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Jeffrey Sanzel

Adam Sandler stars in Uncut Gems. Photo courtesy of A24 Films

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a dealer in New York’s Diamond District. A gambling addict and a liar, he is a loser of the first order. He is desperately in search of a big score to get him out of debt, particularly the $100,000 owed to loan shark Arno. Uncut Gems follows his attempt to sell a valuable black opal, embedded in a piece of rock — the titular item. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie (who cowrote the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein), it is a peripatetic two-and-a-quarter hours of violence and vulgarity that loses its novelty about 20 minutes in. 

The plot complication involves Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett (playing himself but not) who becomes convinced that the opal will bring him good luck. Ratner lends it to Garnett with the possibility of enticing him to purchase it for over one million dollars. 

The rest of the film follows Ratner trying to retrieve the opal and dodging the goons who are trying to recover the money that he owes. In the midst of this, Ratner’s life implodes as he deals with his soon-to-be ex-wife, his mistress and a range of other shady business dealings along with his attempts to bet on Garnett’s upcoming games.  

The action is in constant motion and certainly creates relentless tension. However, relentless friction without variety can soon become its own kind of monotony. At about the hour mark, it is clear that this jerky roller-coaster ride is going to yield very few surprises. Even the constant beatings and humiliations begin to take on a predictability.  

There is one rather engaging scene and the only one that truly catches a breath: a dysfunctional Passover seder with Ratner’s in-laws. It is both humorous and vaguely horrifying to see him sit down to a family dinner with a man who had him roughed-up hours earlier. Toward the end of the film, there is also an intriguing exchange between Ratner and Garnett about the dubious origin of the opal that calls into question the overall morality (think “blood diamonds”); this pause gives voice to something the movie nods to throughout. Written and presented deftly, it never feels preachy.  

The cast is uniformly strong, with Sandler delivering a dimensional and painful performance. He manages to project Ratner’s combination of chutzpah and defeat, often simultaneously. Julia Fox is believable as the conflicted party girl who loves Ratner certainly more than he deserves. Idina Menzel is wryly effective as the long-suffering wife who truly and rightly loathes her husband. 

Eric Bogosian is one of those actors who can convey a great deal with very little effort and is spot-on as Ratner’s brother-in-law, the loan shark who has no use for him; in one of the final scenes, with barely a shift, Bogosian’s face is a study of realizations. Judd Hirsch, as Ratner’s father-in-law, eschews his usual curmudgeon and gives the man a surprisingly light touch. Garnett is particularly good in this skewed take on celebrity that never crosses into self-parody; it is one of the better performances given by someone whose roots are not in acting.

However, all of these excellent performances don’t justify the whole as it is hard to invest in any of these people. It is possible to make terrible people engaging or, at the very least, intriguing. Unfortunately, the frenzied action of the film never allows for this. In the long run, Uncut Gems doesn’t deliver the goods.

From left, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen star as the March sisters in the latest adaptation of Little Women. Photo courtesy of SONY Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Women was published in two volumes between 1868 and 1869. It told of the four March daughters: pretty Meg, tomboy Jo, delicate Beth and willful Amy. The book follows them from childhood to womanhood and was both a critical and commercial success. It spawned two sequels: Little Men and Jo’s Boys.

Over the years, there have been multiple screen and television versions and even a Broadway musical. Notable films have included the 1933 George Cukor version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo; the 1949 one with June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor; and the most popular, the 1994 version featuring Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes. Best of all is the 2018 Masterpiece/BBC co-production that manages to find the balance between its original source and a contemporary audience.

Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Timothée Chalamet as Laurie in a scene from the film.

The newest incarnation is written and directed by Greta Gerwig, best-known for her breakout with 2017’s Lady Bird. There is a distinctly modern feel to the adaptation, and this is unmistakably intentional. The more progressive pieces in the story are emphasized, and it highlights the daughters’ independence. Certain departures from the original story shift some of the motivations and subsequent reactions, but, overall, the film is very true onto itself. It even manages to provide two endings that are able to live side-by-side so that Jo does not lose her individuality.  

Little Women is not necessarily long on plot. Instead, it is really a series of events that reveal character. At its heart, it is about a family dealing with the world. Even though it is set during the Civil War, this cataclysmic event stays on the periphery. It is the day-to-day world of the March family: financial challenges, separations, illness, marriage, career. It is the detail with which these struggles and triumphs are told that make the tapestry.

