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theater review

Katherine McLaughlin and Sean Yves Lessard in a scene from the show. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Melissa Arnold

I never thought I’d cheer for a murderer. Nor did I ever imagine laughing so much at a show about murder. There’s a first time for everything, I guess.

Directed by Trey Compton with musical direction by James Olmstead, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” has a deceptively simple title, one that probably makes you think of a classic, suspenseful whodunit. What you get instead is a fast-paced, absurdly funny comedy that will keep you laughing from start to finish.

Based on the 1907 Roy Horniman novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal,” the Tony Award-winning musical, with book by Robert L. Freedman and music by Steven Lutvak, ran on Broadway from 2013 to 2016.

Danney Gardner in a scene from the show. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

As the show begins, we find ourselves looking in on a young man feverishly writing his memoirs from a London jail cell, seeking to preserve his story if he should face execution the next day. That man, Montague “Monty” Navarro, is the newly minted Earl of Highhurst, and his rise to nobility wasn’t exactly noble. Two years earlier, while grieving his mother’s death in 1907, an impoverished Monty learned that she was related to the powerful, aristocratic D’Ysquith family. The D’Ysquiths, however, disowned her when she chose to marry a commoner. Despite this, Monty was the ninth descendant in line to become the earl.

Monty hoped his newfound lineage would impress Sibella Hallward, the posh and sultry woman he loves, but she ultimately abandoned him to marry a wealthy man. With no one else to turn to, he attempted to make inroads with his new relatives, and in the process had a sinister thought: What if he killed the D’Ysquiths? What if he could become the earl? The show follows Monty through flashbacks of the past two years as he eliminates his cousins in a variety of zany and unexpected ways.

Wojcik/Seay Casting consistently assembles stellar casts for the Engeman’s shows, and this one is no exception, featuring a host of Broadway and national theater vets. Sean Yves Lessard plays Monty, and he is earnest, polished and entirely believable. You’ll empathize with his poverty and join him on an emotional roller coaster as he sneakily offs the D’Ysquiths. Beyond that, Lessard’s smooth, controlled vocals are a real treat, especially in the waltzing “Poison in My Pocket” and steamy “Sibella.”

What makes “Gentleman’s Guide” stand out is that eight of the D’Ysquith cousins are played by the same actor, Danny Gardner. He makes the transition from young to old, gay to straight and even male to female characters look entirely effortless. Each D’Ysquith has his or her unique quirks, and Gardner is so astoundingly versatile that you almost won’t believe it’s the same person. He also deserves accolades for impossibly fast costume changes and impressive tap dancing.

A torrid love triangle sits at the heart of Monty’s escapades. Despite her marriage to a wealthy man, Sibella (Kate Loprest) still comes knocking, especially as Monty ascends the line of succession. At the same time, Monty quickly finds himself falling for his distant cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (Katherine McLaughlin), a good-hearted and pious lady that just wants to love and be loved.

Loprest makes the self-absorbed Sibella almost lovable with charming wit and confidence. She’s also a delight to listen to, a crystal clear soprano that’s strong without being overpowering. McLaughlin’s Phoebe is demure and sincere, a perfect foil to Sibella. She shines in songs like “Inside Out,” and the trio’s performance in “I’ve Decided to Marry You” is one of the show’s highlights.

Scene and props designer Nate Bertone deserves particular mention for his creative work on the detailed, Edwardian set of “Gentleman’s Guide.” To help audience members keep track of the D’Ysquiths, the stage is framed with massive portraits of Gardner in his various incarnations. Spotlights and laser X’s on those portraits will alert you to who’s still kicking and who’s been taken out. The effect is a lot of fun and adds to the show’s overall silliness.

The bottom line: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is hilarious from the first line, and so enjoyable that I’d love to see it again. The show isn’t gory, but there’s plenty of innuendo to go around, and there are occasional loud noises and use of light fog throughout.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” through April 28. Runtime is approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. 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.

By Melissa Arnold

Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do children die? Is there a God, and does He really answer prayers? Plenty of us grapple with those questions from time to time, and the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts has tracked down the Big Man Himself to get some answers in the one-act comedy, “An Act of God.” The show opened last Saturday.

The 90-minute play is a stage adaptation of “The Last Testament: A Memoir,” a satirical book written by “God,” aka David Javerbaum. Javerbaum has won more than a dozen Emmy Awards over the course of his comedy career, most of them earned as the head writer for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” He’s also the voice behind the snarky Twitter account @TheTweetOfGod, which has amassed 5.6 million followers  – no pun intended. 

