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Musical

Kevin Burns and Katie Ferretti in a scene from ‘Mary Poppins’. Photo by William Sheehan

By Charles J. Morgan

Revivals in the theatah are of two kinds: the supercolossal musical smash and the ones that high school groups can do handily. The latter is exemplified by “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” the former by “Mary Poppins,” which opened in the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center’s massive venue in Oakdale on Saturday.

This performance was actually a paean to Pat Grossman, that factotum of the theater who directed it and did set design. His interpretive skills were as usual quite evident, but his ability at managing a highly mobile Victorian interior was noteworthy. Grossman’s minutely trained crew gave us a living room, kitchen, Mansard roof and upstairs bedroom all with the flavor of London in the era of the queen who gave her name to the age.

Choreography was by the indefatigable M.E. Junge. Her work in the tap number “A Step in Time” in Act II was outstanding; and in Act I’s “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was the signature hit in the entire show. One minuscule comment: Your scribe cannot understand why she continues to execute highly complex dance numbers in semi-darkness. Music was handled by Matthew W. Surico with his exemplary accuracy with electronic feed music.

Katie Ferretti held the title role. Her far-ranging soprano and excitingly beautiful stage presence were truly riveting, especially in “Supercali…” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Bert the Chimney Sweep was played by Kevin Burns. His mid-range tenor was put to great use as was his obvious acting ability. He had an engaging stage personality that coalesced neatly with Ferretti.

The cook was played by Linda Pentz. Her ability with tough, no-nonsense females was a touch of reality in this magical realism production. Speaking of reality, there was the infrastructure roles of the Banks family. Carl Tese was George, the paterfamilias, perfectly authoritatively Victorian, demanding Order and Precision.

Aloof from any “sentimentality,” he came across most flexibly in a demanding role involving emotional changes. Amy Dowdell was his wife Winifred. Her Mrs. Banks was a plaintive, highly melodic revelation of her role as a Victorian wife. The children, Jane and Michael, were played by Katherine LaFountain and Austin Levine. These two kids were on the boards for long stretches without exits. Their ability  to concentrate as well as to sing and dance was demonstrably professional. A double role as Ms. Andrew who replaces Mary Poppins briefly as the Nanny and Mrs. Corrie, a street vendor, was handled by Pamela Parker. The power of her voice in “Brimstone and Treacle” revealed an operatic soprano that caused the light bars to waver.

This production was a true example of how the concatenation of scene changes, done with palpable dexterity, the exactitude of Junge, the eye of Grossman for interpretation prescinding from his skill as set designer, the interfacing of all of the above with that aesthetic dimension of acting,  dancing and singing created a ringing smash hit — a tribute to what the CMPAC is capable of — an exciting evening of musical theater.

The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “Mary Poppins” through July 19. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

By Ed Blair

“I don’t entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I’m me. God knows, I’m me.”

Iconic actress Elizabeth Taylor’s self-appraisal references a life that ranged from the sensation of stardom to the sensationalism of tabloids. She was one of the last superstars of the Hollywood studio tradition, and her life and career, both on and off screen, were a source of entertainment for decades.

Elizabeth Taylor. Photo from the WMHO
Elizabeth Taylor. Photo from the WMHO

Audiences can listen to the legendary actress’ tale as the Ward Melville Heritage Organization presents “The Elizabeth Taylor Story” May 9 through June 17 at its Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook. The popular musical theater and high-tea luncheon series returns to the center with a tribute to the enduring screen idol. The 1963 setting for the St. George Productions finds singer Eydie Gorme (played by Rosie Flore) headlining a musical comedy spring spectacular, with Taylor (portrayed by Lisa Mondy) as the her guest. Along with her faithful domestic, Rosie (played by Kim Dufrenoy), Gorme will talk with her glamorous visitor and delve into the roller coaster ride that marked both a distinguished acting career and an often turbulent personal life. A light lunch of finger sandwiches will follow the show.

The cast members weighed in with their thoughts about the star of the show.

“I think people will walk away with a different perception of Elizabeth Taylor. As she tells her story, you realize that she herself never took her stardom seriously. She felt fabricated by the movie studios, which staged her look as well as with whom she was seen. She never really wanted all the hoopla and drama that went with being a celebrity,” said Dufrenoy.

Added Rosie Flore, “Celebrities and icons are people too. They live, love, laugh and hurt just the way we all do.”

Portraying the former movie idol, Monde said, “Elizabeth Taylor represented glamour. She represented style; she represented Hollywood stardom. At times her personal life overshadowed her screen accomplishments, but in the end, after eight marriages and numerous life-threatening illnesses, Elizabeth Taylor was a survivor.”

Born in London in 1932 to American parents who took their St. Louis art dealership abroad, Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor returned with them to the United States at age 7, as the family fled the impending war in Europe. The Taylors resettled in Los Angeles, where a family friend suggested that the arrestingly attractive Elizabeth be given a screen test at a movie studio. Her radiant good looks and charisma captivated the camera lens, and, by the time she was 10, the fledgling actress was appearing in films at Universal, MGM and 20th Century Fox. After playing several small parts, she rocketed to stardom, playing opposite Mickey Rooney, in the 1944 hit “National Velvet.” Now a child star with a contract with MGM, young Elizabeth scored another big success for her role in “Little Women” in 1949.