Undoubtedly, it requires a gifted cast, and this one does not disappoint. The quartet at the center all fair well. Emma Watson makes for a dimensional Meg, whose mild vanity does not overwhelm her good intentions. Eliza Scanlen as Beth is appropriately winsome without resorting to the usual caricatures of shyness and fragility. 

Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh play Laurie and Amy in ‘Little Women.’

At the center of any Little Women is Jo, a wonderfully complicated character, whose dream of being a writer drives much of the narrative. Saoirse Ronan is dynamic in her passions and vulnerable in her confusions. She holds center and keeps the story and the family together. But it is Florence Pugh as selfish Amy who finds a true arc and is the only one of the four to succeed in playing the character’s age range and subsequent growth; it is an unusual and artful performance.

Laura Dern’s Marmee is appropriately kind and matriarchal if the most modern of the players. Timothée Chalamet presents a more human Laurie, who, thwarted in his love for Jo, sinks into visible dissipation; it is a bold choice on Gerwig’s part, but it pays off in the resolution.  

Meryl Streep’s Aunt March lacks a true imperiousness; part of this is that the brittle and icy center has been softened with some odd choices that are so antithetical to Alcott’s vision, it makes her too knowing and less of an antagonist to both overcome and win over.  

Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and Florence Pugh in a scene from the film.

In smaller roles, Bob Odenkirk seems lost as the father while Tracy Letts, as Jo’s first editor, Mr. Dashwood, hits all of the right notes. Chris Cooper, as neighbor and later friend Mr. Laurence, never quite gets to underlying pain. James Norton’s John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor and eventually Meg’s husband, has been reduced to a cipher, which is a shame given his importance. 

The same could be said of Louis Garrel’s Professor Bhaer, Jo’s New York suitor: there just isn’t enough of him to make an impression. Jayne Houdyshell, as the family housekeeper, Hannah, manages to make the most of her scenes and avoids stereotype as best she can.

One element that has always been a challenge in adapting Little Women is the progression of the sisters from pre-/early teens to twenties. Most have not solved this problem, and this manifestation suffers worse than the previous versions. This is because of the film’s one major flaw: Gerwig chose to eschew a linear structure, instead shifting back-and-forth over about a 10-year period. With one very powerful exception, nothing is gained by this lack of chronology. Many of the shifts are clumsy, and the viewers must regroup to figure out where they were left in the previous time line. For those not well-versed with the story, it would probably make for a confusing and occasionally frustrating experience.

However, putting this aside, the final result is still worthwhile. There is an honest emotional core, and it is hard not to invest into this fresh new foray into the March family. While this might not be the definitive Little Women, it is certainly one for our time. Rated PG, Little Women is now playing in local theaters.

Above, from left, Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan), Victoria (Francesca Hayward) and Mungojerrie (Danny Collins) in a scene from Cats. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In 1939, T.S. Eliot published a slender volume of poetry: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Fast-forward just over 40 years and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s megahit Cats premiered in the West End, where it played for 8,949 performances, becoming the longest-running West End musical, a record it held until 2006. The Broadway production opened in 1982 and ran for 7,845 performances; it is now the fourth longest-running Broadway show. Cats went on to be seen internationally, playing in dozens of countries and languages.  

In 1998, a direct-to-video production was shot at London’s Adelphi Theatre. While significant cuts were made and it was played on a new set, it gives a sense of the stage production. 

Cats has always been a divisive musical, dividing into two distinct camps: It has its champions and its detractors, with few in the middle ground.

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The current offering of Cats many lives is the film directed by Tom Hooper with a screenplay by Hooper and Lee Hall. This means that Hooper is doubly responsible for what is on the screen. And while Hooper’s work has included the John Adams miniseries, The King’s Speech and The Danish Girl, Hooper also gave us the clumsy, bloated and wholly unsatisfying 2012 Les Misérables.

The plot of Cats — such as it is — tells of the Jellicle Ball, an annual gathering of cats where one is granted the chance to go the Heavyside Layer and rewarded with a new life. Here, it is told through the eyes of Victoria, an abandoned kitten. All of this is just a structure in which to introduce a range of cats who each pitch their right to be granted this wish, their individuality displayed through a series of musical turns. Throughout, the candidates are thwarted by the mysterious Macavity, whose nefarious plan is made clear fairly early on.

