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Theater

Wendy (Moira Swinford) and Peter Pan (Alexandra Juliano) in a scene from Disney’s ‘Peter Pan Jr.’ at the SCPA. Photo by Samantha Cuomo
Wendy (Moira Swinford) and Peter Pan (Alexandra Juliano) in a scene from Disney’s ‘Peter Pan Jr.’ at the SCPA. Photo by Samantha Cuomo
Wendy (Moira Swinford) and Peter Pan (Alexandra Juliano) in a scene from Disney’s ‘Peter Pan Jr.’ at the SCPA. Photo by Samantha Cuomo

By Rita J. Egan

Before children fly from the nest and become adults, their childhoods are a wonderful time for them to discover and cultivate their talents. The young cast of Disney’s “Peter Pan Jr.,” which opened this past Saturday at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, prove they are ready for takeoff in the world of theater.

Brianne Boyd skillfully directs over 20 actors 18 years old and younger. Fans of the classic fairy tale will find all their favorite characters as well as many of the beloved songs from the 1953 Disney animated film that was based on the writings of J.M. Barrie.

In addition to the mischievous Peter who refuses to grow up, audiences will find a human-size Tinker Bell as well as the sweet and curious Darling children who follow Peter on a magical adventure to Neverland on the night when Wendy, the oldest, finds it’s her last night in the nursery. In the far-off land, they find the endearing Lost Boys, friendly Indians, mesmerizing mermaids and comical pirates led by Peter’s rival Captain Hook and his bungling first mate Mr. Smee.

The Smithtown production follows the tradition of a female filling Peter Pan’s pointy shoes by casting Alexandra Juliano in the main role. The actress admitted in a recent interview with this paper that before auditions she practiced standing like a male, and it looks like practice has made perfect, as she convincingly portrays the eternal boy. Juliano is a strong lead with solid vocal talents who especially shines during the number “I Won’t Grow Up” in the second act.

Tinker Bell (Cassiel Fawcett) in a scene from ‘Peter Pan Jr.’ at the SCPA. Photo by Samantha Cuomo
Tinker Bell (Cassiel Fawcett) in a scene from ‘Peter Pan Jr.’ at the SCPA. Photo by Samantha Cuomo

Cassiel Fawcett is adorable as Tinker Bell whether she wears a scowl when the fairy is upset or charmingly chats to the audience. In the beginning of the first act, she explains that even though the audience sees her as life-sized and can understand her, most humans see her as a tiny being who only speaks the language of the fairies. The actress adeptly handles the light that shines on the stage to represent her flying as well as the shaker that mimics how Peter and friends hear her. She also demonstrates a sweet soprano voice during the number “Fly to Your Heart” as well as the reprise.

Moira Swinford captures the sweetness of Wendy Darling, the young girl on the brink of womanhood, perfectly. Her voice is soft and tender during all her numbers but is particularly lovely during the number “Your Mother and Mine” as she tenderly reminds her brothers they have a mother waiting for them at home. As for Cole Napolitano and Erika Hinson, as Wendy’s brothers John and Michael, they demonstrate talent beyond their years and are a joy to watch.

Zak Ketcham portrays a not so dastardly Captain Hook, which is fitting for a musical geared toward small children, and Andrew McCarty as Smee received a number of giggles with his antics.

In the first act, the Mermaids (Courtney Vigliotti, Alison Kelleher, Nicole Ellner, Georgia Apazidis) deliver a soothing serenade, “Sunbeams and Sea.”

Throughout the musical, the Pirates, Lost Boys and Chief Tiger Bamboo (Sean Kenny) and his tribe deliver fantastic group numbers, and to the delight of the youngsters in the audience, the Lost Boys and the tribe utilize the aisles during the entertaining number “Following the Leader.”

As for the dance routines during those ensemble numbers, Melissa Rapelje has choreographed some fun steps, but it’s when Leah Kelly as Tiger Lily dances her solo, that Rapelje’s choreography beautifully takes center stage.

Set designer Timothy Golebiewski has constructed a charming set to resemble a nursery with windows and beds that resourcefully transform into a ship bow in later scenes. Not to be forgotten are the variety of delightful costumes designed by Ronald Green III that range from the Darlings’ sleepwear to the eclectic garb of the Lost Boys to the colorful Tinker Bell costume. 

Disney’s “Peter Pan Jr.” is a delightful musical for those who believe in magical lands and those who have forgotten, but just like Mr. Darling at the end of the story, who will believe again.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main Street, will present Disney’s “Peter Pan Jr.” through June 19. Tickets are $15 per person. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

Alexandra Juliano, far right, in a scene from ‘The Little Mermaid Jr.’ at the SCPA. Photo by Samantha Cuomo

By Rita J. Egan

Before she flies off to the University of Delaware in a few months, Alexandra Juliano is taking on one of her dream roles — Peter Pan. The Commack High School senior and other young actors, who are all 18 years old or younger, will be hitting the stage at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts in “Disney’s Peter Pan Jr.,” which opens on May 14.

The Commack native is no stranger to the stage. She has performed in various productions at the Dream Makers Performing Arts School in East Northport as well as her high school, most recently playing Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.” Over the last few years, she has appeared at the Smithtown Theater in the junior versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Les Miserables,” as well as the Mainstage production of “The Little Mermaid” as Aquata, one of Ariel’s sisters.

Recently, Juliano took time out from rehearsals to talk about her portrayal of the iconic character of Peter Pan and about growing up.

