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Michael DeCristofaro

By Heidi Sutton

February 3rd of this year will mark the 60th anniversary of the death of Buddy Holly, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s true pioneers who, in his short career, had a major influence on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Elton John.

Holly’s wonderful music, his lasting legacy to the world, is celebrated in Alan Janes’ “Buddy —The Buddy Holly Story.” The jukebox musical debuted in London in 1989 and arrived a year later on Broadway. The show opened at the John W. Engeman Theater last week and runs through March 3.

Directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews, the show recounts the last three years of Holly’s life and rise to fame, from 1956 to 1959.

We first meet him as a strong-willed 19-year-old country singer (played by Michael Perrie Jr.) from Lubbock, Texas, and follow his journey with his band, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, as they venture into rock ‘n’ roll with hits like “That’ll Be the Day,” “Rock Around with Ollie Vee” and “Everyday.” 

The impressive sets by Jordan Janota and props by Emily Wright beautifully evolve with each scene while the stage features a permanent arch of gramophone records that light up individually as each hit is performed.

Touring the country in 1957, Holly and his band head to the Apollo Theater in Harlem where the audience is treated to a show-stopping rendition of the Isley Brothers’s “Shout” by Apollo performers Marlena (Kim Onah) and Tyrone (Troy Valjean Rucker) before enjoying “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy!” and “Not Fade Away.”

We are witness to when Holly meets his future wife Maria Elena Santiago (Lauren Cosio) for the first time and when he leaves a pregnant Maria in 1959 to go on the Winter Dance Party tour by bus to play 24 Midwestern cities in as many days after promising her he won’t get on an airplane.

The final scene is also one of the show’s finest as Holly’s last performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, with J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (Jayson Elliott) and Ritchie Valens (Diego Guevara) is recreated in a poignant tribute. The audience is transported back in time and become concertgoers enjoying  outstanding performances of “Chantilly Lace,” “La Bamba” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.”

The stage suddenly goes dark and a radio announces that all three singers were killed in a plane crash shortly after the concert. Richardson was 28, Holly was 22 and Valens was only 17. The tragedy was later referred to as “The Day the Music Died.” The lights come back on and the concert continues, bringing the packed house at last Friday’s show to their feet in a long-standing ovation.

By the end of the night, more than 20 of Holly’s greatest hits have been played live by the incredibly talented actors on stage, a fitting tribute to the Texan who got to play music his way.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story” through March 3. Tickets range from $73 to $78 with free valet parking. For more information or to order, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro

By Melissa Arnold

Whether you’ve been playing carols for weeks or are just now contemplating putting up the tree, the end of Thanksgiving signals the official arrival of the holiday season. If this is the most wonderful time of the year in your house, there’s no better way to enjoy it than by catching “Elf`The Musical” at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport.

Based on the beloved 2003 film starring Will Ferrell, “Elf” tells the story of a little boy who crawls into Santa’s gift bag and ends up at the North Pole. Raised as an elf, the ever-growing Buddy has no idea he’s really human, even though he’s a terrible toymaker. When Buddy learns the truth about his identity, he sets out on a journey to New York City to reconnect with his roots and find his family.

Insulated by the always cheery atmosphere of Christmastown, it’s an understatement to say Buddy faces culture shock upon arriving in the Big Apple. But it will take a lot to keep Buddy from spreading Christmas cheer, especially to the person that needs it most: his Scrooge-y father.

“Elf” made its Broadway debut in 2010 with book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan and music by Michael Sklar and Chad Beguelin. Devoted fans of the film will appreciate the show’s faithfulness to the original script, including Buddy’s classic one-liners that make it so iconic. The musical numbers aren’t especially memorable and feel unnecessary at points, but they do open up the opportunity for some great dance routines.

The production begins with Santa (Gordon Gray) inviting the audience to join him as he reads the story of Buddy the Elf. There’s something so fun about these moments that allow actors to interact with the crowd and draw viewers in. And the little details in Santa’s scenes (his oversized chair with a bag of Doritos and the remote control stuffed in the cushion) feel genuine and cozy. Gray’s portrayal of Santa is effortless, funny and truly believable — his belly laughs will make you wonder if he’s the real deal.