The film opens strongly with one of the best numbers from the show,“Jellicle Cats.” It manages to provide cinematic spectacle without losing its musical theater roots. Ultimately, it was when Hooper allows Broadway to come through, the movie finds its limited success. When the cast dances, there are moments of real celebration. Unfortunately, after the first 10 minutes or so, he decided to not trust the material, and the film becomes choppy, disconnected and feels overlong. There is an unnecessary slapstick, singing rats and dancing cockroaches. These elements are neither whimsical nor clever and enhance neither story nor spectacle.

The film boasts a number of high profile names. Rebel Wilson as Jennnyanydots and James Cordern as Bustopher Jones are ill-served by aggressively abrasive choices — novelty songs that are stripped of their charm and turned grotesque. Idris Elba fairs decently as the ominous Macavity, and Taylor Swift, as his henchperson, Bombalurina, is not given much to do but her one decently executed number. 

Judi Dench, as feline matriarch Old Deuteronomy, and Ian McKellen, as Gus the Theatre Cat, are channeling everything they’ve done for the past five decades and come out best. Jennifer Hudson, as the downtrodden Grizabella, is too overwrought and loses the sympathetic core of “Memory.” Newcomer Francesca Hayward functions nicely as Victoria the catalyst for the action (no pun intended). 

What is most surprising is that the voices in general are pleasant but not strong, which is an odd choice for an almost sung-through film. (The less said about the dialogue that has been shoe-horned in, the better.)

However, the biggest problem — and it is insurmountable — is the overall visual of the film. The characters have been strangely CGI-ed, and they come across neither as humans or cats but as some Island of Dr. Moreau hybrids. There is an unfinished quality to the faces, as if they are poking their heads through a Coney Island cut-out. The bodies are clearly feline but some are clothed and some are not, sending a bizarre and uncomfortable mixed message.

There is no commitment to what the audience is supposed to be seeing and the result is disturbing. Why the creators did not take a page from the stage production is a mystery for at least then they could have found an aesthetically pleasing or least unifying design.

There has been discussion of a Cats film since the musical first became popular. Given the nature of the source, it is a challenging one. And while the play will continue to prowl stages across the world, the film will surely be a strange and unpleasant footnote in the history of movie musicals.

Rated PG, Cats is now playing in local theaters.

Photo from Suffolk Federal

In an effort to support the charitable work of local organizations that serve the areas of Suffolk Federal branch locations, the credit union has identified nonprofit organizations to which provide financial support. In Port Jefferson, Branch Sales Director of Retail Banking Micah Schlendorf presented a $1,000 contribution to Theatre Three in December.

“Theatre Three not only brings incredible entertainment to the community, but continues to provide educational opportunities to local students,” said Schlendorf. “We are extremely proud to be able to support their efforts.”

“We’re so thankful to Suffolk Federal for their support and generosity,” said Jeffrey Sanzel, executive artistic director of Theatre Three. “These funds will specifically go towards our educational touring program that we present in schools and community centers across the tri-state area. To date, The Bullying Project: Stand Up! Stand Out!, Class Dismissed and From the Fires: Voices from the Holocaust have brought awareness to thousands of students. This donation will assist the Theatre in continuing these efforts.”

Celebrating its 50th season at the historic Athena Hall in Port Jefferson, Theatre Three has continued to bring Broadway to Main Street and offers the community a robust variety of programming that includes Mainstage, Second Stage, Cabaret, Children’s Academy and workshops. They present a diverse portfolio of both classic and modern revivals all while providing an educational environment to all in the community. 

Pictured from left, Douglas Quattrock, Theatre Three’s director of development and artistic associate; Catherine Rodgers, Suffolk Federal mortgage loan originator and a member of Theatre Three’s Box Office staff; Jeffrey Sanzel, Theatre Three’s executive artistic director; and Micah Schlendorf, Suffolk Federal branch sales director of retail banking.

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By Jeffrey Sanzel

Security guard Richard Jewell was working the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, at Centennial Olympic Park. On July 27, he spotted a backpack underneath a bench and called in the suspicious package. One of three pipe bombs in the bag went off, causing two deaths and hundreds of injuries. But it was Jewell’s quick thinking that saved thousands of lives. Immediately, Jewell was thrust into the spotlight. These accolades were short-lived as he went from hero to suspect. On July 30, 1996, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution identified Richard Jewell as the FBI’s prime suspect. What ensued was a nightmare for Jewell, an innocent man.

