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: ‘The Jungle Book’ at Theatre of Youth

The cast of “The Jungle Book” at Theatre of Youth.

On a cold and blustery March day a little time in a jungle seems a welcome and warm idea.  But it’s the nature of things to have their ups and downs, and we’re not just talking about monkeys climbing here.

. . .visually stunning, inventive and creative . . .

The ups are many and, yes, the monkeys are one of them.  But start that with a beautiful, richly lit set, the comfort and warmth of Allendale Theater, a story appropriate backdrop and lush projections adorning the theatre walls and ceiling.  You’re ready to be warmed by this tale of the boy, Mowgli, raised by wolves in the jungle whose coming of age is threatened by some of the very creatures of that jungle and his own precocious nature.

The warmth continues as some of the actors come out into the audience and engage both children and adults in the experience of what is about to take place.  It all holds a lot of promise to be a great experience for both young and old.

In costumes narrowly suggesting wolves, monkeys, vultures, the tiger, Shere Khan, a panther, Baghera, and Baloo the bear, there are five actors taking up these roles, and they come at it with eagerness, enthusiasm and, at times, certain gusto.  All five play multiple characters, switching out at a moment’s notice several times during the play. And when all five of them are on stage at the same time, interacting as animals in and out of the spotlight, the production shines. And later, when all five are on stage, playing the troupe of monkeys it is, well, a full-on monkeyshine of a time.  

This is a fun, visually striking, rhythmic, musical, sometimes acrobatic-like production.  And it’s an often hilarious romp through the jungle, where a few performances stand out. Lissette DeJesus plays one of the rollicking monkeys to the hilt in a couple of scenes with her ape-like brethren, and brings a slithering, deceptively charming light to Kaa, the mesmerizing snake who holds the jungle creatures and audience in her hypnotic gaze.  DeJesus is an ensemble member of the Raices Theatre Company and currently a Theatre major at Buffalo State. And she looks to be a promising and more prominent fixture in Buffalo, if not beyond Buffalo theatre, after her studies are completed.

Also standing tall in the jungle-gym — a rotating set of  giant hoop-like steel structures (constructed of farming bale feeders) that are adorned with foliage – are monkey/vulture actors Brendan Didio and Rick Lattimer.  While it’s true the monkeys steal the show for a time, Didio and Lattimer’s double duty as vultures have the most charismatic and cleverly comical roles. Plus, their vocal ranges, going from land to air creatures, give one the idea that there are more actors playing these roles than there really are.   

It’s hard to say what the intended audience, children, might take away from this story.  Kipling’s tale is about many things – a dangerous world of the jungle in which the creatures kill one another, one in which  Mowgli must be and is taught the ways of the jungle in order to coexist. And ultimately whether it is best the “mancub” leaves the jungle when he becomes older and more man-like.  On one hand Kipling’s tale is complex but magical, while cartoon and film renditions tend to fun and musical. But in either version, the message is clear.

This stage version, written by Greg Banks, seems to fall somewhere in between, and in doing so loses some footing.  It’s incredibly fast-paced, never pausing, jumping through and past the lessons of Mowgli’s journey, and what it means for him to understand and coexist with nature.  Lost in the hustle are some of the meaningful exchanges of this story, some heartfelt moments in which Mowgli is made to understand his own journey, some time to take in how one thing that happens leads to another.  Some intention of the story seems lost in its breakneck pace.

But what’s the worst thing that could come of that.  Beyond the questions kids ask – how did you do this, and how was that made – they may be moved to ask, why did this happen, or why did that happen. They’ll be given a chance to ask after the play.  Or maybe they will be moved to ask that of their parents. Either way, with this visually stunning, inventive and creative production, TOY has yet again created an opportunity to engage kids and adults in theatre and performing arts.  And if kids in attendance leave with just that, then Meg Quinn and company can call it mission accomplished and well done.

Running Time: 1 Hour 45-minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

“The Jungle Book” runs through April 7, 2019 and is presented at Theatre Of Youth.  For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Tuck Everlasting’ at Theatre of Youth

The cast of “Tuck Everlasting” at Theatre of Youth.

