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From left, Ray Palen, Gabriella Stevens and Mikal Oltedal in a scene from ‘The Man Who Came To Dinner.’ Photo by Michael Leinoff

By Charles J. Morgan

In the sometimes arcane lexicon of the theatah there is the term “chestnut.” It simply refers to a good or actually immortal play that is done every season everywhere. It has long-standing universal appeal, and is audience friendly even when translated into Gheg, Tusk or Urdu. Such a play is George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” currently playing at the Minstrel Players’ venue in Northport for a limited run.

Set in 1939, the script is literally flooded with references associated with that era …. Haile Selassie, John L. Lewis, “Bubu” (Mahatma Gandhi), Charles Ross and even Noel Coward with a fast-paced output, wise-cracking, display of humor.

Director Ray Palen starred as the impossibly rude Sheridan Whiteside, a cultured, scholarly writer, pundit and author. Homer described Odysseus as speaking “winged words.” Whiteside’s words are winged too … laden with nuclear warheads. He demolishes any opposition with piercing, barbed onslaughts. Palen discharged his role as Whiteside expertly, consistently — like a lovable Falstaff. He is very seldom offstage and manages the signature wheelchair right up to the edge of the apron.

Michelle Torres plays Maggie Cutler, Whiteside’s long-suffering but capable secretary. Torres handled this role with called-up on professional aplomb even in a scene where she “quits” her job. Here she is still underplaying it, but with steely, scarcely concealed anger.

The Minstrels’ dynamic veteran character actress Maris Kastan is Miss Preen, Whiteside’s nurse. She plays out the dutiful nurse like someone hit with a baseball bat, but can’t figure out what hit her. That is until she dramatically resigns with a downstage center speech about going to work in a munitions factory. Kastan, together with Palen, is an outstanding example of getting into the essence of a role, making the acting real.

Banjo, a true slapstick role, is managed neatly by Ralph Carideo. He really eats up the scenery, combining an earthy Rabelaisian Vaudeville humor, delivered with punch and verve. Then we have Alicia James as glamor girl movie star Lorraine Sheldon. She is in love with one person: herself. Every line and move is promotional of a solitary object named Lorraine. She is frivolous, sexy, with a virtual murder streak … all of it with a compelling smile. This is not an easy role, but James handled it with perfection.

A triple role was held by Brian Hartwig. He was the eccentric Professor Metz in topee, tropical jacket and spectacles who delivers a cockroach colony. (Yes, they do eventually escape.) He has a  bit part as Expressman, but bursts into a key role as Beverly Carlton, a knockoff of Noel Coward done to English accent languidity with all the sophistication Noel himself could have brought. Hartwig’s range of talent was palpable. One wishes to see him more on the Minstrels’ playbill.

Constraints of space preclude mention of others in this massive cast, however, Evan Donnellan stood out as Bert Jefferson, Tricia Ieronimo as Mrs. Stanley and Jim Connors as her long-suffering husband. A curtain call bow was taken by Valerie Rowe who undertook the role of Sara the Cook as a last-minute substitute. Well done!

The Minstrel Players may be a little cramped in their present venue, yet they have expanded smoothly with this show. One sees a massively bright future for them. Break a leg, Minstrels!

The Minstrel Players will present “The Man Who Came To Dinner” on May 2 at 8 p.m. and May 3 at 3 p.m. at the Houghton Hall Theatre at Trinity Episcopal Church, 130 Main St., Northport. Tickets are $20 adults, $15 seniors and children. For more information, call 631-732-2926 or visit www.minstrelplayers.org.

From left, Bobby Montaniz, Amanda Geraci and James D. Schultz in ‘The Littlest Pirate.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

Avast ye! Theatre Three’s world premiere of the musical adventure, “The Littlest Pirate,” which opened last Saturday, takes us from a baseball diamond to a treasure hunt on Diamond Isle and is a rollicking home run.

Written by Tim Peierls and Jeffrey Sanzel, the play tells the story of Annalise, a young girl who wants to play on the Petaluma Pirates Little League baseball team who are always losing to the Rovers from Roger’s Refrigeration. When the coach tells her that the only way she can be on the team is to cheat, Annalise is torn between playing a sport she loves and doing the right thing. She falls asleep on a bench and is swept away into a Pirate Dreamland where she faces the same dilemma when she encounters a band of pirates who want her to switch a real treasure map with a fake one.