The film Richard Jewell is based on Marie Brenner’s February 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” and the book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle (2019), by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen. Directed by Clint Eastwood, with a screenplay by Billy Ray, the film is a scathing indictment of the FBI and the media.

Paul Walter Hause in a scene from ‘Richard Jewell’. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

The movie opens with a brief prologue setting up Jewell as a college rent-a-cop. Jewell is a sad-sack of a man with the sole ambition of working in law enforcement, who has a hard time finding the line between spirit and letter. In many ways, this desire adds to his later persecution.

The film then jumps to the day before the bombing and follows Jewell through that horrifying event. What follows is his brief shining moments and then the relentless pursuit by government and media.

Jewell engages a lawyer whom he knew years before, a maverick named Watson Bryant. Bryant takes over the case and attempts to control Jewell’s statements to the FBI but is constantly checking Jewell’s desire to be seen as one of them. There are many statements about Jewell fitting a particular profile. These are revealed to be skewed − ungrounded in select and selected facts. Eventually, the FBI is not able to make its case, and he is exonerated, but the damage is done.

It is a dark story that takes its time. With the exception of the bombing itself, the film focuses on one man’s victimization by a system he doesn’t fully understand. There are multiple scenes of interrogation and violation of his privacy. There is not a great deal of action, but the driving force is the knowledge that he is innocent.

Richard Jewell contains three truly excellent performances. The always strong Sam Rockwell is engaging as the wry lawyer, finding variety and nuance in every look and sigh as he marvels with exasperation at his client’s naivete. Kathy Bates finds dimension as Jewell’s mother, Bobi. In what could play into every stereotype, she mines the role for both love and frustration with her son. 

At the center of the film is Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell. A large, lumbering figure, he exudes a desperation that reflects his own need to be accepted by a world that has very little use for him. It is a heart-breaking performance, and Hauser presents a fully realized man. Rather than a caricature of a gun-owning mama’s boy, Hauser’s Jewell is a man who loves his mother and whose only goal in life is to protect.

Jon Hamm, as the stone-faced FBI agent Tom Shaw, does little but alternate between grimacing and glowering. Olivia Wilde is given the unenviable job of portraying the reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kathy Scruggs, who first wrote about Jewell being a person of interest. The film has garnered controversy over its portrayal of Scruggs, who is shown offering sex to Shaw in exchange for information. This is an entirely fictious creation with no grounding in fact.  The real-life Scruggs was a fascinating person, of great depth, and is given short shrift.  

This is not the only place where the film has taken liberties with swaths of the truth. If the Vanity Fair source is to be trusted, there are perhaps too many pieces that have been fictionalized for narrative purposes. In a film that is calling into question the power of the press, one must then ask if it is not equally as dangerous to present a flawed reflection of an historical event.

Ultimately, Richard Jewell is a film with a trio of great performances and strong, simmering storytelling. And, in its own way, it is a cautionary reminder of the power and responsibility of government and media.  

Photo from Sony Pictures Entertainment

By Jeffrey Sanzel

There is no greater American icon than Fred Rogers — the Mr. Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Generations of children have grown up under the tutelage of the man whose sole quest was to let children be children. His soft-spoken and often simple wisdom has been explored, dissected and parodied for decades. But, ultimately, his pure and honest humanity has shown through.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is inspired by Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say … Hero?” Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fizterman-Blue and Noah Harpster have chosen the source as a jumping-off place to create the fictional story of an emotionally lost and damaged journalist whose life is altered by profiling the beloved television host.

The film is in no way a biopic of Rogers. If one is seeking an account of Fred Rogers, then the heartfelt 2018 Won’t You Be My Neighbor? documentary explores Rogers with a wealth of archival clips and interviews. It is as both straightforward and as complicated as the man himself and an indispensable contribution to his legacy.

Photo from Sony Pictures Entertainment

Instead, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood draws upon Rogers’ ethos and how it affected and continues to influence the world for good.

Matthew Rhys plays journalist Lloyd Vogel, whose closet full of demons has disconnected him from the world. The story focuses on the dysfunctional relationship with his estranged father (a dimensional Chris Cooper) who walked out on him and his sister when their mother was dying. 

