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Charles Morgan

Steve Cottonaro with some of the cast members in a scene from ‘Music Man.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

By Charles J. Morgan

The Noel S. Ruiz Theater at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale kicked off its 38th season with the opening of Meredith Willson’s famous hit “Music Man” on March 12. Matthew W. Surico directs a large talented cast to produce a wonderful evening of theater.

The story follows Harold Hill, a trigger-tongued, traveling salesman and con man who attempts to bilk the town of River City, Iowa, out of hundreds of dollars with his phony plan to raise and train a band even though he couldn’t tell a drum beat from a sugar beet. His pitch is that he uses a unique “Think System” — one does not have to know music; one has merely to “think” it.

The mayor and town council are on to him, but he dazzles them with rapid-fire sales talk. However, he is thwarted by his  falling in love with the town librarian, Marian Paroo. Here is where sides are taken: the pro-Hill and anti-Hill factions. The hilarious finale has Hill about to direct a brightly uniformed segment of the “band” that pounded out a cacophony that would make any listener cringe, to “Think! Men!” His skullduggery exposed the … well someone once wrote, “America is a happy-ending nation.”

Hill is played by Steve Cottonaro, an accomplished singer who matches his tenor with impressive dancing skills. With straw hat on a rakish angle he dominated the boards. His love is the fetchingly beautiful Shannon Cunningham, possessed of one of the most powerful soprano voices heard in a long time. Her singing had a plaintive dimension combined with strength that complemented Cottonaro’s tenor in the duets, especially in “There Was Love” in Act II.

Steve Cottonaro dances with some of the young cast members in a scene from ‘Music Man.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar
Steve Cottonaro dances with some of the young cast members in a scene from ‘Music Man.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

Mayor Shinn was handled artfully by Jeff Pangburn. His malaprops were amazing, with his “… and I want not a poop out of you!” countered by his wife Eulalie’s “He means peep,” played in a nonstop comedic  role by Jodi Saladino.

Marian’s mother, the widow Paroo, was played by Rosemary Kurtz who, with a hint of Irish accent, embarked on this dramatic role with a sound-off rendition of “Piano Lesson. “

Then there was the School Board (Barber Shop Quartet) consisting of Ralph D’Ambrose, Carl Tese, Joseph Bebry and John DiGiorgio. Their close harmony was flawless and, as a group, they added a  flavor that was a gustatory delight. A group number in Acts I and II called “Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little)” had the gossipy ladies of the town sounding like a gaggle of poultry, musically, that is, and was neatly executed. What has become the signature number of the show, “Seventy-Six Trombones” with Hill and the boys and girls, was the highlight of the show.

Although the entire cast did a phenomenal job, special mention should be made of child virtuoso Jack Dowdell as Winthrop Paroo. Here is a lad of great theatrical promise.

The costumes, designed by Ronald R. Green III, were spot on and set designer Patrick Grossman produced a highly mobile series of well-constructed sets, including the inside of a moving passenger train as the Act I opener. Choreography was handled neatly by M.E. Junge.

Logically the music itself must receive a critique, all of it praiseworthy. CM/PAC’s music director Jeremy Kaplan has gathered an ensemble of no less than 15 first-rate musicians to form what had to be the equivalent of a Broadway pit band suffused with a totality of professionalism.

The Noel S. Ruiz Theater at the CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “The Music Man” through April 10. Tickets range from $18 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

From left, Nancy Lemenager, Mickey Solis, Alet Taylor and Chris Kipiniak in a scene from ‘God of Carnage’ at the Engeman. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Charles J. Morgan

Four highly skilled Equity members starred equally in Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater’s production of “God of Carnage” that opened Friday, Jan. 21. This tightly written effort was written by Yasmina Reza in French and translated to English by Christopher Hampton. Direction was by Richard T. Dolce, who is also producing artistic director of the Engeman.

On a gleaming geometrical set with little depth and one, little used exit, the four characters — two sets of parents — meet to discuss in a calm, adult, logical manner the fact that the son of one of the couples had clobbered the other’s son with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. The concessive discussion gradually escalates into a full-scale riot of threats, name-calling, replete with blistering vulgarities, physical assaults and, amid slugs of Puerto Rican rum and (let’s admit it), a technically pointedly directed vomiting scene right down stage center! At the height of it husband goes after wife to make it an eight-way free-for-all.

Chris Kipiniak and Alet Taylor play the first couple, Alan and Annette. The “offended” pair are played by Nancy Lemenager and Mickey Solis as Veronica and Michael. The two couples are equally combative, each with their own strategies.