“An Act of God” isn’t your typical Broadway show with a neatly packaged storyline. Instead, it’s meant to treat audiences to a live and in-person encounter with God (Evan Donnellan), who’s not exactly the embodiment of divine goodness. In fact, God is fed up with the way He has been misrepresented by organized religions and has come to Broadway to set the record straight. He’s even got a new and improved set of commandments to share, among them “Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate.”

Donnellan oozes charisma and command as God, who is at once charming and narcissistic. His jokes are shocking and laugh-out-loud funny, but Donnellan creates striking dissonance during his character’s pessimistic rants and self-absorbed navel gazing. He also deserves serious kudos for the amount of preparation involved for this show – the majority is a monologue.

Supporting God’s appearance are his faithful archangels, Gabriel (Scott Hofer) and Michael (Jordan Hue). Hofer’s Gabriel is obedient but goofy, adding his own comedic touches as the show’s Bible reader and peanut gallery. In contrast, Michael is often sullen as he wanders through the crowd, asking God those tough questions and seeming unsatisfied with His answers. The trio has great chemistry, and watching God try to keep the two of them in line is a lot of fun.

It’s obvious that director Christine Boehm and the cast have taken some liberties with the original script, but that’s a good thing. Early in the show, they make fun of their own decor – it seems they’ve decided to leave much of the set for the children’s theater production of “Aladdin Jr.” in place, since the shows run concurrently until Feb. 24. They also reference the ticket prices, Smithtown and Evan Donnellan’s looks and personality, as well as the original Broadway production’s lead, well-loved “Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons. 

Be prepared, God is always watching – He’ll make a point of drawing attention to and potentially embarrassing random audience members during the show. Don’t take it personally.

The bottom line is that while the cast is very talented and the special effects are cool, this show is simply not for everyone. The script aims for satire but often either misses the mark or drifts into territory that’s just offensive. 

Those with deeply rooted religious beliefs might want to give this one a pass, unless you can handle 90 minutes of unapologetic cynicism and crude blasphemy. But if you keep an open mind and a sense of (twisted) humor, you might feel inspired by the show’s overarching message that you should believe in yourself. Or you might feel nothing at all. Your mileage may vary.

See “An Act of God” through March 3 at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown. Tickets are $38 adults, $34 seniors, $25 students. Contains strong language, references to drugs and strong sexual content throughout. For tickets and info, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org. 

All photos by Courtney Braun

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 Heidi Sutton

“Do you trust me?” It is a question Aladdin asks Jasmine several times during the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts’ current production of Disney’s “Aladdin Jr.” but one that I ask you now. If you do, then grab your children and run, don’t walk, to see this show. They (and you) will love every minute of it.

Based on the popular Disney animated film with music by Alan Menken and book by Chad Beguelin, the show whisks audiences away to the fabled city of Agrabah where the evil Jafar (Alex Mahr), advisor to the Sultan (Logan O’Leary), and his parrot Iago (Max Lamberg), seek to retrieve a magic lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders. They enlist the help of a street rat named Aladdin (Cole Napolitano), a “diamond in the rough,” who becomes trapped in the cave. When he finds the lamp and polishes it, a magical genie (Ryan Romanelli) appears and grants him three wishes.

After tricking the genie in getting him out of his predicament, Aladdin uses his first wish to become a prince in order to woo the lovely Princess Jasmine (Priscilla Russo). When “Prince Ali” arrives at the palace, Jafar recognizes Aladdin and has him thrown in the dungeon. When his friends Babkak (Michael Puglisi), Omar (Jonathan Setzer) and Kassim (Matt Peluso) try to rescue him, they end up in the dungeon also. Aladdin uses his second wish to set them free. With only one wish left, Aladdin must choose between benefiting himself or doing what is morally right.

Expertly directed by Courtney Braun, the musical features a cast of 20 uber-talented actors ranging in age from 10 to 16 who all do a fantastic job.

From the very first scene when the genie appears on stage to introduce the other characters in “Arabian Nights,” the audience is mesmorized. 

The script is clever and funny and the musical numbers are delightful. Along with the familiar —“A Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali,” “A Whole New World”— there are fresh new songs including “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim” and “These Palace Walls.”

The impressive set, designed by Tim Golebiewski, features panels on either side of the theater that rotate to reveal a marketplace, a cave full of jewels and a palace; and the Arabian costumes, designed by Chakira Doherty, are just beautiful. Images on the back wall of the stage constantly change to show different scenes of the city, and a video played during “A Whole New World” gives the illusion that the carpet is actually flying.

SPAC has gone all out with this production, a rarity with children’s theater, and has produced something magical. Don’t miss this one. Trust me.

