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Norhtport village residents packed the Jan. 29 public hearing regarding The Northport Hotel. Photo by David Luces

By David Luces

Northport residents came out in support of the business a local hotel could bring but raised concerns about the traffic that may come with it.  

Northport village held a hearing Jan. 29 on business owners Kevin O’Neill and Richard Dolce’s, of the John W. Engeman Theater,  proposal to construct a hotel-restaurant, The Northport Hotel, at 225 Main St. The much-anticipated project drew a large crowd to the American Legion Hall, which was packed to standing room only. 

Christopher Modelewski, an attorney representing O’Neill and Dolce, presented an updated site rendering of the hotel at the village public hearing Jan. 29. The rendering included changes they made to the site as a result of concerns raised by the planning board and area professionals. 

Study:  Northport has parking spots, if you walk

Northport residents voiced their concerns about a lack of parking along Main Street at a Jan. 29 public hearing on a proposed hotel and restaurant. Yet, a study released in December 2018 determined there are plenty of spots if people are willing to walk.

The Village of Northport hired Old Bethpage-based Level G Associates LLC to perform a paid parking study of Northport. Their survey, which took place from August to October 2018, concluded the village’s 615 parking spaces are sufficient, with a slight exception of summer evenings.

Northport’s central business district has a total 195 metered slots and 420 free spaces between Main Street and its side municipal lots, according to the study.  Nearly half of these spots are divided between streetside metered parking on Main Street, and the two free lots adjacent to the village’s waterfront parks.

On a typical weekday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Level G Associates found 60 percent of Main Street metered spots were taken and Main Street lots were full as well. However, the study cited roughly 100 available spaces in the waterside lots and Lot 7, located off Woodside Avenue by the American Legion hall.

“These are normal/healthy parking patterns for an active [central business district],” the report reads.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, Level G Associates found most metered parking spots and lots on Main Street were full. However, the study found “ample available parking” in the free waterside and Woodside Avenue lots that “are within reasonable walking distance for downtown employees or visitors.”

The only time traffic experts found an issue with the village’s parking was on summer nights, from 5 to 9 p.m. The study found the village’s parking is 95 percent full, often due to concerts and special event attendance, and could be improved through the addition of 72 spaces.

Tom Kehoe, deputy mayor of Northport, said the village board is being proactive in trying to address parking demands and congestion concerns.

“The evaluation provided us with some suggestions that we may consider,” he said.

Some suggestions include re-striping of  waterfront municipal lots could add 30 spaces, expanding the free lot by the American Legion to add 35 spots and development of a parking management plan. Other ideas given by Level G Associates are just not feasible, according to Kehoe such as leasing the parking lot used by the St. Philip Neri Church and Parish Center on Prospect Avenue.

Kehoe also said he has suggested moving the village’s Highway Department out of the Woodside Avenue lot to provide more spaces.

“It is a public safety issue,” the deputy mayor said. “You have the theater close by, snow plows are in there — that lot can get very busy.”

Kehoe said Northport residents are fortunate to live in a place where people want to visit and spend money, but in turn that causes more of a demand for parking. The village’s town board plans to continue the process of making these changes between now and the upcoming summer.

When the building plans were first presented to the village’s planning board in May 2017, O’Neill sought to construct a 24-room hotel and a 200-seat restaurant. Recent changes have  reduced the size of the restaurant to 124 seats with an additional 50 seats in the lobby and
bar area. 

Despite these changes, Northport residents continued to express concern about accessibility and how it could exacerbate parking issues in the village.

Tom Mele, of Northport, said he is for the creation of the hotel but argues it is off base to think that there isn’t an accessibility and parking problem in the village.

“If you [O’Neill] love this town as much as you say you do, you would find a way to work with the village board,” Mele said. “Work with them to decrease the traffic on Main Street and if that means downsizing the venue downstairs to accommodate the people, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for.”

Northport property owner Frank Cavagnaro expressed similar sentiments saying that the planning board shouldn’t accept the site plans as is. He viewed the parking issue as his main concern.

