It’s All About the Music at Shea’s

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations is a hoot of a way to end this year’s Broadway season at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. It’s full of feel-good energy and lots of familiar tunes that has you wanting more….and that’s a good metaphor for a Buffalo theatre season, especially coming of the COVID-intermission.

The show is part memoir, part juke box tribute to the 60-year reign of The Temptations. Not unlike Jersey Boys or Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the script is a loose outline of how Otis Williams (Marcus Paul James) created brotherhood through music with some fellow Detroiters, got introduced to Motown legend Berry Gordy (Michael Andreaus) who assigned fledgling songwriter Smokey Robinson (Lawrence Dandridge) to create a signature sound, and the rest – as they say – is history. Along the way, there were plenty of woman woes, drug abuse, competition for the spotlight and plenty of music. The most fascinating part of the Temp’s history though is the time: they were moving up through the 1960s, working though the Civil Rights Movement, mourning the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., coping with violence as they toured southern states, while making music history in their own way. There were hints that the group wanted more relevance and to take a stand for social justice, but Gordy hired Shelly Berger (Reed Campbell) to help manage them and introduce a cross-cultural sound for their unique talents. Was there disappointment here? Maybe. Probably. This is the part of their story that deserved more telling, methinks. But scripts like this are written to hit the high notes (at best in falsetto) and a little revisionist history means we just get to the tunes a little faster.

And that’s the whole point of the story…. to celebrate the music. And damn it was good. Diana Ross and the Supremes make a guest appearance along with Tammi Terrell. Deri’Andra Tucker as Diana, Shayla Brielle G. doing double duty as Tammi and Flo, and Traci Elaine Lee as Mary had voices worthy of the music for sure.

It’s the five original Temps that had the show, though (there were 24 Temps to date, Marcus Paul James as Otis Williams said). He plus James T. Lane, Harrell Holmes, Jr., Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis as Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, and David Ruffin had the voices, the dancing, the swagger, and brotherhood that showed the best of the Temps the way we want to see them. If the script washed over the less appealing stuff…well…that’s not what the show was meant to be. It’s all about “Cloud Nine,” “My Girl,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and the soundtrack of our lives from ’61 to ’73 and the group’s last Top 10 hit.

As you would expect, the lights, the costumes, the projection, and the set changes were flashy and dazzling. There was an appropriate Buffalo cheer when “Buffalo” and “Kleinhans” on flashed the projected marquee. And of course, when an early group member broke into “Shout,” this prompted an audience sing along. (Now wait a minute, kids, “Shout” was really a song before it became our favorite cheer.) Maybe it is in the script that the singer on stage ‘cues’ the audience to join in, but that clearly isn’t needed in this town.

If I had one disappointment, it is that there wasn’t a “mega mix” medley at the end so the audience – already on its feet – could dance and sing along one more time.

“Ain’t Too Proud” is in town (God willing and the COVID rate don’t rise) to Sunday, May 15. It runs a full two hours including a 20-minute intermission.  Tickets and details at www.sheas.org.

Anastasia is a Feast for the Eyes at Shea’s

I’ll say this straight up: suspend all your thoughts about present day Russia and erase your knowledge about the Russian Revolution and the urban myths behind Princess Anastasia dead or alive (maybe).  Instead embrace the idea that the two plus hours you’ll spend in Shea’s Performing Arts Center seeing Anastasia The New Broadway Musical is a charming fairy tale about hope and perseverance with a great score, stunning scenography, and beautiful costumes.

This production is the stage version of the popular 1997 film that is (very) vaguely based on the fall of the Romanov Empire of Imperialist Russia circa 1917. In brief, the people revolt against their austere living conditions vis a vis the royal family’s lavish lifestyle and the Tsar, his bride, and their children are killed after the Tsar’s mother – the Dowager Empress – escapes to Paris. Only one daughter – Anastasia – survives, albeit traumatized and suffering from amnesia. Rumors of her life are widely circulated on the street, and two shady sorts decide to audition girls to pose as the young Princess, bring her to Paris to reunite with her beloved Dowager Nana, and reap the ruples of reward. Unbeknownst to them, the scrappy, hard-working street-sweeping waif they meet is Anastasia herself, and while she is tutored by a former gentleman of the court to adopt royal ways, her old memories begin to return.  The Terrence McNally book throws in a couple fun plot twists for interest along with some laughably loveable characters.

