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Charles Morgan

Kristen Digilio and Jon Rivera in a scene from ‘South Pacific.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

By Charles J. Morgan

The antics and other distracting, diversionary activities stationed on a backwater island during World War II form the structure of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great hit “South Pacific” which opened on Oakdale’s CM Performing Arts Center’s Noel S. Ruiz Theatre’s massive stage last Saturday.

Wonderfully directed by Ed Brennan, the story takes place during World War II, following the love story between a U.S. Navy nurse from Arkansas, Nellie, and French planter, Emile, a widower raising his two children. A second love story develops between Liat, a local girl living on the island of Bali Ha’i, and Lt. Joseph Cable, who is conflicted with the duty he owes to his country and the love he feels for Liat.

With book by Hammerstein and Josh Logan, it guaranteed a smash hit at CMPAC … and so it was with Kristen Digilio as Nurse Nellie Forbush and Jon Rivera as Emile de Becque.

Digilio showed extraordinary range in both acting, singing and even dancing. Rivera was a baritone with some depth into basso and a lyricism especially in “Some Enchanted Evening,” the lyrical note on the last word alone culminating the depth of lower register of the baritone for a truly enhanced, musically aesthetic experience.

Digilio’s “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” was a rollicking ensemble with a bevy of swimsuit-clad Navy nurses. She revealed a range of talent reaching from this signature number as well as the slapstick “Honey Bun,” to a totally plaintive solo in “Some Enchanted Evening.”

In the sassy, wise-guy role of Seaman Luther Billis, Marc Slomowitz leads the Seabees in “There is Nothing Like a Dame” which unlocks the rather libidinous leitmotif of the show. Brodie Centauro plays Lt. Cable. He is in love with Liat, a Polynesian girl played by Kate Apostolico. He sings “Younger Than Springtime” in a melodious tenor with Apostolico in his arms, coupled with a handsome stage presence and a powerful tenor.

Then there is the inevitable “Bloody Mary,” handled expertly by Angela Garofalo. A derivative of Little Buttercup in “H.M.S. Pinafore” she is earthy, but when she sings “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk” one simply wants to give her a hug. The island’s commanding officer, Capt. Brackett, is played by Michael Sherwood; Comdr. Harbison is played by John J. Steele Jr. These two non-singing roles lend a fairly good sense of realism to the show.

Choreography is by the indomitable M.E. Junge. “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Honey Bun” exhibited her best work. Music was under the baton of the indispensable Matthew W. Surico leading faultlessly a live 17-piece pit band with cleverly comic uses of dissonances in a well-rehearsed series of numbers.

Costume design fell to Ronald Green III, a veteran designer at CMPAC. His expertise in the native inhabitants’ costuming and the nurses’ swimsuits was faultless. The uniforms not so: Lt. Cable would have been written up if he actually appeared in a four-button open jacket, sunglasses hung out of pocket, hat on back of head, iniquitous boots and a leather flight jacket suitable for B-17 crews over Berlin. Only one sailor wore a regulation hat while the others wore what looked like the pope’s zucchetto; missing also were the U.S. Navy hat devices for Brackett and Harbison.

Anyway, the excellence of this production calls for maximum attendance by all who want top musical entertainment.

The Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “South Pacific” through Aug. 23. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

Henry Clarke & Rachel Pickup in a scene from "The Cottage." Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Charles J. Morgan

Announcement to theatergoers everywhere — the English language is alive and well and ensconced on the boards of the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. Standing like a rock in a sea of drivel, the theater’s latest play, “The Cottage” by Sandy Rustin, exhibits the nuances, the understatements, the acerbic humour, the articulate dialogue and even wisecracks to such a sophisticated, yet rapidly delivered, neatly interfaced lines that your scribe must confess he did not want the show to end.