“You’re gonna come in and try to stuff five pounds of bologna in a 1-pound bag — it’s not going to fit,” Cavagnaro said. “Parking in the village is terrible, it’s going to kill the village.”

The  Village of Northport commissioned a parking study by Old Bethpage-based Level G Associates, released in December 2018, that found that during a typical weekday the downtown area “exhibited normal and healthy parking patterns.” While approximately 60 percent of Main Street metered spots were taken and the free Main Street lots were full, the study found 100 free spaces available during peak times in the in the municipal lots. 

Still, Cavagnaro presented a possible compromise to the village board. 

“Consider a smaller restaurant, to get him started with the option if we find more parking, for him [O’Neill] to come back to the board,” Cavagnaro said. 

Modelewski also cited a traffic impact study performed by Walter Dunn, a professional engineer and founder of Dunn Engineering Associates, and Tom Mazzola, former traffic and safety director for the Town of Huntington. The study found that the hotel would have a benign impact on the traffic in the area.  

O’Neill said under the proposed plans there would be no parking on Woodside Avenue and no right turn out of the two parking lots so traffic does not go into residential areas. 

“We will have the ability to take, between the theater and the hotel-restaurant operation,  roughly 150 cars off [the] street,” O’Neill said. “The village has 609 [parking] spots, for anybody in the industry that’s a seismic shift in the dynamics in how much parking is being provided.”

Residents were also concerned about the possibility of delivery trucks unloading on Main Street, which is not permitted under Northport village law according to Modelewski. 

“Tractor trailers and box cars double park behind cars — that’s unlawful,” the hotel’s attorney said. “There’s a reason why the law isn’t being enforced — it’s because it’s the only way businesses can function.”

Modelewski said O’Neill will work with the suppliers to use only box cars. 

Northport resident Alex Edwards-Bourdrez said the proposed hotel would fit the town beautifully. 

“I understand that there can be all these of glitches [in the process] but I would ask for all of us to rise up together in support of this,” Edwards-Bourdrez said. “We have all the brains in here to put the pieces together in a way that they won’t fall apart, it won’t choke the village — I don’t believe it will.”

Edwards-Bourdrez also touched on the issue of parking. 

“Nobody that goes into New York City or a bigger town worries about walking 5 to 10 minutes to where they are going,” he said. “There is parking, you just sometimes can’t park right next to where you want to go. We have to make these concessions for us to grow as a village.” 

The village’s parking study found that on a typical weekend, defined as Friday and Saturday evenings, there is ample available parking “within reasonable walking distance for downtown employees or visitors.”

Lenny Olijnyk, of Northport, said everybody was against the theater until O’Neill took over and renovated it in 2007. He argued that the hotel would increase the village’s commercial tax base. 

“Maybe we can clean up the streets a little bit, the sidewalks will get fixed,” Olijnyk said. “You have to think about that. The village wants to grow, my grandkids are going to live here. There has to be revenue for the village.”

O’Neill felt strongly in order for his theater business and others to strive they must work together in a positive way. 

“It’s just not sitting up here trying to make money, there’s more to it,” he said. “I don’t believe in sucking the community dry where we do business.” 

 

 

The John W Engeman Theater has been entertaining audiences for 10 years. Photo from Jessie Eppelheimer

The streets of Northport have come alive with music and laughter in the past 10 years — and that’s all thanks to the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport.

The Main Street theater first opened its doors in 2007 and has been providing Long Island residents with quality entertainment at an affordable price ever since.

When it comes to why theater lovers should chose the Engeman theater over a Broadway show, Director of Operations Michael DeCristofaro said the Northport venue offers an experience you could never get on Broadway.

“We don’t have the space Broadway has,” DeCristofaro said in an interview. “We don’t have wing space or fly space, so we really are able to slow these shows down and find the heart and the essence of the show. People come and see shows like they’ve never seen them before. We’re really able to get into the story of the characters.”

The theater during construction. Photo from Jessie Eppelheimer
The theater during construction. Photo from Jessie Eppelheimer

DeCristofaro said some shows like “West Side Story,” “The Producers” and the upcoming show “Memphis” stand out as really being able to accomplish just that.