But what are the strategies? Reza wants to bring out the inner rage that is in us all exemplified by the four battlers. They appear to be happily married upper-middle-class types, but this is a veneer. The furnaces of hate, vindictiveness and self-righteousness not too gradually come to the surface, shattering the patina of class politeness and sociability. This tsunami of ill will is made out to be what is truly natural, all else being a glaze of neighborliness under which lies not a madeleine but deadly nightshade.

It is a compelling play as a vehicle for getting inside the head and heart of the audience. And this it accomplishes piercingly. The intra and the inter of family squabbling is not exactly the story line. Reza uses more than a scalpel to surgically excise and reveal to the light the inner workings of the human psyche … she wields a meat cleaver.

If it would be productive to prescind from criticizing the show and talk about the acting, let’s proceed with vigor! The quartet performed as a theatrical exemplar. Kipiniak as Alan, an attorney, is wrapped up in one thing only … his cellphone. Taylor, as his wife Annette, starts off as a loving monument to marriage and motherhood. Lemenager as Veronica and Solis as Michael have careers; she an art loving crusader for the unfortunates of Darfur, he a toilet bowl salesman. All deserve high praise for their acting skills especially in the manner in which they gradually get at each others’ throats. This invaluable skill even prevented the whole thing from degenerating unto pie-in-the-face slapstick.

Your scribe would not say that Dolce had an easy task in this no-intermission show. He had to infuse real life into all four, and to block them accordingly, a result he achieved masterfully not only with aplomb but with art.   

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “God of Carnage” through March 6. Tickets range from $59 to $64. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

Samantha Rosario with the cast of ‘In the Heights.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

By Charles J. Morgan

In the theater when the aesthetic  and technical coalesce, it engenders a happy marriage of entertainment; a delight to the audience. Such a meld was achieved at Oakdale’s CMPAC’s production of “In the Heights” that opened to a sold-out house on Jan. 16.

The “Heights” are Washington Heights in Manhattan and those who live there are Puerto Rican and/or Dominican. They are poverty stricken but struggle to make the most of it. There is plenty of Spanish spoken and sung,  but the language that carries the show along is English in the form of rap. This trigger-tongue  delivery in rhyming (and sometimes not rhyming) doublets with occasional tercets is handled in a talk-sing manner best by the lead Joseph Gonzalez with surprising articulation. These high-speed passages are long, yet his strong tenor delivered them handily. They may have been enunciated with the speed of an M-4 with the safety off, but each “bullet” was clearly on target.

Set design was by Jenn Hocker. She constructed a suggestion of the Heights; its stores, apartments, streets, laundry, fire escapes and an upstage center suggestion of the Manhattan Bridge … geographically incongruent but piercingly pertinent. Lighting was handled by Allison Weinberger with remarkable success, even down to a dance number done in the dark with flashlights.

Which brings us to choreographer M.E. Junge. A mainstay on the Main Stage, “ME” is a highly talented terpsichorean artist. In this show she affected a sometimes rapid, sometimes nuanced evolution on the boards, replete with the staccato, offbeat Latin rhythms to a masterful degree.

Overall direction was by Michael Mehmet who was confronted with the daunting task of creating individuation to a massive cast as well as blocking each group and individual actor. His long list of talents enabled him to come through handsomely.

Ariana Valdes and Joseph Gonzalez in a scene from ‘In the Heights.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar
Ariana Valdes and Joseph Gonzalez in a scene from ‘In the Heights.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

A live eight-man pit band was headed by Anthony Brindisi with Laura Mitrache and Brindisi on keyboards, Patrick Lehosky on percussion, Brett Beiersdorfer on drums, Kevin Merkel on trumpet, Andrew Lenahan on reeds, John Snyder on bass and Conrad Scuza on trombone. This crew handled the complexities of the Latin rhythms most expertly. In the standard tempi of the “North American” songs they were great, but when it went “Caribbean” they were noteworthy.

Back on the boards. We have Leyland Patrick as Benny who with Gina Morgigno as Nina sing “Benny’s Dispatch” and “When You’re Home” with the whole company. In Act II they are back with “When the Sun Goes Down,” musical trifecta for them.

No review would be complete without mentioning the role of Daniela played to the hilt by Erica Giglio. Her enormous soprano, bursting with far-reaching range, brought down the house both with twin weapons of sarcastic spoken lines and dominant singing voice. One cannot neglect her talented dance abilities. She led the whole company in “Alabanza” and “Carnaval del Barrio” and shone in “No Me Diga” with Nina, Carla (Christina Martinez) and Vanessa (Samantha Rosario).

Kevin is a unique part. He is the aging paterfamilias and is gifted with a pleasing, plangent romantic tenor by Charlie Rivera. His “Inutil”  in Act I and “Atencion” in Act II were tributes to his voice capabilities. A whole page could be devoted to Ariana Valdes as Abuela. She is opera-trained and, with this background the powerful soprano in a solo number about a winning lottery ticket, brought a deserved standing ovation.