From left, Henry Clarke, Christiane Noll and Jamie LaVerdiere in a scene from "The Cottage." Photo by Michael DeCristofaro
From left, Henry Clarke, Christiane Noll and Jamie LaVerdiere in a scene from “The Cottage.” Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

Rustin sculpted her work mindful of the spirit of that arch-sophisticated Noel Coward. A sample of his penetrating wit appeared epigrammatically on the Playbill:

“It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

Directed by BT McNicholl, the play expresses the web of marital and unmarital involvement that it is interspersed with humour that comes at the audience like a spray from a Bren gun. Yes, it is high comedy delivered in a rare sense of hilarity. It was interesting to literally watch the audience slowly accommodate itself to the sophistication of it all. A graph of laughter would register from zero to 100, reaching a climactic 100.99 right down to the almost slapstick finale.

Since your scribe does not hold a critic’s duty to relate what a play is all about, suffice it to say that it involves two couples who have criss-crossed spouses. So if there is a denoument, these characters do their absolute best to untangle it. Rachel Pickup playes the lead, Sylvia Van Kipness. Tall, beautiful and statuesque, she appears in all of Act I in negligé and peignoir. Over and above it all she is a supreme actress with a stage presence that would make her outstanding if she wore a suit of armour.

Henry Clarke is Beau, her lover. He has all the masculine good looks of the Hollywood leading man, but he employs all his talents to remarkable effect. In one scene he daringly points a fireplace poker at a man aiming a rifle at him.

Christiane Noll & Lilly Tobin in a scene from "The Cottage." Photo by Michael DeCristofaro
Christiane Noll & Lilly Tobin in a scene from “The Cottage.” Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

Sharply involved in the verbal interplay is Christiane Noll as Marjorie. Jamie LaVerdiere plays Clarke, Beau’s brother and husband to Marjorie who was once married to Beau. Then onstage comes Lilly Tobin, as Dierdre who is actually bounced all over the boards in Act II. Another spoiler is Brian Sgambati as Richard, the allegedly long-lost husband of Dierdre, but actually a deserter from the Royal Navy. Put them all together and you get a hilarious story that gets untangled … maybe.

The title reflects the set. It is the interior of an English cottage located 90 miles from London, possibly the Cotswolds. Set designer Jonathan Collins has outdone himself with this effort. It is tastefully decorated in what may be called English Rustic of 1923, the play’s time frame. Collins’ skills are outstanding.

The ribald essence of the show is an outcome of the vanished Victorian/Edwardian values that went up in smoke on the Somme, Gallipoli and Passchendaele. Hence the gaiety of the actors involved in marital disintegration. But let us not get somber over this. The show is humourous and not without a touch of satire.

If deadly serious matters can be put up for laughs, then prepare to split your sides … keeping in mind that the English language is alive and very well.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present “The Cottage” through Sept. 6. Tickets are $59. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

Gabrielle Georgescu and Adam Thompson star in ‘Reasons to Be Pretty.’ Photo by Origin Photos

By Charles J. Morgan

The famous and incisive theater critic Walter Kerr once remarked that every theatrical era has a vision. From the time of the medieval miracle plays to the social significance efforts of Clifford Odets and Sidney Kingsley, there was a vision of reality, of life, of faith, of love. The secular humanist culture in which we now live has its vision: a concentration on the total, inviolable, self-importance of the individual to determine all things for him or herself.

O’Neill struggled with this in his tragedies, while in his short sea plays his characters were more “normally” human and real. His “Morning Becomes Electra” was actually the Agamemnon trilogy of Aeschylus, “The Iceman Cometh” analysis of the human condition.

Our secular humanist culture has given rise to plays like “Reasons to Be Pretty” by Neil LaBute, now in production at the Bare Bones Theater Company in Northport. The script revolves around one single f-word repeated around 5,346 times. The characters spout it interminably.

But what do the four characters “spout” about? A deep life-affecting matter? An inherently flawed relationship? Life itself? No: an innocently passed remark by one of the four about the corporeal pulchritude of a female expressed politely, but causing a relationship to dissolve volcanically.