“We were told by numerous patrons, ‘better than Broadway,’” he said. “People felt that seeing it in an intimate venue like this without all the distracting flash of pizzazz and set pieces moving in and out really helped them focus on the characters and have fun and get involved.”

Another aspect of the theater that may contribute to the more intimate setting is the distance from the seats to the stage. According to Jessie Eppelheimer, the operations administrator, the back seats are only about 75 feet from the stage, “which you could never get at a Broadway show,” she said in an interview.

But there is one crucial way in which DeCristofaro thinks his theater stands shoulder to shoulder with Broadway, and that’s in the talent.

“We have a really good amount of Broadway talent,” he said. DeCristofaro listed Eddie Mekka, a Tony-nominated actor, and Michael McGrath, a multiple Tony award-winning actor, as two actors who had lead roles in previous shows at Engeman.

“If our alumni are not on Broadway, they’re in a national touring production,” DeCristofaro said. “We get some really incredible top-notch talent and it’s great for the local community to try and see that top notch talent here in Northport for half of the price they’d paid on Broadway.”

But it wasn’t always that way.

What is now a year-round full equity theater, producing multiple shows a year, was once just a small village movie house.

Originally built in 1912, silent movies used to play at the theater for 50 cents a person. In 1913, the Northport trolley helped make night shows a possibility, and by 1930, talking films came to the village. But two years later, the theater was struck with a fire that completely destroyed the establishment, forcing it to close its doors.

The new theater opened in November 1932 with 754 seats and was positioned directly next door to where the original one had stood. “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Clive Brook and Ernest Torrence, was first to be shown.

According to Eppelheimer, many of the original aspects of the 1930 theater still stand today, including the entire lobby, walls in the theater room and some of the lighting.

“People were attached to [the original design] and they tried to keep it as familiar as possible when they reopened,” she said.

In 2007, Huntington residents Kevin O’Neill and his wife Patti, owners of the theater, welcomed audiences to see real-time plays for the first time, and residents from all over Long Island have been filling in the seats ever since. The theater was named in tribute to O’Neill’s brother, Chief Warrant Officer Four John William Engeman, who was killed in Iraq in May 2006.

The theater now holds up to 400 audience members, has a full bar and lounge and shows multiple musicals and plays annually. Eppelheimer said there are about 5,000 season ticket holders and the theater has an 80 percent retention rate.

For the 10th anniversary season, the Engeman will feature a lineup exclusively of musicals, including a repeat of the inaugural show “Jekyll and Hyde.”

“We’re paying tribute to the first season,” Eppelheimer said. Other shows in the coming year include “Mamma Mia,” “Oklahoma” and “Mary Poppins.”

Over the years the theater has expanded, offering children shows, theater-school programs and hosting charity events.

“It was always intended to not just be a theater,” DeCristafaro said. “We wanted to be able to do more for the community and get children and parents involved.”

The entire cast of ‘Junie B. Jones, The Musical’ performs at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Jessie Eppelheimer

By Rita J. Egan

“Junie B. Jones, The Musical” opened at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport this past Saturday to an audience filled with young children eager to see their favorite literary characters in the flesh, and with a fun, lively show, the cast did not disappoint.

The musical, based on the children’s book series by Barbara Park, follows the adventures of Junie B. Jones as she tackles life’s little obstacles she finds along the way in first grade. Among the many challenges she faces are losing her best friend, Lucille, to twins Camille and Chenille, finding out she needs glasses, and being unable to participate in the big kickball tournament. However, with the help of her family and friends, and jotting everything down in her Top-Secret Personal Beeswax Journal, the endearing redhead figures everything out and learns that when life hands you lemons you make lemonade.

Kate Keating is youthful and charming as the main character, Junie. As lead on many of the numbers, her clear soprano voice is perfect for revealing the story through song, and she easily draws the young audience in as she talks directly to them in a number of scenes.

