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Broadway to Buffalo

Dee LaMonte Perry and Stan Klimecko in the "The Whipping Boy."
Brian Riggs and Beth Donahue in "33 Variations."

We’re living at a fabulous moment for Buffalo’s theaters. I marvel every week when I see the abundance of exciting, challenging, entertaining, and even innovative work coming to the stages of Buffalo’s numerous theaters.

This week alone, the production of The Whipping Man at the Jewish Repertry Theatre is excellent, and offers Dee LaMonte Perry the meatiest role he’s had since he played Martin Luther King—he even gets to channel a bit of that moment of glory in a play about recently freed Jewish slaves in the American south in the days after the Civil War. American Repertory Theatre has opened The Dead English, a locally written musical version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Subversive Theatre has opened August Wilson’s Radio Golf. Just last week Loraine O’Donnell was actually able to revive her hit production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch from last season.

While these offerings are intriguing, the titles might be unfamiliar to many potential patrons. This presents a challenge to theaters.

Joseph Demerly, managing director of the Kavinoky Theatre, is aware of the challenge.

“Our base audience of subscribers prefers the new work,” he explains. These are theater-goers who want to see God of Carnage, or Time Stands Still. “They are ready to see Other Desert Cities next week or August: Osage County in the spring.

“The hard sell, with shows like these,” explains Demerly, “is single ticket buyers. We get a huge influx of single tickets when we do very familiar titles like 42nd Street or My Fair Lady, but we don’t necessarily keep them for the season.”

Later this month, the devoted audience will flock to see Jon Robin Baitz’s successful Broadway play from last season, Other Desert Cities. The single ticket crowd will probably wait for word of mouth.

“Plays like Time Stands Still or Other Desert Cities are more likely to inspire our subscribers to write letters and to donate money to support our theater,” says Demerly, “but they are less likely to bring in new people.”

The Kavinoky gets new people for very familiar titles or for something like the music of Patsy Cline.

For those who are curious, Other Desert Cities tells the story of the Wyeth family in Palm Springs, California. Their daughter comes back to the home of her parents, Polly and Lyman after six years away. She’s about to publish a book that details painful family history—or at least her interpretation of that history. Polly is livid. Also in the house we meet Polly’s sister Silda, recently out of rehab. While Polly and her husband are Republicans, Silda is a liberal. She is also a bit of a troublemaker. The two sisters had written screenplays together years before. Family secrets will be revealed. The production is being directed by Peter Palmisano and stars David Lamb as Lyman, Barbara Link Larou as Polly, Kristen Tripp Kelley as the daughter, Matt Witten as the son, and Lisa Ludwig as Silda, a role originated by Linda Lavin at Lincoln Center, that earned Judith Light a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress on Broadway.

Meanwhile, across town in Snyder, MusicalFare theater experiences an almost opposite challenge with shows like their current offering, Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations. The play was a Broadway hit, celebrated for bringing Jane Fonda back to the stage as Kathryn Brandt, a musicologist fascinated by Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The MusicalFare audience definitely prefers familiar titles.

“We have advertised this show heavily” reveals MusicalFare artistic director Randall Kramer, “and yet people tell us they haven’t heard about it. The reality is that when we do The Music Man, people remember seeing the title the first time, whereas we have to expose them to the name 33 Variations five or six times before it has an impact.”

In the play, the musicologist, skillfully played by Beth Donohue in a riveting performance, is declining as the result of Lou Gehrig’s disease. She elects to use her final burst of health to travel to the Beethoven archives in Bonn to conduct research. The play goes back and forth in time between Beethoven and the contemporary quest to solve the mystery of why he lavished his genius upon a minor waltz at a time when his own health was failing. This is a marvelous production which, in addition to Donohue as Brandt, and Brian Riggs as Beethoven, features a fine performance by Ellen Horst as the archive curator, Morgan Chard in an exquisite performance as Brandt’s daughter, Adriano Gatto as the nurse, John Fredo as Anton Diabelli, and Tim Newell in a finely controlled and even affecting performance as Beethoven’s assistant.

“It is important for us to do a show like this,” says Kramer. “I have a strong belief that musical theater is about the power of music to enhance drama. 33 Variations is not a musical, which is a departure for us, but my definition of musical theater might be different from some people’s.

“Doing a show like this holds a lot of positives for us. Any time you do anything a little different you open yourself up for new audiences. Some people associate musical theater with the superficial. They cannot say that about this show. With 33 Variations, we are broadening our audience. We project that the ticket sales will be a little less than other shows, and we will run for five weeks instead of six, but it will be worth it.”

Two opposite approaches to expanding their audiences—both involving recent work from the Broadway stage. Whatever the reason—enjoy!

Other Desert Cities runs at the Kavinoky Theatere November 23-December 16, Thursdays & Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm & 8pm, Sundays at 2pm.

33 Variations continues through December 2, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm & 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. (No performance November 22.)