coiffed hair, Max Factor perfect makeup are all on point.  A minor distraction was the excessive reverb in the sound mix: maybe it was meant to give that authentic ‘40s sound (but the studio audience would have heard a more pure in-studio mix). It either dissipated as the night went on, or my ears got used to it.

Landry’s adaptation has most of the moments you love from the movie, but the real delight of this production is the show-within-the-show staging. If you loved “Remember WENN” when it too briefly aired on cable TV from 1996 to 1998, or have fond memories of listening to radio dramas, or just appreciate a good night of theatre, you’ll love this production.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with no intermission.

“It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” runs until December 17, 2017, is produced by Road Less Traveled Productions, and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life – A Live Radio Play’ by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea’s 710 Theatre

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The cast of “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

Picture it:  in almost every living room in 1945, a common fixture was a radio. Some sat on a table, others were a free-standing piece of furniture. It had only one purpose, albeit a lofty one: it had to bring the world into the home over the AM only frequency, complete with the air-ish whistles and pops that forced you to pay attention.  There was nothing to watch, except perhaps the clock so you knew when to turn to your favorite station for that show you didn’t want to miss, or perhaps to avoid hearing news of a world at war that was hard to escape. It was a different time.

Fast forward to now:  no doubt there’s a flat screen TV on the living room wall, and if there’s a radio, it’s probably companioned to another device. Even when you “listen” to radio over your computer, there’s often a video component, as if our aural sense needs a backup plan. Our world is visual, fast-paced, and in your face.

Road Less Traveled Productions is taking us back to the 1940s with “ It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” the on-stage version of this beloved movie’s radio drama adaptation. Confusing? Consider it a classic mash-up of literary and theatrical genres. The original rendition was a privately-published short story written in 1939, which inspired Frank Capra’s classic film released in 1946, which begat the Lux Radio Theatre Drama in 1947. That production became a theatrical production in 1997.

Picking the right version was a priority for RLTP director John Hurley. “We picked an adaption of the movie and not the original story. The movie is something everyone loves, and people might be disappointed if they came and didn’t see a scene they loved. “

Seeing a beloved movie come to life on stage is one thing: watching the show within the show brings a special element to this production, particularly since only ‘senior’ baby boomers are among the theatre goers who remember listening to live dramatic productions on the radio. (With the exception of public radio listeners who enjoyed Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and Sirius XM’s Radio Classics station.) It’s an exciting way to experience a show with a familiar storyline, too.  Watching actors ‘act’ other characters is just part of the fun. All Foley sound effects will be ‘performed’ on stage, too. There are no off-stage enhancements.  Hurley says, “We’re pretending it’s the radio drama performed in front of a studio audience.  This makes you use parts of your brain that we’re not longer using in this day and age,” says Hurley.

Actors portraying actors who are acting creates an interesting dynamic: this six-member cast is portraying 45 roles, clamoring to share three onstage microphones, typical for radio dramas back in the day, and they even help create the Foley sound effects.  The cast also doesn’t leave the stage.

Kelly and Steve Copps portray the actors playing George and Mary Bailey, a fun opportunity for this real-life husband and wife.  Kelly says, “In essence, these people are very much like us. They’re your average guy and girl, and like every guy and girl, they have beautiful moments, and tough times.” 

They agree that sharing the stage is great fun. Kelly says, “We’re obviously very comfortable with each other, and aside from it being lovely to fall in love on stage, it’s great to watch each other work. Steve is so charming as George Bailey that I dare anyone not to fall in love with him.” Steve says, “As parents of children ages 3 and 1, it’s wonderful to have some time to ourselves (even if we are on stage in front of hundreds of people!) There’s already an innate sense of comfort with her, so it makes any potentially anxious situations easier.

Neither Copps have listened to radio dramas before, but are energized as actors by the unique edge it brings to the production. Kelly comments, “I have a soft spot in my heart for this style of music and dialogue, but the radio aspect is new to me. I love to close my eyes and listen when the others are speaking, and doing the Foley effects.”