Playing the role of mother, as well as fellow first-graders Grace and Sheldon, is Suzanne Mason whose stage presence as always is a strong one. The actress especially shines as the awkward, stuffy-nosed Sheldon, and she elicited loud giggles during a scene where Sheldon, ready to play the cymbals at the kickball tournament, experiences stage fright. Mason convincingly delivers the song “Sheldon Potts’ Halftime Show” as if she were a child herself.

Kate Keating stars in Junie B. Jones The Musical at the Engeman Theater through March 6. Photo by Leila Scandar
Kate Keating stars in Junie B. Jones The Musical at the Engeman Theater through March 6. Photo by Leila Scandar

Joshua Cahn plays Mr. Scary, Daddy and Gladys Gutzman, and it’s as Gutzman, the cafeteria lady, that Cahn takes center stage. The way he delivers the role is reminiscent of Edna Turnblad from “Hairspray,” and with funny lines and a cute dance number with Keating, he received well-deserved laughs and giggles from the audience members.

Michael Verre tackles dual roles as Junie’s new friend Herb and one of the twins, Chenille. While Verre is sweet as Herb, particularly during the number with Keating, “You Can Be My Friend,” he is hilarious as Chenille, where he good-naturedly dons a wig and dress, and gracefully sings and dances along with Camille and Lucille during the number “Lucille, Camille, Chenille” to the delight of the audience.

Jennifer Casey as Camille and Jose, Allie Eibeler as Lucille and Lennie, and Alyson Clancy as May and Bobbie Jean handle their role changes seamlessly, and no matter what part they are playing, effortlessly add to the fun and high energy of the musical.

Written by Marcy Heisler, with music by Zina Goldrich, “Junie B. Jones” features upbeat, fun-filled numbers that are perfect for a musical geared toward young children. Stand out songs in the first act include the opening number “Top-Secret Personal Beeswax” where Junie tells the audience all about her new journal, and at the end of the act, “Now I See,” where, with the help of her friends, Junie begins to like her new glasses. Act 2 also features the heartwarming number “Writing Down the Story of My Life” that will inspire little ones to record their adventures.

Directed by Jennifer Collester Tully, “Junie B. Junes, The Musical” is a journal-worthy theater experience for the whole family. The set is colorful, the actors are energetic, and the story is a relatable one for children. Most of all, the delightful story will warm the hearts of young and old.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Junie B. Jones The Musical” through March 6. Tickets are $15 each. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.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.

Kate Keating and Austin Morgan in a scene from ‘Frosty.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

The holidays are upon us and that means it’s time for “Frosty” to come to life at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. Under the direction of Richard T. Dolce, the annual production, with a spirited cast of five adult actors, presents a lively show with song and dance that is perfect for its target audience.

Uber-talented Kate Keating reprises her role as Jenny, a young girl living in the town of Chillsville who loves the snow and loves winter. With the help of her mother, lovingly played by Courtney Fekete, Jenny builds a snowman who magically comes alive, and the duo are quickly best pals. Making his Engeman debut, Austin Morgan is a terrific Frosty and quickly connects with the audience, especially after he dances to “It’s Your Birthday.”

Jen Casey is the villain Ethel Pierpot, who wants to make Chillsville warm and snow-free so she can build a new factory. Her weather machine starts to make everything melt, including Frosty. With the help of the audience, Ethel Pierpot’s plan is foiled and, after a thrilling chase scene through the theater and an intense snowball fight, the machine is turned off.

From the very beginning the theatergoers become part of the show, thanks to the efforts of the narrator, Michael Verre, who guides the audience through the story with comedic genius. Verre draws the most laughs as he goes from being bundled up for winter to wearing less and less each time he makes an appearance on stage to demonstrate how warm Chillsville is getting.

Asking a full house last Sunday how to stop Ethel Pierpot from turning Frosty into a puddle of water, Verre received some creative suggestions, including have Frosty “go to a new town where there’s plenty of snow,” “put Frosty in an ice cream truck” and “reverse the machine to cold.” At the end of the show, all the children are asked to wish for snow to keep Frosty from melting and are rewarded for their efforts.

There was magic in the air at the Engeman Theater that morning — yes, a snowman came to life and, yes, it snowed inside the theater. But even more magical than that were the priceless expressions of joy, excitement and wonderment on the faces of the children in the audience.