Revisionist history notwithstanding, this production is visually stunning. The sets are lush and are beautifully augmented with spectacular video of old St. Petersburg, the Hermitage, and a breathtaking ride up the Eiffel Tour. The video helps advance the years from 1906 up to 1927 and the scenery and fashion change accordingly. It’s all seamless and lovely. Anastasia’s flashbacks and dreams are illusions that come to life, too.  There’s even a simulated train ride from Russia through Poland to the outskirts of Paris where the (one) train car appears to turn and bank and jerk along. Scene purists will balk that we only see that solitary car in what we assume to be a longer train, but hey, it’s all about point of view. Once the trio gets to Paris, they mingle with Russian emigres and in a truly special moment, there’s a beautiful ballet sequence with excerpts from Swan Lake. The Tchaikovsky score is nicely performer by two keyboards, a small ensemble orchestra, and an exquisite quartet of dancers.

There are some truly stand-out moments. Kyla Stone as Anastasia has a rich and full voice that is perfect for the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Aherns score. Gleb, the military man who is on a mission to find Anastasia is expertly played by Brandon Delgado: his music conservatory training is well-used here for sure. My favorite moment of theatre magic is in the opening scene. The Royal Family is joyously dancing and little Anastasia lifted by her father as years turn from 1906 to 1917. While father and daughter twirl and spin, an older Anastasia is in her father’s arms right before your eyes. Yes, I was paying attention and no, I had no idea how the transition happened.

So it’s not authentic history and the story is a little thin, there is such joy on the stage, just go with it and be swept up by the gltiz and glam. It’s plenty of fun with a dash of romance, too.

A few gentle warnings: the show runs just shy of three hours with one intermission (cue the fanny fatigue). The lighting is spectacular for sure, but there are some flashing strobe lights in the first act which some folks may find bothersome. And “Journey to the Past” (originally nominated for best song in the 1997 Academy Awards) with its tricky syncopation and key modulations can easily become a fine earworm.  Details and tickets at www.sheas.org.

He’s Back!: Hamilton Returns to Shea’s

In a recent interview in Yankee Magazine, historian Jill Leppore said that a lot of what we call history is really folklore , myth, or tourism.  Perhaps that’s one scholar’s cynicism, but projects like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton book) puts a fired-up version of history at center stage.

Hamilton is onstage now at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre until January 2, and it’s still daring, dynamic, and very entertaining.  Miranda is a master storyteller, as good as any historian. Pile on the music, lyrics, and fresh interpretation of real people we’ve never met, and you have an amazing work, worthy of every accolade it earned. This is A. Ham’s second tour through Buffalo and it remains a hot ticket and great night of theatre.

Miranda’s nod to our Founding Fathers and the American Revolution is terrific fun. Maybe it’s history light and not everyone will love the beats and the racial and gender mashups, but based on casual observation only, the audience is just as eclectic as the cast.  And the abundance of loud applause and audible audience sing-alongs signal a hit: history is super cool with music and dancing. (Yes, sing alongs. A couple times on stage when the assembled cast is told to “sing along,” this audience chimed in, too. It was fun.)

To recap, Alexander Hamilton, “The Foxiest of the Federalists,” according to a t-shirt I saw, was George Washington’s right hand, a lead writer of the Federalist Papers, the founder of the Coast Guard and creator the U.S. financial system…and was a loving husband, father, and occasional philanderer. He wasn’t without his share of frenemies (being brash, brilliant, and full of himself will do that), among them his rival-for-notoriety Aaron Burr. The rest of the story er history is the crux of the plot, so no spoilers here.