The entire scene reminded your scribe (a former teacher) of a clutch of pubescent junior high school students cackling in front of their lockers before algebra class. That’s how shallow was the script. The Anglo-Saxon participle was used as comma, colon, verb and etc. in order to keep the flow of anodyne “dialogue” moving among the four actors. Without that word the script would have disintegrated into cementlike boredom.

Adam Thompson is Greg and Gabrielle Georgescu is his girlfriend Steph. She is walking out on him for practically all of Act I. Neither one get to finish a sentence before the other tears in loudly. This banter does add a measure of realism, but when the whole thing is seen to be about a chance remark he made at a party about the good looks of a friend’s girl that causes her to explode and walk out, Thompson’s method of acting as the hurt injured party confused by it all is very effective. He could rant, cry, scream, pout to give individuality to the role.

The beautifully executed fist fight scene with his friend Kent, played to the hilt by JLawrence Kenny, is the most realistic your scribe as seen in years.

Georgescu is perfect in the role of Steph. Her screeds and interventions are masterful. She is a highly talented actress.

In the role of a security guard, Emily Ryan Reed is exceptionally outstanding. She is the only one of the four to express a range of emotions, and she does it with an intensity that was more than impressive.

Lynn Antunovich directed with a sure hand at blocking and a very skillful ability to achieve realism and believability in the actors. It was arguably she who executed the intricate and intense line cutting that, despite what your scribe said about the script, gave the show the impact it needed.

The three, or was it four, flight climb to the theater was made quite worth it due to the welcome hospitality of House Manager Maureen (“Mo”) Spirn.

The Bare Bones Company is well under way to being the ground for new playwrights. LaBute’s effort with this one, although ankle-deep in the waters of theatrical conflict, still provides material for young, aspiring actors.

Bare Bones Theater Company, 57 Main St., Northport, will present “Reasons to Be Pretty” through Aug. 1. Warning: adult language. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 631-606-0026 or visit www.barebonestheater.com.

Eric Schell and Faith Ahmed in a scene from ‘West Side Story’ at the SCPA. Photo from the SCPA

By Charles J. Morgan

About an eon ago your scribe was watching a TV talk show on the family’s round screen box on which a participant referred to “West Side Story” as a “slice of New York life.” Another participant, the great Robert Morley, snorted, “Ectually, old boy, it’s Romeo and Juliet.” Morley was right, and the Playbill at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Art’s opening really was the Bard’s opus with full credit put to music, and not just music but Broadway music and dance.

With a team featuring Arthur Laurent’s book, Leonard Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography, success was all but secure. In SCPA’s effort it was secured in Smithtown.

Direction was by Jordan Hue who, facing the challenge of a massive cast, showed his craftsmanship in blocking and interpretation. Each Jet and each Shark were real tangible creatures thanks to Hue’s disciplined creativity.

The show is practically all choreography, and thanks to the genius of the indefatigable Melissa Rapelje, excellently performed execution was the armature of the show. She faced the off-beat accents, the dissonances and the diversity of rhythms undaunted. Her skills with interpretive, modern, Latin and even ballet were never more displayed.

Coalescing with the dancing and singing was the superb live music led by Melissa Coyle on keyboard with conductor Craig Coyle on piano. Jim Waddell was outstanding on drums. The number “Cool it!,” performed by the Jets, was accompanied by Waddell using only the sizzling hi-hats. Craig Lindsey and Bob Dalpiaz handled extremely competent reeds. Jill Boardman was on violin and Russ Brown’s bass anchored all the intricate changes of rhythm easily. Finally, Joe Boardman’s trumpet reached aesthetically ethereal heights … as usual.

The two “star-crossed lovers” were Eric Schell as Tony and Faith Ahmed as Maria. Schell’s tenor and Ahmed’s soprano melded smoothly in both duet and solo. In the “balcony” (fire escape) scene their “Tonight” was a truly velvet love song while Schell’s rendition of  “Maria” was lovingly rendered. Ahmed also exhibited obvious talent in “I Feel Pretty.”

