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Theater

The entire cast of ‘Junie B. Jones, The Musical’ performs at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Jessie Eppelheimer

By Rita J. Egan

“Junie B. Jones, The Musical” opened at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport this past Saturday to an audience filled with young children eager to see their favorite literary characters in the flesh, and with a fun, lively show, the cast did not disappoint.

The musical, based on the children’s book series by Barbara Park, follows the adventures of Junie B. Jones as she tackles life’s little obstacles she finds along the way in first grade. Among the many challenges she faces are losing her best friend, Lucille, to twins Camille and Chenille, finding out she needs glasses, and being unable to participate in the big kickball tournament. However, with the help of her family and friends, and jotting everything down in her Top-Secret Personal Beeswax Journal, the endearing redhead figures everything out and learns that when life hands you lemons you make lemonade.

Kate Keating is youthful and charming as the main character, Junie. As lead on many of the numbers, her clear soprano voice is perfect for revealing the story through song, and she easily draws the young audience in as she talks directly to them in a number of scenes.

Playing the role of mother, as well as fellow first-graders Grace and Sheldon, is Suzanne Mason whose stage presence as always is a strong one. The actress especially shines as the awkward, stuffy-nosed Sheldon, and she elicited loud giggles during a scene where Sheldon, ready to play the cymbals at the kickball tournament, experiences stage fright. Mason convincingly delivers the song “Sheldon Potts’ Halftime Show” as if she were a child herself.

Kate Keating stars in Junie B. Jones The Musical at the Engeman Theater through March 6. Photo by Leila Scandar
Kate Keating stars in Junie B. Jones The Musical at the Engeman Theater through March 6. Photo by Leila Scandar

Joshua Cahn plays Mr. Scary, Daddy and Gladys Gutzman, and it’s as Gutzman, the cafeteria lady, that Cahn takes center stage. The way he delivers the role is reminiscent of Edna Turnblad from “Hairspray,” and with funny lines and a cute dance number with Keating, he received well-deserved laughs and giggles from the audience members.

Michael Verre tackles dual roles as Junie’s new friend Herb and one of the twins, Chenille. While Verre is sweet as Herb, particularly during the number with Keating, “You Can Be My Friend,” he is hilarious as Chenille, where he good-naturedly dons a wig and dress, and gracefully sings and dances along with Camille and Lucille during the number “Lucille, Camille, Chenille” to the delight of the audience.

Jennifer Casey as Camille and Jose, Allie Eibeler as Lucille and Lennie, and Alyson Clancy as May and Bobbie Jean handle their role changes seamlessly, and no matter what part they are playing, effortlessly add to the fun and high energy of the musical.

Written by Marcy Heisler, with music by Zina Goldrich, “Junie B. Jones” features upbeat, fun-filled numbers that are perfect for a musical geared toward young children. Stand out songs in the first act include the opening number “Top-Secret Personal Beeswax” where Junie tells the audience all about her new journal, and at the end of the act, “Now I See,” where, with the help of her friends, Junie begins to like her new glasses. Act 2 also features the heartwarming number “Writing Down the Story of My Life” that will inspire little ones to record their adventures.

Directed by Jennifer Collester Tully, “Junie B. Junes, The Musical” is a journal-worthy theater experience for the whole family. The set is colorful, the actors are energetic, and the story is a relatable one for children. Most of all, the delightful story will warm the hearts of young and old.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Junie B. Jones The Musical” through March 6. Tickets are $15 each. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

From left, Nancy Lemenager, Mickey Solis, Alet Taylor and Chris Kipiniak in a scene from ‘God of Carnage’ at the Engeman. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Charles J. Morgan

Four highly skilled Equity members starred equally in Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater’s production of “God of Carnage” that opened Friday, Jan. 21. This tightly written effort was written by Yasmina Reza in French and translated to English by Christopher Hampton. Direction was by Richard T. Dolce, who is also producing artistic director of the Engeman.

On a gleaming geometrical set with little depth and one, little used exit, the four characters — two sets of parents — meet to discuss in a calm, adult, logical manner the fact that the son of one of the couples had clobbered the other’s son with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. The concessive discussion gradually escalates into a full-scale riot of threats, name-calling, replete with blistering vulgarities, physical assaults and, amid slugs of Puerto Rican rum and (let’s admit it), a technically pointedly directed vomiting scene right down stage center! At the height of it husband goes after wife to make it an eight-way free-for-all.