History and its iterations aside, the production is astonishing. Miranda took the high notes from Chernow’s book, put a series of driving beats under them, and created a layered and nuanced experience rich with details.  If it’s rap that drives the music, the stage movement and choreography create a stunning visual. Dance moves are athletic and full out powerful, yet there are subtle gestures and bold poses that you can see from Shea’s back wall. A little flick of fingers gives enough emphasis to move this story.  This is a show based on details and no one skimps.

This is a large, rotating cast. The performance I saw had Pierre Jean Gonzalez as Hamilton, the smooth voiced Jared Dixon as Burr, and Marcus Choi as Washington. Dixon’s voice was like listening to velvet drape itself over you.  It was captivating. Up against Warren Egypt Franklin (Jefferson and Lafayette) with his quirky, edgy voice the songs like “What’d I Miss” were even more lively. The sweetest ensemble singing though belonged to the Schuyler Sisters (Meecah, Ta’Rea Campbell, and Paige Smallwood as Eliza, Angelica, and Peggy respectively). Campbell’s Angelica was fierce. Meecah’s Eliza has the sweetness that burns under the surface. Her finale – down to the oft-debated gasp and grasp – was heartbreaking and beautiful.

Buffalo native Neil Haskell as King George owns his stage time for sure. His snarly curled lip and well-enunciated words bring the requisite audience hoots and howls. Plus he’s one of our own, gotta love it.

Even if you saw the road show here three years ago, or in NYC, see it again. Each production team embellishes the goodness with some new twists and you’ll see new things that you missed the first time around. Sure, you know the story and how it ends, but it’s the way the story is told that is compelling.

Hamilton runs almost three hours with an 18-minute intermission. Bring your ID and vaccination card and please keep your mask on. Shea’s is doing its bit to keep audiences safe and comfortable:  we owe it to our fellow theatre lovers to respect the process.

When you go, there’s a slip-sheet in the program about the annual fund drive for Broadway Cares. Traditionally this was done with actors in the lobby after the performance: COVID contact has made this a quick QR code scan and e-gift.

Get details and tickets at http://www.sheas.org.

Tootsie – Now on Stage at Shea’s

Full disclosure: I generally don’t enjoy productions that morph from screen to stage.

I prepared myself to embrace Tootsie, now on stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, with an open mind, and pushed my 1982 movie memories to the back of my brain. So a show with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (writing for screen to stage shows is his thing, having done so for The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrel, Women on the Verge…, and The Band’s Visit which is next on stage at Shea’s), seeing Buffalo gal Dominique Kempf in her first national tour, and the opportunity to be back in Shea’s again after a long intermission, how can it be bad?

Truth be told, it wasn’t horrible. Nor was it the best thing I’ve seen in this venerable house. Yazbek’s score was lively and clever, albeit not terribly memorable, beginning with an overture (a wonderful throwback that most musicals skip nowadays…there was an ent’racte, too) and a bright and snappy opening number. Straight up we meet Michael Dorsey (played by Drew Becker), a struggling stage actor and waiter who has high-minded opinions about the roles he is offered – and regrettably loses –  thanks to his passion for truth and depth. His roommate and aspiring playwright Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant) is his deadpan sidekick. Grant has some of the best lines with perfect delivery, too. He even cleaned up Bill Murray’s iconic observation of his roommate’s dual persona ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38lkRCedEys).

Up next is Michael’s ex girlfriend Sandy Lester (Payton Reilly), a whirlwind of neuroses and emotions as she clamors for acting roles, too. Her repeated “What’s Gonna Happen” theme song is a study in rapid fire words and feelings in a funny sort of jumble. Sandy is pursuing a role in a sequel to Romeo and Juliet, and she when isn’t cast, Michael decides to audition, too…in the persona of Dorothy Michaels, a good ol’Southern girl who speaks her mind and by golly don’t people start listening. He wins the role and influences a plot pivot and title change. Michael as Dorothy is admired and liked and heard…and is falling in love with his leading lady (Ashley Alexandra) who thinks Dorothy is her new mentor. But the cast dumb-as-a-post hunk Max (Lukas James Miller) is falling for Dorothy, too. What’s a girl/guy to do?