Erik Gratton is no stranger to the role of Buddy. He also starred in the national tour of “Elf” and last year’s Madison Square Garden production. While it’s hard to shake off the image of Will Ferrell in that famous green hat, Gratton leaves it all on the stage with tons of energy and all the zany enthusiasm Buddy deserves. His first experience and subsequent obsession with a paper shredder will have you in stitches. It’s also worth noting that he approaches the show’s rare emotional moments with surprising tenderness. Gratton will break your heart at the end of the first act during “World’s Greatest Dad (Reprise).”

After fantasizing endlessly about what life with his dad will be like, Buddy meets his overworked, agitated publisher father, Walter Hobbs (Joe Gately). Tension rolls off Gately in waves, and when Hobbs loses his temper, Gately fills the theater with powerful, roaring tirades. He’s a wonderful foil to Christianne Tisdale and Zachary Podair, who play Hobbs’s wife Emily and young son Michael. Tisdale and Podair have great chemistry as mother and son, and their duets in “I’ll Believe in You” and “There Is a Santa Claus” were personal favorites.

Of course, Buddy’s life is further turned upside down when he finds himself smitten with a beautiful, yet world-weary Macy’s employee, Jovie (Caitlin Gallogly). Gallogly is delightfully edgy and jaded for the majority of the show, making her character’s eventual thawing that much more enjoyable. She also has one of the strongest voices in the cast, and her vocals in “A Christmas Song” and “Never Fall in Love With an Elf” are a treat for the ears.

The ensemble in “Elf” has several different roles to play, from elves in Santa’s workshop to retail employees and bitter mall Santas. They deserve major props for their elf scenes — since elves are tiny, the actors perform on their knees. It’s no small feat to sing and dance to “Christmastown” from that position!

Choreographer Mara Newbery Greer and associate choreographer Tiger Brown are to be applauded for their hard work with the cast. The intense tap dancing in “Nobody Cares About Santa” is another impressive surprise.

Set designer Nate Bertone creates a whimsical backdrop for the show, grounded by huge arches covered in snowflakes. The giant logos for Macy’s and Greenway Press are eye-catching, as are the creative use of props and background silhouettes to show scene changes in real time. While musical director Charlie Reuter and the small orchestra are tucked out of sight in the pit, they provide the perfect, almost cartoonish, accompaniment to this silly show.

All told, director Matt Kunkel has led the Engeman’s cast of “Elf” in a production that’s loads of fun for the whole family — a perfect fit for the holiday season.

A note on content: “Elf” does contain some brief mild language and lighthearted innuendo that most children won’t notice. The show is generally appropriate for all ages.

If you have some extra money to spare, consider making a donation after the show to the Ecumenical Lay Council Food Pantry, which supports more than 150 local families each week. Cast members will collect donations as you leave. For more information, call 631- 261-4357.

See “Elf The Musical” now through Dec. 30 at the John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport. Tickets range from $73 to $78 with free valet parking. For more information or to order, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

Photos by Michael DeCristofaro

By Rita J. Egan

It may be chilly outside, but things are heating up inside the John W. Engeman Theater. The Northport venue debuted its production of “In the Heights” on March 15, and with a talented cast and the energetic sounds of salsa, reggaeton, merengue and hip hop, audience members are guaranteed a fun, hot night on the town.

Before he shared the story of Alexander Hamilton through rap and song in “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda created this spirited musical, which ran from 2008 to 2011 on Broadway and won four Tony Awards.

A love letter to Latinos who live in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the story takes place during July Fourth weekend on one city block and centers around bodega owner Usnavi and his neighbors. While the play includes a good deal of reality like money issues, the death of loved ones and the sacrifices one must make for a better life, its main themes are about love and hope, and most important of all, having patience and faith.

With book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and music and lyrics by Miranda, through dialogue and song “In the Heights” reveals the economic struggles of Usnavi and his fellow business owners, car service proprietors Kevin and Camila Rosario and beauty salon owner Daniela.

