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Dennis Creighton

By Rita J. Egan

Stand back, theatergoers, “Evita” is in town. On Saturday, May 11, the award-winning musical opened at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts.

“Evita” revolves around the controversial life of María Eva Duarte de Perón, who went from poverty to a success as an Argentine film and radio star. Her marriage to Juan Perón, a military leader who became the country’s president in 1946, thrust her further in the spotlight until her death at 33 in 1952.

When the audience first meets Evita, she is an ambitious teenager in 1934 who wants to leave the small city of Junin to travel to Buenos Aires with Agustin Magaldi, a tango singer. Soon after her arrival in the big city, she leaves Magaldi and sleeps her way to the top before meeting Col. Perón at a charity concert. While not accepted by the upper class after her marriage to Perón, Evita sees herself as the champion of the “descamisados,” the working class.

The musical, which features lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, first premiered on Broadway in 1979 with Patti LuPone as Evita and Mandy Patinkin as Che. It went on to win seven Tony Awards, including best musical in 1980. The production inspired the 1996 movie starring Madonna (Evita), Antonio Banderas (Che) and Jonathan Pryce (Perón) and was revived on Broadway in 2012 with Argentine actress Elena Roger and singer Ricky Martin as Che.

In the Smithtown production, Laura Laureano plays Evita, and the young actress possesses the poise and maturity needed to handle the role of the strong woman. Her vocals are powerful on all of the musical’s memorable favorites including “Buenos Aires,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Rainbow High.” Her performance of “Lament” at the end of Act II is an emotional one that will have audience members reaching for their tissues.

Dylan Bivings plays a suave Che. The character serves as the musical’s narrator, and Bivings proves to be a strong lead on various numbers. He shines during “And the Money Kept Rolling In (And Out)” and his duet with Laureano, “High Flying Adored.” Dennis Creighton was perfect as Perón, delivering the role with the right amount of tenderness that helps audience members understand just how much this man loved Eva. Creighton’s tenor singing voice is ideal for his solos.

Anthony Arpino as Magaldi also shined vocally during “On This Night of a Thousand Stars.” During the number “Santa Evita” on opening night, Zoe Avery played the child who approaches Evita, and Avery’s singing was delightful as she hit every note sweetly and perfectly. The actress alternates the role with Dori Ahlgrim.

Lauren Tirado, as the mistress, delivered a standout performance of “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” The scene is a heartbreaking moment in the life of a character that the audience only meets once, and it’s essential that a vocalist digs deep when performing this song, so it can be understood that Evita will stop at nothing and will even throw another woman out on the streets. Tirado’s superb vocals proved she has the talent to deliver such an emotional number.

All of the ensemble members also deserve a round of applause for their outstanding vocals and impressive dancing. Ronald Green III has masterfully directed a cast that proves a musical lover doesn’t need to head into the city to take in a Broadway-quality show. Green has also outdone himself with the period costumes, especially with Laureano’s gown during the balcony scene when she sings “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”

Adding to the Broadway-like magic were the talented musicians led by conductor Melissa Coyle and scenic and video designer Tim Golebiewski. The set designed by Golebiewski and constructed by TJ Construction, Russ Bakunus and Clark Services is simple yet elegant and incorporates five small screens that display pictures of Eva and Perón through the years that complement the musical perfectly without being distracting.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East Main St., Smithtown will present “Evita” through June 23. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets range from $25 to $38. For more information, visit www.smithtownpac.org or call 631-724-3700.

All photos by Courtney Braun/ Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts

From left, Jacqueline Hughes, Dennis Creighton and Lorelai Mucciolo in the opening scene of ‘Fun Home’

By Heidi Sutton

When “Fun Home” opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in September 2013, it was so popular its run was extended several times. When the production closed on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre in 2016 after an 18-month run, it had already made an indelible impression on the world, winning five Tonys, including Best Musical.

Now, making its Long Island premiere, the award-winning musical has taken up residence at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 20.

‘I Want to Play Airplane’
Loreilai Mucciolo and Dennis Creighton in scene from ‘Fun Home’

Based on the 2006 best-selling graphic memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the show, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, features Alison at three stages of life: as a 10-year-old child (a shared role played by Lorelai Mucciolo on opening night/Gabby Blum); a college student at Oberlin (Lisa Naso); and as a 43-year-old (Jacqueline Hughes). The latter Alison narrates the show as she attempts to add captions to her cartoon panels.

