Theatre Review: ‘Into The Woods’ at Theatre In The Mist

I try, sometimes in vain, to approach every production I review with as much objectivity as possible. It’s not easy; I’m often reviewing a show I’ve seen many times before, that I’m intimately familiar with, or in the case of local productions, I may even know (or have performed with) one-or-two members of the cast.  Still, I feel as though it’s my journalistic duty—to the extent that I can—to always enter the theatre with a clean slate, carrying as little baggage as possible. This burden of impartiality is especially heavy when reviewing a show like “Into the Woods” because a) it’s one that near-everyone has seen, as it’s a favorite among high school drama clubs and community theatre troupes everywhere, b) it’s written by Stephen Sondheim who, for my money, is the single greatest musical theatre composer and lyricist of all time, and c) it just so happens to be one of my favorite shows. Understandably I jumped at the opportunity to trek up to Lewiston to catch Theatre in the Mist’s production of this masterpiece, and boy was it worth the gas money. Their production was charming and truly unique, bursting with talent from cast members of all ages.

. . .charming and truly unique . . .

 “Into the Woods”, the Sondheim classic with book by James Lapine, is an interwoven and somewhat revisionist retelling of the most well-known and iconic English/Perrault/Brothers Grimm fairy tales including “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel”, and “Cinderella.” As the result of the curse of a once-beautiful witch (Sara Kovacsi), a baker (Corey Bieber) and his wife (Casey Moyer) are childless. Three days before the rise of a blue moon, they venture into the forest to find the ingredients that will reverse the spell and restore the witch’s beauty: a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn, a blood-red cape, and a slipper of gold. During their journey they meet Cinderella (Erin Coyle), Little Red Riding Hood (McKenzie Gilmore), Rapunzel (Julie Pitarresi) and Jack (Anthony Chavers), each one on their own quest to fulfill a wish. The story—equal parts whimsical, adventurous, and tragic—rests heavily on themes of love, loss, parenting, and the consequences of one’s actions.

One of the most impressive components of TITM’s production is the broad and eclectic cohort of actors that director Tim Stuff assembled. In the truest embodiment of “community theatre”, TITM’s “Into the Woods” features actors in high school, in their 50’s-60’s, and everything in between, all of whom bring immense talent and magnetism to the stage. What’s more wild is that the younger actors, the high school juniors and seniors who weren’t even born yet when I was performing in my 10th grade production of “Into the Woods”, absolutely steal the show! 

Anthony Chavers (17 years old)’ “Giants in the Sky” is heartfelt and innocent, demonstrating an enormous vocal range and tender acting sensibility. McKenzie Gilmore (a senior at Niagara Falls High School) has an equally impressive singing voice, with sass to boot. Julia Pitarresi (15 years old) embodies the often-overlooked role of Rapunzel with a beautiful operatic soprano voice, particularly on the refrain that reappears throughout the show. 

At the center of the story are the baker and his wife, brought to life through charismatic performances by Bieber and Moyer. Local productions featuring onstage marriages too-often feature forced, chemistry-less performances, but that isn’t the case with these actors, who bring tenderness and believability to their onstage relationship. Casey Moyer in particular shines as the Baker’s Wife (a title I loathe; why can’t she have her own name?!), delivering beautiful renditions of “Moments in the Woods” and others. 

“Into the Woods” features some of the best large ensemble numbers of any modern musical, and in true Sondheim fashion, they’re immensely difficult. The TITM cast was up to the task, delivering crisp and articulate renditions of “Your Fault”, “No One is Alone”, and “Children Will Listen.” 

Like most productions, TITM’s “Into the Woods” isn’t without its minor blemishes. There were fairly consistent mic issues on opening night (an easy thing to address before next weekend’s performances), and stretches of Act II drag a bit, a fault that’s more attributable to playwright James Lapine’s lopsided writing than to this particular production; it’s not a hot take to suggest that Act I of “Into the Woods” is much better than Act II, so much so that high schools and theatre companies often opt to only perform the first act and nix the second entirely. 

At the risk of gushing over TITM’s “Into the Woods” ad-nauseum, productions like this are genuinely why I love covering local theatre. After sitting through countless stuffy, self-important productions of lifeless plays featuring actors taking themselves way too seriously, it’s such a breath of fresh air to come to the theatre and see seriously talented performers of all ages—not professionals, but folks who are likely your co-workers, classmates, neighbors and friends—come together to put on a earnest and entertaining show, one that’s simple and unassuming but also exciting and emotional and tremendously fun. 