Directed by Paul Stancato, the musical throws in romance as Usnavi pines away for the beautiful Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon, and the Rosarios’ daughter Nina and their employee Benny engage in a forbidden romance. As the audience gets a peek into the heartache of Usnavi losing his parents at an early age, Vanessa yearning to move downtown, the bright Nina losing her college scholarship and the love felt for the neighborhood’s adopted grandmother, Claudia, one can’t help but feel a part of this close-knit community.

Spiro Marcos as Usnavi does a fine job filling big shoes (the role was originally played by Miranda on Broadway). The actor skillfully uses rap during most of his numbers to tell the story. Marcos is in touch with Usnavi’s softer side, making it impossible not to root for him as he longs for Vanessa and dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic, his birthplace, while trying to keep the bodega afloat.

Cherry Torres and Josh Marin in a scene from ‘In the Heights’

Josh Marin is charming as Benny, and Cherry Torres is sweet and lovely as Nina. The two have a good amount of on-stage chemistry during their romantic scenes, which is front and center during the song “Sunrise” where they sing beautifully together. Chiara Trentalange balances a bit of sass and attitude with a touch of softness to deliver a Vanessa who may be determined to put her neighborhood behind her, but audience members can’t help but like her, too.

Tami Dahbura is endearing as Abuela Claudia, while Paul Aquirre and Shadia Fairuz are perfect together as Kevin and Camila. Scheherazade Quiroga is perfect as the spunky Daniela and delivers comedic lines perfectly. Iliana Garcia is refreshing as naïve hairdresser Carla, and Vincent Ortega is delightful as the Piragua Guy, especially during his number “Piragua” and its reprise. Nick Martinez, as Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny, and Danny Lopez, as Graffiti Pete, do a nice job adding some comic relief throughout the production.

The dancers are also among the stars in the show. Skillfully choreographed by Sandalio Alvarez, they energetically and masterfully transfer from salsa, merengue, reggaeton and hip hop dance steps.

The music in the production is top notch and is a mix of dance tunes that will have audience members wanting to dance in the aisles and emotional ballads for which some may need tissues. The band, led by conductor Alec Bart, does a superb job flawlessly moving from one musical genre to another, and the singers also do an excellent job.

During the first act, Torres expertly uses her vocal talents to perform an emotion-evoking version of “Breathe.” It is during this number audience members discover her time at Stanford University didn’t work out for her, and she now feels lost not knowing what to do with her life.

Aguirre’s number “Inútil” is just as heartbreaking as his character feels useless after discovering his daughter didn’t come to him to help her pay for school. Fairuz also displays strong vocals during the song “Siempre.”

Trentalange sings lead on the upbeat song “It Won’t Be Long Now” with Marcos and Martinez. The actress has fun with the song and her vocals are great.

Spiro Marcos (Usnavi) and Tami Dahbura (Abuela Claudia)

Dahbura moves around convincingly like a frail grandmother, and then surprises audience members with her incredible and emotional vocals during “Paciencia y Fe.” Abuela Claudia remembers her youth in Cuba and arriving in the United States, during the song. Her mother would always remind her to have patience and faith, advice Claudia continues to share with those she loves.

During the first act, the ensemble performs “96,000” as they sing about what it would be like to win Lotto. With the singers emanating so much energy, one can’t help but feel optimistic for them.

Quiroga gets the party started with “Carnaval del Barrio” and her vocals are outstanding. The high-energy song with exceptional dancing is sensational. It is soon followed by “Alabanza” where Torres sweetly sings the first lines and then the song builds up to a powerful number featuring the whole cast. Both performed during the second act are show stoppers.

Spanish is sprinkled throughout the dialogue and lyrics of “In the Heights” to add authenticity, but are always followed by English translations, or the lines are delivered with gestures that make things clear for those who don’t understand the language.