The Ensemble comprising Liza Aquilino, Savannah Beckford, Alex Esquivel, Kin-Zale Jackson, Matthew Kadam, Michelle LaBozzetta, Tori Lewis and Edward Martinez were the aesthetic armature of it all along with Luke Rosario as Sonny; Kyle Perry as Piragua Guy; Lori Beth Belkin as Camilla; and Paul Edme as Grafitti Pete. When the Playbill read “Company” this group filled the spot with expertise rarely seen in regional theater.

This effort actually was an example of what CMPAC is capable of theatrically. The amalgam of expert management and a high-grade talent puts this company in the foreground, downstage center, the house ringing with applause.

The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “In the Heights” through Feb. 7. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

Brodie Centauro as Scrooge in a scene from ‘A Christmas Carol’ at CMPAC. Photo by Lisa Schindlar

By Charles J. Morgan

Madison Square Garden’s “A Christmas Carol-The Musical” opened on Saturday, Nov. 21, at Oakdale’s CMPAC. That massive venue unveiled an equally massive cast with electronically fed music, and came up with a tightly executed rendition of that theatrical classic.

Brodie Centauro as Scrooge in a scene from ‘A Christmas Carol’ at CMPAC. Photo by Lisa Schindlar
Brodie Centauro as Scrooge in a scene from ‘A Christmas Carol’ at CMPAC. Photo by Lisa Schindlar

Your scribe takes pleasure in discussing Ronald Green III’s costumes. It may appear odd that costume design would appear first in a review, but your scribe was so impressed with Green’s effort, producing as it did a totally authentic representation of Dickensian, mid-Victorian dress.

Green’s attention to detail was seen even in a short vignette of a properly bewigged judge and a uniformed London bobby in Act II. All the cast members were costumed in varying versions of mid-19th century attire; some painstaking research was done here. Authenticity was called for and Green delivered.

The leading role of the penurious, miserly, arrogant opinionated, skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge was played stingingly by Brodie Centuro, no stranger to CMPAC. He accurately depicted the penny-pinching, negative nature of Scrooge, and with skillful “range-ability” revealed the lurking charity in the old codger with notable skill. This is what the craft of acting is all about: to exhibit sincere, believable change.

The principal ghost is that of Scrooge’s old partner Jacob Marley, laden with chains, each link made of bills from his accounting desk, and had Don Dowdell torturing the soul of Scrooge very effectively.

He was followed by three ghosts: Christmas Past-Steve Cottonaro, Present-Kyle Petty and Yet-To-Be-Alison Carella. Cottonaro and Petty were outstanding with Cottonaro all over the boards and Petty in royal garb working with dancers. Carella had the somber, deadly part of pointing to gravestones with guess-who’s name on one of them. Carella did it forcefully and with impact.

Mark Slomowitz played Mr. Fezziwig, the contra-Scrooge. Along with his wife, played by Kaylyn Lewis, he held an annual ball full of merry music and dancing. Theirs was the life-affirming attitude. Slomowitz was his usual adaptable self, as when he played Luther Bilis in South Pacific. Lewis is possessed of a powerful singing voice that reached all the way to Sayille … at least.

The loyal, hard-working Cratchit family had its head, Bob, played by Bobby Peterson, Katie Hoffman as his wife and Skylar Greene, Daniel Belyansky and Jack Dowdell (the lovable Tiny Tim) as his children. This grouping was the very opposite of Scrooge. They even toast him at Christmas dinner.

Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is handled neatly by Joseph Bebry. He was the link between Scrooge’s loneliness and the family. And he brought it off with palpable accuracy.

The ghosts parade Scrooge through his life. At 8, he’s played by Jack Dowdell; at 12 by Daniel Belyansky and at by 18 Matthew W. Surico. This trio managed to sort out just the right tempo to reveal the evolution of Scrooge from promising young businessman to scolding curmudgeon … not an easy acting-directing task. A lot of children and bit players, with many doubling, rounded out the cast.

Notable was Dana Abruzzo as “Blind Hag,” who delivered a Teresias-like prophecy to Scrooge, biting in its impact.

Choreography was done by Kristen Digilio. She moved the characters around the crowded boards with precision and grace. Set design was by the unstoppable Patrick Grossman, who brought out the 19th Century outdoor setting with the same accuracy that showed his talents with non-naturalistic interiors. Overall direction was by Terry Brennan. Her directorial challenge here was with the enormous size of the cast, yet Brennan surmounted it handily.