Blossoming into a voluptuous-figured, violet-eyed beauty as she entered her twenties, Taylor soon found herself playing opposite some of Hollywood’s top leading men. She received Academy Award nominations for her roles in “A Place in the Sun” (1951), “Raintree County” (1957), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958), “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959) and “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967). She garnered two Oscars for her role as a call girl in “BUtterfield 8” (1960) and for her definitive roll as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 1966.

She also appeared famously in “Giant” with James Dean (1956) and with Richard Burton in “Cleopatra” in 1963 for which she was paid the then-stunning sum of one million dollars. Taylor became an international star and appeared solo on the cover of People Magazine 14 times.

Taylor was a significant voice in the battle against AIDS, helping to raise funds for research and playing a major role in focusing public opinion on the epidemic. For her tireless efforts, she was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001.

“It is bad enough that people are dying of AIDS,” she said, “but no one should die of ignorance.”

Performances of “The Elizabeth Taylor Story” will run from May 9 through July 17 and take place on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and select Fridays at 11:30 a.m. and on Sundays at 12:30 p.m. Advance reservations are required. Tickets are $48 general admission, $45 seniors. For more information or to make a reservation, call 631-689-5888 or visit www.wmho.org.

From left, Kyle Petty as Simon and Danny Amy as Jesus in a scene from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ Photo by Diane Pacifico Marmann

By Charles J. Morgan

There are two ways that “Jesus Christ Superstar,” currently in production at the CMPAC, may be the subject of a critique: the theatrical and the biblical. The work of Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music), who gave the theatrical world “Evita” and “Phantom of the Opera,” it is a rock opera with no recitatives — all song and some ancillary choreography.

Brilliantly arranged live music, actually in the pit, featured Matthew W. Surico directing and on keyboard, backed by Danny Passadino on second board, Diana Fuller and Laura Carroll on guitars, Rob Curry on bass, Jacob Krug on percussion, John Dumlao on violin with Jared Shaw on drums, Kevin Merkel on horn and the skilled fingers and embouchure of Gary Golden on trumpet. This crew had it all, superbly rehearsed, musically overwhelming; Surico had culled top talent.

Director Danny Amy had the leading role of Jesus of Nazareth. Tall and imposing with a lyrical tenor voice, he dominated the enemies and followers with gentility consonant with that of the Nazarene.

Two key roles were held by Jim Sluder as Judas and Debbie Hecht as Mary Magdalene. Sluder brought out the purely earthbound fanaticism. His intense drive to have Jesus proclaim himself as an earthly ruler will lead him to the betrayal. Sluder’s high-pitched intensity had him truly “eating up the scenery.” Hecht’s role was problematic. There is a scholarly trend currently that puts her extremely “close” to Jesus. Her plangent and echoing voice was near rapturous and brought off the humanity of Jesus, which was the essence of Rice and Webber’s efforts.

Four other roles were critical: Annas, played by Ralph D’Ambrose, Caiaphas by John DiGiorgio, Herod by Marc Andre Ausset and Pontius Pilate by Carl Tese. D’Ambrose was the mocking, teasing enemy of Jesus, a part he carried out with detailed efficiency. DiGiorgio, costumed in red with gold-tipped staff revealed a voice that approached a deadly basso at times and brought out his authority with booming, stentorian menace. In contradistinction to the others, Ausset captured the deviant, flighty Herod in a spangled costume and even danced with his female courtiers in a number designed to look like a Moulin Rouge group doing the Galop Infernal. Tese had a near basso voice that he used as an accent to his proclamations. He quite ably evinced the dangers of the middle-of-the-road lack of decision that marks Pontius Pilate’s fatal pronouncement.

In Act I, Hecht’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” was a relief from the raucous song and dance of the tormentors and followers, yet it evinced a deep sincerity and that underlying attraction that perhaps is attributed to the Magdalene without biblical evidence. “Pilate’s Dream” by Tese gave the audience a clear picture of Pilate’s hesitancy and his fear. Annas, Caiaphas, priests and the chorus perform “This Jesus Must Die,” a pounding, roaring declaration that made known the desires of the Sanhedrin more than obvious.

Act II is a passion play. The “Last Supper” made no effort to emulate da Vinci but was neatly executed with “Do This in Memory of Me,” outstripping the meaning of the first Eucharist. Ironically Webber’s artful tendency to use a rock cum Latin beat still paid off here. The confrontation of Christ with Pilate was done well except for the famous “What Is Truth?” which was delivered almost in passing when it deserved more of a showcasing.

Choreography by Jennifer Amy was conservative but effective. Set design by Danny Amy was very impressive. The dust and stones of first-century Jerusalem were done in detail with even an upstage center exit that gave a true three-dimensional air. Intricate lighting was the work of David John Serrecchia. He played it suggestively with head spots on Jesus looking like a halo. The finale was handled by the orchestra in a number entitled “John 19:41.” With Surico’s talent handling this one, it had all the sonority of a typical full-blast finale.

The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “Jesus Christ Superstar” through April 26. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.