Chris Kipiniak and Alet Taylor play the first couple, Alan and Annette. The “offended” pair are played by Nancy Lemenager and Mickey Solis as Veronica and Michael. The two couples are equally combative, each with their own strategies.

But what are the strategies? Reza wants to bring out the inner rage that is in us all exemplified by the four battlers. They appear to be happily married upper-middle-class types, but this is a veneer. The furnaces of hate, vindictiveness and self-righteousness not too gradually come to the surface, shattering the patina of class politeness and sociability. This tsunami of ill will is made out to be what is truly natural, all else being a glaze of neighborliness under which lies not a madeleine but deadly nightshade.

It is a compelling play as a vehicle for getting inside the head and heart of the audience. And this it accomplishes piercingly. The intra and the inter of family squabbling is not exactly the story line. Reza uses more than a scalpel to surgically excise and reveal to the light the inner workings of the human psyche … she wields a meat cleaver.

If it would be productive to prescind from criticizing the show and talk about the acting, let’s proceed with vigor! The quartet performed as a theatrical exemplar. Kipiniak as Alan, an attorney, is wrapped up in one thing only … his cellphone. Taylor, as his wife Annette, starts off as a loving monument to marriage and motherhood. Lemenager as Veronica and Solis as Michael have careers; she an art loving crusader for the unfortunates of Darfur, he a toilet bowl salesman. All deserve high praise for their acting skills especially in the manner in which they gradually get at each others’ throats. This invaluable skill even prevented the whole thing from degenerating unto pie-in-the-face slapstick.

Your scribe would not say that Dolce had an easy task in this no-intermission show. He had to infuse real life into all four, and to block them accordingly, a result he achieved masterfully not only with aplomb but with art.   

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “God of Carnage” through March 6. Tickets range from $59 to $64. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

The entire cast of ‘Little Red Riding Hood: A Tale of Safety for Today’ at Theatre Three. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

Making its world premiere on Theatre Three’s Mainstage in Port Jefferson, “Little Red Riding Hood: A Tale of Safety for Today,” is a musical gem. Written by Jeffrey Sanzel and Kevin F. Story and directed by Sanzel, this modern version follows the classic Grimm fairy tale closely but also uses the tale as a tool to teach “stranger danger” in an effective way. The six-member adult cast, coupled with a clever and witty script, come together to create a truly special production.

The story revolves around Amanda Sally Desdemona Estella Barbara Temple, whom everyone calls Little Red Riding Hood because she always wears a red cape. Asked by her mother to go check on her grandmother, Granny Beckett, she ventures out over the river and through the woods to bring her some Girl Scout cookies. Her twin sisters, Blanche and Nora, accompany her halfway there; but Little Red Riding Hood sends them back home because Nora has a cold. Now alone, she encounters a stranger (William “Billy” de Wolf) and commits a series of safety mistakes, putting her grandmother and herself in grave danger.

Steven Uihlein serves as narrator and does a wonderful job introducing each scene. Uihlein also steps in periodically to play numerous supporting roles, including a policeman and a mailman.

Jenna Kavaler is perfectly cast as Little Red Riding Hood and tackles the role with aplomb. Her character’s changes in mood from annoyed to scared to confident are compelling.

Jenna Kavaler and Hans Paul Hendrickson in a scene from Theatre Three's 'Little Red Riding Hood' [1/28/16, 11:01 AM] Heidi Sutton (leisure@tbrnewspapers.com): Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.
Jenna Kavaler and Hans Paul Hendrickson in a scene from Theatre Three’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood’
[1/28/16, 11:01 AM] Heidi Sutton (leisure@tbrnewspapers.com): Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

Melanie Acampora shines in the delicious role of Mrs. Temple, Little Red’s mother, who is so forgetful she can’t even remember her children’s names or who’s who.

Granny Beckett is superbly played by Andrew Gasparini, who clearly enjoys the role, poking fun at himself with an occasional deep note. His solo, “Who’s at My Door?,” is terrific.

Compared to the original tale, the wolf — played to the hilt by Hans Paul Hendrickson — is a relative pussycat, asking the audience if they have any steak or a bone, as he is always hungry. And his howl is not too shabby. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t eat Granny Beckett — she gets away.

Perhaps the most difficult role in the show is the one of twins Blanche and Nora, both played by Amanda Geraci. Geraci switches roles effortlessly, skipping on stage as Blanche, disappearing behind a wall and then returning with a shuffle as Nora, who is fighting a terrible cold. It’s not an easy task, but she pulls it off with perfection. Any minute audience members expect both of them to appear on stage — Geraci is that convincing.