Outstanding musical numbers included “Link By Link” by Marly, Scrooge and Ghosts. It was a moral, cautionary tale delivered eerily by the two with ethereal accompaniment. Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim’s duo, “You Mean More to Me,” was a tender ballad with understated pathos. “A Place Called Home” by Scrooge at 18 and in old age with Emily, played by Ashley Beard, was a sort of hymn to unrequited love. The lively, merry Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Ball was a welcome merry romp.

This production was far from an “annual” seasonal show. It represented the essence of technical and aesthetic prowess only to be expected from the folks at CMPAC.

CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present Madison Square Garden’s “A Christmas Carol” through Dec. 29. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

From left, Olivia Publisi, Paul Graf, Christine Sullivan and Michael Puglisi in a scene from ‘Reset.’ Photo by Michael Leinoff

By Charles J. Morgan

The Minstrel Players of Northport, now “under new management,” opened last Saturday, Oct. 24, with its 4th annual original play festival, “Back to the Zone.”

A panorama of seven short, one-act plays in the style of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” it showed the sure hand of Evan Donnellon, the Minstrel’s new executive producer.

In “Death Here” by Steven Gianturco, the figure of Death, played by John Leone, black hood and plastic scythe, gets a phone call announcing the arrival of another deceased, Gil Joe Lesko, who arrives “early.” A madcap dialog ensues between the two. Three parts of standard eschatology’s four divisions rapidly envelopes their trigger-tongued discourse: Heaven, Hell, Death … missing was Punishment. In fact Lesko manages to in the “argument” about the afterlife. Total resolution … to be seen.

Leone is overpowering in his role; the overworked office worker, constantly pushed to get more paperwork done, handle files and phone calls. His projection was excellent. Lesko discharged his part with integrity. He is possessed of a truly theatrical face, reminiscent of the elder Paul Guilfoyle with a touch of Harry Langdon.

“Isabelle” by Ceara Lee Taylor is a two-character effort featuring Tricia Ieronimo in the title role and Brian Hartwig as boyfriend Michael. The two are on a park bench reminiscing about old times like old lovers until it is realized that one of them is long dead. This is a vignette literarily influenced by James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Ieronimo is competent and Hartwig is consistent in characterization.

“Baby Monitor” by Ray Palen is a three-character play with Mark Swinson and Stephanie Leinoff as husband and wife Rick and Amy. They have purchased an electronic “baby monitor,” presumably to “baby sit” their newborn. Later Amy is convinced extra-terrestrials are being introduced through the monitor. They call in a psychic. Here enters Roseanne Baldanza as Thaniel. Baldanza is outstanding with deadpan pseudo-mystical gestures, a haunting voice and extra precise timing … a serio-comic role played to the hilt.

“Reset” by Jerry Eitel features Paul Graf as Man, Christine Sullivan as Woman and Michael and Olivia Puglisi as Boy and Girl. John Wolf crashes on as Gangster. The thesis of the play is that Man and Woman have no idea of their identity; they do not know even their names or whereabouts. Only later the two children provide a rationale for their existence. Graf projects well and is almost Hamlet-like in his groping for reality. Sullivan is all charm, but neither of them can break the closeted psyches until the children come on stage. They help the two become real. The kids’ delivery was a tad recitative, but they were obviously at home on the bards. Wolf, in a loud pin-striped suit and armed is the oppressive, arrogant hood demanding to know his identity. He too is “realized” by the kids.

A late-hours, closing time barroom is the setting for “Deathless” by Evan Donnellan, the heaviest of the seven. A character billed only as Stranger enters looking for just one more drink. The actor is Carl Nehring, and his tour de force about being deathless, unable to die, is a monument to skilled acting, articulate in form and consistent in delivery. The tired, bored bartender is Lou Lentino. He is the perfect foil for Nehring’s diatribe. Lentino understates the role with precision. The interfacing of the two is the armature of the show, and it is no less than riveting. Even the one word “God!” spoken during the blackout unravels the thesis penetratingly. It was a truly captivating theatrical experience.

“The Waiting Room” by Dave Buscema features two characters here in neat business suits — Paul Graf as Mr. Lanes and Bob Oliver as Man but who acts as Lanes’ conscience. Lanes is waiting to be called into the boss’s office to hear of his much sought after promotion up the corporate ladder. Oliver delivers a scathing, but soft rundown of Lanes’ past peccadilloes as well as his cheating and hubris. Graf does the rendition drill quite well. He displays disbelief, insult, anger and eventually self-righteousness with plasticity. Oliver handles the role of unerring conscience with icy persistence. Lanes is called in as his wife Amy, played by Christine Sullivan, enters. In his arms they both face a prosperous future as Oliver simply glowers.

