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Jeffrey Sanzel

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Author Sarah Durst

In “The Deepest Blue,” author Sarah Durst has fashioned an enthralling fantasy in a striking and brutal world, rife with dangers that are deadly and ever present. The magic that is part of its existence only defends so much; it is strength and intelligence that become the greatest protections.

Durst outlines with quick, intense strokes the history. Originally, Renthia was four countries and the queens tamed the spirits of earth, tree, air, water, fire and ice. When the wild, unclaimed spirits that lived in the sea attacked the land, the queens repelled them — destroying many and compelling the others into a deep slumber in “the Deepest Blue.” These powerful spirits existed before the time of mankind, and they ache with an ancient hunger.

These spirits have an unquenchable urge to create and destroy.  A wind spirit is described:  “Screaming as it came, it flew across the seas and onto the shore. It bent the trees until they bowed, their tips touching the sand. It tore at the houses, ripping the shutters from their windows and the clay tiles from the roofs.” A water spirit is shown: “Rising up in massive swells, the waves slammed into the island, flooding the homes that were closest to the shore, destroying gardens and drowning livestock.” Ultimately, “all were deadly.”

In the matriarchal mythology, there are select women who have the power to thwart and even annihilate the attackers. When they show their powers, they are taken away and given two choices: to be taken to the Island of Testing, Akena, to train to be an heir, or to forsake family and identity and become one of The Silent Ones, the queen’s white-masked and gray-robed enforcers. The chances of actually surviving to become an heir are slim; so many choose the latter and join the disturbing Silent Ones — standing “as if they were stone” — who come when it is sensed that someone has revealed her power.

Heirs “… were, in many ways, above the law. They were trained to fight threats to the islands. Trained to fight spirits …” It is the strongest women who need to become heirs, to fight the wildest and most dangerous of spirits. Whenever wild spirits are going to attack the islands, the queen becomes aware of their encroaching presence and sends the heirs to subdue them.

At the center of the story is Mayara. The book opens on the day of her wedding to childhood sweetheart, Kelo, an artisan who makes charms that repel the spirits.  Mayara’s parents are in mourning for Elorna, Mayara’s older sister, who was selected to fight the spirits but lost that battle. Like the others so endowed, the power is as much a gift as a curse.

Mayara’s intuits the malevolent forces: “She sensed the wild spirits swirling around them … She felt their unbridled hatred and rage pour into her until she thought she’d choke on it.”  She perceives their existence: “… they weren’t thoughts, precisely.  It was a whirlwind of need and want. They wanted blood, death, and pain.”  Mayara can feel the spirits and the “bottomless hunger and rage.”

Like so many, Mayara, had hidden her powers and only unleashed them when her island is under siege. Thus begins Mayara’s journey.  Confronted, she makes the choice to train to be an heir. From there, the book opens up to her training then the court beyond. It is a wild, fascinating adventure, with honest, inventive individuals and sharp plot twists, building to a thrilling conclusion.

The characters are extremely well drawn.  When we finally meet the Queen, Asana, she is portrayed not as villainous but as conflicted and dimensional, struggling against terrible choices and political intrigue. Her confidante, Lady Garnah, is a wonderful, wicked creation, offering the book’s humorous edge. An often impenetrable anti-hero of fascinating depth, she is deeply devoted and yet amoral, making her all the more terrifying. In one of the most original sequences, Lady Garnah manipulates from behind the scenes, engineering life-and-death revelations.

Themes of sacrifices — both large and small and made for the greater good — play out against the strength of the third choice — that actions do not necessarily come down to one or the other but something that is “more than.” “The Deepest Blue” is a wholly satisfying read. It is a tale of fantasy rooted in human truths.

Here, Durst eloquently and simply sums up our complex existence: “Red spots stained the sand. A drop of blood hit Roe’s forehead.  It dripped in a streak down her temple and then mixed with her tears.”

Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of 18 fantasy books for kids, teens and adults. The master storyteller lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children and her ill-mannered cat. Recommended for adults, “The Deepest Blue,” Book 4 of four in the Queens of Renthia Series, is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

By Heidi Sutton

From now through June 22, children and adults alike are invited to follow the yellow brick road on Main Street in Port Jefferson (yes, there is an actual yellow road painted on the sidewalk) through the double doors of Theatre Three to see a wondrous stage version of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz.”