Sanzel knows his target audience well and does an excellent job keeping the story moving along in a fun and captivating way. The action scenes are a nice touch, as the wolf chases Granny and Little Red around Granny’s house and is then chased by the entire cast.

In the last 10 minutes of the show, the actors discuss the safety mistakes that Little Red Riding Hood made, including talking to strangers, and what she should have done instead, a valuable lesson in a less than perfect world.

Teresa Matteson’s costumes are spot-on, from the head-to-toe fake fur on the wolf to Granny Beckett’s nightgown and shawl to Little Red’s cape. The musical numbers, accompanied on piano by the multitalented Steve McCoy, are the icing on the cake, especially “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Granny, What’s Happened to You?” Choreography by Sari Feldman is as top-notch as always.

The great story line, the wonderful songs and the important message it conveys makes this show a perfect reason to step in from the cold. The entire cast will be in the lobby after the show for photo-ops.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Little Red Riding Hood – A Tale of Safety for Today” for ages 3 and up through Feb. 20. Tickets are $10 each.

The season continues with “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” from March 5 to 26, followed by “Cinderella” from April 16 to June 11.  For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Ad in the Port Jefferson Echo: Jan. 13, 1927, page 2. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Athena Hall, now known as Theatre Three on Main Street in Port Jefferson, was a community hall from 1874, when it was built, until it was remodeled into the Port Jefferson Theatre in 1928 with raked seating for 473.

Until then, it was an open flat-floor area above Griswold’s machine shop, where vaudeville and minstrel shows, magic lantern shows, automobile shows, local plays and other events were held which usually included music and entertainment, and by the early 1900s, “moving pictures” as well.

Ad in the Port Jefferson Echo: Jan. 13, 1927, page 2. Photo from Beverly Tyler
Ad in the Port Jefferson Echo: Jan. 13, 1927, page 2. Photo from Beverly Tyler

Athena Hall was also used for the high school graduations, as a meeting house, election headquarters, dance hall, roller skating ring and by various organizations such as the Port Jefferson fire department which held a benefit show in 1927, featuring a one-act play, a movie and the Port Jefferson High School orchestra. Earlier the same year, Bridgeport radio station WICC held a two-night show featuring Charlie Cole and His Famous Radio Singing Orchestra, with music for dancing every night from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. There were even musical and Charleston dance contests during the auto show in January 1927.

About this same year, 12-year-old Blanche Carlton was asked to play the piano before the film that day and to accompany her close friend Veronica “Ronnie” Matfeld who would be singing. Blanche (Carlton) Tyler Davis is my mom and she told me this story over tea one day just recently.

Mom said, “I believe it was all arranged by Charlie Ruggles who got the director to run the skits at the theater before the movie. I think the director’s name was John. Ronnie was going to sing and I would play the piano. I could hear the tunes so I didn’t need the music and I could pick out other tunes. For the last piece Ronnie sang “Ave Maria” and when she reached the higher notes I was supposed to be at the top notes on the piano and then when Ronnie reached the highest note I was to reach for the notes beyond the piano and fall off the stool onto the stage — and I did.” That was the end of the skit. My mom Blanche and Veronica went off the back of the stage and the movie started.

Ruggles came to live in East Setauket in 1926 and purchased a property at 16 Old Coach Road. He maintained this East Coast residence until 1942.

Ruggles was probably best known for his performances as a character actor in films such as “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) with stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. In this crazy, hectic comedy film he played Maj. Applegate, a big-game hunter. Ruggles appeared in about 100 feature films over a more-than 50-year career.

He began on the stage and became well known for his work in radio and television.

Ruggle’s career included Long Island at the Players-Lasky studio (later to become Paramount Pictures), based in Astoria, where he made four silent films in 1915. His comedic talents also extended to his personal relationships and he made many friends, some famous in their own right, as detailed in the Brooklyn Daily Star for May 13, 1927.

“Due to the cordial relations existing between Charles Ruggles, popular comedian of ‘Queen High,’ at the Ambassador Theater, and Lieutenant Commander Byrd, Clarence Chamberlain, Bert Acosta and other famous airmen, the actor has erected a huge searchlight on his estate near East Setauket, L. I., to guide the flyers in their aerial navigation during the night hours.”

Ruggles didn’t spend a lot of time on Long Island. After all, he couldn’t be here and make all those films and be on the stage in New York as well as in radio and television. However, in a story headlined “Movie Star at East Setauket,” as detailed in the Mid-Island Mail, Oct. 1, 1936, he did come here often: “Charles Ruggles of the movies flew from the coast last week to spend several days at his home in East Setauket. The well-known comedian is a frequent visitor here.” Ruggles was also here enough to be included in the 1930 census for East Setauket along with his future wife Marion La Barba.

