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Paul Stancato

‘This is the story

Of a love that flourished

In a time of hate

Of lovers no tyranny can separate

Love set into motion on the Nile’s shore

Destiny ignited by an act of war’

           — excerpt from Aida’s‘Every Story is a Love Story

By Heidi Sutton

The sands of ancient Egypt have blown into Northport as the Engeman Theater presents the timeless love story “Aida” through June 23. With music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, the musical is based on Giuseppe Verdi’s 19th-century opera of the same name.

The Egyptian pharaoh (Julius Chase) wishes to expand his reign beyond the Nile and orders Egyptian captain Radames to make war with neighboring Nubia. In his travels, Radames captures a dark and beautiful Nubian princess, Aida, and presents her as a gift to his fiancé of nine years, Princess Amneris. Over time he finds himself falling in love with Aida and begins to question the course his life should take.

When a plot orchestrated by Radames’ father Zoser (Enrique Acevedo) to poison the Pharaoh is brought to light and Radames and Aida’s forbidden love is discovered, Princess Amneris is tasked with deciding their fate. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that breaking ancient Egyptian laws never ended well.

Costumes by Kurt Alger are gorgeous, from Princess Amneris’ many gowns and headpieces to the Pharaoh’s royal garbs. The set, designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, is adorned with hieroglyphics, palm trees, an occasional stream and a rotating platform that is utilized in many ways including as a ship, a throne and a prison cell. 

Kayla Cyphers is perfectly cast as Aida, a enslaved princess stolen from her father, Amonsaro (Gavin Gregory) and trying to stay strong for her people. “Nubia will never die! Whether we are enslaved or whether we are far from our native soil, Nubia lives in our hearts. And therefore, it lives.” Regal and strong-willed, she commands the stage in every scene. 

We see the most change in Radames, expertly played by Ken Allen Neely, from a selfish cold-hearted man to a hopeless romantic who just wants to run away with his Nubian princess. 

Jenna Rubaii is divine as the materialistic Princess Amneris, “first in beauty, wisdom … and accessories,” and draws the most laughs — “Are you trying to get me drunk, Radames? You know it’s not necessary,” and special mention should be made of Chaz Alexander Coffin who plays Mereb, a Nubian slave. From his first appearance on stage Coffin quickly becomes an audience favorite. 

The musical numbers are the heart of the show, from the highly charged dance numbers, “Another Pyramid” and “Dance of the Robe,”  to the fun fashion show “Strongest Suit” and the romantic duets “Written in the Stars” and “Elaborate Lives.” 

Director and choreographer Paul Stancato has such a wondrous and mysterious time period to work with and he takes full advantage of it, creating an exciting and colorful show  with a first-rate cast of actors-singers-dancers and live band to produce a wonderful evening of live theater.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Aida” through June 23. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission. Tickets range from $73 to $78 with free valet parking. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro/ John W. Engeman Theater

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

The cast of 'Grease'. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Melissa Arnold

When it comes to musical theater, few shows are more beloved with theatergoers than “Grease.” Can you blame us, though? It’s an old, familiar story: Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Things get messy.

Put simply, it’s a snapshot of teenage relationships that’s almost universally relatable. And thanks to the 1978 film adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, “Grease” is permanently cemented into the hearts of so many.

From left, Madeleine Barker (as Rizzo), Laura Helm (as Marty), Liana Hunt (as Sandy) and Sari Alexander (as Frenchy).

All this makes it the perfect summer kickoff for the John W. Engeman Theater’s 11th season. For those of you who are not familiar with the plot, “Grease,” written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, follows the Rydell High School Class of 1959 through the highs and lows of hormone-fueled infatuation.

At the center of it all is Sandy Drumbrowski (Liana Hunt), the naïve, charming new girl in town who catches the eye of notorious bad boy Danny Zuko (Sam Wolf). While the two develop a whirlwind summer romance, the transition back to Rydell High is a tough one. Peer pressure, social stereotypes and the desire to fit in pull Danny and Sandy in different directions while sending ripples of tension through their circle of friends. While it sounds like a lot of drama, the show is full of fast-paced banter and folly that will keep you laughing and singing along until the end.

Director Paul Stancato leads a cast of theater veterans in a well-polished performance that’s hard to criticize. Such high quality is what you can expect to see regularly at the Engeman.

Liana Hunt plays Sandy in a way that’s down to earth and totally believable. Her voice is strong without being over the top. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” allows her to shine on her own, which is appreciated in a show mostly comprised of duets and chorus numbers.

From left, Chris Collins Pisano (as Roger), Sam Wolf (as Danny), Chris Stevens (as Kenickie), Zach Erhardt (as Doody) and Casey Shane (as Sonny) perform ‘Greased Lightnin’.

As Danny, Sam Wolf builds fantastic chemistry leading the rebellious Thunderbirds. The first words in the iconic “Summer Nights” will leave no doubt about why Wolf got the role — he can sing, and that same passion translates to everything he does on stage.

But this production wouldn’t be what it is without the phenomenal supporting cast, who are every bit as talented as Hunt and Wolf. In fact, they nearly stole the show.

The T-birds (Zach Erhardt, Chris Collins-Pisano, Chris Stevens and Casey Shane) are hysterically funny. Their antics will make you laugh out loud, especially when they briefly dip into the audience. They’re also incredible dancers, pulling off flips and jumps like they’re nothing.

The Pink Ladies (Hannah Slabaugh, Laura Helm, Madeleine Barker and Sari Alexander) are a force of their own as well — each one stands out from the group with individuality and assertiveness. Of particular mention is Barker, who plays the cynical Betty Rizzo with tons of natural swagger, and Slabaugh, who you can’t help but love during “Mooning,” a duet her character Jan performs with Roger (Collins-Pisano).