First published in 1900 as a children’s book titled “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the classic story has given rise to many sequels, spin-offs and adaptations including radio shows, musicals and the iconic 1939 MGM film starring a 16-year-old Judy Garland.  

When Dorothy Gale from Kansas is swept away by a tornado, she is dropped in the Land of Oz and must make her way to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard to help her and her dog Toto get home. Along the way she befriends alternate versions of her family and neighbors including The Scarecrow, The Tinman and Cowardly Lion who protect her from the Wicked Witch of the West who wants Dorothy’s magic ruby slippers.

Theatre Three’s stage version, adapted by John Kane with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, follows the original MGM screenplay, leaving in additional verses to the songs, secondary script and musical numbers like “The Jitterbug” that didn’t make the final cut in the film. We learn the backstory about The Tinman (a bit macabre) and The Cowardly Lion (think “The Lion King”) and why the Winkies always chant “Oh wee-Oh, we-ohhhhh um.” The result is a fresh take on a beloved favorite.

Presenting a mainstage production of “The Wizard of Oz” with numerous sets, song and dance numbers and costume changes is not an easy feat, but Director Jeffrey Sanzel has assembled a talented cast of over 30 actors who pull it off with ease.

Ashley Ferraro is perfectly cast as Dorothy and her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is enchanting. Dorothy’s faithful pet Toto is played by the adorable Miss Mia Donatuti who elicits many “Oh my’s” from the audience every time her four paws hit the stage or she peaks out of the basket.

So nice to see Jim Sluder back on Theatre Three’s stage, this time as Dorothy’s favorite, The Scarecrow, who is convinced he has no brain. Eric J. Hughes plays The Tinman who has plenty of heart but tends to rust a lot and Andrew Lenahan is the perfect Cowardly Lion and gives us a glorious performance of “If I Only Had the Nerve.” 

Linda May is outstanding as Almira Gulch/ Wicked Witch of the West. Close your eyes and you’ll swear Margaret Hamilton is on stage. May’s rendition of the famous line “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!” followed by that shrill cackle will send chills down your spine. 

Special mention should be made of The Munchkins, who, with their high little giggles, are a sweet addition to the story. Their big number, “Munchinkland,” complete with The Lollipop Kids and The Lullaby League, brings the house down.

The sets, designed by Randall Parsons, are impressive as well. Large painted panels slide back and forth, revealing the different scenes while posters depicting the cover and pages from the storybook adorn the edges of the stage. Taking a cue from the 1939 film, Uncle Henry and Auntie Em’s Kansas farm uses muted colors of browns and greens and then, in true Technicolor fashion, Dorothy and Toto arrive in Munchkinland where every color in the rainbow is utilized. 

In a stroke of genius, Sanzel uses flower umbrellas as props which, when opened, are the perfect hiding spot for Munchkins and make for a beautiful field of poppies. And wait until you see the special effects!

Accompanied by a powerhouse orchestra led by conductor Jeffrey Hoffman, the show’s big musical numbers are wonderfully choreographed by Jean P. Sorbera. Costumes by Chakira Doherty are a work of art.

In the end, the adventures of Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion reinforce the power of friendship and that there really is no place like home.

In his director’s notes, Sanzel writes, “In our mind’s eye, we see this unusual quartet, arms linked, traveling down an unknown road. And herein lies the heart: The emphasis is in the journey. Growth comes from the venture and the efforts we make not just for ourselves but for those who walk the road with us.”

Dedicated to the faithful and young at heart, L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” closes out Theatre Three’s 2018-19 season as a vibrantly colorful rainbow. Don’t miss this wonderful family show.

Magic wands are sold before the show and during intermission and photos with Dorothy, Toto, The Tinman, The Cowardly Lion and The Scarecrow are available after the show. Donations are being accepted for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Also, take a chance at a raffle to win Almira Gulch’s bicycle. 

Theatre Three, located at 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Wizard of Oz” on the Mainstage through June 22 with a special evening start time of 7 p.m., Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 pm. Running time is 2 hours 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 to 12. For more information or to order, please call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Brian Hoerger, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

Above, Mia in the role of Toto at Theatre Three Photo by Brian Hoerger, Theatre Three Productions Inc.
Jeffrey Sanzel with Mia

Theatre Three in Port Jefferson will open the family musical “The Wizard of Oz” on May 18. Appearing in the role of Toto is the lovely Shih Tzu mix Mia Donatuti. Director Jeffrey Sanzel sat down with Mia to talk about her life, her love of cheese, and her upcoming Theatre Three debut.