Many other vaudeville, minstrel and Broadway actors came to this area with its pleasant villages and picturesque harbors. Getting out of the noise and smells of the city was one reason to come to places like Port Jefferson and Setauket and the presence of local theaters, dance halls and entertainment venues just added to the appeal.

Beverly Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the Three Village Historical Society.

Samantha Rosario with the cast of ‘In the Heights.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

By Charles J. Morgan

In the theater when the aesthetic  and technical coalesce, it engenders a happy marriage of entertainment; a delight to the audience. Such a meld was achieved at Oakdale’s CMPAC’s production of “In the Heights” that opened to a sold-out house on Jan. 16.

The “Heights” are Washington Heights in Manhattan and those who live there are Puerto Rican and/or Dominican. They are poverty stricken but struggle to make the most of it. There is plenty of Spanish spoken and sung,  but the language that carries the show along is English in the form of rap. This trigger-tongue  delivery in rhyming (and sometimes not rhyming) doublets with occasional tercets is handled in a talk-sing manner best by the lead Joseph Gonzalez with surprising articulation. These high-speed passages are long, yet his strong tenor delivered them handily. They may have been enunciated with the speed of an M-4 with the safety off, but each “bullet” was clearly on target.

Set design was by Jenn Hocker. She constructed a suggestion of the Heights; its stores, apartments, streets, laundry, fire escapes and an upstage center suggestion of the Manhattan Bridge … geographically incongruent but piercingly pertinent. Lighting was handled by Allison Weinberger with remarkable success, even down to a dance number done in the dark with flashlights.

Which brings us to choreographer M.E. Junge. A mainstay on the Main Stage, “ME” is a highly talented terpsichorean artist. In this show she affected a sometimes rapid, sometimes nuanced evolution on the boards, replete with the staccato, offbeat Latin rhythms to a masterful degree.

Overall direction was by Michael Mehmet who was confronted with the daunting task of creating individuation to a massive cast as well as blocking each group and individual actor. His long list of talents enabled him to come through handsomely.

Ariana Valdes and Joseph Gonzalez in a scene from ‘In the Heights.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar
Ariana Valdes and Joseph Gonzalez in a scene from ‘In the Heights.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

A live eight-man pit band was headed by Anthony Brindisi with Laura Mitrache and Brindisi on keyboards, Patrick Lehosky on percussion, Brett Beiersdorfer on drums, Kevin Merkel on trumpet, Andrew Lenahan on reeds, John Snyder on bass and Conrad Scuza on trombone. This crew handled the complexities of the Latin rhythms most expertly. In the standard tempi of the “North American” songs they were great, but when it went “Caribbean” they were noteworthy.

Back on the boards. We have Leyland Patrick as Benny who with Gina Morgigno as Nina sing “Benny’s Dispatch” and “When You’re Home” with the whole company. In Act II they are back with “When the Sun Goes Down,” musical trifecta for them.

No review would be complete without mentioning the role of Daniela played to the hilt by Erica Giglio. Her enormous soprano, bursting with far-reaching range, brought down the house both with twin weapons of sarcastic spoken lines and dominant singing voice. One cannot neglect her talented dance abilities. She led the whole company in “Alabanza” and “Carnaval del Barrio” and shone in “No Me Diga” with Nina, Carla (Christina Martinez) and Vanessa (Samantha Rosario).

Kevin is a unique part. He is the aging paterfamilias and is gifted with a pleasing, plangent romantic tenor by Charlie Rivera. His “Inutil”  in Act I and “Atencion” in Act II were tributes to his voice capabilities. A whole page could be devoted to Ariana Valdes as Abuela. She is opera-trained and, with this background the powerful soprano in a solo number about a winning lottery ticket, brought a deserved standing ovation.

The Ensemble comprising Liza Aquilino, Savannah Beckford, Alex Esquivel, Kin-Zale Jackson, Matthew Kadam, Michelle LaBozzetta, Tori Lewis and Edward Martinez were the aesthetic armature of it all along with Luke Rosario as Sonny; Kyle Perry as Piragua Guy; Lori Beth Belkin as Camilla; and Paul Edme as Grafitti Pete. When the Playbill read “Company” this group filled the spot with expertise rarely seen in regional theater.