In “The Cook Book or the Cupcake Recipe” by Jordan Hue, four characters arrive at an unexplainably messy old house intent on a weekend of fun. They are Jes Almeida as Carly, Emily Dowdell as Devon, Christina Corsaro as Hope and Brian Hartwig as Walter. Later Carl Nehring will appear as Bill. As they are unpacking, Devon finds what looks like an ancient cookbook but is really a grimoire, a textbook of magic. Its effect on all of them is to repack and get out of there. A blackout is used here to express passage of time. With lights up, one of them is close to newly arrived Bill as they pore over the dusty grimoire. All acting in this performance was first rate. Special kudos go to Emily Dowdell who developed Devon as real, individuated and dominant with a controlled approach that made her outstanding.

Undoubtedly, the persistent theme of death was notably seen in practically all of the seven. One asks was this a reflection of the secular humanist culture in which we find ourselves, or was it just the deliberate objective of the new, young playwrights?

The Minstrel Players will present “Back to the Zone” at Trinity Episcopal Church’s Houghton Hall, 130 Main St., Northport, on Nov. 1 at 3 p.m., Nov. 7 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 8 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 adults, $15 seniors and children under 12. For more information, call 516-557-1207 or visit www.minstrelplayers.org.

The cast of ‘The Addams Family,’ from left, Terry Brennan, Daniel Belyansky, Jon Rivera, Steven Cottonaro, Gina Morgigno, Denise Antonelle and Marc Slomowitz. Photo by Timothy Pappalardo

By Charles J. Morgan

Deep, dark, dank and dusty were the living quarters of the cartoon-famous Addams Family immortalized by Charles Addams and carried forward by the long-running TV series. Just in time for Halloween, Oakdale’s CM Performing Arts Center’s Noel S. Ruiz Theatre has produced it in all its necropolitic splendor and funereal solemnity. And by the way … it’s a musical.

Given CMPAC’s penchant for grand and opulent staging, it was phenomenally successful. The ubiquitous and talented Patrick Grossman designed the set with its precise and swift and sure mobility. With keenly executed lighting plot by Carl Tese, the show’s dark and dreary set was suffused with appropriate ominous light including graveyard mist.

Grossman also directed and his skills with blocking and interpretation were palpably patent. CMPAC’s massive venue poses a problem for the making and breaking of character compositions in a coherent, logical (real?) manner. Theatrically, Grossman succeeded mightily in this. When it came to interpretation he did a credible job inculcating “spookiness.”

Jon Rivera, in the role of Gomez, has the dominant role. His voice, somewhere between a tenor robusto and dramatico, carried him emotionally through all his numbers such as “Wednesday’s Growing Up” and “Gomez’s What If” in Act I. He focuses emotion and sturdiness with masterful acumen.

Denise Antonelle, as his wife Morticia, has a firm soprano coupled with a voluptuous stage presence and a projection ability commingled with exceptional clarity. Their daughter Wednesday was played by Gina Morgigno. Morgigno was ingénue-like in her movements and that plangent voice in Act I’s “Pulled” and “Crazier Than You” in Act II ranked her as a first rate actress-singer. Fifth-grader Daniel Belyansky, who plays Pugsley, is wonderful in his solo number in Act I, a take-off on Gomez’s number “What If.” He has a strong developing voice, and this showcase number may mark him for much to come.

With a massive blonde wig, Terry Brennan plays Grandma, launching her scratchy, boisterious voice in earthy aphorisms, brooking no opposition from anyone. Marc Slomowitz as Uncle Fester had a sort of a parallel role. He had mobility, especially facial, and was hilarious in “Fester’s Manifesto” in Act I and “The Moon and Me” in Act II.

Then there was Lurch the butler. It was a silent role except for his gurgling and growling, the timing of which evoked some loud laughter, especially from your scribe. Steve Cottonaro handled this role with mimetic menace.

As usual, Matthew W. Surico led a live pit band with his expected genius. There was somewhat of a preponderance of Latin rhythms ranging from tango to 6/8 time Bossa Nova, even a waltz. The musical talents of this 12-piece outfit rose to resplendent heights. Choreography was in the hands of the skilled M.E. Junge who also played a small part as one of the Ancestors while costumes were neatly handled by Ronald Green III.

If the audience’s whooping and howling are any indication of the success of this production, it must be a smash hit. Your scribe more tacitly agrees.

The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale will present “The Addams Family” through Nov. 8. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

Nikko Kimzin and Sam Wolf in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Charles J. Morgan

When dance master Jerome Robbins inspired Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to come up with “West Side Story,” they in turn went to The Bard for his “Romeo and Juliet,” morphing the Guelphs and Ghibellines — that’s the Montagues and Capulets of Verona — into the street gangs, the Jets and Sharks. The “star-crossed lovers” became Tony and Maria. This gift to musical theater hit the boards at the Engeman two weeks ago, and the boards are still rattling.