Running time is 1 hour and 15 minutes with intermission and booster seats are available. Costumes are encouraged. Stay after the show for a meet and greet with Aladdin, Jasmine and Genie in the lobby.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East Main St., Smithtown will present Disney’s “Aladdin Jr.” through Feb. 24. Children’s theater continues with “The Little Mermaid Jr.” from March 16 to April 28 and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” from July 13 to Aug. 18. All seats are $18. For more information or to order, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

Photos by Courtney Braun and Cassiel Fawcett

By Heidi Sutton

The holiday season has arrived at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, and while adults can enjoy a performance of “White Christmas,” younger audiences can go see Ken Ludwig’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The adorable show runs through Dec. 30.

Directed by Christine Boehm, the play opens on a snowy Christmas Eve with Uncle Brierly (Tom Catt) reading Clement C. Moore’s classic poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to the audience. He gets as far as, “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse” only to be interrupted by Amos the mouse (Jae Hughes) who is in fact stirring, cookie dough that is, to make cookies for Santa in hopes that he’ll show up this year.

Turns out that Amos and his best human friend Emily (Lorelai Mucciolo) were left off the Naughty or Nice list last year by Santa and didn’t receive any presents.

As they lament over their misfortune, an elf named Calliope (Lisa Naso) arrives to investigate. Seems a lot of children were left off the list last year, and Calliope enlists the help of Emily and Amos to prevent this from happening again. With only a few hours left until Christmas Day, the three set off on an airplane to the North Pole on a quest to find this year’s Naughty and Nice list and to save Christmas. When they arrive at Santa’s workshop, they discover that a former elf, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Catt), with the help of his sidekick Mulch (Anthony Panarello), sold the children’s Christmas list to retailers last year and plans to do it again this year. Can they be stopped in time?

Hilarity ensues with a chase scene through the audience, a surprise appearance from Amos’ brother (the incredible Hughes in a dual role), an exciting sword fight, a special visit by Santa and even a little snow in the theater at the end with the underlying message to make life an adventure.

With a running time of approximately one hour with a 15-minute intermission, this action-packed family-friendly show is the perfect first introduction to live theater. Booster seats are available. Meet the cast in the lobby after the show for a holiday photo.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East Main St., Smithtown will present Ken Ludwig’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” through Dec. 30 followed by Disney’s “Aladdin Jr.” from Jan. 12 to Feb. 24. All seats are $15. For more information or to order, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org

From left, Emily Edwards, Michael Mingoia, Adriana Scheer and Ryan Cavanagh in a scene from ‘White Christmas’

By Heidi Sutton

Fans of Irving Berlin are in for a treat this holiday season as the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts presents its latest offering, the stage version of “White Christmas.”

With book by David Ives and Paul Blake, the musical features 17 songs written by Berlin including what he considered his greatest song ever, “White Christmas.” Sung by Bing Crosby, the song would receive an Academy Award in 1943 for Best Original Song and sell more than 50 million copies, making it the best-selling Christmas song of all time.

A scene from ‘White Christmas’

Based on the classic 1954 film that starred Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, the musical centers around Bob Wallace (Michael Mingoia) and Phil Davis (Ryan Cavanagh), World War II veterans who team up to become a successful song and dance act, even making appearances on the Ed Sullivan show.

Always on the lookout for new talent, they head to a nightclub to see the Haynes sisters, Betty (Emily Edwards) and Judy (Adriana Scheer) perform. While Phil and Judy hit it off right away, Bob and Betty need a little more time.

When Bob and Phil follow Betty and Judy to their next gig at the Columbia Inn in Pinetree, Vermont, they discover that the ski lodge is owned by their former general, Henry Waverly (Eugene Dailey). When the housekeeper, Martha Watson (Anne Marie Finnie) informs them that the inn is in financial straits, they decide to stage a benefit show in the barn on the property on Christmas Eve. Will everything go on as planned?

Directed by Ronald Green III, the 27-member cast transports the audience to the 1950s and does an excellent job portraying the story through song and dance.

Emily Edwards and Adriana Scheer perform ‘Sisters’

With choreography by M.E. Junge, Edwards and Scheer shine in “Sisters,” Finnie, Edwards and Scheer’s “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” is delightful while Mingoia delivers a beautiful version of “White Christmas” at the very beginning of the show. As a special treat, 10-year-old Cordelia Comando, in the role of  the general’s 9-year-old niece, belts out a rendition of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” that will take your breath away. There are big tap dance numbers also like “Happy Holidays/ Let Yourself Go,” “I Love a Piano” and the rousing “Blue Skies” that are a joy to watch.