This effort actually was an example of what CMPAC is capable of theatrically. The amalgam of expert management and a high-grade talent puts this company in the foreground, downstage center, the house ringing with applause.

The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “In the Heights” through Feb. 7. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

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Elizabeth Ann Castrogiovanni as Elizabeth Fuller and Marci Bing as Bette Davis in a scene from ‘Me & Jezebel.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Michael Tessler

Bette Davis epitomized glamour, style, and sexiness for decades. And then, she didn’t. Consumed by controversy, she fell, like most stars do, only to land in a most unexpected place.

Elizabeth Ann Castrogiovanni as Elizabeth Fuller and Marci Bing as Bette Davis in a scene from ‘Me & Jezebel.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.
Elizabeth Ann Castrogiovanni as Elizabeth Fuller and Marci Bing as Bette Davis in a scene from ‘Me & Jezebel.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

Written by Elizabeth Fuller and directed by Bradlee Bing, Port Jefferson’s Theatre Three brings Bette Davis back to life for a roaring good time in their production of “Me and Jezebel,” a true story that shows a side of the Hollywood legend that very few have seen before.

Marci Bing is Bette Davis. Each of her steps is made with such dramatic purpose, each line delivered with diction so precise you could slice bread. You’d be hard-pressed to find an audience member who hadn’t convinced themselves they were actually watching “The Fifth Warner Brother” herself.

Bing, a longtime actress at Theatre Three, takes a lifetime of experience to the stage to deliver an unforgettable performance. She captures not the starlit diva of yesteryear, but rather the aged, raspy, resentful, yet regal nonetheless, 77-year-old Bette Davis.

This dynamic character would prove a serious challenge for even the most veteran performers, yet Bing delivers on all levels, leaving you desperately surfing through Turner Classic Movies afterwards to catch Bette Davis classics like “Of Human Bondage” and “Jezebel.” Her perfectly-paced performance will make you love her, hate her, then love her all over again.

On her opposite, is the relatable, and significantly tamer, Mrs. Fuller, the real-life writer who unexpectedly became hostess to one of Hollywood’s greatest and most controversial stars. Played by the extremely talented Elizabeth Ann Castrogiovanni, another Theatre Three veteran, this young mother finds herself face-to-face with her childhood hero. This true encounter is recreated perfectly on-stage, using a storytelling style slightly different from your usual stage production.

Castrogiovanni shines as she plays not just Mrs. Fuller, but also her stern husband, rambunctious son, and a southern evangelist determined to convert the often unholy Bette Davis. Her impressive balancing of these secondary characters will make you laugh, sneer, and sniffle. Each character takes on a life of its own and interacts flawlessly with Davis.

Perhaps my favorite part of Castrogiovanni’s performance was the reverence not just for Davis, but for her real life counterpart, Marci Bing. These two form a chemistry that brings the whole show together and brings the whole house down. Her tension, starstruck mannerisms, and admiration feel so authentic that it’s hard not to believe what you’re watching isn’t actually happening for the first time. Castrogiovanni could revisit the show in a few years and easily pick up the role of Bette Davis.

Much of the show’s success can be attributed to Mr. Bradlee Bing. His expert direction helped create an atmosphere perfect for shaping these characters. The simple set and subtle lighting helped bring the Fuller’s New England cottage to life. This provided excellent embellishments to an already marvelous performance.

If you know Bette Davis, you’ll love the show. If you’ve never heard of her, you’ll fall in love with her the night you see it.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Me & Jezebel” through Feb. 6. Contains adult themes and language. Tickets range from $15 to $30. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Film review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

By Michael Tessler

THE EXPERIENCE
To many, “Star Wars” is so much more than a film franchise. It’s an expansive sandbox filled to the brim with plastic action figures, toy lightsabers, X-Wing Lego sets, friendships and the imaginations of children everywhere. For me, it’s a return to a simpler time, one without bills, college, work or relationships. A time when my biggest concern was getting off the bus and running across the street to reenact epic lightsaber duels with my childhood best friend, Matthew.

This past Thursday, Matthew (now a soldier in the United States Army) and I reunited for one of the premiere showings of “The Force Awakens.” It had been over a decade since we attended a “Star Wars” film together. Mark Hamill could describe the experience best — “Everything has changed and nothing has changed.” We’ve both grown up. And yet you can’t help but feel six years old when the opening crawl appears and the John Williams score begins playing.