Sanzel, who also directed the show, has gathered an enormously talented group of seven adult actors who all tackle duel roles with inexhaustible energy. The petite Amanda Geraci is the perfect choice to play Annalise, the littlest pirate. An incredible actress and singer, Geraci’s solo, “Always Wanted to Play Baseball,” is amazing.

James D. Schultz shines as Coach Wallop and Captain Pyrate who only speaks Pyrish. The one and only Bobby Montaniz is hilarious as he tells numerous jokes as Bobbo and Pirate Parrot. Hans Paul Hendrickson plays the role of twins, Fred and Norville and the Pirate Forvilles, which wasn’t an easy task, but he pulls it off with ease. Jenna Kavaler is wonderful as Jenny, the Petaluma Pirates’ best baseball player who really just wants to play the oboe. Evelyne Lune, as Erin Petaluma and The Pirate Queen, is the all-knowing matriarch of the group and switches roles effortlessly. Rounding out the cast is Andrew Gasparini as Boyd and Pirate Boyd, a terrific actor who has found his own niche on stage and clearly enjoys what he’s doing.

Although the set is minimal with only a few props, costume designer Margaret Ward has spared no expense with matching baseball uniforms and colorful pirate outfits. Choreographed by Marquéz Stewart and accompanied on piano by Peierls and on bass by David Goldberg, the musical numbers are superb, especially “How to Speak Pyrish” and the delightful “Great Day for a Treasure Hunt,” which you will be humming on your way out of the theater.

As with most children’s shows at Theatre Three, there are moral lessons sprinkled throughout the performance. In this case, kids will learn about cheating and the everlasting lesson of “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” It is no easy task getting a young audience to sit still for periods at a time, but “The Littlest Pirate” does the trick. No restlessness here  — just children sitting wide-eyed on the edge of their seats, enthralled by the enchantment of live theater. Kids of all ages will enjoy “The Littlest Pirate.” It is funny, entertaining and a great way to spend a Saturday morning.

The entire cast will be in the lobby after the show for a meet and greet and photo opportunities.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Littlest Pirate” on Saturday mornings at 11 a.m. through May 9. Tickets are $10 per person. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

From left, Samantha Carroll, Jay McKenzie and Bobby Peterson in a scene from ‘Violet’ at the SCPA. Photo by Theresa Grillo

By Charles J. Morgan

The noir musical “Violet,” based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, opened last Saturday at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts. But what is a noir musical? Is it an opera, rock or otherwise? Is it sad, heart-rending, tragic, on a level with “La Bohème”? Your scribe suggests it is somewhere between Rossini’s effort and the recent “Murder Ballard” — the former an illustrious work of art, the latter the apotheosis of poor taste. “Violet,” therefore, is a middle ground, standing across the road as a signpost directing the theatrical traveler to the crossroads of mediocrity. Take one of the forks: aesthetic satisfaction; take the other —  “…’n I wuz like wow!”

There are noir motion pictures too. They all occur in one noir night, in noir and white and always have plot lines involving a murder solution. It makes one wonder why noir musicals are penned in the first place. Presumably they were intended to pitch shock and schlock into the roiling sea of praise poured onto the “happy ending” dance and song of the major hits. In your scribe’s not-so-humble opinion, “Violet” is a classically flawed work hinging on the fact of a young girl’s face horribly disfigured by a flying axe blade. At this juncture one could rank it with the Parisian Theatre Guignol.

Now then, standing back from all of the above, there was the indomitable Ken Washington direction. As his ever present skills reveal, interpretation and blocking were kept well ahead of the pursuing nemesis stasis. A pitfall of the one-set production is always a threat, but Washington came through. He handled the individuation of characters by giving them fast and slow motion that kept the boards well trod.

In the obviously starring role of Violet was Samantha Carroll. In singing and acting she was outstanding. With a fetching stage presence, she coupled this with a delightful soprano voice. With scarcely an exit she was easily the jeweled bearing on which the dynamic of the show rotated.

Two male singers vied for her attention … her complete attention. One, a sergeant; the other a Tech 4. The sergeant (Flick) was Jay McKenzie, the Tech 4 (Monty) was Bobby Peterson. McKenzie was the cool, veteran soldier with a strong tenor. In Act II his duet with Carrol was very impressive.

Peterson was more than just a foil for the sergeant. His voice was robust with a lyric tenor closeness that expressed his simple love for Violet. Michael Bertolini doubled as the bus driver and, in a powerful cameo, a corrupt Bible-thumper. He sang and danced with a group of pretend Bible singers. Viewing it your scribe felt Catholics in the audience would wear a wry grin; Evangelicals would have picketed that “preacher’s” performance.