Told through flashbacks, Alison shares memories of growing up in a dysfunctional home in a small town in Pennsylvania with her two brothers, Christian (Dylan O’Leary/Jonathan Setzer) and John (Kieran Brown/Brayden E. Bratti). Both of her parents, Helen (Stephanie Moreau) and Bruce (Dennis Creighton) are teachers and her father is also a mortician, running the Bechdel Funeral Home (the children called it the “Fun Home” for short). As the years pass, Alison discovers her own sexuality and the secret life of her closeted gay father. As an adult, she struggles to unlock the mysteries surrounding his tragic death three months after she comes out (“I had no way of knowing that my beginning was your end.”) It is as intimate as storytelling gets with a poignancy and vulnerability that is raw and emotional.

The three Alison’s, from left, Lisa Naso, Loreilai Mucciolo and Jacqueline Hughes in the finale ‘Flying Away’

Accompanied by a seven-member band led by Melissa Coyle, the songs are the heart of the show. All of the numbers, including Mucciolo’s beautiful rendition of “Ring of Keys,” the three children’s Jackson 5 inspired “Come to the Fun Home,” the hilarious “Changing My Major (to sex with Joan)” by Naso, the soulful “Days and Days” by Moreau, the moving “Telephone Wire” by Hughes and the heartbreaking “Edges of the World” by Creighton, are perfectly executed.

Director Kenneth J. Washington has assembled a talented team of the utmost caliber to produce a show that is exemplary. From the actors to the musicians to the choreographer to the set and costume designers, their hard work and dedication has resulted in an incredible evening of live theater and a well-deserved standing ovation on opening night.

Enter “Fun Home” with an open mind and experience the magic of this musical production. You’ll want to see it again and again.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East Main St., Smithtown closes out its 2017-18 season with “Fun Home” through Oct. 20. Running time is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. For mature audiences. Tickets are $38 adults, $34 seniors, $25 students. For more information or to order, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

Photos by Courtney Braun/Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts

TracyLynn Conner and Brian Gill in a scene from 'The Bridges of Madison County'

By Michael Tessler

You know you’ve seen an incredible production when you find yourself pondering your own life and place in the universe after exiting the theater. That was the case last Sunday afternoon after attending a production of “The Bridges of Madison County” at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

TracyLynn Conner and Brian Gill with the cast from ‘The Bridges of Madison County’

Based on the award-winning novel by Robert James Walker and the beloved film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, this musical adaptation has a score worthy of Broadway, and Theatre Three provides a cast equally deserving of that designation.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, this is an unconventional love story. Not cliched but brutally honest and so refreshingly human.

As not to spoil much, we meet our protagonist Francesca, an Italian refugee fleeing a war-torn Italy and a life she’s ready to leave behind. To accomplish this she marries Bud Johnson, a simple-minded but well-meaning American soldier who left life on the farm to serve his country. Both travel back to the United States where they build a home and a beautiful family. Their son Michael doesn’t want to live the life of a farmer like his father; their daughter Carolyn, however, embraces it as she trains an award-winning steer for the annual state fair.

Francesca, lovingly called Fran by her husband, longs for the life she dreamed of as a little girl. She feels it is far too late to begin anew, and while there is food on the table, there’s no money for her to visit her home in Italy and the life she left behind. So she settles for a life as a farmer’s wife, trying to find contentment packing lunches.

From left, Marissa Girgus, Dennis Creighton, Steve McCoy, TracyLynn Conner, Matthew Rafanelli and Ella Watts in a scene from ‘The Bridges of Madison County’

Everything changes for Fran when her husband and children take a trip to the state fair. She gets a rare opportunity to breathe and relax. That is until a beat up pickup truck rolls into her driveway and with it the arrival of Robert Kincaid — a professional photographer from National Geographic putting together a photo series on bridges throughout the United States. He’s lost and needs some directions. He’s well-traveled, having just recently visited Italy and having seen every corner of the globe. Fran invites him into her home and, by extension, her life. Thus her world changes forever.