From left, Madeleine Barker (as Rizzo), Laura Helm (as Marty), Liana Hunt (as Sandy) and Sari Alexander (as Frenchy).

The efforts of choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo and dance captain Tim Falter have definitely paid off in this production. Dancing is central to the plot in “Grease,” and the cast’s quick, complicated routines are worth shouting over. From the opening “Grease Is the Word” to the dance contest during “Born to Hand Jive,” they should be commended for both their skill and the stamina required to pull off the show.

And while you can’t see the band at the Engeman — they are tucked neatly under the stage — their rock ‘n’ roll carries the whole show. In fact, if not for their credits in the program, you might think the music was prerecorded. The six-man ensemble is led by conductor/keyboardist Alec Bart.

Costume designer Matthew Solomon does a fantastic job transporting us back to the ’50s. The dresses worn by the girls at the school dance are gorgeous and colorful, and their twirling skirts are perfect for all the dancing in that scene.

Liana Hunt (as Sandy) and Sam Wolf (as Danny) in a scene from ‘Grease’.

The set, designed by Stephen Dobay, is simple but functional. The stage is flanked by generic buildings on either side, but there are also a set of risers leading up to a second level. This area was transformed throughout the performance last Saturday night and allowed for multiple conversations or settings to occur at once. It works especially well as a stage for the school dance.

Overall, this production is exactly what you’d expect to see from such a classic show — there are no surprises, and that’s a good thing. Find your seats early to relax with a drink while listening to top hits from the ’50s, and make sure you stay through the curtain call for a brief, fun sing-a-long with the cast.

Runtime is 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Be aware that strobe lights and haze are used throughout the show.

See “Grease” now through Aug. 27 at the John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport. Tickets range from $73 to $78 and may be purchased by calling 631-261-2900 or by visiting www.engemantheater.com. Free valet parking is available.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro

Liana Hunt as Emma Carew and Nathaniel Hackmann as Henry Jekyll in a scene from 'Jekyll & Hyde' at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Victoria Espinoza

For theatergoers with one personality or more, the newest production at the John W. Engeman Theater has something for all. The Northport playhouse kicked off its seven-week run of “Jekyll and Hyde The Musical” this past weekend to a full house, and the multiple Tony-nominated production felt alive as ever on the Engeman stage.

Led by director Paul Stancato, who also serves as choreographer and has been at the helm of several other shows at the Engeman theater, the classic tale of Dr. Henry Jekyll and his doomed science experiment draws you in from the moment you meet the leading man.

The show starts with a stiff rejection, coming from the hospital board that refuses to support Jekyll’s experiments to understand why man is both good and evil and to separate the good from the evil. However, the doctor does not take defeat lying down and eventually decides to make himself the patient in the experiment. As the name of the show suggests, soon we have two leading men fighting for the spotlight, as Jekyll’s potions give birth to Edward Hyde, the purest projection of evil who lives inside Jekyll.

Above, Nathaniel Hackmann as Henry Jekyll In his laboratory in a scene from ‘Jekyll & Hyde.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

Jekyll and Hyde are played to perfection by Nathaniel Hackmann. As soon as you hear him sing a soft and sad goodbye to his dying father in the first scene, you can’t help but be excited to hear him sing an evil tune, as his voice seems to have no limits. Hackmann makes you feel safe and happy as he sings “Take Me As I Am,” with his betrothed, Emma Carew, played by Liana Hunt, and then just a few songs later sinister seems much more fun as Hackmann belts his way through “Alive” and becomes Hyde.

Not only does Hackmann transport you through love, torment, sin and more with his voice, but he also convinces with his body language. He lurks and awkwardly shuffles across the stage as the murdering Hyde, while embodying the perfect gentleman when playing Jekyll. It becomes hard not to root for the antagonist when it’s so fun to watch his every move on stage.

Of course, Hackmann is not the only star of the show. Caitlyn Caughell plays a seductive yet vulnerable Lucy Harris, a lady of the night who entices both Jekyll and Hyde. Harris’ formidable voice is the perfect partner to Hackmann’s, and the moments featuring the couple are among the most enchanting, including the tragic love song “Dangerous Game.” It’s also not hard to understand why both the successful doctor and the mysterious Hyde enchant the young wench when Hackmann plays both — can you blame her?

Caitlyn Caughell as Lucy Harris and Nathaniel Hackmann as Edward Hyde in a scene from ‘Jekyll & Hyde.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

Tom Lucca, who plays John Utterson, Jekyll’s loyal friend and lawyer, is also worth mentioning. Scenes where the two share the stage are very entertaining. The ensemble cast also has some stand-out moments, and it starts at the beginning with the hospital board all denying Jekyll. Each board member is worth focusing on for a minute, especially Joey Calveri as Lord Savage, whose facial expressions in every scene bring added fun to the stage. Ensemble songs like “Façade” and “Girls of the Night” highlight the singing strength of the cast.

The set, designed by Stephen Dobay, helps make Hyde even more menacing, with several long screens that cast Hyde as a prowling red shadow on the hunt. Each screen also has two empty frames hanging from the top, subtly reminding the audience of Jekyll’s original inspiration of each person having two sides in them: good and evil. And, of course, the orchestra, under the direction of Kristen Lee Rosenfeld, brings the pop rock hits of the original score to life and makes the evil tunes of the show all the more fun.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Jekyll and Hyde The Musical” through April 30 with Thursday, Friday and Saturday night shows, as well as afternoon shows on Saturdays and Sundays. Valet parking is available. Tickets range from $71 to $76. To order, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

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