“We’re 32 years worth of excited,” one longtime fan said. “I’ve been to every ‘Star Wars’ premiere since the original film in 1977.” Standing next to him was his grandson. This was his first “Star Wars” premiere. For him, taking his grandson to the movie was the only thing more exciting than seeing the movie itself.

Some three decades ago a young boy by the name of Jeffrey Jacobs got to see “Star Wars” for the first time. Like many children, he was instantly hooked. Today he is the director and co-writer of “The Force Awakens” and the spiritual successor to George Lucas. He was given the impossible task: Make a sequel to the most popular film franchise ever made.

J.J. Abrams was our new hope. And he did not disappoint.

The crowd lines up at the AMC Loews in Stony Brook at the premiere of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ last Friday night. Photo by Michael Tessler
The crowd lines up at the AMC Loews in Stony Brook at the premiere of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ last Friday night. Photo by Michael Tessler

THE REVIEW — (SOME MINOR SPOILERS BELOW)
Part of what made the original “Star Wars” so special was the tangibility of it all. Tatooine felt real because it was real. Filmed in the desert sandscapes of Tunisia, you just knew as a child that somewhere that place existed. This sensation was replicated in “The Force Awakens” during our journey to Jakku, a scavenger’s paradise littered with wreckage from the Galactic Civil War. Seeing the massive hull of a Star Destroyer consumed by the sandstorms of Abu Dhabi was both powerful and an excellent metaphor. While the Empire may be long gone, its shadow remains a looming threat over the galaxy at large.

Our story picks up 30 years after “Return of the Jedi.” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing, and an evil faction known as The First Order has filled the vacuum the Empire left behind. In opposition is the Republic, a pacifist government, maintaining an uneasy peace with its inevitable enemy. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leads a small band of resistance fighters hoping to stop The First Order before it strikes.

Harrison Ford, the clear star of the film, reprises his role as the infamous smuggler Han Solo. He’s old, he’s grumpy and absolutely perfect in his portrayal of the scruffy-looking nerf herder. His banter with renegade storm trooper Finn (John Boyega) is one of the film’s highlights. Co-writer and “Star Wars” veteran Lawrence Kasdan masterfully creates fluid dialogue reminiscent of “Empire Strikes Back” and”Return of the Jedi,” finding the perfect blend between story, wit and comedy.

We also meet newcomer Rey (Daisy Ridley), an orphaned scavenger living in a hollowed out AT-AT on Jakku. She’s full of surprises and is the perfect successor to everyone’s favorite Alderaanian princess. Alongside her is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an ace pilot who leads a secret mission at the request of General Leia Organa. He’s accompanied by his trusty astromech BB-8, who’s a true marvel of engineering and a worthy addition to the droid duo of C-3PO and R2-D2.

Perhaps my favorite new cast member is Adam Driver (from “Girls”) who plays the unstable yet wildly entertaining Sith-in-training Kylo Ren. Compared to the refined Darth Vader, he makes for an absolutely terrifying villain. We’re also introduced to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), an entirely CGI supervillain whose background largely remains a mystery.

THE VERDICT
‘The Force Awakens” is an emotional cinematic experience unmatched in its ability to make you feel. Though at times the story feels rushed, it is a story worth telling. Plot lines may have been overused and recycled to the point of cliche (SPOILER ALERT: i.e., Death Star = Starkiller Base, intergalactic daddy issues, etc.), yet J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan compensate with a masterful screenplay and perfect casting.

From start to finish you’re on the edge of your seat. There’s no shortage of action and the cinematography is unrivaled. You’re so captivated by the story, effects, music and characters that you’ll overlook the film’s various (but forgivable) plot holes.

All in all this is the film fans have been waiting for. It is a worthy sequel to the most beloved franchise of all time and a perfect reminder of what “Star Wars” is all about. It’s about people, it’s about the underdogs, struggling to find a place in a galaxy of massive proportions. Because hey, if a simple farm boy from Tatooine can take on the whole Empire … then why can’t I?

Michael Tessler is a resident of Mount Sinai, a wannabe X-Wing pilot and an account executive at Times Beacon RecordNews Media.

Kate Keating and Austin Morgan in a scene from ‘Frosty.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

The holidays are upon us and that means it’s time for “Frosty” to come to life at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. Under the direction of Richard T. Dolce, the annual production, with a spirited cast of five adult actors, presents a lively show with song and dance that is perfect for its target audience.

Uber-talented Kate Keating reprises her role as Jenny, a young girl living in the town of Chillsville who loves the snow and loves winter. With the help of her mother, lovingly played by Courtney Fekete, Jenny builds a snowman who magically comes alive, and the duo are quickly best pals. Making his Engeman debut, Austin Morgan is a terrific Frosty and quickly connects with the audience, especially after he dances to “It’s Your Birthday.”