In between all this, there are lovely costumes (the ‘50s styles glam gorgeous billowy ball gowns), some wonderful choreography, and plenty of funny bits. There is some meat behind the plot, too: self-realization and the value of true friends and digging deep to do what’s right all will prevail. It was also great to see Ashley Alexandra in her leading role: she’s a full figured woman cast in a part that – in a less inclusive world – might have gone to someone else. Brava. What I didn’t love were the overly long pregnant pauses to milk the laughs for an extra beat or two.

This is the first national tour for the Tony Award-winning show and the cast projects a strong ensemble vibe. It was wonderful to see Kempf on this stage, after enjoying her outstanding work at MusicalFare Theatre’s Ragtime, and West Side Story.

The story may be ho-hum but the energy is high and overall it’s entertaining. And Shea’s, it’s just good to be home.

Tootsie runs a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission; it is onstage until October 16: visit sheas.org for details.

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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‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The national touring company of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The iconic rock opera, written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, graced the stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre as part of the 50th anniversary National Tour. “Jesus Christ Superstar” tells the story of Jesus Christ during the last seven days of his life. It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t push beliefs on it’s audience, it is a tale of the man. 

Timothy Sheader directs a unique production. Part interpretive dance, part rock concert. It isn’t for everyone, but I found it exciting, fresh, and contemporary. Taking material from the 70’s and mounting it for audiences that may never have been exposed to the material before. It is a 90 minute experience that I believe is what Rice and Lloyd Webber set out to create when they penned this material. 

“Jesus Christ Superstar” was never supposed to be a book musical. It was a concept album, telling the story through a rock and roll score. This production does just that, and seeing it live, will definitely make you see that this isn’t an ordinary staging. It’s not supposed to be an ordinary musical. 

Where the production falls a little flat is in some of the vocal prowess. Singing against tempo, breathing in strange phrases, and lagging with the band, seems to be a theme in this show. While not totally terrible, as a musician, I cringed hearing the singers delay, wondering if they were going to catch up. They always did, in-case you were wondering. The orchestra, a full band that includes all members of the various instrument families, delivers Lloyd Webber’s score with power, force, and brilliance. There are some artistic liberties taken, especially with a random screechy tenor saxophone solo, but after thinking about it for a while, I realized that it complemented the activity happening on stage, and I found it perfect.

Costumes are modernized in this production, including tank tops, baggy sweatpants, sneakers, zip up hoodies,  and lots of tattoos. This style reminded me of the “Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE” on NBC a few years ago. I really liked it.

James Delisco Beeks plays Judas, and let me tell you, his performance must cause him great exhaustion at the end of the night. He is a rock star, and he does well singing the demanding parts. “Heaven On Their Minds” needs to be amazing because it sets us up for the rest of the story. Delisco Beeks takes a few minutes to warm up, but once he gets going, he is a powerhouse. 

Jenna Rubaii sings her heart out as Mary Magdalene, and is an audience favorite. Her performance of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” (one of my favorite songs in the show) is beautiful, and she graces the notes with ease. Sadly, Mary’s part is not huge in the show, and I would have loved to see more of her. 

Somewhere in the last 50 years, it was decided that King Herod had to be portrayed as a flamboyant drag performer. I have seen this in at least three productions out of the last five I have attended. While I don’t hate it, it surely takes away from new interpretations as this seems to be the new normal. In any case, Paul Louis Lessard gets the laughs and makes quite the spectacle as Herod in this production. A flashy gold outfit, a machete, boots, it’s very entertaining. He sings the iconic “King Herod’s Song” to a tee. An audience favorite.

Finally, Aaron LaVigne plays Jesus. I always judge a production’s Jesus by how well they sing my all time favorite song in the show “Gethsemane.” Playing his own guitar accompaniment, and laying all the cards out on the table, LaVigne makes this song his own, including the Ted Neely-esk screeches, and I loved every single stinking second of it. 

This production chooses to exclude the intermission, which is fantastic. 90 minutes. Glitter. You can’t go wrong!

“Jesus Christ Superstar” runs until February 16, 2020 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Les Miserables’ at Shea’s Performing Arts Center

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

Along with “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Wicked,” and “The Lion King,” Les Miserables is just one of those shows that won’t stop touring. It’s rare to come across someone who hasn’t seen the show or its criticized cinematic counterpart which begs the question, “why bother?”