Meet the cast after the show for pictures and autographs. An autograph page is conveniently located at the back of the program.

Take your child or grandchild to see “Frosty” and let them experience the magic of live theater. They will love you for it.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present “Frosty” through Jan. 3. Tickets are $15 each. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

Kevin McGuire as Kris Kringle in a scene from ‘Miracle on 34th Street — The Musical’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Charles J. Morgan

With perfect timing, “Miracle on 34th Street — The Musical” arrived at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport last weekend to usher in the holidays. When the playbill tells you that the book, lyrics and music were all done by Meredith Willson of “The Music Man” fame, one knows that they are in for some solid musical theater entertainment. And so it was with this effort, attempting to prove there really was a Santa Claus, lifting it all from what could have evolved into crass, sentimental claptrap up to a paean to the goodness and the true warmth of Christmas.

Direction was in the hands of Richard T. Dolce who is also production director of the Engeman. His talents were, as usual, quite evident in blocking done smoothly, and interpretation, making the characters into individuals.

Dolce made the female lead Susan Walker, played by Meaghan Marie McInnes, the secular positivist, devoid of emotion, unbeliever, into the loving, caring mother and equally loving woman opposite ex-Marine Fred Gaily, handled neatly by Aaron Ramey. The innate talents of both in acting and singing shone through brightly. The complementarity of his near-lyrical tenor and her plangent soprano coalesced not merely musically but also intimately … despite a slapped face from her and a stolen kiss by him. The two were the jeweled bearing that the whole story  turned on.

Then there was Kris Kringle played handily by Kevin McGuire. Fully bearded, avuncular, outgoing, knowledgeable … he even sings in Dutch! He never relents in proclaiming himself to be Santa Claus. His singing voice was a powerful tenor. Matt Wolpe plays Marvin Shellhammer, the officious climber. He is perfectly styled as the pushy “idea” man who thinks up the marketing plan to sell plastic alligators as a Xmas sale only to be rebuffed by R.H. Macy who threatens to fire him because he had fired Kris who was telling customers to buy at Gimbels or FAO Schwartz. Macy is handled by Bill Nolte, gruffly but efficiently, the image of the impervious CEO.

The Ensemble was based on the “platoon” system, the Red and Green crew. On opening night, the Red crew was on and the ubiquitous Antoinette DiPietropolo, one of the most talented choreographers in town, wrought her ever present terpsichorean magic.

Music had David Caldwell on keyboard directing with Brian Schatz on reeds; the indefatigable Joe Boardman on trumpet; Frank Hall and Paul Sieb on trombones; Russell Brown on bass; and the rock solid Josh Endlich on percussion. This outfit revealed (again) a range of skills that has marked the success of many other Engeman productions.

Musical numbers such as “Plastic Alligators” by Shellhammer and his clerks was piercingly funny. Kris Kringle’s “Here’s Love with McInnes” with Ramey and the Ensemble  was practically the signature number of the show. Your scribe was deeply impressed with “She Hadda Come Back” by Ramey and three of his card-playing buddies in Act II but was bowled over with laughter by “My State, My Kansas” by Macy, Shellhammer, Nick Addeo, Todd Thurston as a judge and Kim Carson as a legal secretary. It was a vaudeville quartet plus one and done in a courtroom. Certified hilarious.

Staging and lighting were under the direction of Stephen Dobay and Jimmy Lawlor, whose integration of the know-how pulled together all the elements of what made the “miracle” of this show.

Er, one more thing. Your scribe referred to Kris singing in Dutch. Please let him express himself in the only Dutch expression he knows: Gelukkig Kerstfest (Merry Christmas).

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Miracle on 34th Street — The Musical” through Jan. 3, 2016. Tickets range from $69 to $74. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

From left, Danny Meglio, James D. Schultz, Kate Keating, Max Venezia, Samantha Carroll and Jacqueline Hughes in a scene from ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ Photo by Jennifer C. Tully

By Rita J. Egan

The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport is serving up a juicy treat with its newest children’s production “James and the Giant Peach.” Based on the classic Roald Dahl tale, the musical, under the direction of Jennifer Collester Tully, features a score by the Tony Award-nominated team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that alternates between the touching and the upbeat and the book by Timothy Allen McDonald that stays true to Dahl’s original magical story.