Zach Trimmer and Samantha Williams in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro
Zach Trimmer and Samantha Williams in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

The entire production is built around dance. The pirouettes, arabesques and jetes were neatly comingled with the modern interpretive method to produce a mathematically perfect, yet emotionally penetrating terpsichorean feast.

At the head of all this was the choreography skills of Jeffry Denman and his two assistants Lauren Cannon and Trey Compton, who also acted as fight choreographer. This talented team gave the audience a night of dance the excellence of which your scribe has not seen in his near decade of writing “criticism.”

They say that the “devil is in the details” but not in this production. Imagine if you will a six-foot-high chain link fence running from upstage center down to stage left … suggesting urban schoolyards. This “prop” was climbed on, jumped on and over by male dancers of the Jets and Sharks in their attempts to escape … in tempo. They actually scaled the fence, landing on the other side on the beat — an incredible act of choreography.

Overall direction was in the always capable hands of Igor Goldin (“The Producers,” “Evita”). If one prescinds from the dance numbers, his blocking and interpretation efforts were carried through with exemplary professionalism.

Outstanding among the dancers were Scott Shedenhelm of the Jets and Karli Dinardo in the role of Anita. Shedenhelm was at his best in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” by far the funniest and most clever number in the show. Dinardo scored talent-wise in “America.”

The leads were handled skillfully by Zach Trimmer as Tony and Samantha Williams as Maria. Both have fittingly tender voices; he a more lyrical tenor, she a mellow, yet strong soprano. They excelled as the star-crossed lovers.

The leader of the Jets, Riff, was played by Sam Wolf who pits himself and his gang against Bernardo, played by Nikko Kimzin and his Sharks. The battles of Sharks vs. Jets is the dance armature of the play, and these two lead their factions brilliantly in dancing, acting and singing.

Among the musical numbers, the “Jet Song” really set the theme of pride and struggle. “Dance at the Gym” by the whole company brought out the animosity that almost erupted in violence. The tender “Tonight” by Wolf and Williams presented the balcony scene in all its romance. The mordant “America” that also showcased the patent talent of Ashley Perez Flanagan as Graciela, hit hard musically at the state of society in both the USA and Puerto Rico.

From left, Victoria Casillo, Tori Simeone,Samantha Williams and Ashley Perez Flanagan in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro
From left, Victoria Casillo, Tori Simeone,Samantha Williams and Ashley Perez Flanagan in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

Trimmer and Williams also performed romantically in “One Hand, One Heart.” And there was that Officer Krupke number that was most memorable.

The cast also included Mike Baerga, Josh Bates, Christian Bufford, Mark T. Cahill, Nick Casaula, Victoria Casillo, Joey Dippel, Jon Drake, Roy Flores, Eric Greengold, Joan Heeringa, Melissa Hunt, Gregory Kollarus, Leer Leary, Rick Malone, Ashley Marinelli, Kelly Methven, Kaitlin Niewoehner, Joseph Rosario, Tori Simeone and Marquez Stewart who all did a fabulous job.

Piercing live music was led by James Olmstead on keyboard with assistance from Craig Coyle; Robert Dalpiaz and Joel Levy on reeds; the indomitable Joe Boardman on trumpet with Steve Henry and Pete Auricchio; Brent Chiarello and Frank Hall on trombone; bass was Russell Brown with the reliable Josh Endlich on percussion. This ensemble was at its best in the staccato numbers of both Jets and Sharks such as “Dance at the Gym” and especially in “The Rumble.”

The Engeman spares no opposition when it produces a massive piece of entertainment like “West Side Story.”

All elements of the production including costume design by Tristan Raines, set design by DT Willis, lighting by Zack Blane and sound design by Laura Shubert were masterfully integrated into a sophisticated, articulated and authentic whole.

Many critics a few years back tried to see a “social significance” dimension latent in this show. On TV one described it as “… a slice of New York life.” Nonsense, of course. It was Shakespeare with a life of its own as true musical theater.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present evening performances of “West Side Story” on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and matinees on Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 8. Tickets are $74 on Saturday evenings, $69 all other performances. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

This version corrects the spelling of Jeffry Denman’s name.

Emily Dowdell and Bobby Peterson star in ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ Photo by Tim Pappalardo

By Charles J. Morgan

Hold on to your wallets! The famous bank robbers Bonnie & Clyde are back and they are wreaking havoc at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale. The play follows the original plot, with the two of them featured as folk heroes on one level and as public evildoers on another. This twofold approach is what drives CM/PAC’s startling production of this folk opera based on the book by Ivan Menchell, featuring Don Black’s lyrics and Frank Wildhorn’s music.

Bonnie and Clyde do their murderous thieving throughout the southwest in the Depression-torn early thirties. They are characters who awaken in the concupiscible hearts of the non-criminal majority as two who have escaped the dust bowl, the breadlines and outright poverty by doing one thing: taking.