How did you feel when you heard you got the part?
I was ecstatic; I was over the moon! I love doing shows here, especially the junior shows. I’ve done a Mainstage show and it was amazing, but the junior shows are really nice because I love working with the little kids and all my friends and everything. Peter Pan actually has always been my favorite Disney movie, ever, and Peter Pan himself has always been one of my dream roles. I love “Peter Pan” and everything that it’s about. So, not only did I know it was going to be a great experience because of that, but it’s a part I always wanted to play. I was so proud, so happy, so humbled to get the chance to play it.

What’s it like working with the cast and crew?
Amazing. I’ve done so many shows here and I’ve never had a bad experience from the adults to the directors to the kids. You just get so close to everyone. It’s such a warm environment.

Do you have a favorite song in the play?
I guess I have to say my favorite song is the first time the Darlings fly with me. The “You Can Fly” sequence, where the famous line is, “Neverland is second star to the right, straight on till morning.” I’ve always loved that line. I can’t wait for that magic with the audience, the little kids thinking that we’re flying.

What is the energy like with a children’s audience?
The energy in the audience is always so high. We do autographs after, and obviously performing onstage is amazing, but that’s one of my favorite parts, is the autographs after. For “The Little Mermaid Jr.” I was Sebastian, and the kids, just the things that they would say to you, they really believe that you’re the character. They thought I was this little red crab. I think that’s the best part. These kids come, and they’re so young some of them, and even the ones who are older, and they know that it’s not real, they still get sucked into it. They still have that Disney Magic. Like I said, even though I love performing, obviously, I love the autographs, and the energy that the kids show, the enthusiasm they show.

Do you think some of the kids in the autograph line will realize you’re a girl?
I’ve actually thought about that. I don’t know exactly what response I’m going to give yet if anyone says that to me. I’m thinking I’m going to have a short enough wig and if they say anything to me, I’ll just have to stay in character and say, “No, I’m Peter.” And I hope, even if they do realize I’m a girl, I hope that when I’m onstage, they’ll forget the fact that it’s a girl playing a boy, and just enjoy it for what it is.

Peter Pan and his friends are resistant to growing up. How do you feel about growing up?
It’s scary. I just paid my deposit for college actually this past weekend, and it’s really scary. My brother, my whole life I’ve grown up with me and him being very, very close … my older brother … When I was younger I was always like, “No, I want to be an adult. I want to wear the high heels and the lipstick,” but he was always like, “I just want to stay young forever.” And now that I’m actually wearing the high heels and the lipstick, I love looking back at the memories of being a kid. There are perks of being an adult but then there’s definitely reasons why I see that Peter didn’t want to grow up. It’s definitely a lot more fun being a kid.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
I would love to be an actress. Hopefully, knock on wood, but I’m actually majoring in dietetics, so nutritional sciences and stuff like that.

Do you plan on acting at college?
Yes, I plan on minoring in theater. Which is good, since I’m doing the minor, I’ll be able to audition for their shows and everything. And, I know already Ken [Washington] said next year for the summer show I’ll be able to audition for it when I get home from college. So, it’s good. Even though I’m not majoring in it, it will always be a part of my life.

Do you see yourself acting professionally?
I would love to be able to pursue it professionally. It’s such a risky and tough business. My parents have told me you’re more than allowed to audition, and they’ve even told me if you get a part while in school, you’re allowed to take time off to pursue a part on Broadway or off Broadway if you get that opportunity, because they know how important it is to me. I have my backup plan, I have the backup job, but I definitely would love to audition and put myself out there for it.

What advice would you give young actors?
Just keep trying out. You’re not always going to get the part you want. You’re not always going to get the lead role your first try or your second try. But, it’s all about making the best of the role you get, in theater so many people don’t see that, but there’s no bad role. Even ensemble in shows, they’re so much more than ensemble. I’m one of those people I’ll watch a show, and during the big dance numbers, I love seeing the facial expressions of the ensemble, and I love seeing the energy. And, the ensemble really makes or breaks a show. So ensemble is sometimes the best role. Just keep trying. Just keep going. Don’t get down on yourself. Because eventually you’ll get there, you’ll get the role you want.

So far, the experience with “Disney’s Peter Pan Jr.” has left the soon-to-be 18-year-old with  wonderful memories. She said not only does she enjoy working with the whole cast but the musical gives her a chance to perform with one of her best friends Cass Fawcett, who plays Tinker Bell. Juliano also said the young actors playing the Darlings — Moira Swinford (Wendy), Cole Napolitano (John) and Erika Hinson (Michael) — with whom she appears in many scenes, are exceptionally talented.

Catch Juliano and her fellow young actors at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts until June 19. The theater is located at 2 E. Main St., Smithtown, and tickets are $15 per person. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

This version corrects the last name of Erika, who plays Michael Darling.

Dondi Rollins, Jr. leads the entire cast in ‘Flying Low.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

Fighting co-workers, a murder mystery and the future rituals of dating — Theatre Three’s shining jewel, the annual Festival of One-Act Plays, delved into all that and more as it opened last Saturday afternoon for a nine-performance run.

Now in its 19th year, the festival, under the direction of founder Jeffrey Sanzel, showcases six wonderful, original works selected from nearly 400 submissions. The actors take the audience on a marathon, performing the plays back to back.