Vogel struggles to communicate with his frustrated wife (the always terrific Susan Kelechi Watson), to face his life as a new father, and to deal with the world in general. At first, he is resistant to the ministrations of Rogers, but gradually, he realizes the power of embracing Rogers’ philosophies. The film is Vogel’s arc, with Rogers a catalyst for change.

Rhys manages the transition from depressed and detached to self-aware and almost reborn with a slow, methodical intensity. It is an unsurprising performance but one in which we can invest. While the resolution is inevitable, his pain is palpable and his growing awareness authentic. 

The surrounding actors are strong and Heller has brought out subtle and absorbing work from the entire company, including Christine Lahti (Ellen, Vogel’s Esquire editor), Enrico Colantoni (Bill Isler, the president of Family Communications), Maryann Plunkett (Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife), Tammy Blanchard (Lorraine, Vogel’s sister), and Jessica Hecht (Lila Vogel, Vogel’s dying mother). The entire ensemble is fully present, bringing nuance to the action.

However, the heart of the film is Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. There is no actor more suited to don the sweater than Hanks, and he does not disappoint. Eschewing imitation, Hanks evokes the soul of the man, making sure that his Rogers is not a hagiography. We see joy, pain, introspection and a man who struggles but never ceases to search for peace and understanding in a difficult world.  

And while his screen time does not rival Rhys’, Hanks dominates each moment with an open presence that makes him unique among even the greatest movie actors. Whether engaging with his public, watching a playback of a scene he has just shot or voicing the Neighborhood puppets, he is riveting. A scene that focuses on a moment of silence in a Chinese restaurant is as wondrous as a subway car breaking out into the show’s theme song. It is all reflected in Hanks’ understated yet overwhelming portrayal.  

The takeaway from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is that we must face life’s trials and that we can grow from these challenges. It is a message — and a film — of which Fred Rogers would approve.

Image from Walt Disney Animation Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In 2013, Disney released Frozen, a computer-animated musical fantasy. Loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, it was the story of two sisters, Elsa and Anna, and a journey of deep discovery. Visually stunning, with a powerful message of “true love” not being connected to marrying a prince, the film was an international sensation. 

The voice talents of Idina Menzel as Elsa, the princess with the power, and Kristen Bell as Anna, the sibling on a quest, were perfectly supported by Santino Fontana as the seemingly ideal prince, Jonathan Groff as a self-deprecating ice harvester, and a hilarious Josh Gad as the slightly manic snowman obsessed with summer. The delightful score, by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, spawned the anthem “Let It Go.”

Joining the latter-day classics such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, Frozen quickly became an international phenomena, grossing over $1.2 billion. The only surprise is that it took six years for a sequel. Frozen II reunites Menzel, Bell, Groff and Gad, along with a host of additional voice artists.  

Image from Walt Disney Animation Studios

The film opens hopefully with King Agnarr of Arendelle (Alfred Molina) relating the story of the Enchanted Forest to his young daughters, Elsa (voiced by Mattea Conforti) and Anna (an adorable Hadley Gannaway). It sets up the plot of Agnarr’s grandfather, King Runeard (Jeremy Sisto), and a treaty-gone-wrong with the tribe of Northuldra, a clan that posses a deep magic of which the Arendelle are suspicious. 

The film then goes forward to pick up three years after the previous film.  Elsa (Menzel) is queen and keeping her wintry powers in check. Anna (Bell) is a free-spirited princess, now courted by the smitten Kristoff (Groff) who spends most of his screen time attempting to propose, egged on by his reliable reindeer friend, Sven (also voiced by Groff).

What ensues is a complicated mythology involving the elemental spirits of earth, fire, water and air — and a fifth, unnamed element that becomes clear about half-way through. It is a convoluted folklore that is resolved a bit too simply. Ultimately, what is lacking in the plot is true conflict. 

Much of Frozen was driven by the friction and misunderstanding of characters in action — all trying desperately to get what they want — building up to several powerful revelations. They were human and flawed and that made them all the more wonderful. The underlying theme was threaded throughout, and the climax was the wholly satisfying result of overcoming challenges and solving problems. Frozen II substitutes genuine tension and depth for a string of incidents and “adventures” that just don’t build to any surprises.