Theatre of Youth is presenting “Tuck Everlasting,” based on the award winning children’s book by Natalie Babbitt. In addition to the novel and this play version, “Tuck Everlasting” has also been made into a musical and two feature films, the first of which was directed by Buffalo’s Frederick King Keller and featured WNY actors Joey Giambra, Barbara Harmon, Ron Swick, and Fred A. Keller. This was the film that launched Keller’s distinguished film and television directing career.

The story is a fantasy about Winnie, a young girl who discovers both a secret magical spring of water and a mysterious family who live in the nearby woods. The Tuck family, unwittingly, drank from the spring long ago, and the water has given them eternal life. Apparently, in all the years that this spring has been in the woods, the Tucks are the only people who ever thought to take a drink from it! Winnie, who is an overly protected child longing for adventure beyond the gates of her house, is thrilled to finally have friends, the Tucks, and so she promises to help them keep their secret about the water.

I remember enjoying the Keller film version of “Tuck Eveberlasting” and thinking that the story was strange but charming. The screenplay was written by Keller and the book’s author, Natalie Babbitt. The storyline in the TOY production, however, seemed oddly disjointed, and so I went home and got onto Youtube and revisited the film where I discovered that they are lots of scenes in the story that have been left out of this play adaptation by Mark J. Frattaroli. This truncated version of the plot doesn’t give us enough opportunity to understand how lonely Winnie is and why she is thrilled to be accepted into the Tuck family.

Since the importance to Winnie of her burgeoning friendship with the Tuck family is such an integral part of the plot, I wish director Meg Quinn had made more of those moments of closeness and love. When Mr. Tuck kisses Winnie on the head and when Mrs. Tuck tucks (!) Winnie into bed, we should see how meaningful these actions are to the isolated young girl. Instead, in this production, these moments are somewhat casual, and it’s a bit of a surprise when Winnie later talks about how much she has come to love the Tuck family and when she volunteers to put herself in danger to help them.

In the central role of Winnie, Sabrina Kahwaty exhibits youthful exuberance. Sound is a challenge in this large venue, but Ms. Kahwaty’s diction is clear and her volume is the best in the production.

Priscilla Young is earnest as the good-hearted Mrs. Tuck. I would have liked Steve Vaughn to have done more with Ms. Young’s big fight scene. It was over in a flash and, from where I was sitting, it looked like the butt of the gun just brushed the villain’s flesh. I was surprised that this slight action knocked him to the ground and amazed that he died from this little tap!

Zachary Bellus has good energy as Mrs. Tuck’s younger son, and Nick Stevens, one of the best young actors in town, is also fine as the older son. Mr. Stevens has one big scene where he is trout fishing — although, if he catches one, he will, inexplicably, have to stuff it into a tiny toy bucket! Mr. Stevens does a nice job with the scene; he has a pleasant and natural style.

Sets and costumes by Kenneth Shaw are lovely, especially a woodland watercolor with an orange sky. Original music by Chester Popiolkowski is charming, and I wished there was more of it. I would have much preferred musical interludes between scenes to the incessant droning tape recorded narration. The lighting by Todd Proffitt is also good, and the full moon effect on the wall of the theatre is very special.

The biggest challenge with this production is the adaptation which is short on both humor and action and long on stilted dialogue and philosophic whimsy. I would recommend this production for ages 12 and over. The younger children in the audience started whispering and squirming about halfway through the show.

“Tuck Everlasting” runs 90 minutes, and there is no intermission.

“Tuck Everlasting” closed on February 10, 2019. Up next,  “The Jungle Book” in March/April and “Dragons Love Tacos” in May. TOY is also registering for their new student workshops running in February through May. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Stellaluna’ at Theatre of Youth

The cast of “Stellaluna” rehearses with puppets.