There is balance however. In three different segments, there is a revival meeting in which a fiery evangelical preacher, in maximum decibel, proclaims the Gospel. There is a very slight element of excess here, but what better way for the authors to show that Bonnie and Clyde are criminal outcasts. These revival scenes are among the best in the show. There is even an element of choreography in them.

Bonnie is seen as a celebrity wannabe who even writes poetry. It is doggerel. Yet even as they were on their murdering spree, making headlines, some local newspapers actually published it.

Clyde is a semi-literate, dirt-poor son of a share cropper who shirks all kinds of gainful employment in favor of “taking,” as does his sycophantic brother “Buck.”

Their criminal career was neatly depicted by the set. The indefatigable Patrick Grossman is the set designer and director. Wearing the former hat, he had a system of flats and slats that went from stage right to stage left and were used vertically, there being no need to do any shifting. A vignette of Bonnie and Clyde in bed, or in the act of robbing a bank, as well as the revival scenes would be seen as one or more of the slatted flats were opened and closed — most effective. He also devised a system of projecting flashing contemporary newspapers. Wearing the other hat, Grossman was confronted with the always pressing problem of interpretation and blocking. His talents in this field extend to excellence. He made them real, even down to a consistently applied southwestern accent.

The multi-talented Emily Dowdell played Bonnie Parker, coupling her powerful soprano with coyness, assertion, self-pity and an outcry for love admirably. Clyde Barrow was played by Bobby Peterson with a far-ranging tenor and believable toughness both in solo and duet.

Briggs Houston played the role of Marvin “Buck” Barrow, Clyde’s brother. His voice was a middle-register tenor. His somewhat lumbering attitude and his death scene were done to perfection. Shannon Cunningham was Blanche, Buck’s wife. She had great stage presence coupled with a caressable soprano. She suffused the loyal wife role with high morality for Buck. Her performance was impressively consistent.

Then there was Carl Tese as the revivalist preacher. Talk about power! He shook the rafters with the Decalogue, the Beatitudes and John 3 with the range of heavy artillery. ME Junge was Trish, a small part for the leading choreographer; but she is a trouper.

In the musical numbers, the preacher and “congregation” performed “God’s Arms Are Always Open” with, well, dynamism, and Bonnie and Clyde’s duet in “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” told it all.

Musical direction was handled, as usual, by Matthew W. Surico on piano and a solid pit band that featured Kevin Merkel on synthesizer, Christian Wern on bass, Michael Villarico on drums, Diana Fuller and Lauren Carroll on guitars, John Dumlao on violin and Eric Albinder and Andrew Lenahan on woodwinds. It was the pit band effect Surico always achieves that gave body to the whole show. Kudos to the entire cast for a job well done!

The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale will present “Bonnie & Clyde” through Sept. 27. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

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From left, Michael Bertolini, Mary Ellin Kurtz and Staci Rosenberg-Simons in a scene from ‘Arsenic & Old Lace.’ Photo by Samantha Cuomo

By Charles J. Morgan

When a theatrical company does a chestnut, it is because it has not only stood the test of time but has pleased audiences through the years. 

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts has trotted out one of those chestnuts, Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace,” that darkly humorous comedy about two charmingly wicked aging sisters who go about murdering lonely men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch” of cyanide as if they were dusting furniture in their antique home in Brooklyn, reminiscent of the old houses on Westminster, Rugby and Argyle roads in your scribe’s native Flatbush.

Mary Ellin Kurtz and Staci Rosenberg-Simons portray the malevolent Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, respectively. Their overly sweet demeanor toward one another comes off perfectly; their Victorian good manners are the perfect cover for their evil deeds. Their innocence is not even feigned … it is sincere!

Then there is their brother, Teddy, a harmless lunatic who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt. Bobby Montaniz has this role and plays it to the hilt. With a bristling moustache and pince-nez glasses, he actually looked like TR. His “Charge!!!” up the stairs, bugle in hand, forces the sisters to explain, “The stairs? . . . San Juan Hill.” In his “signing clothes,” a cutaway frock coat and striped pants, he signs the “Treaty,” which is his own commitment papers to an insane asylum. His TR lines all have to do with real, historical TR incidents. Your scribe’s favorite was when he places his hand on the shoulder of the visiting preacher from the local church intoning “I’ve always enjoyed my talks with Cardinal Gibbons!” Montaniz was the comic foil of this show.

Steve Corbellini plays the sisters’ nephew, Mortimer. He is supreme as the one who discovers what the sisters have done. He is torn between simply turning them in to the police and his nepotic love for them. Corbellini has a remarkable stage presence and a comic ability that is first class.