How are you today, Mia?

I’m good! It’s good to be here!

Well, we’re very glad to have you.

Thank you!

So, we’ve been rehearsing now for a few weeks

Yes, we have. It’s fun! So many people and smells!

That’s very true. We thought it would be fun to find out more about you.

OK!

Where were you born?

Oh. I’m not sure. I know I came to my home from the Kent Animal Shelter in 2014.

And how old are you now?

A lady never tells her age!

Of course. Where do you live now?

I live in a house. With doors. And windows.

That sounds very nice.

It is!

And where is the house?

It’s in East Patchogue. I live with my mommy, Dawn, and my six doggie siblings.

What’s that like?

It’s really terrific! Some of my siblings are big and some are small. The littlest is five pounds. The biggest is ninety-two pounds!

That’s a big family.

Mommy has also fostered a lot of other doggies. I’ve lived with twenty-seven foster doggies since I came to live there.

That’s great. Do you have a favorite sibling?

Well, I’m the Princess so …

Got it.

I like Mommy best. I share my toys and bedding with my brothers and sisters but I don’t share my Mommy’s right cheek for sleeping time.

Fair enough.  

Do you have any cheese?

Uh, no. Not right now. But I’ll get some.

Thank you.

I understand you have a job.

It’s kind of a job but it’s more than that. When Mommy’s daddy went into a nursing home, Mommy brought me for visits. After Grandpa came home, Mommy decided to keep bringing me there on Sundays. So I become a service dog. I like the people SOOOOO much. I spend most of my time with the people who don’t have visitors or lots of family.

That’s great.

Sometimes, they line up to hold me. Once, this really nice lady tried to run away with me!

Oh, my!

Another time, another really nice lady carried me around like I was her baby for an hour and sang me nursery rhymes. She was very sweet.

Was it hard to get certified as a service dog?

No. I just needed to show them that I was focused and not rambunctious. Which I’m not! It wasn’t hard. I love going.

What do you like best about being a service dog?

Sitting on people’s laps. I like attention.

Could we talk about ‘The Wizard of Oz’?

Sure! 

Is this your stage debut?

Well, no … I actually I played Toto in an elementary school production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Mommy’s niece played a munchkin. It was fun to work with the young kids. But this is my first time on a real big stage.

I’ve noticed that you don’t bark.

No. It’s not ladylike.  

What are you looking forward to most about playing Toto?  

Being with the cast. Everyone is so nice. And I’m going to get to meet people after the show.

Really?  

Uh-huh! Anyone who wants can have their picture taken with me and Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Tinman after the show. That’ll be fun! I’ll get to meet so many new people. I like meeting new people.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like getting out of the house by going grocery shopping or to the movies. I like to go out. I like dressing up. I’m a bit girly. I don’t like bows in my hair but I like sweaters.

Anything else?

I like to eat. Liverwurst. Cheese. Bacon. Cheese.  

Do you have any words of encouragement for other dogs who might want to get involved in theater?

It’s a great experience for doggies with a good disposition to see and be seen!

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

You’re welcome. Cheese, please?

Photo by Brian Hoerger, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

“The Wizard of Oz” plays May 18 through June 22 at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson. For tickets and information, call the box office at 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com. Stay after the show for a photo with Dorothy, Toto and their friends.

By Heidi Sutton

Spring is in the air and that means the return of one of the most adorable children’s shows on the planet — “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson. Written by Jeffrey Sanzel and the late Brent Erlanson, with music by Kevin F. Story, the show is based on “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter.

Published in 1901, the story and its endearing illustrations were inspired by Potter’s pet rabbits, Benjamin Bouncer and Peter Piper. It has been translated into 36 languages, and with 45 million copies sold, is one of the best-selling books of all time.

Going against his mother’s wishes, Peter Rabbit (Eric J. Hughes) is always sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s garden to satisfy his insatiable appetite for parsley, tomatoes and string beans. His partner in crime, cousin Benjamin Bunny (Steven Uihlein), is just as naughty, eating all the carrots he can find and this constant marauding is testing the farmer’s patience. It’s a cat and mouse, or should I say, farmer and hare game that is about to go terribly wrong.