Image from Walt Disney Animation Studios

The sequel is now without its entertaining moments, and the score (by Lopez and Lopez-Anderson), while not approaching the first’s innovation and delight, is more than serviceable. Gad shines as the chatterbox Olaf, and a highlight is the snowman’s recapping of the entire first movie. It’s a delightful bit of madcap in a film that is sorely lacking moments of humor. Unlike the first that found a wryness even in the darkest moments, Frozen II feel relentlessly serious.  

The additional voice artists are not as well-served as they should be, with some very talented performers given what amounts to glorified cameos: Molina, Sisto, Evan Rachel Wood,  Martha Plimpton and Jason Ritter barely register. It is not so much the length of their screen time but the quality. Sterling K. Brown’s lieutenant shows great promise but  is unfortunately not developed nearly enough.  

There are several pieces that are clearly envisioned toward promotional items. The fire element turns out to be a very cute froglike creature that will no doubt be making its debut in Happy Meals across the country. Rock monsters and water horses are ideal of stickers and folders and whatever else the marketing department can dream up. And what is cuter than a reindeer? Lots of reindeers.

Pictorially, it is breathtaking. The images are beautiful, and there is never a false or inconsistent moment in its landscape. The characters are animated with honesty and project genuine emotion. The fantastic elements are gloriously realized in a true rainbow of variety. But it is this triumph of style over substance that makes the movie fall short on its ability to engage. The film feels not just long but stretched. The scenes meander and then seem to be repeated again 10 minutes later. There is a great deal of padding in the 100+ minutes.

Conceptually, Frozen II probably seemed to be a great idea on paper and, certainly, in its artists’ eyes, it is. One could just wish for a little more fire under the snow.

By Heidi Sutton

While Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a transformation on Theatre Three’s Mainstage in “A Christmas Carol,” Santa’s littlest elf Barnaby experiences a metamorphosis of his own in the theater’s adorable children’s production of “Barnaby Saves Christmas.” The show runs through Dec. 28.

With a clever script by Douglas J. Quattrock and Jeffrey Sanzel with music and lyrics by Quattrock, the holiday production teaches us that Christmas lies within our hearts.

It’s Christmas Eve and the North Pole is a flurry of activity. Barnaby (Eric J. Hughes), the littlest elf in Elf School, is busy making a toy that Santa (Andrew Lenahan) requested — a little stuffed bear with dark blue pants, buckles on his shoes and a bright yellow vest — while desperately trying to fit in. His constant attempts to be helpful fail, as he knocks down presents, bumps into fellow elves Blizzard (Krystal Lawless), Crystal (Nicole Bianco) and Sam (Jason Furnari) and makes a big mess.

When it’s time to deliver the presents to all the good little girls and boys, Barnaby and Blizzard’s fawn, Franklynne (Michelle LaBozzetta), are left behind with Mrs. Claus (Lorrie Maida). “You’ll have to wait to grow a little bit,” explains Sam. Barnaby soon realizes that Santa has left the stuffed bear behind and convinces Franklynne to embark on a journey to find Santa and “save Christmas.”   

On their adventure they crash land on the roof of the house of Sarah (Lorrie Maida) and her nephew Andrew (Andrew Lenahan) and learn all about Hanukkah and the Festival of Lights. They also come across S.B. (spoiled brat) Dombulbury (Steven Uihlein), a Scrooge in his own right who has stuffed up all the chimneys with coal with his partner in crime Irma (Dana Bush), in order to ruin Christmas. Yes, Barnaby will save the day — as evident in the title — but just wait until you see how!

Directed by Sanzel, the cast perfectly executes this beautiful story. The wonderful songs, accompanied on piano by Quattrock, are the heart of the show, with special mention to “Still With a Ribbon on Top” and “Within Our Hearts.”

Costumes by Teresa Matteson and Toni St. John are colorful and festive and the choreography by Nicole Bianco is fresh and fun. Special effects abound, elevated by the futuristic lighting and, spoiler alert, it even snows in the theater!

With the ultimate message to be the very best that you can be, “Barnaby Saves Christmas” is a must see this holiday season.