Whether it’s your first or fiftieth time seeing Les Miserables, it remains a powerful musical that brings audience members to their feet and leaves them in tears”

The long-running musical is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, following ex-convict Jean Valjean in 19th Century France after he is released from a 19-year stint in jail stemming from stealing bread for his family. After he meets a bishop who offers him food and shelter and lies to protect him from being arrested again, Valjean is motivated to live a more honest and good life while trying to escape shadows from his past, including former prison guard-turned police inspector Javert.

One of the things I’ve noticed about Les Mis since the production design was revamped almost a decade ago is the focus on more raw performances, which was also undoubtedly a result of the popularity of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and the 2013 film cast singing live in the movie. Since then, including on the musical’s 25th anniversary 2010 album, the vocals have gotten less by-the-book and actors appear more free to shake things up. It was refreshing to see that theme continuing on this tour.

Patrick Dunn commands the stage as Valjean, expressing incredibly intense emotions through an unwavering voice. Dunn is strongest on an audience favorite, the tear-inducing “Bring Him Home.” Preston Truman Boyd is an outstanding and increasingly unstable Javert, slowly unraveling as his views on faith and the law start to blur as the years go on.

Phoenix Best was a phenomenal Eponine, a scrappy and love-stricken street urchin pining after Joshua Grosso’s Marius. While Grosso’s early interactions with Cosette (sweet songstress Jillian Butler), were a touch too silly for my liking, his voice soared on the part; a quality I am thankful for since being scarred by the Nick Jonas 25th anniversary concert portrayal.

While the entire cast was spot on, I have to mention one additional performer – Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras, the leader of the student revolutionaries. For some reason, that is always the performance that makes or breaks the show for me. Fortunately, we were blessed with Shingledecker’s aggressive energy and powerful tenor leading us through the latter half of the show, soaring in every song and inspiring his fellow Frenchmen (and women) to join the cause, no matter how impossible it seemed.

As I mentioned earlier, the newer (relative to Les Mis) production design really expands the set capabilities for the show, which never stops moving. The projections by 59 Productions are especially great coupled with Paule Constable’s lighting design.

Whether it’s your first or fiftieth time seeing Les Miserables, it remains a powerful musical that brings audiences to their feet and leaves them in tears. This cast is vocally top-notch and makes for a memorable evening during this holiday season.

Running Time: Approximately two and 55 minutes including a fifteen-minute intermission.

“Les Miserables” runs through December 15 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center For more information and tickets, click here.

An 11 Year Tradition: The Nutcracker at Shea’s

The 11th annual production of The Nutcracker (Nov. 30 and Dec. 1) is a delightful collaboration between Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Neglia Ballet Artists, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

It’s a triple win for the value of cultural partnerships: Buffalo’s most beautiful venue, our world-class orchestra, and a ballet program that features local students and has enough star-power to attract a stunning line up of guest artists is the best of all possible worlds.

If that isn’t enough, the production is lovely from the moment we hear the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s luscious score to the moment the gilt-fringe curtain falls.

Then there’s the whole Christmas spirit going on, too. Shea’s carefully curated elegance is tastefully decked out in white lights and pine bough. The audience is full of families with little ones in their holiday best.  The whole vibe is wonderfully infectious and a harbinger of the holiday month to come.

The story is familiar: it’s Christmas eve at the Stahlbaum house and friends and family members gather for gifts. The mysterious (read: slightly creepy) Herr Drosselmeyer (Paul Mockovak) arrives with life-size toys and magic tricks, and a special gift for the Stahlbaum daughter Marie (Director Sergio Neglia opts to call her Marie as his mentor George Balanchine did; most other productions call her Clara.) It’s a nutcracker and Marie is entranced. Brother Fritz breaks it in a jealous moment and Drosselmeyer repairs it post haste. Marie falls asleep with her gift and is awakened by a frisky mouse…and a room full of rats. The Nutcracker comes to life and with an army of soldiers (and some help from Marie) he slays the rat king and his band of vermin. More Drosselmeyer magic saves the Nutcracker as a handsome Prince and fast-forwards young Marie to young adulthood. They dance their way around the world through heritage soloists and sweets.