Directed by Sanzel, the show is fast-paced and action-packed with so many wonderful scenes often taking place off stage and among the audience. Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (Nicole Bianco, K.D. Guadagano and Michelle LaBozzetta) spend much of their time looking for their wayward brother and cousin throughout the theater and enlist the young audience’s help to find them before Mrs. Rabbit (Elizabeth Ladd) comes back from the market and the McGregors (Andrew Lenahan and Emily Gates) chase Peter and Benjamin down the aisles in an attempt to save their garden.

Over the years, I’ve seen this show at least 10 times, but this latest production is the best one yet. Perhaps it is because the cast is able to utilize the Mainstage set of “The Miracle Worker,” adding Peter’s bedroom for the first time and giving the show more dimension. Maybe it is the revamped choreography by Nicole Bianco or the creative lighting by Steven Uihlein. Possibly it is the boundless enthusiasm from the cast, drawing their energy from the constant giggles and laughs from the children and parents in the audience or that the songs are by now classic and timeless. 

Whatever the reason, this gem of a show is like a fine wine and just gets better with age.

Souvenir bunnies are sold before the show and during intermission for $5. Join the entire cast in the lobby for a meet and greet on your way out.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” through April 27 with special performances during spring break. After a brief hiatus, children’s theater continues with “Cinderella” from July 6 to 27 followed by “Pinocchio” from Aug. 2 to 10. Tickets are $10. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Peter Lancombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Heidi Sutton

From Mainstage productions to children’s theater, to concerts and film screenings, comedy shows and improv, Theatre Three always has a lot to offer. However, it is the Festival of One-Act Plays that many look forward to each year with eager anticipation. 

Showcasing six original works selected from 425 submissions, the 22nd annual festival opened last weekend for a nine-performance run in the intimate setting of The Ronald F. Peierls Theatre on the second stage. 

Directed by Jeffrey Sanzel, each short play is exciting; some dark, some funny, some sad, with lots of twists and turns. It is the unknown, the unfamiliar that makes it all so entertaining to watch. 

The show kicks off with Tom Slot’s “Playlist to Have a Crisis To.” Teenager Alexis (Nicole Bianco) has just hit a burglar dressed in a Santa Claus suit (Stephen T. Wangner) with an encyclopedia and he’s on the floor unconscious. She calls her girlfriend Tanya (Michelle LaBozzetta)to come over to wait for the police to arrive. When the man wakes up he claims to be the real Santa Claus. He knows things only Santa would know, but everyone knows he’s only a legend, right? And if he is real, will Alexis always be known as the girl who beat up Father Christmas?

Next up is “For a Moment in the Darkness, We Wait” by Libby Leonard, the touching story of two gay men, the older Bernard (Douglas Quattrock) and teenager Connie (Ryan Schaefer) struggling to hide their sexual identity in New York City the 1940s. You feel their pain, their frustration and their sadness in this emotional performance. 

The mood lightens greatly with “Perfectly Normal” by J. Joseph Cox, a hilarious look at the changing workplace. Antoine Jones, Suzie Dunn, Steve Wagner, Nicole Bianco and Ginger Dalton star in this delightful comedy. There’s a new boss in town and we hear of the workplace changes from breakroom gossip. “He swept in here like the Gestapo!” Employees are disappearing, Human Resources is boarded up, cavity searches are being conducted, and the final blow, coffee has been replaced by tea. This is normal?

“Family by Numbers” by Arianna Rose is the heartbreaking story of a family that loses a son in a hiking accident. Beautifully written, it  begins when the parents first meet, get married, raise three boys and then struggle with their tragic loss and one less number. Powerful performances all around by Steve Ayle, Linda May, Dylan Robert Poulos, Steven Uihlein and Ryan Schaefer.

After intermission, Rich Orloff’s “The Unforgivable Sin of Forgiveness” takes the stage. A wife (TracyLynn Conner) confesses to her husband (Antoine Jones) that she has been having an affair for three years. His response? “I know.” Taken aback, the wife turns the tables and demands to know why he hasn’t let on that he knew all this time. “You lied to your wife when all these years I’ve been faithful six days out of seven?” she exclaims in disbelief.