From left, Steve Ayle, Joan St. Onge, Hans Paul Hendrickson, Amanda Geraci and Linda May star in a scene from ‘OK Computer.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.
From left, Steve Ayle, Joan St. Onge, Hans Paul Hendrickson, Amanda Geraci and Linda May star in a scene from ‘OK Computer.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

The new plays go “from page to stage; from blank slate to fully realized production,” Sanzel explained. “These are premieres; they are ‘firsts.’” Raw themes such as depression, murder, love and work relationships are all explored on an equal playing field in the intimate setting of The Ronald F. Peierls Theatre on the Second Stage.

The festival kicks off with John Kane’s “Ben and Rachel Go to the Movies,” starring veteran actors TracyLynn Conner and Brian Smith, whose relationship is revealed to the audience only by visits to the cinema over a span of more than 40 years. From their first date watching “Dr. Zhivago” (1965) to “Titanic” in the 1990s and beyond, we watch them grow old together.

Alex Dremann’s comedy “A Clean Dislike” introduces the audience to Annie (Linda May) and Marjorie (Joan St. Onge), co-workers who try, with hilarious sarcastic banter, to figure out why they don’t like each other, an issue that many can relate to. May and St. Onge tackle their roles with zeal and stay in character long after the play.

From left, Brett Chizever, Sheila Sheffield and Brian Smith star in ‘Bro.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.
From left, Brett Chizever, Sheila Sheffield and Brian Smith star in ‘Bro.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

The most emotionally draining play is presented right before intermission with Jules Tasca’s “Flying Low,” which was inspired by the crash of A320 Airbus Flight 4U 9525 last March. The plane, which was traveling from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, plunged into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board. It was later discovered that the Germanwings co-pilot had deliberately crashed the plane. Dondi Rollins Jr. gives a powerful performance as the story dissects the sequence of events leading up to the tragic event, from the co-pilot breaking up with his girlfriend to suffering acute depression and not taking his medicine, to locking the pilot out of the cockpit and, finally, making his deadly decision. At the end of Saturday’s performance, there was not a dry eye in the room and the silence was deafening.

The festival continues after intermission with Robb Willoughby’s delicious dark thriller, “Bro.” After seeing his mother put white powder in his father’s coffee and then finding him dead shortly after, Mitchell, played by Brian Smith, is convinced that his mother is a murderer. The incident has left him so shaken that he has lost his job and has become paranoid about everything. His mother (Sheila Sheffield) insists the powder was just sweetener and that her husband died of a heart attack. She summons Mitchell’s brother Morgan (Brett Chizever) to help stage an intervention and get Mitchell psychological help. Is Mitchell crazy or isn’t he? Is his mother a murderer or isn’t she? And what’s this about a life insurance policy? The plot thickens.

A scene from "A Clean Dislike." Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.
A scene from “A Clean Dislike.” Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

Steve McCoy shines in his solo performance of “Why This Monologue Isn’t Memorized: A True Story” by Kurt Sass, which offers the audience a glimpse into one man’s struggle with memory loss after receiving shock treatments for his depression. In coming to terms with his fate, he concludes, “I will not remember your faces after today but I hope some of you will remember mine.”

The show closes with Tom Moran’s “OK Computer” to explore marriage and mating rituals in a futuristic dystopian world, a world in which a computer named Big Data plays matchmaker, choosing life partners for willing and unwilling bachelors. “No more guesses means no more messes” is the system’s motto. Hans Paul Hendrickson plays hapless victim Colin 3912, whose fate seems to be sealed as he is matched up with the mirror image of himself, Jillian 1293, played by Amanda Geraci.

The entire cast is superb, with notable mentions to the veteran one-act performer Smith, who has appeared in nearly three dozen plays, and newcomer Rollins who we simply must see more of.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present The 19th Annual Festival of One-Act Plays through May 14. Features adult content and language. Parental discretion is advised. Running time is two hours with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $18. For more information, call the box office at 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor star in ‘National Velvet.’ Photo from the WMHO
Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor star in ‘National Velvet.’ Photo from the WMHO
Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor star in ‘National Velvet.’ Photo from the WMHO

By Ed Blair

“I was a fourteen-year-old-boy for thirty years.” So said screen superstar Mickey Rooney, and his assessment of his career was not far off. To a generation of American moviegoers, the diminutive actor was forever a youngster, first as Mickey McGuire and then as Andy Hardy — both iconic roles in Hollywood’s cast of memorable characters.

The legendary Mickey Rooney, 1945. Photo from the WMHO
The legendary Mickey Rooney, 1945. Photo from the WMHO

Mickey Rooney is the subject of a musical theater tribute taking place from May 4 through June 12 at the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook Village. The Sal St. George production is a celebration of Rooney’s movie career, during which he appeared in over 300 films, as well as his successes in vaudeville, radio, television and on Broadway. His natural gift for acting, singing, dancing, comedy and drama are highlighted in a dynamic presentation featuring delightfully nostalgic songs and rollicking comedy.

Born in Brooklyn in 1920, Joe Yule Jr. first appeared on stage with his parents in a vaudeville act at the age of 17 months. When he was 7, his mother took him to audition for the role of Mickey McGuire in a short film based on the then-popular comic strip, Toonerville Trolley. The film enjoyed wide public appeal and developed into a series. Young Joe adopted the stage name of Mickey Rooney and appeared in the role of Mickey McGuire in 78 of the mini-comedies between 1927 and 1934.