Getting children to enjoy the performing arts is a challenge in itself, but when you are able to perform content that is familiar to children, chances are your job will be a little easier when it comes to keeping their attention. Books and stories that children may be exposed to in schools tend to do the trick, especially if you are Theatre of Youth company. TOY celebrates child literacy by incorporating reading lists from area schools into their considerations for their theatrical season of shows. Most of the shows that they perform come from a book as the source material. One book, that has been entertaining children for over the last twenty years is “Stellaluna” by Janell Cannon, and TOY opens their production of the beloved children’s classic, adapted by Saskia Janse, with music by Guus Ponsioen, on May 5.

“We always like to conclude our season with a show for our younger audiences,” says Meg Quinn, Artistic Director of TOY, “this is a time that the younger students aren’t testing, and there is some time for field trips to the theatre.” “Stellaluna” is aimed for children in Kindergarten through second grade.

When a baby fruit bat attaches herself to her mother to learn how to fly, Stellaluna is exposed to new worlds, but after an owl attacks her mother one night, Stellaluna is separated from her mom, and falls into a bird’s nest in a nearby tree. While she is there, she becomes close with her new feathered friends, but is told that she has to act like they do. So Stellaluna tries to be a bird, when in fact, she is very different.

“This is a fun, light, and sweet story,” say Quinn, “it is a happy play with a great message.”

Connecting with the characters in any play is always important for the audience to engage in the show. “The youngest kids will identify with the characters in this story, as well as the circumstances. The theme of ‘it is okay to be different than others, and that it is still possible to be friends,’ is one that rings true here.”

Local director Kyle LoConti helms this production. “I wanted to bring in a female director for this show, because I believe that the story lends itself to a motherly presence, and I think that a woman directing it would bring that out in the show,” says Quinn.

The production utilizes an all female cast, telling the story through the use of puppets. “Adam Kreutinger designed and built these wonderful puppets that bring the story to life, and make it fun for the children as well.”

Kreutinger, an elementary art teacher in the Orchard Park school district, has become a local celebrity of sorts for being the ‘go to’ guy for all things puppet related. He has designed and built the puppets for many local productions, including TOY’s 2017 / 2018 opener “Bunnicula.”

“Adam is really great about working collaboratively and creating and designing puppets that suit our needs and wants in our productions,” says Quinn.

TOY believes that all children should be exposed to the theatre at a young age, and they hope that this show will spark an interest that will continue as students get older. “The story, and the puppets, and the performances will all come together, and we are sure that it will leave a lasting impression on the children.”

“Stellaluna” opens May 5 and runs until June 2, 2018. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.

First Look: ‘The Boy At The Edge Of Everything’ at Theatre of Youth

There are those who say that being a child in 2018 is much more difficult than it might have been fifty years ago. There are more stressors, there is more impactful technology, there is anxiety. Children live jam packed lives full of school, homework, extra curricular activities, and family gatherings. Children don’t have time to be children, because they are too busy being children! These are a few ideas that are highlighted in Finegan Kruckemeyer’s play, “The Boy At The Edge Of Everything,” opening January 20 at Theatre of Youth.

“I had read a few plays by Kruckemeyer, and this one really spoke to me,” says Meg Quinn, Artistic Director of Theatre Of Youth, “We wanted a show that spoke to older children, ages eleven to thirteen. I read it and passed it along around the company, and we all got excited.”

It is one thing for a company to get excited about a new show, but how do you sell a show to your audience, when it has no source material that it is based upon? “This is an original play, and we decided to ask students in our acting classes, and in our talk-backs after the shows, if this story would be something that they would like to see,” says Quinn, “we were amazed to hear these children say, ‘this is just like my life.’”

“The Boy At The Edge Of Everything” tells the story of Simon, a boy who is stressed out, and wishes that there was a place that he go could to get away from everything, and to enjoy some peace and time to himself. After a few fascinating coincidences, Simon is sent on a journey of a lifetime, but after getting what he wanted, Simon learns that he actually misses what he had.

This is a Western New York Premiere. “Kruckemeyer’s work is starting to be done in the United States more regularly,” says Quinn, “ this show is funny, off-beat, abstract, and is a great coming of age story that children and parents will be able to connect with.”