The final and longest act, “The Making of Medea’s Medea” by Chas Belov, is where the production of Medea’s modern-day retelling of her own story of revenge is played out on Theatre Three’s Mainstage while being turned into a documentary. We meet Medea, Jason, the actors that play them, the actors that play the part of the employees at Theatre Three, psychologists, Greek playwrights and more. The entire cast takes part with special mention to Linda May as the heartbroken and vengeful Medea.

With an excellent lineup and incredible cast, this festival is not to be missed. Get yourself a ticket before they sell out.

Sponsored by Lippencott Financial Group, Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present the 22nd annual Festival of One-Act Plays through May 5. Running time is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. All seats are $20. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

‘Dumbo’ is a live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In viewing Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” it is hard not to compare it to Disney’s animated feature that served as source and inspiration. The delicate and wonderful cartoon ran 65 minutes and was both enchanting and heartbreaking. Like all of Disney, there is delicacy about this 1941 film that has made it an enduring classic.

The story in both cases is that of the baby elephant, Jumbo Jr., a pachyderm born with giant ears. It is what makes him different that ultimately proves him special. These giant appendages give Jumbo Jr. — crowned Dumbo — the gift of flight. Ultimately, it is a tale of the “other” — a being ostracized for being different and then finding success, and, more importantly, joy in this distinction.

The original film ends with Dumbo’s rise to fame and his reuniting with his mother. Burton’s version extends the length and the plot to a bloated two hours. The film is stunning to watch with incredible CGI in the creation of the title character. Dumbo is a wholly realized creation with eyes that are mournfully soulful. The film (in 3-D) is visually satisfying but comes up short on character development. 

The story is set just after the end of World War I. Wounded soldier Holt (a brooding but sympathetic Colin Farrell) returns to a failing circus and to his children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, in nicely understated performances). He has lost his arm to the war and his wife to influenza. The circus is run by a roguish charlatan, Max Medici (Danny DeVito, doing what he does and does well), and is populated by the expected archetypes — the mermaid, the strongman, the snake charmer, etc. Instead of pursing this world and background lives, Burton opts for broad strokes and frenetic action.

It is the children, and, in particular the scientific Milly, who discover Dumbo’s gift. After the reveal of Dumbo’s talent, the film shifts with the arrival of a villainous entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (scenery-chewing Michael Keaton with an impenetrable and unrecognizable accent). Vandevere fools Medici into signing away his company so that he can headline Dumbo in his Dreamland amusement park. Here, the world becomes even bleaker as it segues into a clumsy indictment of corporate greed. What ensues is often tense and dramatic, but there is a desolation that pervades, only lifted by the final images of freedom.

While there are plenty of homages to the original (the lullaby “Baby Mine,” the pink elephants are particularly clever and a mouse in a uniform harkens to the antecedent’s sidekick), the film has a very modern point of view, especially on the issue of caging animals. It is an important message and one that needs to be heard, but rings oddly false in its period setting. 

Finally, the question one must ask is, “Who is this film for?” The answer: It is a children’s film that is perhaps too dark for the children.

Rated PG, “Dumbo” is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Cynthia Baxter

In her sophomore outing of the Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe mysteries, author Cynthia Baxter once again returns to the fictional Wolfert’s Roost, a small town nestled in the Hudson Valley where Kate McKay has opened up an artisan ice cream parlor. A former public relations director and transplanted New Yorker, she has returned to her hometown to help care for her feisty grandmother, the woman who raised her.

Picking up immediately after the end of the delightful “Murder With a Cherry on Top,” Kate becomes embroiled in the murder of a beloved fashion designer, Omar DeVane. The page-turner focuses on a quartet of suspects that orbit Omar’s world. Secrets and deception intersect with the world of high fashion. Kay, along with her “Three Musketeers”— childhood friend, Willow; niece Emma; and Emma’s boyfriend, Ethan — embark on an inquiry.

What is unique is Kay’s motivation? She’s not just another amateur sleuth involved where she shouldn’t be; instead, her concern is that the murder has made the area notorious and has negatively affected the town’s businesses. Her drive is to solve the crime to put Wolfert Roost back on track.

There’s also a nice romantic triangle that plays out in the background, creating additional conflict for Kay, but never interfering with the rapid progress of the mystery. In addition, Baxter shows her literary skill in a portrait of Omar’s brother, Arthur. Touching and dimensional, it provides a whole different shade in the fast-paced narrative. It is a sympathetic and unusual portrait of a man who has found satisfaction in the simplicity of his life.