In a choreographed dream sequence Courtney Braun sang a solo “Somewhere There’s a Place” with both charm and power delightfully linked. Justin Albinder stood out as the doomed Bernardo. As “Action” Bobby Montaniz leads the Jets in a hilarious mockery of the sadistic Officer Krupke. Some of the lines are quite dated: (“…my mother pushes tea…), yet Montaniz is the key to the humor of it all.

In addition to choreographer, Rapelje also played the role of the second lead, Anita. Her drive, verve and singing while leading the girls all keyed to a spicy rendition of “Puerto Rico” like a dish of asopao jibaro.

Add the intricate lighting by Chris Creevy, the massive, flexible set design by Timothy Golebiewski and the wonderful costumes by Ronald Green III and you have a wonderful evening of live theater.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown will present “West Side Story” through Aug. 30. Tickets are $35. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

Kevin Burns and Katie Ferretti in a scene from ‘Mary Poppins’. Photo by William Sheehan

By Charles J. Morgan

Revivals in the theatah are of two kinds: the supercolossal musical smash and the ones that high school groups can do handily. The latter is exemplified by “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” the former by “Mary Poppins,” which opened in the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center’s massive venue in Oakdale on Saturday.

This performance was actually a paean to Pat Grossman, that factotum of the theater who directed it and did set design. His interpretive skills were as usual quite evident, but his ability at managing a highly mobile Victorian interior was noteworthy. Grossman’s minutely trained crew gave us a living room, kitchen, Mansard roof and upstairs bedroom all with the flavor of London in the era of the queen who gave her name to the age.

Choreography was by the indefatigable M.E. Junge. Her work in the tap number “A Step in Time” in Act II was outstanding; and in Act I’s “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was the signature hit in the entire show. One minuscule comment: Your scribe cannot understand why she continues to execute highly complex dance numbers in semi-darkness. Music was handled by Matthew W. Surico with his exemplary accuracy with electronic feed music.

Katie Ferretti held the title role. Her far-ranging soprano and excitingly beautiful stage presence were truly riveting, especially in “Supercali…” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Bert the Chimney Sweep was played by Kevin Burns. His mid-range tenor was put to great use as was his obvious acting ability. He had an engaging stage personality that coalesced neatly with Ferretti.

The cook was played by Linda Pentz. Her ability with tough, no-nonsense females was a touch of reality in this magical realism production. Speaking of reality, there was the infrastructure roles of the Banks family. Carl Tese was George, the paterfamilias, perfectly authoritatively Victorian, demanding Order and Precision.

Aloof from any “sentimentality,” he came across most flexibly in a demanding role involving emotional changes. Amy Dowdell was his wife Winifred. Her Mrs. Banks was a plaintive, highly melodic revelation of her role as a Victorian wife. The children, Jane and Michael, were played by Katherine LaFountain and Austin Levine. These two kids were on the boards for long stretches without exits. Their ability  to concentrate as well as to sing and dance was demonstrably professional. A double role as Ms. Andrew who replaces Mary Poppins briefly as the Nanny and Mrs. Corrie, a street vendor, was handled by Pamela Parker. The power of her voice in “Brimstone and Treacle” revealed an operatic soprano that caused the light bars to waver.

This production was a true example of how the concatenation of scene changes, done with palpable dexterity, the exactitude of Junge, the eye of Grossman for interpretation prescinding from his skill as set designer, the interfacing of all of the above with that aesthetic dimension of acting,  dancing and singing created a ringing smash hit — a tribute to what the CMPAC is capable of — an exciting evening of musical theater.

The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “Mary Poppins” through July 19. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

Stuart Zagnit as Max Bialystock in a scene from ‘The Producers,’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Charles J. Morgan     

The musical “The Producers” opened at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport last week and did not disappoint. Adapted by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan from Brooks’ 1968 film of the same name, it tells the story of a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer, Max Bialystock.