Judy Garland hangs with Mickey Rooney in a scene from ‘Strike Up the Band.’ Photo from the WMHO
Judy Garland hangs with Mickey Rooney in a scene from ‘Strike Up the Band.’ Photo from the WMHO

From the time he was 16 until the age of 25, Rooney again appeared in a long-running role, this time as all-American teenager Andy Hardy, a character he portrayed in 16 films from 1937 to 1946. In three films in the series, he was paired with Judy Garland, and the two appeared together in other films as well, notably the musicals “Babes in Arms” (1939), for which Rooney, still a teenager, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, “Strike Up the Band” (1940), “Babes on Broadway” (1941), and “Girl Crazy” (1943). Of his relationship with Garland, Rooney proclaimed, “We weren’t just a team; we were magic.”

Rooney also appeared with Elizabeth Taylor in the classic “National Velvet” (1944) and showcased his dramatic acting ability, playing the role of a delinquent opposite Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town” (1938). Rooney proved to be an enduring star, appearing on Broadway, on television and on the big screen, memorably in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), and “The Black Stallion” (1979), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. His film credits carried well into the twenty-first century.

Rooney’s personal life was as arresting as his stage career. First married to Ava Gardner, he ended up totaling eight marriages, leading him to quip, “I’m the only man in the world with a marriage license made out ‘To Whom It May Concern.’” Mickey Rooney passed away quietly in his sleep at the age of 93 in April of 2014.

Mickey Rooney performs in ‘Mr. Broadway,’ a television special broadcast on NBC in 1957. Photo from the WMHO
Mickey Rooney performs in ‘Mr. Broadway,’ a television special broadcast on NBC in 1957. Photo from the WMHO

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization production follows the familiar format of other St. John presentations. Showgoers play the role of a 1960s television studio audience attending a talk show hosted by actress and long-time “I’ve Got a Secret” panelist Betsy Palmer (Madeline Shaffer), who, along with her domestic, Penny (Sarah Quinn), welcomes guest star Mickey Rooney, who talks about his life and career and also performs.

Daniel Garcia, who portrays Rooney, noted, “Mickey Rooney was the only entertainer/actor who appeared in motion pictures every decade between the 1920s into 2014. He was a masterful and much-beloved entertainer. This will be quite an acting challenge for me.”

The WMHO presents Musical Theatre Performances of “The Mickey Rooney Story” partially sponsored by The Roosevelt Investment Group, at the organization’s Educational & Cultural Center at 97P Main St. in Stony Brook Village. Shows run from May 4 through June 12 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. Admission is $50, $48 for seniors 60 and over and $45 for groups of 20 or more and includes a high tea luncheon catered by Crazy Beans Restaurant. Advance reservations are required by calling 631-689-5888. For further information, visit www.wmho.org.

From left, Ariel (Mackenzie Germain), Scuttle (Rachel Kowalsky) and Flounder (Amanda Swickle) admire a dinglehopper (a.k.a. a fork) in a scene from ‘The Little Mermaid Jr.’ Photo by Keith Kowalsky

By Rita J. Egan

The only thing better than hearing a beloved children’s story is having it performed by children themselves. This weekend the John W. Engeman Theater presented its first “by kids, for kids” production, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid Jr.,” to an excited young audience.

Ariel (Mackenzie Germain) is put under a spell by Ursula (Maeve Barth-Dwyer) in a scene from ‘The LIttle Mermaid Jr.’ Photo by Keith Kowalsky
Ariel (Mackenzie Germain) is put under a spell by Ursula (Maeve Barth-Dwyer) in a scene from ‘The LIttle Mermaid Jr.’ Photo by Keith Kowalsky

The musical’s run in Northport will feature two separate casts, with a combined total of 37 children between the ages of 7 and 17, playing alternate performance dates of the production that was adapted from the Broadway musical written by Doug Wright.

First introduced in the Hans Christian Andersen classic fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel is the youngest of King Triton’s seven daughters. Living under the sea, she dreams of one day shedding her fins so she can walk and dance on land just as humans do. With the help of an evil sea witch, Ursula, her fantasies come true much to the dismay of her chaperone Sebastian, the crab. Soon Ariel finds herself meeting a handsome prince as she embarks on an onshore adventure with Sebastian as well as her colorful friends, a fish named Flounder and a seagull called Scuttle.

At this past Sunday’s performance, the young cast performed as if they were seasoned actors. Mackenzie Germaine was a sweet and lovely Ariel, who sang the mermaid’s signature song “Part of Your World” beautifully. As for her Prince Eric, Ben Hefter was endearing as well as charming.

Ariel (Mackenzie Germain) sings ‘Part of Your World’ in a scene from ‘The Little Mermaid Jr.’ Photo by Elise Johnson Linde Autz
Ariel (Mackenzie Germain) sings ‘Part of Your World’ in a scene from ‘The Little Mermaid Jr.’ Photo by Elise Johnson Linde Autz

Maeve Barth-Dwyer was poised and devilishly delightful as Ursula. She performed “Poor Unfortunate Souls” as if she was standing on a Broadway stage. In addition, Lizzie Dolce and Mia Goldstein, Ursula’s slippery spies Flotsam and Jetsam, flawlessly sang back-up on the show-stopping number.

Despite being a teenager, Matthew Fama portrayed King Triton with just the right amount of authority and tenderness needed for the parental role. Justin Autz (Sebastian), Rachel Kowalsky (Scuttle) and Chris Pappas (Chef Louis) added the right amount of humor.