Lauren Gobes has the role of Elaine, Mortimer’s fiancée. She is pretty, ingénue-like and possessed of impressive range … from beloved to spurned and back again.

On to the scene comes Mortimer’s brother Jonathan, handled expertly by Michael Newman . . . the “bad” Brewster. His voice is threatening and thunderous, and his reciting of his lines in a sort of monotone brings out a deep-seated evil. His shady confederate is Dr.  Einstein, the hard drinking, failed surgeon. Eugene Dailey has the role and interprets it masterfully. Rounding out the cast are Mark DeCaterina, Michael Bertolini, John Steele and Kevin Shaw, all of which do a fine job.

Now chestnuts need good sets, and Timothy Golebiewski as set designer ran a team of constructors including Brian Barteld, Clarke Serv and Russ Brown in mounting a massive, highly impressive interior complete with wainscoting, window seat and, especially noteworthy, a staircase with a double landing leading to “upstairs” rooms. The furniture looked like it had been bought during the presidency of Grover Cleveland.

On to this set steps director Jordan Hue who, confronted with this broad physical venue, had the job of interpreting and blocking the cast, carrying out the director’s job of making the characters as real as possible, and coupling that with the actors own talents and engendering a seamless performance. In this Hue succeeded eminently.

This is a chestnut pulled from the roast for the audience’s delectation. The SCPA has done its usual fine work on a production well worth seeing.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown, will present the classic comedy “Arsenic & Old Lace” through Oct. 4. Tickets are $35 adults, $20 students. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

From left, Aaron Dalla Villa, Sean King and Jay William Thomas in a scene from ‘Orphans.’ Photo by Jacob Hollander

By Charles J. Morgan

The three-person drama “Orphans” officially opened at the Conklin Barn in Huntington last week kicking off a 12-performance run.

It is no wonder that stars like Alec Baldwin, William Devane and Ned Beatty have played a part in the past on Broadway in this powerful, dynamic effort. Playwright Lyle Kessler has written an interlocking, emotion-laden, compelling drama about two orphaned brothers living in North Philly; one, Treat, a slick domineering “Mack the Knife” type played to the hilt by Aaron Dalla Villa; the other, Philip, a mentally challenged younger brother who manages to maintain a tenuous grip on reality, handled skillfully and deftly by Jay William Thomas. Treat is convinced that his criminal lifestyle is morally acceptable since it is all for the benefit of his meek, needy and obedient brother.

Both actors discharged their characterizations brilliantly. Kessler has painted the emotional dynamism here with the precision of Seurat’s pointillism, perhaps with an admixture of Van Gogh’s intensity. Dalla Villa and Thomas display this with character intensity, revealing each to be skillful actors with an explosive stage presence and role interpretation of the highest magnitude.

Then on to the 18-inch-high stage platform of the Conklin Barn enters Sean King as Harold. He is drunk and has been kidnapped by Treat who discovers that Harold has a load of stocks, bonds and cash in his briefcase as well as on his person. Treat ropes him to a chair and, foolishly, leaves Philip in charge of him as he goes out to make outlandish “ransom” demands.

The great dramatic change comes when Harold frees himself and becomes the salient character. Was he a mob boss? A crooked businessman? Actually, he provides intellectual and emotional help to Philip, putting him on the road to extra-mental reality.

Treat is enraged on returning, but Harold mollifies him with a promise of a job as his bodyguard at an enormous salary. At this juncture the audience is beginning to realize that King’s portrayal of Harold is something larger than life. Harold is “The Other.” He dispenses moral and ethical advice that begins to give some concrete meaning to the lives and actions of Treat and Philip. King’s consistent playing of this role is startlingly understated, which gives it far more impact than if there had been added bombast — a temptation to a lesser skilled actor.

The final scene in this two-act production occurs in a very heart-rending denouement redolent of a Renaissance triptych.

Direction was by the multitalented Jim Bonney. Any director confronted by a fast moving three-actor property has issues with blocking. Bonney overcame this problem with the fastest-paced blocking your scribe has seen in a long time. He used karate, a fist fight, wrestling and logical positioning that was keenly correct. Bonney’s skills were challenged, but he showed his directorial métier so admirably that he came up with a tightly controlled, expressive result.

Is there a philosophy in “Orphans”? Yes. But it is not a transcendent one … more of a purely human one. Yet the humanity of Harold is so overwhelming, despite his lifestyle that it penetrates the façade of “goodness” between the brothers. It is tragedy, yet its human dimension provides an element of hope. Keep in mind that Renaissance triptych.

Bonney/King Productions will present “Orphans” at the Conklin Barn, 2 High St., Huntington, through Sept. 5. Meet the playwright Lyle Kessler and join him for a Q-and-A after Sept. 4th’s performance. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 631-484-7335 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.

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