Once nicknamed the “King of Broadway,” Bialystock has recently produced a series of turkeys (“…the critics left at intermission”); so he must produce a hit or go broke. His easily swayed, near psychotic auditor Leopold Bloom shows him how to make millions by producing a flop! Both rummage through a pile of manuscripts until they find one entitled “Springtime for Hitler,” extolling the virtues of the Nazi party. Putting this one on had to be a failure! Off they go in search of the author and to find an “angel.”

Stuart Zagnit and Joel Newsome played the hilarious plotters as Max and Leo, respectively. They were so contrasted as the Machiavellian hard-as-nails fixer to the trembling, quivering weaker partner who still carries a piece of his infant security blanket. Both have lively tenor voices — Zagnit the mighty organ,  Newsome the exquisite violin.

Gina Milo, as Ulla the voluptuary, had all the right (and left) moves, topping this panoply of pleasure with a powerful soprano. Her “If You Got It, Flaunt It” number expressed it all.

The two plotters find their author in Franz Liebkind played by John Plumpis — a wacko Nazi in Luftwaffe steel helmet, imitation jackboots and a stick — he is all over the boards intoning a somewhat mangled German accent but coming on quite strong in Act II’s “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” and in Act II’s “Haben Sie  Gehört Das Deutsche Band?”

The gay community is well represented with Roger DeBris, handled smoothly by Ian Knauer, and Carmen Ghia, played languidly by Christopher Sloan. Knauer is well over the two-yard mark, leading one to believe that height was a requisite. Why? Because the height of the lissome female ensemble only added to their beauty, referring to Emily Blake Anderson, Molly Jean Blodgett, Mary Callahan and Laura Otremba. A marvelous performance, especially those kicks.

Choreography was by the ubiquitous and deeply talented Antoniette DiPietropolo with direction by Igor Goldin. DiPietropolo had a massive job on her hands. The cast was large and the ensemble equally so. Yet, as usual, she brought out a clear terpsichorean reality, including one done in walkers. Goldin was similarly charged with clear individualization and interpretation of characters. He succeeded handily.

At this juncture your scribe must reveal his impressions of the show’s music. James Olmstead leads a six-piece outfit featuring the incomparable Joe Boardman on trumpet, the trombones of Brent Chiarello and Frank Hall, Russ Brown on bass, Mark Katz on reeds and Josh Endlich on percussion driving it along.

Boardman has a tone redolent of Charlie Shavers with a whiff of Dizzy Gillespie. The sound of gunshots in Act II was actually rimshots by Endlich. Talk about accurate cuing. In fact, after final curtain this group did a little jamming. Your scribe was loath to leave his seat so much was he enjoying a trip down 52nd Street in the late forties.

This was a beautifully mounted production — something the Engeman is quite good at.

The John W. Engeman Theater will present “The Producers” through July 12. Tickets are $69. For more information, please call the box office at 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

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From left, Patrick Grossman, Andrew Smith, Joseph Morris, Brodie Centauro, Sean Burbige and Van Whitaker. Photo by William Sheehan

By Charles J. Morgan

Delving once again into the esoteric vocabulary of the theatah, your scribe finds the word “property.” It does not refer to real estate. It means a script. A dramatist finishes writing one, finds a good agent, then some backers, then a director and cast, and it’s on with the show! The property “The Full Monty” has fallen into the hands of the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale and opened last Saturday, May 9.

Now a property is quite different from the actual performance. The director, in this case, the very able Kristen Digilio, has to bring believable characterizations, and block them round the boards in a way that is consonant with the characterizations. This staves off the subtle assaults of that monster, Stasis, the spoiler of all action. Digilio effects this with undeniable skill.

Your scribe is a critic, not a press agent. Therefore, he must take under his responsibility all, repeat all, aspects of theater he sees while assigned to review one particular play. Your scribe will take on one for outstanding criticism. It’s the property and only the property. One proem however, your scribe was not the model for Augustus St. Gaudens’ statue The Pilgrim. Your scribe is not the one who is haunted by the fear that somewhere, somebody is smiling. Therefore, he is constrained to label the property filthy, auto-erotic, erotic, lascivious, puerile, skatological and concerned with one thing and one thing only: male genitals seen and unseen. The audience’s deeply pejorative reaction was force-fed to your scribe. The non-stop screaming, hooting, boisterous demands for more,the feigned laughter; all of it came from apparently mature women.