Many may want to see this musical because they are curious about Miranda’s earlier work, but “In the Heights” is an entertaining look into the life of Latinos in New York City and a beautiful tribute to the music that was brought to the United States from the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

The John W. Engeman Theater, located at 250 Main Street, Northport presents “In the Heights” through April 29. Running time is approximately 2.5 hours and tickets are $73; $78 for Saturday evening performances. Free valet parking is available. For more information, please call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro

Andrea Goss, Barry Debois and Stephen McIntyre in a scene from ‘Once’. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Melissa Arnold

If you’ve ever fallen in love, had your heart broken or faced unfulfilled passion, you’ll relate to “Once.” And even if you haven’t, the cast at the John W. Engeman Theater will still grab your heart and squeeze. The show, which is part of the theater’s 11th season, is both unique and compelling. It’s easy to see why “Once” grossed 11 Tony nominations and eight wins in 2012, its first year on Broadway. The show is a stage adaptation of the 2007 film of the same name that starred Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Both versions were written and directed by John Carney.

Barry DeBois and Andrea Gos in a scene from ‘Once’

Under the direction of the Engeman’s Trey Compton, “Once” begins with a nameless street performer referred to as Guy (Barry Debois) singing a heartbreaking ballad about an ex-girlfriend. A bold and honest young Czech woman (Andrea Goss as Girl) overhears the song and immediately pesters him for the juicy details that inspired it. It turns out that Guy has lost his love of music since his old flame left for New York City. Performing just hurts too much, and he’s ready to throw in the towel on his dreams.

But Girl won’t hear any of that, and she’s convinced that he’d win his love’s heart again if he sang her that song. Their conversation is the beginning of an intensely passionate and emotionally raw week as the two write, rehearse and record songs together.

What makes “Once” stand out is its presentation, which you’ll notice before the show even begins. Get there early and you’ll find the cast on stage in the middle of a rocking pub party, Dublin style. They hoot and holler while they sing, play Irish tunes and dance on tables. The best part is that the audience is invited to go up and join them. The set includes a working bar that offers a single variety of beer, red wine and white wine for $10.

A scene from ‘Once’

The musical performances in this show are also one of a kind, as there is no stage band providing accompaniment. Instead, each person in the 13-member cast also plays an instrument, and all of the songs are performed from memory, which is beyond impressive. To make it work, chairs are set in a semicircle around the perimeter of the stage. When a character exits a scene, he or she simply takes a seat, fading inconspicuously into the background.

They also function as their own stage crew, dancing and playing brief musical interludes as they carry props on and off the set. It’s a bit hard to describe in words, but the overall effect is visually compelling and speaks to the incredible talent of this cast.

Both Goss and Debois are no strangers to “Once” — she was part of its recent Broadway run, while he was the music captain of the 2016 U.S. national tour. They bring to the show an intense realism you can hear in every note they sing. Guy’s opening number, “Leave,” and Girl’s tearful performance of “The Hill,” will leave you awestruck.

The members of the ensemble, which include “Once” veterans Elisabeth Evans (Reza), John Thomas Hays (Billy), Stephen McIntyre (Bank Manager) and Bristol Pomeroy (Da) among others, are every bit as talented as Debois and Goss. They put out a powerful sound with rich harmonies and tons of energy. During their a cappella performance of “Gold,” you could hear a pin drop in the packed house. The standing ovation during the press night performance last Saturday night was well deserved.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present “Once” through March 4. Tickets range from $73 to $78 with free valet parking available. For more information, call 631-261-9700 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

Above, from left, Ryan G. Dunkin, Peter Simon Hilton, Noah Bridgestock, Spencer Glass and Milton Craig Nealy

By Rita J. Egan

The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport exposed a night of adult fun this past Saturday when it held the press opening of “The Full Monty,” its current mainstage production. Judging by the applause, laughter and howling coming from the audience, the musical, directed by Keith Andrews, will be another huge hit for the theater.

Based on the 1997 movie of the same name, the story takes six men on an adventure where they hold nothing back, emotionally or physically. Featuring a book by Terrance McNally with score and lyrics by David Yazbek, “The Full Monty” introduces theatergoers to two unemployed steelworkers from Buffalo, Jerry and Dave, who decide to organize and perform in a strip act after seeing local women go crazy for a Chippendales-inspired show. Even though they look nothing like strippers, they soon join forces with their former co-workers Malcolm and Harold and hold auditions for two more dancers where they meet Horse and Ethan and form Hot Metal.