Jen Casey is the villain Ethel Pierpot, who wants to make Chillsville warm and snow-free so she can build a new factory. Her weather machine starts to make everything melt, including Frosty. With the help of the audience, Ethel Pierpot’s plan is foiled and, after a thrilling chase scene through the theater and an intense snowball fight, the machine is turned off.

From the very beginning the theatergoers become part of the show, thanks to the efforts of the narrator, Michael Verre, who guides the audience through the story with comedic genius. Verre draws the most laughs as he goes from being bundled up for winter to wearing less and less each time he makes an appearance on stage to demonstrate how warm Chillsville is getting.

Asking a full house last Sunday how to stop Ethel Pierpot from turning Frosty into a puddle of water, Verre received some creative suggestions, including have Frosty “go to a new town where there’s plenty of snow,” “put Frosty in an ice cream truck” and “reverse the machine to cold.” At the end of the show, all the children are asked to wish for snow to keep Frosty from melting and are rewarded for their efforts.

There was magic in the air at the Engeman Theater that morning — yes, a snowman came to life and, yes, it snowed inside the theater. But even more magical than that were the priceless expressions of joy, excitement and wonderment on the faces of the children in the audience.

Meet the cast after the show for pictures and autographs. An autograph page is conveniently located at the back of the program.

Take your child or grandchild to see “Frosty” and let them experience the magic of live theater. They will love you for it.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present “Frosty” through Jan. 3. Tickets are $15 each. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

Matthew W. Surico stars in a sensory-friendly performance of ‘My Christmas Elf: The Musical’ on Dec. 5 at 11 a.m. Photo by Kristen Digilio

By Melissa Arnold

For a child with special needs, the world can be overwhelming.

The things many of us take for granted — a trip to the mall, stopping for a coffee or going to a show — can be frightening and confusing to children with sensory processing issues.

A sensory processing disorder affects how someone experiences their surroundings. Their senses might be too dull, or heightened to the point of discomfort. The disorder, which impacts at least 1 in 20 children, according to the SPD Foundation, can vary widely from person to person. The foundation also reported that 80 percent of people with autism experience symptoms of SPD, though not all people with SPD are autistic.

One thing is shared among them, however: SPD can make life’s little pleasures nearly impossible, not just for those with the disorder, but for their families and caregivers as well.

This year, the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale has been hard at work adapting their children’s theater program for audiences with sensory difficulties.

Office manager Terry Brennan was inspired to bring sensory-friendly shows to the theater after reading about it in a magazine. Broadway theaters occasionally offer an adapted show, but CM is the only theater to do so regularly on Long Island.

Brennan, the former owner of the now-closed Airport Playhouse in Bohemia, is sympathetic to families and children with SPD. “It’s hard when you see a child in the theater who is extra vocal or likes to move around. It can be challenging for their families,” she explained. “We don’t want them to feel embarrassed. I thought, ‘Why don’t we do something, even if it’s just one performance per production?’”

Using brief instructional videos as a guide, Brennan educated the actors and theater staff on what makes sensory-friendly theater work.

“First, as people come in the door, there are sensory-friendly toys in the lobby, like Koosh balls and blocks, that the kids can play with while waiting for the show to start. They can bring the toys into the theater with them,” she said. “Families may also use cellphones or tablets with children who need distraction throughout the show, as long as the volume is turned off.

The key to an adapted production is to tone down elements of a show that may be disturbing to viewers with SPD. The house lights, which are normally off during a show, are kept on to prevent sudden darkness. Strobe lights, fog machines and most other special effects are not used. In addition, there is typically no intermission, as it can disrupt focus and peace for people with SPD. Most shows will run about one hour straight through.

The volume for sensory-friendly shows is lowered, and actors tend to avoid physical interaction with audience members unless directly approached first.

Beyond that, audience members are welcome to sing, dance, yell and move around to their hearts’ content. They can also meet cast members after the show if they’d like.

The theater held its first sensory-friendly performance, “Pinocchio Jr.,” in the summer of last year. At the time, there were just three families in the audience. But Brennan wasn’t measuring success by audience size, she said.

“To me, success is when a parent comes up to me and says, ‘Thank you, I didn’t feel like I had to leave or feel embarrassed at all.’ She could let her son stay and enjoy. It was wonderful.”

Today, sensory-friendly shows at the theater can bring in audiences of more than 100 people.

