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Theater

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Hans Paul Hendrickson, second from right, with the cast of ‘Godspell’ at Theatre Three. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Rita J. Egan

When it comes to the lead role in “Godspell,”  one important trait for the actor to have is charisma. During a recent interview with Hans Paul Hendrickson, it was obvious that he not only possesses this important characteristic but also enthusiasm for the musical’s upcoming run at Port Jefferson’s Theatre Three, as well as working with his fellow cast members and director Jeffrey Sanzel.

The company member was in middle school when he first saw the production at a local high school. “I was just blown away by how it was so different than anything else I had known in the musical theater realm,” he said.

After seeing the show, Hendrickson bought the album on iTunes. “I bought it and I lived it. I listened to it over and over again. And then, when I found out that they were doing it this year when I was signing my company contract, I was very much excited, and very eager to get a chance to get a crack out of it,” the actor said.

While it’s a role he always wanted, Hendrickson explained his reasons have changed since rehearsals started. He also said he finds himself getting along even easier with people, and taking the stance of turning the other cheek when someone does him wrong. “Originally I wanted to play it because it’s the lead, and he has great songs, and who wouldn’t want to play Jesus Christ. And also, the person who played it at the high school was someone I admired through doing theater and looked up to, which made me want to play it even more,” he said.

“But as I’ve gotten the role it’s kind of become a situation where, I’m not saying I’m becoming the character, but I’m adopting his teachings. I’m becoming able to relate to what he’s saying because a lot of what he says in the show is straight out of the Bible, and it’s not exactly written in the most plain of terms, but through my work with Jeff I’m able to connect that stuff with my life. And I’m able to adopt these ideals and these thoughts and these concepts of this man, and the character and the actor are becoming one,” he added.

The actor said the play asks, “If this charismatic character came into your life for one day, how will he change you?”

“In our production, we kind of take the name of Jesus out of the play. We are focusing more on the teachings and the identity, the being, the idea of Jesus. Rather than them addressing me as Jesus and me wearing a beard and long hair, we kind of focus on the love aspect,” said Hendrickson.

“Throughout the rehearsal process, Jeff [Sanzel] has been emphasizing the idea to me of leading from behind. Yes, [Jesus] is the leader but he kind of is the gas in the tank of the ensemble. He helps them to realize that they have all the teachings and understandings in themselves. And as he teaches them to tell these parables and these stories, not only do they learn the lessons about the stories but they learn lessons about themselves.”

The actor explained that the Theatre Three production takes place in an old theater, and as the musical opens, we are introduced to characters representing theater regulars such as the shining star, the understudy, the costumer and the director. While the beginning number shows disconnect, the Jesus character, who happens to be the janitor, comes in to help connect everyone. “We kind of wanted to emphasis the idea that he could be anyone. It’s not about, yes, he was the son of God, but he’s also the son of man.”

While Hendrickson has a number of favorite moments in the musical, he said he loves how the cast comes together in “Save the People” and feels a surge of energy that he said organically came along in the rehearsal process. The number first starts with Hendrickson and Patrick O’Brien, who plays Judas, on stage, and then everyone joins in with the band dropping out for about four measures where everyone sings a cappella.

“There’s such a surge of energy. And, it’s something that you don’t get in every production, and it’s something that you can’t take for granted as a performer, because it’s so genuine of everybody coming together for this one purpose. I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it,” Hendrickson said. “They’re almost coming together to be together. They’re not entirely sure why they are coming together but there’s something pulling them, there’s something bringing them in. Their vocals are just so on point at that moment.”

As for his fellow cast members, Hendrickson said they all bring different energies and personalities, and they jokingly refer to themselves as the God Squad. “There’s not a weak link up there.”

The actor credits Sanzel for bringing out the best in all of the cast members. He explained the director doesn’t just simply direct but also pulls the best from each actor, discussing with each their thoughts about the role and any problems they may encounter. Hendrickson said Sanzel also understands how to take into account the actors’ ideas of approaching a role and making the entire cast feel connected. “He’s created a completely judgment-free zone, which we’re able to try, and which we’re able to grow, and which we’re able to love and love each other, and love the work that we’re putting together.”