TITM’s production of “Into the Woods” is playing at Lewiston’s Stella Niagara Education Park on October 4th, 5th and 6th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ at Theatre In The Mist

You may think you have a firm grip on the quirky family comedy genre. You may have even seen the staged or filmed version of “You Can’t Take it With You” (written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart) before. But I promise that you haven’t seen anything quite like the production currently being presented by Lewiston’s Theatre in the Mist. TITM takes the screwy, oddball chaos of the well-known Sycamore clan and really cranks it up to 11.

. . .funny, zany, and chaotic . . .

“You Can’t Take it With You” isn’t so much about plot and storyline as it is the bizarre, never-resting ecosystem of the Sycamore house.  The Sycamores (technically the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichaels) are the zaniest, most eclectic bunch of folks you’re likely to ever meet. Martin Vanderhof (Joe Sciammarella), the patriarch usually referred to simply as “Grandpa”, is a tax-dodging old kook who raises snakes. Penny Sycamore (Kathleen Recchione) is an aspiring painter and playwright, who happens to be terrible at both. Eddie Carmichael (Karissa Allen) plays the xylophone and loves to print any and everything, include the family’s nightly dinner menu. Her wife Essie (Samantha Scheffler-Ploetz) is a novice ballerina and candy-maker. Even Mr. De Pinna (Robert Janusz), who’s not technically a member of the family, practically lives in the basement as he tinkers away at fireworks and modeling for Penelope’s paintings. You get the picture.

The only normal one in the bunch is Alice Sycamore (Taylor Tedesco), a typist who wants to bring Tony Kirby (Peter Andres)—the young VP of her company whom she’s recently started dating, and his parents (Tracey Pici and John Addison)—home to meet the family. Tony “accidentally” brings them over for dinner a night too early and all hell breaks loose as the polished socialites clash with the chaos and disorder of the Sycamore clan.

The most most refreshing aspect of TITM’s production is that director Anne Kurtis made bold, brave choices, and bold choices aren’t something you normally associate with the old chestnuts of the American theatre cannon like YCTIWY, many of which are done ad nauseam by high school drama clubs and community theatre groups and most of which are pretty tired and stale.

Kurtis chose to put her production in a modern(ish) setting, rather than the 1930’s of the original play, as well as use a female actor for Eddie Carmichael. Similarly, TITM’s Mr. Kolenkov is Ms. Kolenkov, played by the quite-funny Sarah Comfort (especially her helicopter spin on Mr. Kirby, which had the audience in tears). Probably the biggest standout among Kurtis’ many out-of-the-box production choices is her use of a puppet and ventriloquist to play one of the tax collectors who comes looking for Grandpa in Act I. There’s no discernible logic behind this choice, but I—and the audience—really enjoyed it, and for whatever unbeknownst reason it really landed well. Just roll with it!

Now, like any production that makes a lot of audacious choices, not all of this production’s choices totally work. As Kurtis alludes to in her director’s notes, the time period of this play is so ingrained into the fabric of the story that picking it up and dropping it 80 (or so) years into the future is a bit of a head-scratcher. Apart from the frequent period-specific references to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and other bits of 1930’s pop culture, the politics of of YCTIWY are so tied to the post-depression/pre-WWII era that it’s discombobulating to try and surgically graft them onto a modern 2000’s-era family. Economics, money, and communism are extremely overt throughout the play, as are Stalin, Trotsky, and Cossacks, and seeing them discussed at-length by a tattooed grandpa in a Hawaiian shirt and Nikes feels disjointed at best and confusing at worst.

That all said, TITM’s production is just as funny, zany, and chaotic as the more traditional renditions, and while not all of the original spin of this production neatly came to fruition, it’s easily forgivable because the choices that did work really punched-up the comedy and breathed some fresh air into a show that many theatre-goers have seen one-too-many times. In essence: I—and I suspect most— would rather see risks be taken that don’t work 100% of the time than see safe, cardboard productions. TITM’s production—while not perfect—is fun, wildly unique and anything but cardboard.

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

TITM’s “You Can’t Take it With You” is playing at Stella Niagara school in Lewiston until April 7th. For Tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Making God Laugh’ at Theatre In The Mist

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The cast of “Making God Laugh” at Theatre In The Mist.