Kristen Digilio, director of the children’s shows and an occasional cast member, was working in the light booth during “Pinocchio.”

“Getting to see the kids waving, clapping and getting vocally involved was really exciting,” she recalled. “It was easy for them to get up and dance. We encourage audience participation in all of our shows, and this was special.”

She added that learning the basics of sensory-friendly theater was a breeze for the actors.

“It was really cool to learn about, because as a junior production, we were working with young actors,” she said. “There was even an actor in that show (‘Pinocchio’) with autism, so he was pumped for the changes and was really able to share why it made a difference.”

The theater is currently celebrating 38 years of children’s productions, and they plan to hold one sensory-friendly show per production from now on.

There are two upcoming sensory-friendly shows this season, including “My Christmas Elf” on Dec. 5 at 11 a.m. and “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley” on Feb. 27, 2016, at 11 a.m.

Sensory-friendly shows for “Schoolhouse Rock,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and “James and the Giant Peach,” in the spring and summer of 2016, will also be held. Dates for those shows will be announced soon.

The CM Performing Arts Center is located at 931 Montauk Highway in Oakdale. Admission for all children’s performances is $12. To learn more about the theater and its sensory-friendly productions, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

The entire cast of ‘Barnaby Saves Christmas’ at Theatre Three. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

By Heidi Sutton

During the month of December, Santa Claus has taken up residence at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson with Mrs. Claus and the whole gang for the theater’s 12th annual original production of “Barnaby Saves Christmas.”

The entire cast of ‘Barnaby Saves Christmas’ at Theatre Three. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.
The entire cast of ‘Barnaby Saves Christmas’ at Theatre Three. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

With the book by Douglas Quattrock and Jeffrey Sanzel and music and lyrics by Quattrock, this adorable children’s musical has become a yearly tradition for many local families.

Under the direction of Sanzel, an enthusiastic cast of nine adult actors whisk the audience away to the North Pole. It’s Christmas Day and Santa, his elves and reindeer are on their way to deliver presents to all the children. Realizing Santa has left behind one of the presents, a teddy bear, the littlest elf Barnaby convinces the littlest reindeer, Franklynne, to set off on an adventure “to save Christmas.” Along the way they meet a Jewish family and learn all about Hanukkah, and bump into an evil villain who’s trying to ruin Christmas — ultimately learning the true meaning of the holiday season.

Reprising his role as Barnaby, Hans Paul Hendrickson is delightful as an elf trying desperately to fit in. His solo, “Still with the Ribbon on Top,” is heartfelt and his duet with Sari Feldman as Franklynne, titled “I’m Gonna Fly Now,” is terrific. Feldman is wonderful, playing her character with the perfect level of spunkiness and determination. The audience connects with the two from the beginning.

Steven Uihlein and Phyllis March are Santa and Mrs. Claus and double as the Jewish aunt and nephew characters, Sarah and Andrew. Uihlein’s solo, “Within Our Hearts,” is superb and March’s rendition of “Miracles” is moving.

Although it is Santa the children look forward to seeing, it is S. B. (Spoiled Brat) Dombulbury who steals the show. The incomparable Brett Chizever tackles the role of the evil villain with utter glee. Just a big kid himself, Chizever is perfectly cast. This is a fun role and Chizever relishes in it. Dana Bush, as Irmagarde, his partner in crime, is also an audience favorite. The only original cast member in the show, Bush always gives a strong performance as the wannabe songwriter who follows her heart.

Marquez Catherine Stewart gives a superbly humorous performance as Sam, the head elf who is desperately trying to stay on schedule and keep everything running smoothly. Amanda Geraci and Jenna Kavaler in the roles of Blizzard and Crystal, respectively, are an amazing supporting cast.

Choreographed by Stewart, the dance numbers are fresh and exciting, incorporating the Whip and the Nae Nae as well as a tap-dancing number — “Like Me!” — that is top rate.

This sweet, cleverly written holiday musical is a perfectly wrapped package with a bow on top. The story line, the songs and the message are all timeless and wonderful. And the audience agreed, as the children — yes, the children — yelled, “Encore!” over and over at the end.

Stay after for photos with Santa Claus if you wish — the $5 fee will support the theater’s scholarship fund — and meet the rest of the cast in the lobby.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson, will present “Barnaby Saves Christmas” on Dec. 5, 12, 19 and 26, with a special Christmas Eve performance on Dec. 24. All shows begin at 11 a.m. Tickets are $10 per person. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

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