As Young Violet, Hayleigh Jusas revealed excellent stage presence and a strong voice. In the “preacher” segment one ultra-powerful voice stood out: that of Amanda Camille Isaac. It was powerful, smooth and wrought with strength that not only expressed her religious fervor but rattled the rafters.

Music was live under the direction of Melissa Coyle with Craig Coyle on second keyboard, Ron Curry on bass, Jim Waddell on drums. Tiffany Jordan on cello, Brad Bosenbeck on violin and two guitars handled by Ray Sabatello and Douglas Baldwin provided palpable background, effecting it all with no brass.

“Violet” was a completely well-executed noir piece. It was balanced with other than rock, pertinent, believable recitatives and tender solos. To your scribe it was a critical challenge. To the audience it was a treat.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St., Smithtown, will present ‘Violet’ through May 17. Tickets are $35 adults, $20 students. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

Peter Fogel stars in the touring production of ‘My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy.’ Photo from Theatre Three

During the first 15 minutes of “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy,” currently on tour and playing at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, I became a little concerned. I expected to be laughing my tuches off, but that wasn’t the case. Until, that is, Peter Fogel, portraying the show’s author, Steve Solomon, really started describing his Italian mother and Jewish father.

Despite the slow start — and some predictable jokes — the one-man show is enjoyable, especially if you can relate to it.

The show ran on Off-Broadway from 2006 until 2008 and spawned sequels “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m STILL in Therapy” and “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m Home for the Holidays.” Inspired by Solomon’s family and his upbringing in Sheepshead Bay, the show received favorable reviews and has toured internationally and in more than 100 cities.

Fogel, a Stony Brook-born, Baldwin-raised comedian, does a wonderful job of portraying all of the Solomon family and has great comedic timing when interacting with audience members who couldn’t stop laughing.
Fogel is especially hilarious as Grandma Angelina, who states “grandpa was a mail order groom damaged in shipping” and in one conversation confuses “condo” for “condom.”

One of the show’s strength’s is how even the punch lines have a little poignancy to them, like when Solomon asks his parents about the birds and the bees, but they always answered in riddles.

At the end of the show, Fogel made a comment about performing the show in other states and how not as many people get the jokes, which are definitely New York-centric.

There aren’t many other places that will truly understand the bit about driving through a gated Florida retirement community and being stopped by an elderly security guard with a walker or having a Jewish father whose cure-all to life’s problems is Chinese food.

These bits make the show and are so incredibly true for anyone whose parents, or grandparents, have shipped off to Florida or kept Kosher — unless it involved Chinese food.

Some of the jokes may be a little cliché, but man are they funny!

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present ‘My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy’ through May 10. Tickets are $44 on Wednesdays and Thursdays and $49 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Special group rates are available. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

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.

Michael Verre tries to squeeze a shoe on Kate Keating as Alyson Clancy and Maryellen Molfetta look on during a scene from 'Cinderella' at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Jennifer C. Tully

The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport was a sea of blue princess dresses last Saturday morning at the theater’s opening of the classic fairy tale, “Cinderella.” Directed by Jennifer Collester Tully, the story follows the original plot closely with lots of fun and laughter. The inclusion of a few younger actors is a nice addition, making this show the perfect choice to introduce children to the magic of live theater.

Allie Eibler and Michael Verre fall in love in a scene from ‘Cinderella' at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Jennifer C. Tully
Allie Eibler and Michael Verre fall in love in a scene from ‘Cinderella’ at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Jennifer C. Tully

Allie Eibler stars as the sweet and innocent Ella, a young girl whose father dies, leaving her at the mercy of her evil stepmother and mean stepsisters. Forced to do all the chores and sleep in the kitchen by the fireplace, she is nicknamed Cinderella. Her miserable plight attracts the attention of her fairy godmother, played wonderfully with a warm Southern accent by Suzanne Mason, who is determined to rescue her. Aided by her helpers, energetic 13-year-olds Ryan J. McInnes and Meaghan Maher (both last seen in “A Christmas Story”), the fairy godmother arranges for Cinderella to attend the royal ball, where she steals the heart of the young prince, played by the handsome Michael Verre, and, after the shoe fits, lives happily ever after.

The talented Maryellen Molfetta plays the role of the stepmother with just enough selfishness and greediness, and Alyson Clancy as Henrietta and Kate Keating as Gertrude are hilarious as the jealous stepsisters.