After “Godspell,” Hendrickson said he will appear at the theater in the one-act play “OK Computer” by Tom Moran  at the Ronald F. Peierls Theater on  the Second Stage at the end of April and as Pinocchio in the Mainstage musical “Shrek” in May. The 23-year-old plans to take the summer off and then audition, something Hendrickson said he’s more confident about than in previous years due to this past year as a Theatre Three company member.

Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson, will present “Godspell” from Feb. 27 to March 26. For more information, please visit www.theatrethree.com or call 631-928-9100.

By Alex Petroski

“The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley,” directed by Kristen Digilio, began a nine-show run in early February at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale, starring Luke Rosario as Stanley.

Above, Luke Rosario stars in ‘The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley.’ Photo by Kristen Digilio
Above, Luke Rosario stars in ‘The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley.’ Photo by Kristen Digilio

For those who are unfamiliar with the series, Flat Stanley celebrated his 50th anniversary in 2014. The hero of children’s books was created in 1964 by author Jeff Brown and is now the subject of an exchange program that allows children to mail paper cutouts of Flat Stanley to other participants around the world. The cast and crew of the live action show for kids bring the two-dimensional fan favorite to colorful, musical and three-dimensional light.

In the Flat Stanley books, Stanley Lambchop becomes flat when a large bulletin board falls on him in his sleep. In the musical, Stanley and his younger brother Arthur Lambchop, played by Matthew Surico, dream of doing something amazing that the world has never seen before as they sit in bed prior to falling asleep. During the first act the two sing “I Wish I Were,” a song about aspiring to be great like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Dreaming big and reaching for the stars is the constant theme of the musical, though others are introduced along the way as well.

The show features 13 musical numbers, performed by the cast of just five. Katie Ferretti, Ronald R. Green III and Jessica Ader-Ferretti fill out the small cast. Only Rosario is restricted to just one role. Costume changes along with strategic wigs and stick-on facial hair allows the other four cast members to introduce additional characters. The group displays an undeniable chemistry with dance steps and song lyrics meant to dole out life lessons to the young theatergoers. 

Ferretti plays Mrs. Lambchop, Arthur and Stanley’s bright red-haired mother. Green, who plays Mr. Lambchop, joins her to perform “The Funny Sunny Side,” a song about embracing the things that make someone unique, a message directed at Stanley when he is faced with the reality of going to school as flat as a piece of paper.

To make Rosario appear flat, he wears an orange-topped, purple-bottomed prop over the front of his clothes that resembles a yoga mat. Green was also the costume designer. He did as fine a job as Mr. Lambchop as he did designing Flat Stanley’s appearance and delivering his diagnosis as Dr. Dan, the mustache-clad pediatrician who sadly has no answers for the Lambchops about unflattening their son.

Eventually Stanley embraces being flat, and at the end of Act One he is convinced by mail carrier Mrs. Cartero, played by Ader-Ferretti, that he could travel the world by mail for just the price of postage. When Act Two begins, Stanley has arrived in Hollywood where he is met by a talent agent who sees potential in the flat kid.

Also played by Surico, the talent agent convinces Stanley to do some more traveling and gain life experiences before he pursues a career in show business. Surico, Ferretti and Ader-Ferretti team up for an impressive number called “Talent,” where they show off vocal range and choreographed tap dance steps to convince Stanley that Hollywood is for him.

Encouraged by his friend Samantha, who lives in California, Stanley travels to the Louvre in Paris, France, where he helps thwart an art thief. After that, Stanley travels, again by mail, to Honolulu, Hawaii, for his movie debut as a surfboard. Despite his success, Stanley realizes that he is homesick, and traveling the world and doing amazing things isn’t quite as special without family and friends around to share it.

Rosario’s performance carries the show. His singing ability and enthusiasm draws eyes like a magnet, though he is definitely not alone. Green and Ferretti serve as perfect compliments to Surico during the musical numbers. Surico is at his best delivering one-liners as Stanley’s talent agent. Ader-Ferretti is the “glue” to the production and shows versatility in filling a handful of different roles.

The show is a feel-good hour with a brief intermission between the two acts. Music, dancing and smiles make the delivery of important messages for kids of all ages very easy to absorb. The young minds in attendance are instructed to step out of their comfort zone to achieve fulfillment and reach potential, while remembering what success is all about: enjoying it with loved ones and taking pride in being unique. 

The Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley” through March 5. Tickets are $12. To order, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

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.

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 ([email protected]): Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

By Heidi Sutton

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.

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.

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.