It’s the local kids as the mice, rats, snow flakes, angels, cupcakes, baker, and soldiers with  the impressive cast in the featured roles;  they meld perfectly as storytellers and interpreters of Neglia’s choreography.  Neglia himself is the Nutcracker, an imposing figure. Standouts were youth dancers Zoe de Torres Curth, (Marie) a Buffalo Seminary student who moved here from her native Argentina to study with Neglia, and Nardin Academy senior Ava DiNicola,(one of the three Mirlitons) both dancing in featured roles.

Dancers are athletes, artists, and storytellers; to convey a story without words is an art in itself. Neglia and this troupe remind us of this graceful and powerful complexity.  It’s easy to be drawn into the story and be swept away by the music and the dance.

The scenic design is exceptional: Lynne Koscielniak is responsible for the original renderings and Dyan Burlingame (the resident set designer for Road Less Traveled Productions) with Jon Shimon, Michele Costa (her theatreFiguren skills created character masks and the toys, too) and Roger Schroeder created additional imagery in the first act. Burlingame also designed the lighting which featured some lovely hues that highlighted Donna Massimo’s jewel toned costume designs.  It’s all well balanced, like a painting come to life.

An act one glitch: during a lovely duet, the gentle fall of on-stage snow became a Lake Effect squall for a moment as too much faux snow fell in a big flurry.  Like good Buffalonians, the pair danced on.

Buffalo is ballet starved for sure: those of us of a certain age remember the days of yore at ArtPark when a ballet company was in residence each summer. We were treated to traditional and contemporary works as regularly as the current regime brings in ‘70s and ‘80s rockers.  Times changes and companies like Neglia Ballet Artists help keep dance accessible to a broad albeit niche audience.  Neglia is also training tomorrow’s dancers and dance audiences that will keep the art form alive here. Bravo!

The Nutcracker is a full and well-paced two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Details at http://www.negliaballet.org.

Theatre Review: ‘Jersey Boys’ at Shea’s Performing Arts Center

(l to r) Jon Hacker, Eric Chambliss, Corey Greenan and Michael Milton. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Full disclosure: I love jukebox musicals…and I hate the song “Sherry.”

Yes, I know “Sherry” is the song that catapulted Frank Valli and The Four Seasons to fame in 1962 and that it’s an early indicator of songwriter Bob Gaudio’s immense talent. It’s not the song’s fault that my ears have suffered more than their share of off-key falsettos warbling “Sherry Baby” to me through the years.

. . .this one is a winner. 

The dreaded song, however, has a starring role in “Jersey Boys” now stage at Shea’s Performing Art Center only until Sunday… and deservedly so. This is a super-slick, entertaining show packed with pop hits from the 1960s to the late 1970s with a wee bit of pop music history thrown in for good measure.

This production (not part of the regular Shea’s subscription package) is a blast. It’s bright and the right amount of loud, with a tight on-stage band, and a great cast of singers.  Jon Hacker hits the right high notes as Frankie Valli with his tenor and tremulous signature falsetto. Eric Chambliss as songwriter-keyboardist Bob Gaudio is the perfect combination of talented erudite and pop music talent wrapped up in a good guy package. Corey Greenan as band organizer-bad boy Tommy DiVito has a laughably bad downstate Italian-American-Bronx accent, but he has the swagger and charm that goes with the real deal. Michael Milton as bass player Nick Massi has great deadpan delivery as the quiet guy in the back. Near the end of the show, he lands ‘the’ line of the night: listen for it to fully appreciate what it’s like to be the one out of four who is the easiest to overlook.