The various sets are impressive as well, from a night club to the lobby of the inn to a barn, and the costumes designed by Green, from the army uniforms to the glittery gowns are top notch. The show closes with a “White Christmas” sing-along sure to get one in the holiday spirit. Running time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East Main St. Smithtown kicks off its 17th season with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas The Musical” through Dec. 30. Tickets are $38 adults, $34 seniors, $25 students. For more information or to order, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

Photos by Courtney Braun

The cast of ‘Man of La Mancha’

By Rita J. Egan

The cast and crew of John W. Engeman Theater’s “Man of La Mancha” have set off on a quest resulting in a production worthy of Broadway. The musical opened at the theater Sept. 13, and on the night of the press opening, Sept. 15, theatergoers filled the venue looking forward to the reincarnation of the perennial favorite.

“Man of La Mancha” debuted off-Broadway in 1965 and went on to win five Tony Awards. Written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the Northport version is masterfully directed by Peter Flynn.

Taking its cue from literature, the musical takes the story of “Don Quixote” written by Miguel de Cervantes and sets it to music. In the play, which takes place during the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 16th century, Cervantes is in prison waiting for his trial. Upon his arrival, his fellow prisoners try to take his belongings, including the manuscript of the story he is writing. 

Richard Todd Adams (Don Quixote) and Carlos Lopez (Sancho Panza) in a scene from ‘Man of La Mancha’

Following the tradition of prisoners putting newcomers on trial, Cervantes is charged with being an idealist, and a mock trial begins. The writer, in an attempt to defend himself, has his fellow prisoners play the characters in “Don Quixote.” Through their re-creations, audience members meet Alonso Quijano, the aging man who believes he’s a knight-errant and calls himself Don Quixote. Quijano and his squire Sancho Panza embark on a journey where they meet an array of characters including Aldonza the bitter serving woman and prostitute at an inn who Quixote envisions as a virtuous lady.

Michael Bottari and Ronald Case have gone above and beyond with the detailed set design of a dungeon on the Engeman stage, and Kurt Alger has done an excellent job with costumes, especially with the Knight of Mirrors’ gear in the second act. Choreographed by Devanand Janki, the musical contains high-energy dance numbers that complement the stellar production. The actors and the orchestra, under the musical direction of Julianne Merrill, are in top form during every number.

Richard Todd Adams as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote is charismatic as the main character who takes his fellow prisoners on a fictional journey. His deep, rich vocals are perfect on every song. When he sings “Dulcinea,” upon meeting Aldonza and sees her as a pure, good woman, his voice has the potential to make many swoon. He also stops the show with his delivery of “The Impossible Dream.”

Janet Dacal plays Aldonza with the right amount of sullenness but yet perfectly portrays the character’s softening later in the musical. Her singing, especially her solos, “What Does He Want of Me?” and “Aldonza” are filled with power and emotion.

Carlos Lopez is a delightful and charming Sancho Panza and lends a good amount of comedic relief including during his solos “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.”

Janet Dacal (Aldonza) and Carlos Lopez (Sancho Panza)

All of the ensemble members do a fantastic job, and each has time to shine in the spotlight. Morgan Anita Wood, Garfield Hammonds and Phyllis March are wonderful during “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” Deven Kolluri does a great job as the cynical Duke and Dr. Carrasco. In the prison scenes where he plays Duke, he portrays the character’s disdain for Cervantes perfectly. His vocals are strong when he joins Wood, Hammonds and March on “We’re Only Thinking of Him.”

Joshua Wayne Oxyer, Cody Mowrey, Juan Luis Espinal, Enrique Cruz DeJesus and Diego Gonzalez as the Muleteers sound fantastic together on the number “Little Bird, Little Bird.” Bruce Winant easily goes back and forth from the tough governor to the kind innkeeper, and Mowrey garners some laughs as the barber who tries to understand Quixote’s delusions. 

The story of “Don Quixote” and “Man of La Mancha” is more than a tale of a man gone mad battling a windmill he thinks is a giant. It’s about seeing the good in people and the world even when strife seems to prevail. Cervantes and Don Quixote look to escape the realities of life by searching for the good in all things and people, and their attitudes are contagious. It’s obvious the cast gets this message as they seamlessly go from conveying doubtfulness over their new dungeon mate to showing hope in the impossible dream by the end. For theater lovers on a quest for a musical that has it all, the Engeman’s “Man of La Mancha” is a dream.

The John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, located at 250 Main St, Northport presents “Man of La Mancha” through Oct. 28. Running time is approximately 2.5 hours with a 15-minute intermission and tickets are $73; $78 for Saturday evening performances. Free valet parking is available. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro

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