From left, Brent Michael DiRoma and Ryan G. Dunkin in a scene from ‘The Full Monty’

While a few characters’ names differ from the film, and the location has been changed from the movie’s Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, New York, the musical is still filled with something everyone can identify with whether unemployment, divorce, relationship problems, body issues or even the caring of an ailing parent.

And like the movie, even though the men working together to overcome their anxieties and self-consciousness creates a few serious and tender moments, overall it is told with a great deal of humor both in dialogue and lyrics. It’s a tale that leaves audience members not only cheering for the characters but also exiting the theater feeling uplifted.

“The Full Monty” opens with a high-energy scene where the woman are enjoying a girls’ night out. The story soon switches to the men at the union hall, and the number “Scrap” let’s the audience know there are serious matters to be dealt with and money needed.

Throughout the musical, Brent Michael DiRoma (Jerry) and Ryan G. Dunkin (Dave) are a terrific duo easily handling delicate matters with well-timed humor. The two are at their best during Act One’s hysterical number “Big Ass Rock” where they try to discourage Malcolm from committing suicide by showing him the ridiculousness of different scenarios. Spencer Glass as Malcolm soon joins in on the number, ecstatic that he may actually have friends, leaving the audience laughing uncontrollably.

From left, Spencer Glass and Brent Michael DiRoma in a scene from ‘The Full Monty’. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

Peter Simon Hilton, who plays Harold a former supervisor hiding his unemployed status from his wife, captures the character’s nervousness perfectly and easily plays straight man to the others. He and Dunkin also reveal impressive vocals on the sweet number “You Rule My World,” where Harold wonders how he will tell his wife about his situation, and Dave ponders if he’ll ever lose the weight, particularly his stomach, that rules his life.

Noah Bridgestock is adorable as the young stud Ethan and exhibits great physical comedic ability, but it’s Milton Craig Nealy as Horse, during the number “Big Black Man,” who shows all the young men how it’s done with strong vocals and slick dance moves that delighted the Saturday night audience.

During the number “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” the men perform seamlessly together providing a catchy, standout number at the end of Act One. Another stellar performance by one of the male performers is “You Walk With Me” during the second act. While Glass nails the awkwardness of his character Malcolm, the tenor shines during this moving number, and toward the end of the song, Bridgestock joins him and complements his fellow actor nicely. “Breeze Off the River” sung beautifully by Diroma is another touching number during the second half of the musical.

While “The Full Monty” focuses on the six men, the female cast members cannot be ignored. Diane Findlay as Jeanette Burmeister, the men’s pianist, is a delightful surprise. She delivers her lines with the comedic ability of greats such as Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, and during “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number,” performs with the skill of a Broadway professional.

Diane Findlay and Ryan G. Dunkin in a scene from ‘The Full Monty.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

During Act 2, Nicole Hale as Dave’s wife, Georgie, and Gaelen Gilliland as Harold’s wife, Vicki, beautifully execute the reprise of “You Rule My World.” Kate Marshall, playing Jerry’s ex-wife Pam, skillfully balances strength and gentleness of a woman who is trying her best to move on while co-parenting with her ex.

Suzanne Mason, Jennifer Collester Tully and Lexi Lyric add to the humor as they hilariously bring to life the joys of working women just wanting to have some fun. Vincent Ortega also adds to the high jinks as club owner Tony Giordano, the Cha Cha teacher and a random jogger.

It should also be noted that Kyle Wolf is sweet and endearing as Jerry’s son Nathan. James D. Schultz garnered tons of laughs when he performed an awkward semi strip tease act during the dancer auditions, and Alexander Molina as Buddy “Keno” Walsh, the professional stripper, handled his egotistical character with a tongue-in-cheek performance as well as some dance moves that delighted the ladies in the audience.

“The Full Monty” leaves the best for last with the men’s anticipated performance and the catchy “Let It Go.” The cast and crew tastefully orchestrated the last scene, which left those in attendance howling with laughter but not too red from blushing. The show is perfect for a pleasurable night out with the girls or even date night, but leave the children home due to some adult language and partial nudity.

The John Engeman Theater, 250 Main Street, Northport, will present “The Full Monty” through March 5. Tickets range from $71 to $76. To order, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.