Maryellen Molfetta, Alyson Clancy, Kate Keating and Allie Eibler star in 'Cinderella' at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Jennifer C. Tully
Maryellen Molfetta, Alyson Clancy, Kate Keating and Allie Eibler star in ‘Cinderella’ at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Jennifer C. Tully

It is the incomparable Kevin Burns, however (seen most recently as the Cowardly Lion in the “Wizard of Oz” and as Frosty in “Frosty the Snowman”), in the role of the king, who steals the show.  Blind as a bat, he fumbles around the set, always headed in the wrong direction, mistaking a topiary for a guard, and almost falls off the stage at one point, drawing the most laughs.

There is a lot of audience interaction in this show — something the kids just love. The actors walk up and down the aisles during scene changes, serving as a nice distraction. The king even wanders up and down the aisles with Cinderella’s glass slipper, asking little girls to try it on as the prince stands by with eager anticipation. Even the youngest guests won’t have time to grow restless as they participate in “The Sneeze Polka” dance and are asked questions by the cast.

Suzanne Mason bewitches the audience in a scene from 'Cinderella' at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Jennifer C. Tully
Suzanne Mason bewitches the audience in a scene from ‘Cinderella’ at the Engeman Theater. Photo by Jennifer C. Tully

Designed by Laurén Paragallo, the colorful costumes, ranging from the stepsister’s hilarious outfits to Cinderella’s breathtaking ball gown, to the royal garbs for the king and prince, are spot on. Choreography by Marquez Catherine Stewart is terrific, especially evident during the “The Sneeze Polka.”

Meet the cast after the show for pictures and autographs. An autograph page is conveniently located in the back of the program. The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present “Cinderella” on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. through May 10. Tickets are $15 each.

For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

James D. Schultz as Peter Rabbit and Tazukie Fearon as Benjamin Bunny in a scene from 'The Adventures of Peter Rabbit.' Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

I always know that spring is right around the corner when Theatre Three presents its adorable annual musical production of “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit.” Written by Jeffrey E. Sanzel and the late Brent Erlanson, suggested by the characters created by Beatrix Potter, this show is a personal favorite of mine and seems to get better every year. Directed by Tazukie Fearon for the second year in a row and accompanied flawlessly on piano by Steve McCoy, it follows the adventures of Peter Rabbit (played by James D. Schultz) and his cousin Benjamin Bunny (played by Fearon) as they sneak into Mr. McGregor’s garden to steal his vegetables.

Like two peas in a pod, Schultz and Fearon work very well together. They know their target audience well and draw the most laughs. Amanda Geraci plays Mrs. Rabbit and charms the audience with her beautiful rendition of “Morning.” Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail, played by Marquéz Catherine Stewart, Jenna Kavaler and Caitlin Nofi (who has a fondness for Trix cereal), respectively, are a terrific supporting cast. Dan Brenner and Sue Anne Dennehy return as Mr. and Mrs. McGregor and shine in their duet, “A Friend.”

Of special note is the constant interaction with the audience — asking them what to do next or answering a child when she asks a question. While being chased by Mr. McGregor, the cast runs up and down the aisles, sitting in chairs to hide, much to the delight of the young theatergoers. A nice touch.

The set is minimal, with just a few props including a scarecrow and a basket of vegetables, allowing your imagination to run wild. Listening to the dialogue, one can envision a garden full of carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, string beans and parsley and understand how two little rabbits could find this forbidden bounty irresistible. Utilizing a trap door on the stage as a rabbit hole is very effective.

Masterfully choreographed by Stewart, the musical numbers, arranged by Kevin F. Story, are all showstoppers, especially “One More Time Around” and “Peter’s Socks,” and the audience is treated to an encore performance of all the songs in a finale mega mix.

Sophie Jeong, 4, of Coram, came prepared for the show by wearing a pretty pink shirt with a bunny sewn on it and by bringing her favorite stuffed rabbit along. She sang along to all the songs, and, when asked who her favorite character was, she replied without hesitation — “Peter Rabbit.” Her favorite scene? “When the bunnies were eating their lunch [of blackberries, milk and toast].”

Don’t forget to take a picture with the cast in the lobby after the show. Bunny stuffed animals will be sold before the show and during intermission, and booster seats are available. Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson, will present “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit” through April 11, perfect for spring break. Up next is “The Littlest Pirate” followed by “Puss-in-Boots” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Tickets are only $10 each. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

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