The whimsical musical captures the imaginations of theatergoers, both young and old, and the cast effortlessly transports the audience from the hero’s original dismal circumstances to a delectable adventure. As the story opens, we meet James Henry Trotter, an orphan, who has just discovered he can leave the orphanage where he has been staying to go live with his two aunts. The audience soon learns though that his new guardians are usually up to no good.

When the duo demand that James chop down a peach tree, while they spend the day at the beach, the young lad is visited by Ladahlord who reveals to him a special potion to use on the peach tree. Later, when it’s discovered the tree has produced a giant peach, the aunts scheme to make money off the oddity. However, their plans are foiled when James is pulled into an adventure with a colorful cast of friendly insects.

With the opening number, “Right Before Your Eyes,” the audience gets a delightful peek at the offbeat characters that will soon become part of James’ life. Michael Verre as Ladahlord, also serves as narrator in the production, and with his sweet tenor voice, lulls the theatergoers into a magical land where a giant peach can exist and change the life of a young man, right before their eyes.

Max Venezia, who played James on opening day, and alternates the role with Austin Levine, captures the gentle spirit of the protagonist, which is clear during his first number “On Your Way Home” in Act 1. Audience members can’t help but feel a bit of sadness for the little boy who no longer has a family to call his own.

Alyson Clancy as Aunt Sponge and Suzanne Mason as Aunt Spiker are so adept at their comedic abilities, with Clancy even taking out a can of whipped cream at one point, that they not only provide plenty of comic relief but they also make the audience forget just what terrible human beings these character really are. With numbers such as “Property of Spiker and Sponge,” “There’s Money on That Tree” and “I Got You” throughout the play, you can’t help but like the dastardly aunts thanks to Clancy and Mason.

The musical features some entertaining dance numbers, too. During the first act, Verre and Venezia share lead vocals in the lively number “Shake It Up.” While the ensemble joins in the vocals and choreography, Verre is the one who takes center stage with his impressive tap dancing skills.

As the second act opens, the audience discovers James has entered the peach and, along with the lad, meets the eclectic group of life-sized insects. There’s Ladybug played divinely by Kate Keating; Grasshopper portrayed dapperly by James Schultz; Spider presented stylishly by Samantha Carroll; and Danny Meglio as Earthworm embracing his character with thick reading glasses and just the right amount of pessimism for the whimsical adventure. In addition, actress Jacqueline Hughes is a standout as Centipede, as she convincingly portrays a male character like a street-smart newsboy.

The second act allows the actors who play the insects a chance to show off their acting and singing talents, and they don’t disappoint. They also receive a few giggles from the audience with their antics as they navigate their small quarters inside the rolling peach.    

While the critters may be surprised at first to share their space with a human, the number “Everywhere That You Are” shows the insects may have a soft spot for our hero. Led by Keating and Schultz, the bugs deliver the song with a tenderness that convinces you of the bonding with the boy, not only on stage but off as well.

The Earthworm also comes out of his bookish shell during the number “Plump and Juicy,” and Meglio and his fellow insects perform an entertaining number that eases the tension during a scary moment in the peach and adds just the right amount of goofiness that is always welcomed in a children’s musical. 

While trouble ensues when the giant peach and its passengers encounter sharks, seagulls and even impalement on the Empire State Building, James and his new friends conquer their fears and work together to save the day. The cast ends the show perfectly on an upbeat note with the song “Welcome Home,” and when all is said and done, we find that sometimes a sense of family can be unearthed in the most unusual places.

All involved with the Engeman’s “James and the Giant Peach” have produced a heartwarming and inspiring story that will keep children as well as adults entertained from beginning to end. It’s a perfectly peachy way to spend a weekend morning with the family.