As Woody Allen once said “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” This famous quote is the basis of “Making God Laugh,” a 2014 play written by Sean Grennan and currently being performed by Lewiston-based company Theatre in the Mist. It’s the perfect holiday fare if you’ve grown tired of “Annie” and “A Christmas Carol,” the traditional productions put on this time of year that most of us have seen a few too many times.

. . .great comedic moments. . .

“Making God Laugh” is a four-scene “dramedy” centered on a prototypical Midwestern family as they gather together to celebrate the holidays across the years, focusing on the tensions and conflicts at the core of many suburban families in America. Starting in 1980, the newly launched kids – a priest (Tom, played by Leonardo LiPomi); an aspiring actress (Maddie, played by Gabriella A. Corsaro); and the oddball black sheep (Richard, played by Phillip Buffone) all return home, where we learn of their plans and dreams as they embark on and enter their adult lives in the 90’s, early 2000’s, and today. The empty nest parents (Anne Kurtis and Joe Sciammarella) contend with their own changes too, including dubious traditions and the realities of aging.

Elements of TITM’s production of “Making God Laugh” are well done. Per usual, Tracey Pici’s scenic design is stellar, perfectly capturing the look and feel of your grandma’s house around the holidays. Small details from the pictures on the wall to the ugly generations-old sofa create the exact environment needed to tell this story. The only thing missing was the plastic sofa cover!

The production has great comedic moments, particularly from daughter Maddie (Corsaro), who is often-testy and ceaselessly sarcastic, constantly goading her brothers and hurling sly one-liners.  Older brother Tom (LiPomi), the family Priest, delivered a slew of great church-related humor. Younger brother Richard (or “Ricky”, played by Phillip Buffone) had some great zingers too, though in the show’s earlier scenes it’s admittedly a little distracting for the “eccentric teenage son” to be played by an actor who’s visibly the same(ish) age as his father. On the dramatic side, Ann Kurtis’ Ruthie, the family matriarch, did a wonderful job as the constantly-disapproving mother, particularly as she aged and the signs of dementia began to set in.

Unfortunately the production also has some pretty stark weaknesses, most notably the cast’s use of their scripts on stage, which makes for often-clunky dialogue, botched entrances, limited range of motion, and relatively subdued acting. Having seen many of these performers in other productions I can attest to their skill and abilities, but the staging of this production did them no favors.

The last performance of Making God Laugh takes place on Sunday, December 2, so you’ll likely be reading this after the show has closed, but I encourage you to take a trip out to Lewiston to see a TITM production when you get the chance. Their well-produced, family-friendly shows are a WNY gem!

“Making God Laugh” closed on December 2, 2018. For more information on Theatre In The Mist. Click here.

Theatre Review: Disney’s ‘Mary Poppins’ at Theatre in the Mist

It’s no great secret that Disney has really expanded their outreach by venturing into live theater. Since the success of “The Lion King” and the expansion of the famous “Beauty and the Beast” live show into a full-length musical, theatergoers everywhere have enjoyed both amateur and professional productions of their favorite Disney classics. “Mary Poppins” is certainly no exception to the rule, and so I traveled to the beautiful Niagara Falls High School auditorium to take in Theatre in the Mist’s production.

. . .the Theatre in the Mist production of “Mary Poppins” will have Disney parents and children alike happy they attended.

I want to preface this review by saying this: there is a definitive line to be drawn between the professional theaters in Buffalo and the community theaters in Buffalo when it comes to “dramatic criticism.” One is not better than the other, they are simply separate mediums. In my eyes, it is the intent of the performer that draws the distinction. In “professional” theater, actors are paid, usually a decent sum, for their performances; the product is expected to have a higher quality. In “community” theater, usually actors are participating as a hobby; every member of the production works just as hard, but it’s more about having fun. It’s the difference between competitive recreational league sports and a pickup game, if I can make a sports analogy.

Theatre in the Mist has been offering quality community theater to Niagara County for several years now, so I was extremely excited to see their take on this classic. They’ve assembled a team of performers with varying backgrounds to bring this extremely tech-heavy production to life. Aided by the NFHS’ state of the art facility, TITM makes a valiant effort at “Mary Poppins.” They’ve rented costumes, which are first rate, and they’ve managed to faithfully execute some of the “tricks” that made the show so successful on Broadway. Mary flying across the stage to end Act One will never fail to impress me. While TITM has designed some beautiful sets, their magnitude made for some opening night snafus. That being said, the production makes the most out of the space they’re afforded.