But then there was some acting. Brodie Centauro as Jerry has a smooth tenor voice, revealing an aura of pliant lyricism in the upper register. He is the idea man who recruits five co-workers to form a male stripper group along the lines of the famous Chippendales. All this because he found out that his wife and some of his friends’ wives had, on “girls night out,” gone to see the Chippendales. The plot line for the rest of the show is “will they or won’t they go the full monty?”

Sean Burbige, Joseph Morris, Andrew Smith, Van Whitaker and Patrick Grossman complete the “sex-tet.” Choreography was also by Digilio, another tribute to her talents. A cameo was offered by Linda Pentz as a smoking tough-old-broad, beautifully executed. It even reminded your scribe of Sophie Tucker. Brava Linda.

In Act I, “It’s a Woman’s World,” despite scurrilous lyrics, was rendered by Jessica Ader-Ferretti, Heather Van Velsor, Bidalia Albanese, and Emily Dowdell (who also doubled as Molly MacGregor quite efficiently). This was “balanced” by a monument to flaccid machismo by Centauro and Burbige. Their harmonizing? Great. In Act II, the finale, “Let it Go,” done with great power, told it all.

As usual, Matthew Surico led a phenomenal 12-piece outft, making good use of trombonists Chris Zatorski and Chris Parrella as well as percussionist Jared Shaw.

A bit of fairness: Aristophanes in his “Thesmophoriazusae” and “Lysistrata” was raunchy. Martial and Juvenal titillated Roman crowds. Tennessee Williams in “A Streetcar Named Desire” had Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy going at it. So?

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

From left, Ray Palen, Gabriella Stevens and Mikal Oltedal in a scene from ‘The Man Who Came To Dinner.’ Photo by Michael Leinoff

By Charles J. Morgan

In the sometimes arcane lexicon of the theatah there is the term “chestnut.” It simply refers to a good or actually immortal play that is done every season everywhere. It has long-standing universal appeal, and is audience friendly even when translated into Gheg, Tusk or Urdu. Such a play is George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” currently playing at the Minstrel Players’ venue in Northport for a limited run.

Set in 1939, the script is literally flooded with references associated with that era …. Haile Selassie, John L. Lewis, “Bubu” (Mahatma Gandhi), Charles Ross and even Noel Coward with a fast-paced output, wise-cracking, display of humor.

Director Ray Palen starred as the impossibly rude Sheridan Whiteside, a cultured, scholarly writer, pundit and author. Homer described Odysseus as speaking “winged words.” Whiteside’s words are winged too … laden with nuclear warheads. He demolishes any opposition with piercing, barbed onslaughts. Palen discharged his role as Whiteside expertly, consistently — like a lovable Falstaff. He is very seldom offstage and manages the signature wheelchair right up to the edge of the apron.

Michelle Torres plays Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s long-suffering but capable secretary. Torres handled this role with called-up on professional aplomb even in a scene where she “quits” her job. Here she is still underplaying it, but with steely, scarcely concealed anger.

The Minstrels’ dynamic veteran character actress Maris Kastan is Miss Preen, Whiteside’s nurse. She plays out the dutiful nurse like someone hit with a baseball bat, but can’t figure out what hit her. That is until she dramatically resigns with a downstage center speech about going to work in a munitions factory. Kastan, together with Palen, is an outstanding example of getting into the essence of a role, making the acting real.

Banjo, a true slapstick role, is managed neatly by Ralph Carideo. He really eats up the scenery, combining an earthy Rabelaisian Vaudeville humor, delivered with punch and verve. Then we have Alicia James as glamor girl movie star Lorraine Sheldon. She is in love with one person: herself. Every line and move is promotional of a solitary object named Lorraine. She is frivolous, sexy, with a virtual murder streak … all of it with a compelling smile. This is not an easy role, but James handled it with perfection.