Theatre is suppose to start a conversation, and if theatre is done well, the conversation can be thought provoking, and allow the audience to look at themselves and see if there are changes that need to be made, so that they can live happier lives. 

“We knew this was going to be a challenge doing this show, because most people only want to go see shows they are familiar with,” says Quinn, “ we hope that family members who bring their children to this show, use this as an opportunity to start a conversation about the busy lives that children have now.”

Theatre Of Youth continues to create wonderful theatrical experiences for children to instill a love of theatre and the performing arts at an early age. “Theatre can change lives,” says Quinn, “and we hope that this show can do just that.”

“The Boy At The Edge Of Everything” opens January 20, 2018 and runs until February 4, 2018, at Theatre of Youth. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.

Theatre Review: ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ at Theatre of Youth

The cast of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Photo by Benjamin Richey.

Theatre of Youth’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a delight. Charles M. Schultz’s beloved holiday story, based on his “Peanuts” comic strip, debuted as an animated television special program in 1965, and quickly became as representative of the season as Scrooge and eggnog. Its sophisticated anti-commercialism nods and winks – revolutionary then for a children’s holiday TV show – is said to have nearly killed the aluminum Christmas tree industry in the mid-1960s.

. . .a wonderful show. It proves this classic American holiday story, with a genuinely earnest Christmas message, can express itself well in any medium.

What is most impressive about Theatre of Youth’s stage adaptation by Eric Schaeffer is its reverence for the Emmy and Peabody Award winning show, which has run every year on network television since its inception. Even the smallest supporting roles in the ensemble, say Violet (you don’t remember Violet? You will!) is so acutely accurate to Schultz’s simple and elegant illustrative design, watching the show is like viewing the stage through a virtual fantasy lens.

In case you’ve forgotten, or have never owned a television, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the story of a hapless loser, Charlie Brown (Dan Urtz) searching for the true meaning of Christmas when secular commercialism drives him into a state of depression as he and his “Peanuts” gang prepare for the holiday. “Child” psychiatrist Lucy (Arin Lee Dandes) diagnoses his condition and assigns him the role of director of the annual Christmas pageant as therapy.

Director Meg Quinn draws out playful and sharp performances from her entire cast. They nail the beloved animated characters’ actions and mannerisms, while adding a flesh and blood comedic expression to what sometimes looks like a ballet of children celebrating Christmas. Barbara Priore’s bright and familiar costume and hair design, and Kenneth Shaw’s intricate, minimalist set design pay devoted homage to the original source.

Dan Urtz gives the anxiety ridden Charlie Brown a frowning, desolate disposition as he mopes about the stage, shoulders hunched high, eyes nervously searching, as the expectant joy of Christmas slowly dissipates from his mindset. Quite the contrary is Arin Lee Dandes, as Lucy. She is confident and brass, busying about the stage like a bundle of misplaced Christmas spirit, hoping Santa brings her a requested gift of real estate. Given the era this story was first presented, she is surprisingly a gender-equal, liberated, indeed dominating young girl.

Lighting designer Todd Proffitt creates an air of foreboding as Charlie Brown and Linus (Lucas Denies) search for the perfect Christmas tree, as a dusk filled urban horizon bears down on the smallish decorative lights of a trees-for-sale lot. It’s an effective scene. So too is the whimsical scene with the characters catching snowflakes on their tongues in an airy and bright winter wonderland.

The wild dance choreography during the Christmas pageant rehearsal is as amusing and fun as in the original TV show. I especially loved Shermy’s (Shawn Michael Edward Robinson) armless, back-and-forth dance technique, a moment in the original TV show that always captured by attention as a youngster.

The special effects are as impressive as the show’s attention to detail. A special floor mat allows the actors to truly ice skate across the stage on a winter pond. Snowflakes gently fall from the sky as white light filters through as if a hole in the Allendale Theatre’s roof was revealed. The transformation of Charlie’s pitiful Christmas tree to a respectable and proud lighted display is seamless.