Kowalsky had fun with the eccentric character and shined on “Human Stuff,” while the comedic abilities of Autz and Pappas were front and center during the number “Les Poissons,” which got huge laughs from the audience.

Amanda Swickle as Flounder was adorable, and when she joined Ariel’s sisters during the song “She’s in Love,” she skillfully showed off her excellent singing abilities.

Ella Benjamin, Eve Ascione, Katie Garthe, Keeley O’Malley, Katie Dolce and Alexandra Spelman shone as Ariel’s sisters and harmonized beautifully during their numbers, “Daughters of Triton” and “She’s in Love.” 

Keith Gryski (Grimsby), Natalie Ryan (Carlotta) and James Tully (Pilot) rounded out the ensemble on Sunday, and just like their fellow castmates, have the potential for a bright future in acting.

Ariel (Mackenzie Germain) and Prince Eric (Ben Hefter) share a dance in ‘The Little Mermaid Jr.’ Photo by Keith Kowalsky
Ariel (Mackenzie Germain) and Prince Eric (Ben Hefter) share a dance in ‘The Little Mermaid Jr.’ Photo by Keith Kowalsky

Musical director Ariana Valdes did an excellent job with the score, which features lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater and music by Alan Menken. As for the iconic numbers, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” the whole ensemble did a fabulous job.

Director Alyson Clancy has skillfully directed a talented young cast that delivers a show that is professional and at the same time light and fun for the whole family.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present Disney’s “The Little Mermaid Jr.” until May 8. Tickets are $15 for all ages. For more information, visit www.engemantheater.com or call 631-261-2900.

The John W Engeman Theater has been entertaining audiences for 10 years. Photo from Jessie Eppelheimer

The streets of Northport have come alive with music and laughter in the past 10 years — and that’s all thanks to the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport.

The Main Street theater first opened its doors in 2007 and has been providing Long Island residents with quality entertainment at an affordable price ever since.

When it comes to why theater lovers should chose the Engeman theater over a Broadway show, Director of Operations Michael DeCristofaro said the Northport venue offers an experience you could never get on Broadway.

“We don’t have the space Broadway has,” DeCristofaro said in an interview. “We don’t have wing space or fly space, so we really are able to slow these shows down and find the heart and the essence of the show. People come and see shows like they’ve never seen them before. We’re really able to get into the story of the characters.”

The theater during construction. Photo from Jessie Eppelheimer
The theater during construction. Photo from Jessie Eppelheimer

DeCristofaro said some shows like “West Side Story,” “The Producers” and the upcoming show “Memphis” stand out as really being able to accomplish just that.

“We were told by numerous patrons, ‘better than Broadway,’” he said. “People felt that seeing it in an intimate venue like this without all the distracting flash of pizzazz and set pieces moving in and out really helped them focus on the characters and have fun and get involved.”

Another aspect of the theater that may contribute to the more intimate setting is the distance from the seats to the stage. According to Jessie Eppelheimer, the operations administrator, the back seats are only about 75 feet from the stage, “which you could never get at a Broadway show,” she said in an interview.

But there is one crucial way in which DeCristofaro thinks his theater stands shoulder to shoulder with Broadway, and that’s in the talent.

“We have a really good amount of Broadway talent,” he said. DeCristofaro listed Eddie Mekka, a Tony-nominated actor, and Michael McGrath, a multiple Tony award-winning actor, as two actors who had lead roles in previous shows at Engeman.

“If our alumni are not on Broadway, they’re in a national touring production,” DeCristofaro said. “We get some really incredible top-notch talent and it’s great for the local community to try and see that top notch talent here in Northport for half of the price they’d paid on Broadway.”

But it wasn’t always that way.

What is now a year-round full equity theater, producing multiple shows a year, was once just a small village movie house.

Originally built in 1912, silent movies used to play at the theater for 50 cents a person. In 1913, the Northport trolley helped make night shows a possibility, and by 1930, talking films came to the village. But two years later, the theater was struck with a fire that completely destroyed the establishment, forcing it to close its doors.

The new theater opened in November 1932 with 754 seats and was positioned directly next door to where the original one had stood. “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Clive Brook and Ernest Torrence, was first to be shown.

According to Eppelheimer, many of the original aspects of the 1930 theater still stand today, including the entire lobby, walls in the theater room and some of the lighting.

“People were attached to [the original design] and they tried to keep it as familiar as possible when they reopened,” she said.

In 2007, Huntington residents Kevin O’Neill and his wife Patti, owners of the theater, welcomed audiences to see real-time plays for the first time, and residents from all over Long Island have been filling in the seats ever since. The theater was named in tribute to O’Neill’s brother, Chief Warrant Officer Four John William Engeman, who was killed in Iraq in May 2006.

The theater now holds up to 400 audience members, has a full bar and lounge and shows multiple musicals and plays annually. Eppelheimer said there are about 5,000 season ticket holders and the theater has an 80 percent retention rate.

For the 10th anniversary season, the Engeman will feature a lineup exclusively of musicals, including a repeat of the inaugural show “Jekyll and Hyde.”

“We’re paying tribute to the first season,” Eppelheimer said. Other shows in the coming year include “Mamma Mia,” “Oklahoma” and “Mary Poppins.”

Over the years the theater has expanded, offering children shows, theater-school programs and hosting charity events.