A triple role was held by Brian Hartwig. He was the eccentric Professor Metz in topee, tropical jacket and spectacles who delivers a cockroach colony. (Yes, they do eventually escape.) He has a  bit part as Expressman, but bursts into a key role as Beverly Carlton, a knockoff of Noel Coward done to English accent languidity with all the sophistication Noel himself could have brought. Hartwig’s range of talent was palpable. One wishes to see him more on the Minstrels’ playbill.

Constraints of space preclude mention of others in this massive cast, however, Evan Donnellan stood out as Bert Jefferson, Tricia Ieronimo as Mrs. Stanley and Jim Connors as her long-suffering husband. A curtain call bow was taken by Valerie Rowe who undertook the role of Sara the Cook as a last-minute substitute. Well done!

The Minstrel Players may be a little cramped in their present venue, yet they have expanded smoothly with this show. One sees a massively bright future for them. Break a leg, Minstrels!

The Minstrel Players will present “The Man Who Came To Dinner” on May 2 at 8 p.m. and May 3 at 3 p.m. at the Houghton Hall Theatre at Trinity Episcopal Church, 130 Main St., Northport. Tickets are $20 adults, $15 seniors and children. For more information, call 631-732-2926 or visit www.minstrelplayers.org.

From left, Samantha Carroll, Jay McKenzie and Bobby Peterson in a scene from ‘Violet’ at the SCPA. Photo by Theresa Grillo

By Charles J. Morgan

The noir musical “Violet,” based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, opened last Saturday at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts. But what is a noir musical? Is it an opera, rock or otherwise? Is it sad, heart-rending, tragic, on a level with “La Bohème”? Your scribe suggests it is somewhere between Rossini’s effort and the recent “Murder Ballard” — the former an illustrious work of art, the latter the apotheosis of poor taste. “Violet,” therefore, is a middle ground, standing across the road as a signpost directing the theatrical traveler to the crossroads of mediocrity. Take one of the forks: aesthetic satisfaction; take the other —  “…’n I wuz like wow!”

There are noir motion pictures too. They all occur in one noir night, in noir and white and always have plot lines involving a murder solution. It makes one wonder why noir musicals are penned in the first place. Presumably they were intended to pitch shock and schlock into the roiling sea of praise poured onto the “happy ending” dance and song of the major hits. In your scribe’s not-so-humble opinion, “Violet” is a classically flawed work hinging on the fact of a young girl’s face horribly disfigured by a flying axe blade. At this juncture one could rank it with the Parisian Theatre Guignol.

Now then, standing back from all of the above, there was the indomitable Ken Washington direction. As his ever present skills reveal, interpretation and blocking were kept well ahead of the pursuing nemesis stasis. A pitfall of the one-set production is always a threat, but Washington came through. He handled the individuation of characters by giving them fast and slow motion that kept the boards well trod.

In the obviously starring role of Violet was Samantha Carroll. In singing and acting she was outstanding. With a fetching stage presence, she coupled this with a delightful soprano voice. With scarcely an exit she was easily the jeweled bearing on which the dynamic of the show rotated.

Two male singers vied for her attention … her complete attention. One, a sergeant; the other a Tech 4. The sergeant (Flick) was Jay McKenzie, the Tech 4 (Monty) was Bobby Peterson. McKenzie was the cool, veteran soldier with a strong tenor. In Act II his duet with Carrol was very impressive.

Peterson was more than just a foil for the sergeant. His voice was robust with a lyric tenor closeness that expressed his simple love for Violet. Michael Bertolini doubled as the bus driver and, in a powerful cameo, a corrupt Bible-thumper. He sang and danced with a group of pretend Bible singers. Viewing it your scribe felt Catholics in the audience would wear a wry grin; Evangelicals would have picketed that “preacher’s” performance.