And what a delight to hear Vince Guaraldi original jazz score performed by a live musical combo. Paul Sottnik (Pianist), Brian DeJesus (Bassist), and Jamie Sunshine (Percussionist) provide an added layer of warmth and cheer to the festive production.

It’s a wonderful show. It proves this classic American holiday story, with a genuinely earnest Christmas message, can express itself well in any medium.

Running Time: 40 minutes with an audience holiday sing-a-long at show’s end.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” runs until December 17, 2017 and is presented at Theatre of Youth. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Bunnicula’ at Theatre of Youth

Celebrating it’s 46th season, Theatre of Youth presents “Bunnicula,” a whimsical, only slightly frightening tale, of a rabbit with long fangs and a suspicious fear of garlic. Based on the children’s books by Deborah and James Howe, “Bunnicula” tells the story of the vampire rabbit of the same name, who wreaks havoc on the household vegetables, as well as the family cat. No plump, colorful vegetable is safe from Bunnicula’s thirst for juice, and Chester the cat is convinced that soon the rabbit’s appetite will turn into a hunger for blood.

. . .a lighthearted, easy to follow horror-comedy that is perfect for children. . .

Meet Harold the dog (Rich Kraemer) and Chester the cat (Annie Roaldi), pets of the Monroe family, who live a quiet and content life inside the safe four walls of their master’s home. One fateful day sees the family come home from the cinema, where they had been watching “Dracula,” with a new addition to the household that instantly causes Chester’s fur to stand on end.

The adorable bunny found at the cinema is not what he seems, for at night he grows fangs, shines his bright red eyes, and is able to escape his cage without any limitations to feed on the vegetables in the Monroe’s fridge, draining the juice from them and turning them white. The family, Mr. and Mrs. Monroe (John Profeta and Jenn Stafford, respectively) and their two children, Toby (Tyler Eisenmann) and Pete (Ayden Herreid) discover Bunnicula’s first victim the morning after his arrival: a white tomato. With some over-the-top acting that reminisces a Shakespeare play and dramatic lighting, the family leads the audience into thinking they may suspect something truly heinous is happening… but to a gag reveal that “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing…” proceeding to come up with the most blissfully ignorant excuses as to why the tomato (and subsequent vegetables) are dried up and white.

The play proceeds with Chester the cat nearly losing his mind over attempting to convince both the humans and Harold the dog to understand that Bunnicula is a blood thirsty vampire, and their lives are in danger. With some superb acting by Roaldi, the cat jumps onto every conceivable surface with ease, paws at a suspicious white zucchini, and sits and speaks with a confident swagger that hilariously resembles how real cats behave. Harold, either by choice or because he just wants a new friend to play with, is on the fence with his kitty counterpart, wanting to believe that there’s nothing wrong with Bunnicula, insisting Chester reads too much. Kraemer also shines as Harold the dog, prancing around the stage excitedly or in fear, twitching his head at every sound, and generally reflecting what dogs do best, being loyal and silly.

Bunnicula himself is controlled by the talented Christine Cooke-Macvittie, who brings the puppet to life in how she moves him around the stage, turns his head cutely (or menacingly) and wiggles his ears, among other acts. Eisenmann and Herreid also impress as Toby and Pete, able to bounce off of their co-stars smoothly and effectively, and perhaps giving the best projection during the musical numbers.

“Bunnicula” really shines in its music (Chester Popiloand) and lighting (Todd Proffitt), matching a comical rendition of creepy organs blaring (like you’d hear in classic vampire flicks), with focused spotlights and flashes of lightning from the set’s tall, ominous windows.

“Bunnicula” is a lighthearted, easy to follow horror-comedy that is perfect for children on Halloween (I mean, October). It’s frightening Dracula inspiration is downplayed by the adorable pets and the silly humans who think they know better. There’s many laughs and thrills to be had, recommended for ages 6 and up.

Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.

“Bunnicula” runs until October 29, presented at Theatre of Youth. For more information, click here.