RENT by Starring Buffalo at Shea’s 710 Theatre

It takes a lot to fill Shea’s 710 Main theater, and certainly the anticipation of Broadway and Buffalo talent performing one of the most recognizable musicals in the recent canon was all it took. Anticipation filled the air as Artistic Director Drew Fornarola took the stage to introduce Starring Buffalo’s third production in Buffalo, after far too long away.

RENT, which is somehow 25 years old (!!!) essentially revolutionized the way commercial Broadway functioned. People camped out on the street to get rush tickets, while the NYC elite were paying hundreds of dollars for the same show. It was Hamilton before Hamilton. Starring Buffalo has astounded me in their past two performances, and I was certainly excited to see their take on this revolutionary work. Fornarola and his team have assembled a seemingly perfect cast, including Broadway performers Jay Armstrong Johnson as Roger, Jerusha Cavazos as Mimi, and Troy Iwata as Mark. 

As Roger, Johnson is equipped with an unbelievable vocal instrument that is well suited for the role. I’ve long admired him as a performer, but felt that his performance was slightly low-energy off the bat. Iwata is the strongest of the Broadway performers, finding honest humor in each moment. I was grateful to see Iwata have a fresh take on the character. As Mimi, Cavazos’ physicality works, but she doesn’t quite have the powerhouse voice that has come to be associated with Mimi.

Buffalo standouts Dudney Joseph Jr. and Joe Russi are able to fully realize their potential as Collins and Angel, respectively. Joseph Jr.’s rich vocal instrument is as effective in both versions of “I’ll Cover You,” Act One’s uptempo love duet with Russi, and Act Two’s heartbreaking tribute at Angel’s funeral (Spoilers, I guess). I was thrilled this production made the decision to dress Russi in the signature Angel costume, and was captivated by his performance of “Today 4 U.” Giving strong performances are Alex McArthur as Joanne and Leah Berst as Maureen, while Jonathan Young manages to instill “yuppy scum” Benny with some redeemable qualities. Special commendation is to be given to Sean Ryan, who is playing an ensemble role in this piece and also served as Assistant Director. Ryan’s opening to “Will I?” is as good as it gets. 

Ultimately, the thing that nearly derailed the opening night production was a band that was not nearly performance ready. It should be noted, of course, that the entire cast only had about 48 hours of rehearsal together, so there were bound to be some onstage jitters or fumbles. That being said (and setting aside a moment in “Tango Maureen” that seemed to be more of a technical issue and less of a musical one, but nevertheless forced the actors to adlib) the lack of accurate musicianship from the band severely hindered performances from succeeding. Cues were bound to be messy, but there were several occasions where the band, especially the normally sharp guitarist Larry Albert, were just playing entirely incorrect phrases. 

As I said before, Starring Buffalo is an incredible organization whose mission brings Broadway performers, Buffalo professionals, and (usually) high school choruses together. Their previous productions have been excellent, and I felt that this RENT just didn’t quite meet their high standards.

For more information on Starring Buffalo!, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ by Starring Buffalo at The Performing Arts Center in Rockwell Hall

A brand new theatre company in Western New York, Starring Buffalo, had its premiere performance at Rockwell Hall Friday night. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” based on Victor Hugo’s novel about an “outcast” who lives in captivity in the Parisian cathedral, was directed by Drew Fornarola with Musical Direction by Daniel Bassin.

Starring Buffalo has an exciting aim — to combine the talents of Broadway musical theatre actor/singers, WNY professional talent, and local high school music students. Instead of a full out theatre production, Hunchback is a concert with the emphasis on the music and the words. There are no sets or costumes and staging is minimal — aided by a host of spiffy music stands on wheels. Lighting is used to good effect, however, and the sound is perfect.

This is a somber, dramatic, operatic version of “Hunchback.” The score of the animated film by Steven Schwartz and Alan Menken has been expanded and the tone is more “Les Mis” than Disney. For example, the gargoyles, who provided comic relief in the animated film, have now become a sort of Greek chorus that comments on the action and gives advice to Quasimodo, the hunchback.

With all the headlines these days about immigration and racism, “Hunchback” is an extremely timely show and one hopes that “God Help the Outcasts” will be a wake up call that softens any audience members who have hearts hardened to the suffering of fellow human beings.

All the singing voices in this production are absolutely top notch and so is the 14 piece orchestra!

In the title role is Ben Fankhauser from the original Broadway cast of “Newsies.”  Mr. Fankhauser is a wonderfully poignant, spirited, and energetic Quasi. Playing opposite him, Dan’yelle Williamson is a powerhouse as the vivacious Esmerelda, a role she also played at the 5th Avenue Theatre in New York City.

Rounding out the terrific out of town cast are Devin Ilaw from the Broadway revival of “Miss Saigon” and Jonah Platt from the Broadway production of “Wicked.”

Leading the home based talent is Keith Ersing who is marvelous in the meaty role of the world’s worst priest. Mr. Ersing, who teaches music and drama at West Seneca West Senior High, gives an electric performance and does Western New York proud!

Other local professional actors who lend their excellent singing voices to the production are Leah Best, Charmagne Chi, Arianne Davidow, Matthew Iwanski-Jackson, Dudney Joseph, Katy Miner, Ben Michael Moran, and Raphael Santos.

Chorus work is provided by hundreds of students from local high schools. Opening night the chorus was from Williamsville East, directed by Maureen Reilly, and they did a glorious job! I’m sure the upcoming performances with choral work by students from Starpoint High School, Tonawanda High School, and the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts will be equally strong.

There are occasional short dances provided by the Zodiaque Dance Company and choreographed by Jeanne Palmer Fornarola. The dances provide pleasant interludes, but they feel a bit superfluous in this concert setting. Of course, there is no way that one lone gymnast can represent the topsy turvy excitement of a city gone mad for a day. There is a lightness to the dances, however, that is in contrast to the heaviness of the rest of the production.

One wonders what other productions will be on the horizon for Starring Buffalo and if the company is going to stay with the concert format or venture into full blown productions. Any way you look at it, the work of Starring Buffalo is very ambitious and a real treat for theatre goers, students, and educators here in Western New York. Direction, musical direction, and singing are impressive! Plaudits to company directors Drew Fornarola, Laura Brodie, Steven Tartick, Michael Russo, and Suzanne Forster!

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is recommended for teens and adults.

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was performed at Buffalo State Performing Arts Center in Rockwell Hall for three performances only on October 19 and 20. For more information on Starring Buffalo, click here.