The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, 250 Main St., as part of its Bethpage Federal Credit Union Youth Theater Series, will present “James and the Giant Peach” on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. through Nov. 8. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

Austin Levine and Max Venezia are starring in James and the Giant Peach. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Before “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” before “Matilda” and even before “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Roald Dahl wrote the classic children’s novel, “James and the Giant Peach.”

The story follows the adventures of James Henry Trotter, an orphan who lives with his two mean aunts, Spiker and Sponge. Life for him is sad and lonely — until he meets a grasshopper, spider, earthworm, centipede and a ladybug aboard a giant, magical peach!

Now, over 50 years later, the story comes to life as a musical at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport on Oct. 3. Nearly 30 children auditioned for the role of James and ultimately two young actors, Max Venezia and Austin Levine, were chosen to share the role. Adult actors will play roles in the supporting cast.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing these amazing kids in between rehearsals at the Engeman’s Performing Arts Center across the street from the theater.

Max, whose favorite subject is math, is in the sixth grade at South Ocean Middle School in Patchogue. His path to become an actor began when he found out his friend Ava was taking voice lessons; so he started taking them too. His vocal coach later encouraged him to try out for a role in “Seussical” at Kids for Kids Productions in Oakdale. “That’s what my first show was and I’ve just loved it ever since,” he said.

At the young age of 11, Max already has an impressive resumé that includes roles in “The Music Man,” ”Gypsy” and as Snoopy in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” “This will be my 22nd show,” said Max, whose most recent role was as part of Fagin’s Gang in “Oliver!” at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

Austin, who also loves math, is a sixth-grader at Commack Middle School. In second grade, he landed a role in “Annie” at the Suffolk Y in Commack and was immediately hooked. Since then, the 11-year-old has been in over 10 shows including “Mary Poppins,” “The Full Monty” and “Peter Pan” at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale.

Austin decided to audition for the role of James because “I had never done something at the Engeman and I wanted to because its nice to go try out, [to] go to different theaters.”

When preparing for the role, Max read “James and the Giant Peach” for the first time. “When I saw it, at my age, I thought this is creepy,” he said. Added Austin sheepishly, “I have not read the book — I should though.”

Austin’s favorite scene in the show includes the song “Shake It Up,” where James accidently spills a magic potion setting off a series of peculiar events.

Both Max and Austin said they enjoy working with the adult cast, which includes James D. Schultz, Alyson Clancy, Suzanne Mason, Michael Verre, Kate Keating, Samantha Carroll, Danny Meglio and Jacqueline Hughes.

“I love them. They are so fun to work with,” said Max, adding that he learns a lot from them and takes notes.

Austin agreed. “Because sometimes it’s hard to work with little kids because they are not mature [enough]. It’s a great learning experience,” he said.

Austin, who said he enjoys working with Max the most, usually does not get nervous during a show. “When it’s an audience of, like, 1,000 people and I can’t see them, I’m fine with that. It’s just when I can see them in person, it’s a little weird.”

Max’s favorite show on Broadway is “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” while Austin said he favors “Mary Poppins” because “it is such a great story.”

Rehearsal has been every day after school, usually from 4 to 7 p.m. Max, who hopes to become “an actor and if not that, a teacher, probably either science or math,” does his homework in the car to Northport and on the ride home and sometimes stays up late to finish. Austin, who lives closer, likes to come home from school, relax, go to rehearsal, come home, eat, do his homework for two hours, go to sleep “and do the same thing over again the next day,” he laughed.

Both say their parents have been wonderfully supportive.

Director Jennifer C. Tully said the two boys were chosen because of “their amazing ability at such a young age to capture the sweetness and spunk of James.”

“Both [Max and Austin] are such talented young performers onstage and such genuinely good kids offstage. While both of them have put their own stamps on the role, they both exude the heart and joy that drives this beautiful production,” said James D. Schultz, who plays the role of the Grasshopper.

“I’m blown away by how hard they have worked and their very mature ability to create a rich and layered character,” added Tully. “It has been a pleasure!”

Come see Max and Austin and the entire cast of “James and the Giant Peach” at the John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, from Oct. 3 to Nov. 8.  Performances are on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.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.

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.

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