Though I won’t spoil the rest, the show is a real treat. You’ll feel just about every emotion in the book in this two-act musical. Once again Jeffrey Sanzel shines as a director capable of any genre. His unique vision can make a timeless story feel brand new again.

Undoubtedly some lines are picked up directly from the book and film adaptation, but Sanzel’s production takes you for a ride in that worn down pickup truck. You get a glimpse into someone’s world, and that’s a beautiful thing. Sanzel guides his incredibly talented cast, making it impossible not to feel for these characters. I found myself so invested in characters who managed to emote so much in such a short time. Sanzel has no problem setting the bar higher and higher with each passing performance.

This show’s phenomenal cast certainly made his job easier though! Leading the production is the show’s star, TracyLynn Conner who portrays Francesca. First off, her accent is marvelous and never breaks even once. Her voice is one of the finest I’ve ever heard on a stage. Operatic, emotional and just so beautiful to listen to.

Much credit goes to Jeffrey Hoffman who handled the show’s musical direction and turned this small cast into an incredible musical ensemble.

Matthew Rafanelli and Ella Watts

Fran’s husband Bud is played by Dennis Creighton, who really captures the essence of the character and shows his musical tenor in the show’s second act and final number. He’s accompanied by two incredible young actors — Ella Watts as their daughter Carolyn and Matthew Rafanelli as her bookish brother, Michael. I was particularly impressed with Watts. This former star of NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!” has a voice so incredibly refined that you wish she had even more time on stage. Rafanelli really shines in his role and you’ll find yourself constantly rooting for him and his dreams and flashing back to your own childhood sibling drama. No doubt we’ll be seeing both actors on stage many times in the future!

Theatre Three veteran and Bryan Cranston look alike Steve McCoy remains one of my favorite company members. He plays Charlie — the friendly, simpleton neighbor of the Johnsons and provides comic relief throughout some of the show’s tougher moments. His wife Marge provides nonstop laughter followed by some incredibly endearing scenes. She is portrayed by the incredibly talented Amy Wodon Huben.

Brian Gill’s low and powerful voice brings Robert Kincaid, the world traveling photographer to life. His duets with Conner are some of the highlights of the show. His personality is infectious and translates beautifully on stage.

Last, though certainly not least, is the incredibly diversified performances of Marissa Girgus who plays not one but over four roles. She steps into each of them flawlessly, creating performances both touching and comedic. I felt all sorts of emotions during her nothing short of groovy performance of “Another Life.”

Being a smaller cast, you can get a sense that each character was crafted to perfection not just by the actors but by their director. They feel so real and so dynamic, which is exceptional as several actors play multiple roles … something that usually takes you out of an experience but now suddenly enhances it.

Brian Gill and TracyLynn Conner

My favorite part of the show (outside of its cast) was its unique score, which combines two radically different genres to make something genuinely unique. Strings played as though from the Italian countryside, harrowing and haunting — a reminder of an old world, an abandoned life combined with the lively sound of the great American Midwest, and the wholehearted lifestyle of the American farmer. For a brief moment these sounds clash into something unique and unforgettable.

This may be one of the most beautiful sets I’ve seen at Theatre Three. Randall Parsons transports you to the great American Midwest. Robert W. Henderson Jr., the show’s lighting designer, ensures the light breaks through the barn wood in spectacular ways. One can’t help but feel nostalgic when looking at the kitchen they designed as well.

From top to bottom this show is local theater at its finest. Provoking several audible gasps from the audience followed by thunderous rounds of applause, “The Bridges of Madison County” is something you wish you could photograph and treasure forever.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Bridges of Madison County” on the Mainstage through Oct. 28. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 ages 5 to 12. Children under 5 not permitted. Contains adult subject matter. Parental discretion is advised.

A special event, “Behind the Curtain with ‘The Bridges of Madison County’” will be held on Oct. 22. Join Director Jeffrey Sanzel, musical director Jeffrey Hoffman and actor TracyLynn Conner for a freewheeling exploration of this powerful contemporary musical. The full buffet supper and talk will begin at 5 p.m. $30 per person. The event will be followed by the Mainstage performance of “The Bridges of Madison County” at 7 p.m. Tickets for the performance may be purchased separately.

For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

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