“It was always intended to not just be a theater,” DeCristafaro said. “We wanted to be able to do more for the community and get children and parents involved.”

Steve Cottonaro with some of the cast members in a scene from ‘Music Man.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

By Charles J. Morgan

The Noel S. Ruiz Theater at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale kicked off its 38th season with the opening of Meredith Willson’s famous hit “Music Man” on March 12. Matthew W. Surico directs a large talented cast to produce a wonderful evening of theater.

The story follows Harold Hill, a trigger-tongued, traveling salesman and con man who attempts to bilk the town of River City, Iowa, out of hundreds of dollars with his phony plan to raise and train a band even though he couldn’t tell a drum beat from a sugar beet. His pitch is that he uses a unique “Think System” — one does not have to know music; one has merely to “think” it.

The mayor and town council are on to him, but he dazzles them with rapid-fire sales talk. However, he is thwarted by his  falling in love with the town librarian, Marian Paroo. Here is where sides are taken: the pro-Hill and anti-Hill factions. The hilarious finale has Hill about to direct a brightly uniformed segment of the “band” that pounded out a cacophony that would make any listener cringe, to “Think! Men!” His skullduggery exposed the … well someone once wrote, “America is a happy-ending nation.”

Hill is played by Steve Cottonaro, an accomplished singer who matches his tenor with impressive dancing skills. With straw hat on a rakish angle he dominated the boards. His love is the fetchingly beautiful Shannon Cunningham, possessed of one of the most powerful soprano voices heard in a long time. Her singing had a plaintive dimension combined with strength that complemented Cottonaro’s tenor in the duets, especially in “There Was Love” in Act II.

Steve Cottonaro dances with some of the young cast members in a scene from ‘Music Man.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar
Steve Cottonaro dances with some of the young cast members in a scene from ‘Music Man.’ Photo by Lisa Schindlar

Mayor Shinn was handled artfully by Jeff Pangburn. His malaprops were amazing, with his “… and I want not a poop out of you!” countered by his wife Eulalie’s “He means peep,” played in a nonstop comedic  role by Jodi Saladino.

Marian’s mother, the widow Paroo, was played by Rosemary Kurtz who, with a hint of Irish accent, embarked on this dramatic role with a sound-off rendition of “Piano Lesson. “

Then there was the School Board (Barber Shop Quartet) consisting of Ralph D’Ambrose, Carl Tese, Joseph Bebry and John DiGiorgio. Their close harmony was flawless and, as a group, they added a  flavor that was a gustatory delight. A group number in Acts I and II called “Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little)” had the gossipy ladies of the town sounding like a gaggle of poultry, musically, that is, and was neatly executed. What has become the signature number of the show, “Seventy-Six Trombones” with Hill and the boys and girls, was the highlight of the show.

Although the entire cast did a phenomenal job, special mention should be made of child virtuoso Jack Dowdell as Winthrop Paroo. Here is a lad of great theatrical promise.

The costumes, designed by Ronald R. Green III, were spot on and set designer Patrick Grossman produced a highly mobile series of well-constructed sets, including the inside of a moving passenger train as the Act I opener. Choreography was handled neatly by M.E. Junge.

Logically the music itself must receive a critique, all of it praiseworthy. CM/PAC’s music director Jeremy Kaplan has gathered an ensemble of no less than 15 first-rate musicians to form what had to be the equivalent of a Broadway pit band suffused with a totality of professionalism.

The Noel S. Ruiz Theater at the CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “The Music Man” through April 10. Tickets range from $18 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

From left, Charles Jacker, Samantha Carroll, TracyLynn Conner, Michael Newman, James D. Schultz, Lauren Gobes and Jeremy Hudson star in ‘First Date’ at the SCPA. Photo by Jordan Hue

By Rita J. Egan

Skip the night of drinks with friends. The musical “First Date,” now playing at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, will provide more laughs than all of your besties’ dating stories combined.

This contemporary romantic comedy, written by Austin Winsberg with music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to today’s dating game. With a huge dose of humor, “First Date” deals with a number of issues that arise in dating — from what to talk about during your first encounter to should you Google your date before meeting to who pays the check at the end of the night. And, while the musical is chock full of amusing moments, it also subtlety touches on the deeper issue of people building walls around their hearts.

Directed by Jordan Hue, “First Date,” through witty dialogue and song, tells the story of serial dater Casey and blind date newbie Aaron meeting for drinks at a New York City restaurant. A helpful waiter, as well as restaurant patrons who double as people in their lives, surround the twosome. During the 90-minute play, the lead characters experience an array of emotions from nervousness and cynicism to attraction and hope.

TracyLynn Conner as Casey perfectly embodies the energy of today’s sophisticated single female. She is strong, edgy and sexy as well as guarded and jaded from years of dating disappointments. Her sister has even called her a relationship assassin due to her experiences. However, as the date unfolds, Conner effortlessly portrays the softening of Casey who starts to realize that maybe she hasn’t always made the best decisions when it comes to the men in her life.

TracyLynn Conner and James D. Schultz star in ‘First Date’ at the SCPA. Photo by Jordan Hue
TracyLynn Conner and James D. Schultz star in ‘First Date’ at the SCPA. Photo by Jordan Hue

While Conner possesses strong vocals on all her numbers, it’s during the song “Safer” where she truly shines. The actress delivers the song with such great emotion that many women will find themselves connecting with the lyrics and reaching for the tissues.