Souvenir elf and reindeer dolls will be available for purchase during intermission. Stay after the show for a photo keepsake with Santa Claus on stage if you wish — the $5 donation supports the theater’s scholarship fund — and join the rest of the cast in the lobby for a meet and greet.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents “Barnaby Saves Christmas” through Dec. 28. Children’s Theater continues with “Little Red Riding Hood” from Jan. 18 to Feb. 22 and “Hansel & Gretel” from Feb. 29 to March 21. All seats are $10. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Peter Lanscombe/Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Heidi Sutton

As the holiday season rolls around, the Village of Port Jefferson is one of the first towns on Long Island to fully embrace its joyful spirit. Z-Pita Café on Main Street is already decked in holiday lights from top to bottom, elves are busy getting Santa’s workshop ready on the corner of Barnum Avenue and West Broadway and preparations are underway to transport the seaport village back to the Victorian era for its 24th annual Charles Dickens Festival on Dec 7 and 8.

The latter was inspired by Theatre Three’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.” Now in its 36th year, the show continues to delight and touch audiences of all ages, a testament to the brilliance of the theater’s Executive Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel and the caliber of its cast. Last Saturday’s opening night performance received a much deserved standing ovation.

Based on the 1843 novella by Charles Dickens, it tells the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Sanzel), a successful business man who loves money more than anything else and has become bitter, lonely and stingy over the years, especially around the holidays. “I’ve devoted my life to the cultivation of business,” he explains.

We first meet the miserly old curmudgeon on Christmas Eve and witness him turn away the needy and a charity group and lose his temper with his clerk Bob Cratchit (Douglas J. Quattrock) and his always optimistic nephew Fred Halliwell (Steven Uihlein). “Keep Christmas in your own way and I will keep it in mine,” he warns Halliwell before kicking him out.

That evening Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his business partner Jacob Marley (Andrew Lenahan) who offers him one last chance at redemption. Draped in the chains he has forged in life, Marley tells Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits — the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future – in an attempt to save his immortal soul.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Michelle LaBozzetta) takes Scrooge to Wellington House, the boarding school he attended as a young boy and where he spent many Christmases alone; we meet his adored sister Fan and his apprenticeship at Fezziwig’s, where the audience is introduced to Scrooge’s one and only love, Belle (Nicole Bianco). This is also where he meets Marley for the first time and where his life takes a terrible turn.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Stephen T. Wangner) takes Scrooge to meet Bob Cratchit’s family and learn about the failing health of Tiny Tim and to a dinner party hosted by his nephew in one of the funniest moments in the show.

Lastly, the most intimidating specter, a 14-foot Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (operated by Steven Uihlein), shows Scrooge the shadows of what is yet to come, including his own death and how those around him are affected. In the end, Scrooge learns that “life is not about facts and figures. It’s about joy and family and Christmas.”

While the entire cast is excellent, it is Sanzel who commands the stage. One of his finest moments occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to Fezziwig’s holiday party. While at all other times he remains in the shadows as an observer, Sanzel suddenly jumps into the role of a younger Scrooge with boundless energy and dances the night away. The transformation is breathtaking.

As director, Sanzel succeeds in keeping the annual production fresh and exciting while maintaining its familiarity, allowing families to share in a story that touches on empathy, selflessness and charity, while providing lots of laughs, visual amazement and more than a few surprises. This year the lighting and sound effects by Robert W. Henderson Jr. take center stage and elevate the flawless production to the next level, a feast for the eyes and ears.

Arrive early and be treated to a selection of Christmas carols by the actors in the beautifully decorated lobby and stay afterward for a photo keepsake with Scrooge. The $5 fee goes to support the theater’s scholarship fund.

The Cast: Nicole Bianco, Ginger Dalton, Holly D’Accordo, Kailey D’Accordo, Ellie Dunn, Suzie Dunn, Alexa Eichinger, Julie Friedman, Eric J. Hughes, Kyle Imperatore, Audrey Kelly, Sophia Knapp, David Lafler, Edward Langston, Michelle LaBozzetta, Cassandra LaRocco, Andrew Lenahan, Douglas J. Quattrock, Michaela Reis, Leah Romero, Jeffrey Sanzel, Aiden Sharkey, Finn Thomas, Cameron Turner, Amber Walkowiak, Stephen T. Wangner, Steven Uihlein, Addyson Urso and Kiernan Urso.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” through Dec. 28. Please note all evening shows begin at 7 p.m. Running time is 2 hours. Tickets are $20 per person through November; $35 adults, $28 seniors and students in December. For more information or to order tickets, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Brian Hoerger/ Theatre Three Productions Inc.