As Young Violet, Hayleigh Jusas revealed excellent stage presence and a strong voice. In the “preacher” segment one ultra-powerful voice stood out: that of Amanda Camille Isaac. It was powerful, smooth and wrought with strength that not only expressed her religious fervor but rattled the rafters.

Music was live under the direction of Melissa Coyle with Craig Coyle on second keyboard, Ron Curry on bass, Jim Waddell on drums. Tiffany Jordan on cello, Brad Bosenbeck on violin and two guitars handled by Ray Sabatello and Douglas Baldwin provided palpable background, effecting it all with no brass.

“Violet” was a completely well-executed noir piece. It was balanced with other than rock, pertinent, believable recitatives and tender solos. To your scribe it was a critical challenge. To the audience it was a treat.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown, will present ‘Violet’ through May 17. Tickets are $35 adults, $20 students. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

Jessica Lee Goldyn in a scene from ‘A Chorus Line’ at the Engeman. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Charles J. Morgan

“A Chorus Line” opened at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport last weekend and was a top-notch terpsichorean treat! If your scribe could marshal more alliterative allusions evoking the theatrical theophany that burst forth last Saturday, he would be demeaning the meaning of accurate critical acumen. But enough of Roccoco doggerel! The show, directed by Drew Humphrey was, well, a smash hit.

Since it was all about dance and nothing but dance, a word about the choreography is in order. Dena DiGiacinto was in charge, and her fully charged crew put out a potpourri of evolutions and contortions in every genre including tango, tap, ballet and culminating in an all-hands-on-stage finale entitled “One,” which brought out a standing ovation rife with shouts of “Bravo!” DiGiacinto is immensely talented, having played a role in it on Broadway. However, she is the one who managed the unbelievable precision, coordination and aesthetic unitive finality that was a tribute to the totality of the show.

Since dance requires music, there was James Olmstead leading his magnificent crew with associate Bob Kelly and featuring Joe Boardman on trumpet, Brent Chiarello on trombone, Russ Brown on bass, Mark Gatz on reeds and Josh Enflich on percussion. In your scribe’s opinion previously expressed about this band, they could easily supplant a Broadway pit outfit including its string section.

The main lead is Zach, the choreographer charged with getting a chorus line in shape for a forthcoming performance. He is played by James Ludwig who reveals not only talent in dancing but a genuine stage presence as an actor. He even appears as a dancer in that knockout finale.

Then we have Jessica Lee Goldyn as Cassie who gives an empty-stage dance  solo in “The Music and the Mirror” as well as an emotional dialog with Zach that can only be described as riveting.

Stephanie Israelson is Valerie. She has two breakaway numbers. In Act I with Andrew Matzger and Sissy Bell called “And…” in which her dancing skills are obvious and in Act II a solo on “”Dance: 10; Looks: 3” in which those skills are more ubiquitous. DJ Petrosino as Al and Rachel Marie Bell as Kristine are hilarious in a number called “Sing.”

In another number entitled “At the Ballet” Kelly Sheehan, Abby Church and Courtney Moran manifested evident skill. Patent progress was also evident in Danny Wilfred’s performance as  Richie.

It should be remembered that every single person on the boards is a dancer. There are no walk-ons, no characters who have only dialog — it is dance and music all the way. Lighting was effected by Cory Pattak who handled the fast-paced action with consummate skill.

There was no set. Even the back wall upstage was seen; after all it was rehearsal and audition time. Laura Shubert on sound design made her  ability to balance, increase/decrease, volume shine through. Your scribe even picked up a brief solo by Josh Endlich played on sizzling high-hats. The beats of all the numbers was so complete that your scribe’s slightly arthritic knee grew tired from his left foot tapping. He actually had to switch to his right.

All in all, the entire performance is sharply and professionally performed, something that the Engeman has consistently presented to theater audiences.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present “A Chorus Line” through May 10. Tickets are $69. For more information, call 261-2900 or visit www.engemean theater.com.

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