With appropriate tension and intrigue, the story builds to a satisfying resolution. And, of course, like in the premiere outing, the entire tale is told against the world of the ice cream parlor, complete with the traditional flavors (Classic Tahitian Vanilla) as well as a host of unusual confections Kay dreams up (Honey Lavender, the sorbet Peach Basil Bliss!). 

“Hot Fudge Murder” is a great second helping of cozy mystery. Looking forward to a third.

Cynthia Baxter is the author of 55 novels.“Hot Fudge Murder” is the second book in her new Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe Mystery series with Kensington Publishing Corp. and is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Visit her website at www.cynthiabaxter.com.

The three little kittens

By Heidi Sutton

What do three crooning kittens, a droll dog, a rascally rabbit and a pushover penguin have in common? They all want to be on the radio in Theatre Three’s latest children’s theater treat, “The Three Little Kittens.”  

The cast of ‘The Three Little Kittens’

Written by Jeffrey Sanzel and Kevin Story, the musical, which was last presented in 2013,  incorporates the beloved Mother Goose nursery rhyme but goes beyond losing the mittens, finding the mittens, eating pie, soiling and then washing the mittens and then the big finale, eating more pie. These kittens want more — they have hopes and dreams, don’t you know. In other words, this production is too cute for words.

Lucy, Ricky and Ethel Whiska aspire to become a singing trio on the radio while their neighbor Barker Doggone, who keeps losing his collar, etc. dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. Their favorite radio show is “The Bonanza Hour” on WPET Radio with Harry Hoppit, a white rabbit who was made famous by radio penguin Waddles Greenway but has let success go to his head. “I’m Harry Hoppit – be impressed” he tells his adoring fans.

Barker and Mama Doggone

When Mother Whiska and Mama Doggone bring home a flyer from the radio station announcing open auditions, the kittens and pup jump at the chance. Will they be able to turn their dreams into reality or will Harry Hoppit’s jealousy get in the way?

Directed by Sanzel, the nine-member cast embrace the clever script and do an incredible job. Each character’s personality is bold and distinct and perfectly executed.

Michelle LaBozzetta as Lucy, Eric J. Hughes as Ricky and Emily Gates as Ethel shine as the Whiska kittens while Steven Uihlein as Barker the dog steals the show with his funny jokes and wit. His constant distractions – “Squirrel!” – are doggone hilarious and the young audience during last Sunday’s performance couldn’t get enough. Their group number, “Dogs and Cats Like You and Me,” is a personal favorite.

Brielle Levenberg and Ginger Dalton as the moms make a great team, pretending not to like each other in front of others “out of tradition,” but are secretly the best of friends while Douglas J. Quattrock juggles the role of radio producer and providing piano accompaniment with ease (great accent!).

Harry Hoppit and Waddles Greenway

Andrew Lenahan plays the role of antagonist Harry Hoppit to a tee and has the best lines. “What can I say but me, me, me.” Beautifully delivered, Lenahan’s solo, “Looking Out for Number One,” perfectly describes the rabbit’s agenda. “… So if I ruffle some feathers and pull on some tails, what does it matter if others fail?” Don’t worry – he gets his comeuppance.

The strongest performance comes from Nicole Bianco who tackles the difficult role of Waddles Greenway the penguin with aplomb. Mercilessly bullied by Harry Hoppit, the hapless bird holds her own and treats the audience to a wonderful tap dance number, “The One and Only,” in the second act.

The entire production has a nostalgic 1940s feel and pays homage to the Golden Age of Radio. With the ultimate message that friendship is the greatest bond and that dreams really can come true, “The Three Little Kittens” is purrfectly adorable. Don’t miss it. Meet the cast in the lobby after the show.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents “The Three Little Kittens” through March 23. All seats are $10. Children’s theater continues with “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” from April 12 to 27 and a Mainstage production of “The Wizard of Oz” (call for ticket prices) from May 18 to June 22. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

From left, Brian Gill, Christina Muens, Abigail McCabe (on chair) and TracyLynn Conner in a scene from ‘Nine’. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Heidi Sutton

Theatre Three continues its 49th season with the Broadway smash hit musical “Nine.” With book by Arthur Kopit and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, the award-winning show is based on the semi-autobiographical 1963 film of Italian film director/screenwriter Federico Fellini’s life, titled “8½.”