If you tuned your transistor radio to WKBW 1520-AM back in the day, these are the songs you heard in what disc jockeys called ‘heavy rotation.’ They were the hits that sold records and concert tickets and inspired other guy and girl groups to give it a go. Great pop tunes like ‘Rag Doll,’ ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry,’ ‘Walk Like a Man,’ ‘Dawn,’ and ‘C’mon Marianne’ were the leaders in the Four Seasons canon and live on today in our hearts and oldies stations everywhere.  You’ll hear some full songs and some stripped down versions in this production and this cast delivers them well and leaves you wanting more.

The downside of some  jukebox shows is the script. “Jersey Boys” is the life story of band itself (yup, four guys from New Jersey) and this script is the Cliff’s Notes version of their lives and careers together, with a couple dashes of personal biography tossed in. This script is pretty much a few maybe-almost-true words to knit the song list together. In this case, it’s OK: it’s the music I came to hear. You only need a passing familiarity of their history to connect with the ‘it’ factor that made them the icons they are. Legend has it that Valli and Gaudio formed their partnership with a handshake only…no lawyers, no paperwork, New Jersey style…and even in the litigious 21st century, their deal is still solid.  If the backstories area little manufactured to make good theatre, well, here it’s forgiven. Just give me another chorus of ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.’

As touring shows go, this one is a winner. Be prepared to get on your feet at the end and sing along a bit. It’s just one tune (the show needed a longer ending mega mix), but you’ll leave the theatre with a smile on your face.

“Jersey Boys” runs a little longer than two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Get online quickly for tickets for this limited run, http://www.sheas.org.

Theatre Review: ‘Come From Away’ at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

The National Touring Cast of “Come From Away.”

I was in 5th grade on that day that the world stopped. I remember that no one told us anything in school, but the teachers in the hallway were all talking. There was some crying. There were some screams. My friends and I sat there wondering what was happening. We were 10, so we were not the first ones to get information. Even if we did get information, we wouldn’t have understood. It wasn’t until later that night when I got home from school that I learned about the tragic events that occurred in New York and Washington. Years later, I have had the opportunity to visit memorials at the World Trade Center and at The Pentagon. I can’t even imagine witnessing those events first hand. 

. . .the best story ever told. . .

“Come From Away,” the Broadway smash hit, tells the story of a small town in Newfoundland called Gander.  In it, there is a huge dilapidated airport where planes coming from Europe would stop to refuel at. Since the jet engine was created, planes can cross the ocean on a single tank of fuel, so there really isn’t much need for the airport anymore. That is until the US Airspace is closed on September 11, and 38 planes from all over the world land there. Seven-thousand people from around the world are brought to Gander against their will, and those on the planes have no idea where they are. What happens? People open their doors to their own home to help these people who are stranded for five days. Humanity at its finest.

This is the second time I have seen this show, and it will definitely not be the last. The last time I saw it was at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto in 2018. I was blown away by this production, and since then, the show has been extended two or three more times. It’s pretty much printing money at this point. It’s not a phenomenon. It is just fantastic storytelling and I believe that this might be the best story ever told. The music, the blocking, the vocals, and the pacing keep this story rolling. There is no intermission, and at no point are you bored or itching to get out of your seat. 

The show is an ensemble piece, where the actors seamlessly portray numerous characters. Newfoundlanders, Plane People, and other characters are all present in this story. The actors are so incredibly talented, and they give this story their absolute all. To name anyone specifically would be a disservice to the entire cast because each one of them is just absolutely captivating. It is also great to see a veteran cast of all shapes and sizes. This isn’t one of these shows where the cast is young, ripped, and all similar. This cast is full of character actors who give strong and enjoyable performances. I could watch them perform all day. 

The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt is so brilliant for this show. It would appear to be a minimal set, but with a story like this, you will have no problem filling in the blanks. Your imagination will run wild.

Christopher Ashley has directed a production that will live on in the memories of all those who see it, just like the memory of 9/11 stays with all of us who were there. Irene Sankoff and David Hein have crafted a musical that takes all the wonderful aspects of humanity and shows that people are truly, inherently, good. It has also put Gander on the map. My girlfriend and I are talking about going to visit!

Do yourself a favor, go see this show. 

Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

“Come From Away” runs until October 20, 2019 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more info, click here. You can also see it in Toronto, running until March 1, 2020. Click here for info.