As far as performances go, Erin Coyle is well worth the drive. I’d heard talk that this is a dream role for her, and there’s no wonder why. She’s (and I hate myself for making this pun) “practically perfect in every way.” Corey Bieber as the lovable chimney sweep Bert is equally well-cast. Bert is given additionally responsibilities as the audience’s narrator in the musical, and Bieber handles it well. He’s also a consummate song-and-dance man, channeling his Van Dyke for sure. Particularly impressive in this production is its strong ensemble, featuring a number of excellent dancers. There is a scene involving dancing statues that was particularly satisfying. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Alex Gentile, who seems to be made of rubber. His physical comedy skills are well beyond his years, and he’s destined to play Cosmo Brown in “Singin’ in the Rain.”

All in all, the Theatre in the Mist production of “Mary Poppins” will have Disney parents and children alike happy they attended. Once the show tightens up (Act One ran closer to two hours than one and a half) it is bound to leave audiences humming and “stepping in time” out of the auditorium.

Running Time: Approximately 2 Hours 45 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

“Mary Poppins” runs until September 22, 2018 and is produced by Theatre In The Mist. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’ at Theatre in the Mist

Today I saw a matinee of “Disney’s Beauty and The Beast,” produced by Theatre in the Mist and Cornerstone Community FCU at Niagara Falls High School. Music is by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and the book is by Linda Woolverton. This is the Broadway musical version of “Beauty and The Beast,” based on the Disney cartoon.

. . .a lavish, visually arresting production. . .

“Beauty and the Beast” is a fairy tale about a selfish prince who is transformed into a beast. When the beautiful young woman who he holds prisoner falls in love with him, the spell is broken. Hopefully, that’s not a spoiler for you! All of these fairy tales end happily ever after!

In the title roles, Jenny McCabe is a sweet and lovely Belle and Gary Andrews-Stieglitz has the perfect voice for the Beast.

Dave Spychalski’s fine, deep baritone is put to good use as Gaston, and Corey Bieber is high spirited as a cartwheeling LeFou. They’re the production’s big crowd pleasers.

There are energetic performances by Tim Stuff, Christopher Teal, Kristin Gelia, Kathleen A. Recchione, Milo Boccinfuso, and Sara Kovacs as the objects who want to become human again. I was relieved when they all became human and Mrs. Potts could finally take her arm out of that big spout!

Also worthy of mention are Dr. Jerry Mosey who has tender moments as Belle’s father, the five Silly Girls, and seven charming cancan dancers who turn up from time to time in the production numbers. Jacob Aguglia convincingly plays a bad guy, Christina Palermo is the beautiful enchantress, and Justin Ciccone is the handsome young prince.

There’s a lively seven piece orchestra led by Dave Recchione and a large, well trained chorus of about 50 men, women, teens, and kids. The children are a delightful addition except in the tavern scene where watching 10 year olds down tankards is a bit disconcerting!

This is a lavish, visually arresting production with bold and colorful lighting by Reuben Schwartz and scores of sumptuous, fanciful costumes by Adam M. Wall and DC Theatricks. My favorite costumes were the vanity which included practical drawers and, of course, Belle’s butter yellow ball gown. The sets by Ryan Scarfone and Lite Trix are outstanding and these are easily the most beautiful backdrops I’ve seen in a local theatre production in years.

This isn’t one of those watered down for community theatre versions of a Broadway show. This is a full out production with every note of dance music and every reprise intact.

With the sets, costumes, wigs, and huge chorus, this is a massive undertaking. It moves along smoothly and impressively under the skillful direction of Joey Bucheker.  Mr. Bucheker is assisted by Emily Pici and the choreography is by Clarissa Maloy.

Incidentally, I asked two children from the audience what their favorite thing about the show was and they both said, “I like the dancing!” so kudos to Mr. Bucheker, Ms. Pici, and Ms. Maloy for their staging of the musical numbers.

After the show, stick around for an added treat! The actors appear in costume in the lobby and are glad to pose for photos with their young fans.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes with one-15 Minute Intermission.

“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” runs until November 4, 2017 and is presented by Theatre in the Mist at The Performing Arts Center at Niagara Falls High School. For more information, click here.