This “theatre of the mind” aspect of radio carries over to the theatre experience, too. The set is a 1940s radio studio and green room, down to the late art deco décor. The actors are costumed as famous radio actors in street clothes, not like characters from the movie. The props and set pieces are things you would see in a radio station, not Bedford Falls. The cool factor is heightened with the traditional Foley sound effects performed on stage, led by Phil Farugia. “If you’re going to tromp through snow, you’ll see how it’s done without actual snow on stage.” Even with these visual prompts, “everything has to be done with the voice,” Hurley says. “If the audience closes their eyes, they should feel like they’re watching the movie.”

And you’ll know what happens when you hear a bell ring.

“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” is onstage at 710 Main Theatre, produced by Road Less Traveled Productions from Dec 1-17, 2017. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.

Theatre Review: ‘The Other Mozart’ at Shea’s 710 Theatre

“The Other Mozart” at Shea’s 710 Theatre.

“Nobody saved my letters,” laments Nannerl Mozart, the older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or as she calls him, Woflie or “that little sh*t,” in Sylvia Milo’s one-woman show ‘The Other Mozart.’

“. . .an interesting experience.”

This wistful statement delivered about halfway through the 80-minute performance could explain why Nannerl’s story is less told in music history. Eclipsed by her more famous baby brother, Nannerl also loved music, as she said, from the time she was born, and would clang her China tea cups in rhythm, and displayed prodigious talent at the keyboard. She badgered her father to teach her the harpsichord, which he delayed until her fingers grew longer and stronger (“perfect for the violin, but women can’t play the violin,” he told her). But then – like other show business siblings – Wolfie whimpered for lessons, too, to their father’s delight. At first the siblings toured with their father, and later Nannerl was left home, to learn the more womanly tasks like homemaking and embroidery. Being on the road like that, her mother feared, would make her too vain and unattractive to a potential husband.

Milo – the author and performer of this work –  created a very special world on stage to tell Nannerl’s story. The stark black stage has a single element: an enormous puddle of creamy looking silk – Nannerl’s dress – with letters and other trinkets from her life story tucked into the folds.  Milo appears in a very proper 18th century corset (a metaphor, perhaps, for the constraints on women’s lives back then) and steps into the center of this grand frock. As she tells her story, she picks items from her skirt – her first music lesson book, a tiny white keyboard – to advance her story in each careful gesture. Milo is expressive: her face, her gestures, every toss of her head and its bouncy, curly tuffs, convey something in her story. It’s an all sensory show, too.

Besides Milo’s monologue, with her clear voice rising and falling in delight and despair, snippets of music come and go, from Nannerl’s work,  brother’s, and Nannerl’s role model Viennese composer Marianna Martines. Milo’s husband Nathan Davis and composer Phyllis Chen composed other pieces, too, that replicate the clinking of silver teaspoons on tea cups, and tinkling bells and music boxes. There are subtle scents, too:  when she speaks of smelling lavender, Milo dusts the air with fragrant powder. The stage lights catch the sheer shimmery particles like a sheer veil as the gentle scent disperses. These moments give the show more of a performance-art feel than a straight stage play, and gives Nannerl a delicacy of spirit that transcends whatever regret or jealousy she may have about forsaking her musical gifts for a traditional marriage.

Milo’s text is rich and the stage devices – from the ornate prop-holding dress designed by Magdalena Dabrowska to Milo’s dramatic exit – contain some small (or expansive) insight into the life of an 18th century woman who – in another time – may have led a very different life.

This show is an interesting experience. Milo obviously did significant research on both the woman and this period in history. Often I felt her voice was overly strident which was a distraction from the impact of her words. To lift a phrase from the multi-Tony-award winning phenom ‘Hamilton,’ “who lives, who dies, who tells your story,’ Milo’s homage to Nannerl is worthy, and inspire reflection on how history treats those who don’t or can’t have a world spotlight on them.

Running Time: 80-minutes with no intermission.

“The Other Mozart” runs until May 7, 2017 and is presented at Shea’s 710 Theatre in Buffalo. For more information, click here.