Clockwise from top left, TracyLynn Conner, Christina Muens, Abigail McCabe and Brian Gill in a scene from ‘Nine’
Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

Directed by Jeffrey Sanzel, the musical follows the artistic journey of celebrated Italian director Guido Contini (Brian Gill) and his quest to find an idea for his next film. His last three films have been flops and he has an extreme case of writer’s block. A movie contract has been signed with his producer Liliane La Fleur (Debbie D’Amore) but there is no script. Should he write a Western? A Bible-inspired epic? A documentary? The stakes are high and time is running out.

As if Contini didn’t have enough to worry about, his wife Luisa (Christina Muens) is considering leaving him, his naive mistress Carla (Abigail McCabe) thinks he wants to marry her, and his muse, movie star Claudia Nardi (TracyLynn Conner) is getting tired of being cast in the same type of roles and is about to walk away.

To try to clear his head, Contini and his wife take a trip to the Fontane di Luna spa in Venice. Worried about deadlines, his producer tracks him down at the spa and insists he write a musical. Improvising on the spot, the director chooses to his own life experiences and relationships to create a Casanova-inspired flick and hires the staff at the spa to be the cast.

As the film begins to take shape, fantasy and reality are intertwined as Contini has constant flashbacks  — when he was a little boy (played by the adorable Brayden E. Bratti) with his mother (Linda May), and his many affairs, all in an attempt to seek cinematic inspiration.

In the role of Guido Contini, said to be one of the most demanding roles in musical theater, Brian Gill brilliantly leads the talented cast of “Nine” on a 2½-hour thought-provoking musical romp.

Accompanied by a seven-piece band led by Jeffrey Hoffman, the musical numbers are perfectly executed, with special mention to “Guido’s Song, “Folies Bergeres,” “Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian” and the “Grand Canal.”

The top-notch choreography by Nicole Bianco, the beautiful costumes by Ronald Green III, the impressive set by Randall Parsons and the masterful lighting by Robert W. Henderson Jr., which lets the audience know what is real and what is flashback, ties it all together nicely. 

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Nine The Musical” on the Mainstage through March 23. Please note, “Nine” contains adult themes and situations. Parental discretion advised. The 2018-19 Mainstage season continues with “The Miracle Worker” from April 6 to 28 and “The Wizard of Oz” from May 18 to June 22. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 to 12. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

A scene from Theatre Three’s ‘From the Fires’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Sabrina Petroski

“Just another body for the ovens.” Haunting, isn’t it? This sentence comes from Theatre Three’s educational touring show “From the Fires: Voices of the Holocaust.” This play, the story of two young Jewish girls living through the reign of Hitler and the persecution of the Jewish people, has been presented in schools and community centers across the tristate area, going as far south as Washington and Virginia, and as far north as Richmond Hill, outside of Toronto, Canada. 

“From the Fires” was written by Jeffrey Sanzel, the executive artistic director of Theatre Three in Port Jefferson and has been touring since 1996. According to Sanzel, he has always been passionate about the Holocaust and making sure the atrocious events of the past never disappear.

The cast

Nicole Bianco

Marci Bing

Michelle LaBozzetta

Douglas J. Quattrock

Jeffrey Sanzel

Steven Uihlein

Theatre Three was looking for a new show for its educational program, Sanzel began searching for a show within the topic of the Holocaust, but none of them seemed right. Eventually, he decided to write one, immersing himself in research, finding survivors to interview and spending three days at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. After five months of writing, the cast, including Sanzel, went into rehearsal with an unfinished script, which was edited and rewritten over the six weeks of rehearsal.

“‘From the Fires’ has had an amazing response,” said Sanzel in a recent interview. “If it hadn’t we wouldn’t still be touring it this many years later! There has been an incredibly positive reaction.” 

According to Sanzel, there are many schools, synagogues, churches and community centers all over Long Island that book the show every year or every other year. Michael Serif, a history teacher at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, first experienced “From the Fires” at Seaford High School in 2001. Since then, Serif has requested to bring the 40-minute play to every school he has worked in, including Locust Valley High School and Friends Academy. The theatrical piece is performed for grades 6 to 12.