James D. Schultz as the awkward and nervous Aaron is endearing and lovable. The audience can’t help but root for him as the date progresses. He easily handles the subtle transformation his character experiences as Casey helps him say goodbye to his hope of ever reuniting with his ex-fiancée. During the number “In Love with You,” Schultz gets to show off his singing abilities. What seems at first to be a touching ballad transforms into an edgy upbeat song where the actor really gets to let loose to the delight of the audience.

Michael Newman as the waiter serves up plenty of laughs throughout the musical, and with his song and dance number, “I’d Order Love,” he lightens up the mood after the emotionally charged “Safer” as well as lights up the stage with his charm.

Rounding out the cast are Charles Jacker, Samantha Carroll, Jeremy Hudson and Lauren Gobes who all alternate between restaurant patrons and people in Casey’s and Aaron’s lives, with whom the couple at times has imaginary conversations.

Jacker is hilarious as Casey’s best friend Reggie who keeps calling her to provide her a way out of the date. During the number “Bailout Song,” as well as its reprises, Jacker delivers comedic lines that had everyone in the audience hysterically laughing.

Hudson, as Aaron’s friend Gabe, receives a great deal of laughs, too. As Aaron imagines how his buddy would advise him, Hudson convincingly plays a typical young man giving his friend bad advice all for the sake of getting a one-night stand.

Carroll, who plays Casey’s sister Lauren, is believable as the average suburban wife and mother when Casey pictures what her sibling would say at various moments during the date. However, it’s while playing Aaron’s mother (as he remembers a letter she left him) that Carroll takes center stage as the audience hears her strong soprano during a touching duet with Schultz, “The Things I Never Said.”

Lauren Gobes delivers the emasculating and moody character of Aaron’s ex-fiancée Allison perfectly. During Aaron’s imaginary conversations with her and the number “Allison’s Theme #1,” the actress easily conveys the essence of this woman and why her ex is the way he is when it comes to females.

Another standout number featuring the whole ensemble is “The Girl for You” as Aaron imagines the reaction of his deceased grandmother, played by Carroll, to the fact that Casey isn’t Jewish. Just when the audience thinks the number can’t get any funnier, Jacker, as Aaron’s imaginary future and confused son, joined by Hudson, breaks into a well-delivered rap number.    

Hue has skillfully directed cast members who handle multiple roles seamlessly and deliver comedic lines effortlessly. Whether in a relationship or currently single, theatergoers will leave “First Date” feeling a bit more optimistic about their dating life and maybe even able to laugh about their own romantic failures. Before buying tickets though, parents should be aware that the musical includes adult language, so secure a babysitter for the kids and enjoy a grown-up night out of the house.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East Main Street, Smithtown, will present “First Date” through March 26. Tickets are $35 each. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

James D. Schultz and TracyLynn Conner. Photo by Rita J. Egan

By Rita J. Egan

The Long Island premiere of the musical “First Date” is set for March 5 at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, and actors TracyLynn Conner and James D. Schultz are thrilled that local theatergoers will get to experience the hilarious production with them.

The one-act play takes an amusing look at the trials and tribulations of today’s dating world when two people meet for a blind date at a restaurant in New York City. Conner, who plays serial-dater Casey, describes “First Date” as funny, witty and very current when it comes to today’s dating climate.

Schultz, who plays dating newbie Aaron, said the play is filled with great musical numbers, perfect comedic timing and sight gags yet doesn’t veer from its main purpose. “At the heart of all that is the relationship between Aaron and Casey,” the actor said.

While the two have shared the stage in productions in the past, such as “The Farnsworth Invention,” “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Man of la Mancha,” this is the first time they will be performing together as romantic leads. In addition to acting together, the two have been friends for years, and Conner is Schlutz’s vocal coach. The actors said they are having a great time working together and discovering their characters. 

“My character Casey has been on many, many, many dates. And James’ character, Aaron, this is his very first blind date in his whole life,” Conner said.

Schultz explained that his character has just gotten out of a relationship and has a lot of personal baggage. “When he meets Casey for the first time, he’s not entirely sure how it’s going to work out because she’s so different from him. He’s neurotic and conservative, and she’s very edgy and very fly by your seat, very artsy. And basically, they both awaken something in each other, and they find what makes the other person stronger, at least in that first date and the first time they meet each other,” the actor said.

Both are also excited to be working with director Jordan Hue and their fellow cast mates, Jeremy Hudson, Samm Carroll, Charles Jacker, Lauren V. Gobes and Michael Newman. Conner explained the rest of the actors play multiple roles, either in the restaurant or as past lovers, best friends or sisters in their imaginations.

“It’s a well-seasoned cast that knows exactly how to deliver a comedic line,” Conner said. She admitted that at times the cast can’t stop laughing in rehearsals.

Schultz agreed that they’re all having a great time. “We all mesh well which is what you hope for in a show.”

The actors are thrilled that the Smithtown run is the Long Island premiere of “First Date,” too, and they are confident audiences will like it. “While it’s rather new, it’s also something modern, something sweet, something that I think whether you’re young or old, you’ll be able to enjoy, and because it’s a quick show, you’ll come and have a nice evening at theater and feel something,” Schultz said.

Conner, who is currently single, pointed out that among the hilarity in the musical there are also touching, poignant moments. She said her song “Safer” will be hard to get through without her crying. “It’s just a really touching song, and I think any woman who has been in the dating world will hear this song and say ‘yes, that’s me’,” the actress said.