“I’ve seen the play probably close to a dozen times in several different schools, and every time when the show is complete you can hear a pin drop in the audience,” said Serif in a phone interview. “The kids are so very deeply affected by the play.”

“From the Fires” depicts the Holocaust through the eyes of Rachel and Evy, two young girls from Berlin who grew up watching the world turn from a peaceful place to a place where people are ripped from their homes and murdered because of their religion. 

John S. D’Aquila served as a medic in the 11th Armored Division during World War II, under Gen. Patton and was a witness to the horrors of the death camp at Mauthausen as a member of the liberating force. File photo

It begins with the liberation of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in 1945 by a young soldier, then flashes back to 1937 where the audience sees Rachel, Rachel’s father and Evy go through all the changes in the laws and their lives; Rachel’s father losing his business, Rachel and her father going into hiding; Rachel, Evy and Rachel’s father being deported; Rachel’s father being killed in a gas chamber; and Rachel carrying Evy through the hardships they experience at the concentration camp. Sanzel says that having the story told by two young girls resonates more with younger viewers.

“One comment that a teacher made to their students was that part of the play’s power was that it reminds you that the people who went through this were just like you,” said Sanzel. 

“The kids in the audience can see themselves in Rachel and Evy. Any survivors they would have met would be in their eighties and nineties, and they don’t think of them as themselves. ‘From the Fires’ puts it in perspective; it follows two kids who could be any two kids, and it gives it that universal connection.” 

The play has a small cast, with each actor portraying up to half a dozen roles throughout the show, and keeps to a minimalistic set. A very important part of the show, according to Sanzel, is how the gradual change in the laws is shown. 

“From the Fires” is meant for young audiences so there is no graphic content shown on stage. “You get to see their day-to-day lives, the change in the laws, and then of course the concentration camp,” said Sanzel. “It’s all an emotional appeal. There’s nothing graphic in the play so it’s angled to be watched from that standpoint. On stage you can’t really re-create the horrors of the Holocaust, so we emphasize the personal — the personal losses, the personal survival.”

‘Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that’s why it’s so important to keep teaching it. ‘

­— Jeffrey Sanzel

“From the Fires” is a work of historical fiction, one character is based on a real person. In May of 1945, Army medic John D’Aquila aided in the liberation of the Nazi death camp in Mauthausen, Austria. D’Aquila, a Theatre Three board member at the time the play was being created, was the inspiration for the American soldier who provides the framing device. While Sanzel was researching and writing the play, D’Aquila shared his personal experience, voicing things he had never said before.

“It was the first time he had ever spoken about his experience of liberating the camp because they were told when they went home not to talk about it, just to go back to their lives” said Sanzel. “He became the basis for the American soldier that opens and closes the show, and over the years [D’Aquila] would come to many of the road performances and in-house shows to speak. It became a passion for him to be connected to this because it was cathartic.” A resident of Belle Terre, D’Aquila passed away in 2014 at the age of 91.

After every performance the cast holds a Q&A, where the audience can ask questions about the performance, about the cast or about the Holocaust in general. Sanzel said that the questions he hears the most are, “Are you Jewish?” and “Did this actually happen?” 

“From the Fires” opens doors to educating younger generations that reading from a textbook doesn’t. According to Serif, many of the history and English teachers within Friends Academy take the play and use it as a teaching opportunity, talking about it in class for days after and even referring back to it throughout the rest of the year. 

“The children often ask complicated questions, so we give them our best answer and then encourage them to go back to their classes and talk about it in more detail,” explained Sanzel. 

According to Sanzel, there are two main reasons he does the show. The first is to keep this event in history alive, so after those that experienced it firsthand are gone the stories don’t disappear with them. The second is to teach kids that they can stop things like the Holocaust from happening again. It all boils down to bullying, seeing someone being harassed and choosing to say something instead of sitting idly by while it happens, or even joining in. The Holocaust was made up of people joining in or ignoring the bad things because it didn’t personally affect them.  

“There’s a danger in people thinking of history as ‘back then,’ that’s how we begin to let go of things and we can’t,” said Sanzel. “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that’s why it’s so important to keep teaching it.”

For more information or to book a performance, contact Theatre Three’s touring coordinator Marci Bing at 631-928-9202 or Marci@theatrethree.com.