Schultz hopes that audiences will connect with the characters too and feel like they are watching a couple on a date. “What we’re striving for is trying to create a slice of life [with] the audience looking at these two people basically finding each other.” Conner added, “You see two people standing on the edge of something great if they let themselves see it.”

Off stage, standing on the edge of something great is a concept both actors are familiar with. While audiences will find out the fate of Casey and Aaron by the end of the play, Conner’s and Schultz’s futures are both continuing tales. The actors, who have performed extensively on Long Island, are auditioning and open to a variety of acting roles including for stage, commercials, television and film.

“I want to put myself out there for whatever is out there, whatever piques my interest,” Schultz said.

Conner agrees to being open to it all. “When you have a passion to do this, I feel like there are some shows I would do in a cardboard box just to be able to play that role.”

For now, Conner’s and Schultz’s calendars are booked up with 14 nights of first dates at the theater in Smithtown, and they invite local musical lovers to join them.

“It’s a great show for a date night out. Get the babysitter and just have a night out and possibly remember what your first date was like with your significant other,” Conner said.

The Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East Main Street, Smithtown, will present “First Date” March 5 through March 26. For more information, call 631-724-3700 or visit www.smithtownpac.org.

The cast of ‘Godspell’ at Theatre Three. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Michael Tessler

Theatre Three’s production of “Godspell,” which opened last Saturday night, is local theater at its finest. A musical by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak, it originally opened off Broadway in 1971 and has had many revivals since then. Uniquely reimagined by director Jeffrey Sanzel, Theatre Three’s production succeeds in every category with beautiful lighting, a fluid set, expert choreography, tremendous acting and voices that will leave you yearning for more.

Sanzel, who had previously directed several productions of “Godspell,” brings a refreshing twist to the story, having it take place in the here and now. The cast portray not characters, but their actual selves. Everything you watch is playing out in real time, and it genuinely feels like it’s happening for the first time. The result is miraculous, as it adds a depth and weight to the show that makes it all the more human.

Biblical Spoiler Alerts: Each touch, every moment of embrace, was so unique and powerful. You feel so connected with the magnanimous presence of Jesus, portrayed masterfully by Hans Paul Hendrickson. You sympathize with Judas (Patrick O’Brien) whose dynamic personality and lovability makes his betrayal all the more devastating and personal.

Broken into two acts, the first is a series of parables told by Jesus’ disciples through songs and skits. They will have you in stitches from laughing. Each parable contains a beautiful lesson of morality. In the second act you bear witness to the betrayal of Jesus. Though the tone of the show dramatically changes, the cast still delivers, showing off their impressive range as actors.

What’s most remarkable about this production is its cast. This ensemble effortlessly plays with your heartstrings as their harmonies echo through the belly of the theater. They don’t limit their stage to the stage. More often than not they’re in the audience sharing the experience with you. Their collective voice is so powerful, so beautiful, and instills you with a sense of togetherness. During the production you feel as though you’re a part of something very special.

Hans Paul Hendrickson as Jesus and Patrick O’Brien as Judas in a scene from ‘Godspell.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.
Hans Paul Hendrickson as Jesus and Patrick O’Brien as Judas in a scene from ‘Godspell.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

In Act One, Amanda Geraci serenades with perfection in her rendition of the musical theater classic “Day by Day.” Bobby Montaniz’s booming voice rings perfectly during his soulful performance of “All Good Gifts.” Act Two, though darker in tone, does have some upbeat moments. Among them is the devilishly sexy “Turn Back, O Man” performed by the talented Elena Faverio. You’ll hold back tears during “By My Side,” a beautiful duet between Jenna Kavaler and Aria Saltini. In the audience, you can’t help but feel the urge to clap and sing along.

The show’s excellent choreography is also to be noted. With each musical number it feels the cast members outdo themselves. No doubt this can be attributed to choreographer Marquez Stewart whose vision translated wonderfully on stage. Her direction of Jesus and Judas during “All for the Best” is a real treat as the duo tap dances in tandem. Many of the musical numbers cleverly include American Sign Language, adding an extra dimension to an already beautiful repertoire of music. “Godspell’s” other great success is in its attention to ambiance. Lighting designer Robert W. Henderson Jr. programs some of the most impressive light sequences I’ve ever seen in a local show. “Heavenly” seems like a fitting adjective.

Behind the cast is Steve McCoy, musical director, who leads a team of expert musicians who brought the score to life in a way that only great instrumentalists can. Randall Parsons’ costume design was also a job well done with Jesus wearing his signature Superman shirt and Judas adorned in what I assume was a cleverly repurposed military coat from “Les Miserables.” Every cast member’s costume so perfectly fit the quirkiness of their personalities. Also deserving of credit is stage manager Peter Casdia who expertly ran the production from behind the scenes.

Arguably the highlight of the show is one particular scene that turns the stage into an old-fashioned slide projector. Comically narrated by Judas, the entire audience erupted into five minutes of non-stop bellyaching laughter. If for this scene alone, go see this show.

“Godspell,” while inspired by the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, isn’t exclusively a Christian show. Its message of community, love and compassion are delivered in a way that doesn’t require you to adhere to the Christian doctrine. Even as a secular Jew, I found myself humming along to “We Beseech Thee” and thinking to myself “I love Jesus!”

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “Godspell” through March 26. Contains adult themes. Tickets range from $15 to $30. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.