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Six Shows in Five Days

Six Shows In Five Days
A whirlwind tour of several productions for Curtain Up!

To begin, it should be apparent that all shows pull together and become tighter after running for a few performances in front of audiences. In Buffalo, where a play is typically only rehearsed for about four weeks, it is a miracle that any theatrical production hits the ground running on opening night. The great Jane Alexander once told me that she needs six to eight weeks in front of audiences in order to settle into a role; I told her that she’d never work in Buffalo! When someone says that a show “is sure to pull together with playing,” they are either stating the obvious, or trying to find a nice way to say that a show was not ready enough to make a definitive judgment on opening night.

An unmitigated disaster is easy to spot, but it takes experience, and a healthy dose of intuition, to assess whether you are witnessing a potential train wreck held together by a burst of opening night adrenaline, or a production that has good bones and just needs to settle in and gain confidence. Many shows, of course, are a mix of the two.

It is also important to remember that when a performance has rough patches, there is a difference between an artistic error and a one-time accident. An isolated forgotten line is an accident. Lapses in memory happen to every actor. A show that grinds to a stagnating halt after every scene, however, suffers from an intrinsic flaw—mistakes that are repeated, night after night, on purpose, are not accidents, but errors.

It is a busy time of year in Buffalo’s theaters. Last week I saw six shows in five days. It is clear that many of these shows were muscled toward opening night with great speed. In the final analysis, however, these were six theatrical miracles. Shows, that despite imperfections and the limitations of theatrical production in Buffalo, all managed to engage and even delight audiences with skillful storytelling, flashes of insight and sometimes brilliance.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE (or the Children’s Crusade)—Adapted for the stage by Eric Simonson of Steppenwolf from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Subversive Theatre presents this episodic tale of Billy Pilgrim, a 20th century optometrist and time traveler who becomes a prisoner of the Germans during World War II, witnesses the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, marries the boss’ daughter, and is captured by aliens from a far off planet and displayed in their zoo. These stories are told in non-linear order as Billy, who can foresee his own death, travels back and forth in time.

John Kennedy gives an engaging and amusing performance as fatalistic Billy Pilgrim in his maturity. Shane Zimmerman makes a feckless and endearing Young Billy. Tim Joyce brings precise intelligibility to his performance as the opinionated narrator. Rick Lattimer does fine work as multiple characters, most notably as Billy’s veteran’s hospital friend, Elliot Rosewater, who introduces Billy to science fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Michael Breen gives an entertaining vaudeville like performance as Trout. Jane Cudmore is equally comical and affecting as Billy’s wife Valencia. Elizabeth Catania provides dry humor as Montana Wildhack, the porn star abducted to the planet Tralfamadore to mate with Billy.

It’s a large cast. All do yeoman’s work to bring Vonnegut’s convoluted yet brilliantly compelling story to the stage.

The production has been directed by Michael Lodick who has focused on the individual scenes, often neglecting the transitions between them. The result is a production that tells the story with clarity and boasts some very fine acting, but often loses momentum. Dramaturgy is often viewed as a process of researching the historical and cultural references in a play, but should also extend to an analysis of a play’s structure. As an episodic play with numerous characters and scenes, Slaughterhouse Five begs for staging in which the transitions between scenes are staged as thoughtfully as the scenes themselves.

Indicative of a rushed or wayward process is this production’s conclusion, which allows the play to drop to a halt, leaving the actors to stumble off stage in the dark, before meandering back by ones and twos for their awkward curtain calls. Happily, this is an error that could be easily corrected (and should be) with one quick rehearsal. They might also consider a company call, rather than the hierarchical call now in place, that in my view ranks the characters incorrectly. A curtain call that bursts triumphantly from the play’s final moment would be more satisfying for the audience and players alike.

The production continues through Oct. 11 at the Manny Fried Playhouse.

GRANNYBIRD, a world premiere of a musical written and directed by Neal Radice, is based on a short play by Robin Rich Lichtig. In this sweet story, an aged woman, fearing that her grandson wants to institutionalize her in a nursing facility, enlists the help of her great-granddaughter to escape to a tree house in the woods.

Charm is the order of the day, and the heart of this chamber musical is the relationship of Zoe and Zack Fogerty, twin brother and sister, played with uncommon skill by child actors Allison Barsi and Shawn Calmes. The boy and girl have contrasting views of the world and of their Granny’s right to self-determination.

Terry Braunstein goes all out to give a loveable portrayal of the eccentric Granny. David G. Poole plays Bill, the anti-villain of a grandson with totally reasonability and sincerity.

The score is appealing; the lyrics are pleasing and amusing. Under Radice’s direction, the production flows effortlessly, and the transitions between scenes are elegant. The production continues at Alleyway Theatre through October 3rd.

KING O’ THE MOON—Over the Tavern: Part Two is Tom Dudzick’s sequel to his beloved comedy about the Pazinski family, living on Buffalo’s east side in the 1950s. It is now the summer of 1969 on the eve of the historic lunar landing. The Pazinski’s are a little less innocent than they used to be, as they prepare to enter a rapidly changing future. The playwright has directed this production at the Kavinoky Theatre.

David King provides a handsome and entirely realistic east side back yard as the setting for this family comedy, and the sound design by Geoffrey Tocin capably heightens the tone of the piece, its dramatic twists, and the period.

Dudzick has populated this world with a entirely perfect cast. Dan Urtz plays Rudy Pazinski. The clever and mischievous schoolboy of Part One is now a seminarian having trouble reconciling his devotion to God and ideals of pacifism with the church’s demands for unquestioning obedience in the Vietnam era. Kelly Copps is Annie, the sister, hiding her unfulfilling marriage. Loraine O’Donnell is ideal as the sharp-tongued mother. Kevin Craig plays mentally challenged Georgie. Kelsey Mogenson plays the expectant and free-spirited wife of the Army bound brother played by Adriano Gatto. Steve Vaughan plays the surprise middle-aged love interest of the piece.

With its themes of love and family as the lone constant in an ever-changing world, King of the Moon continues to pull our heartstrings as powerfully as every other show in the Over the Tavern franchise. The production continues through Oct. 4.

SPEED OF LIGHT is yet another world premiere of a paranoid science fiction drama brought to you by Road Less Traveled Productions. Playwright Bella Poynton explores the moral dilemmas of her futuristic characters in this apocalyptic melodrama. After the prolonged and tiring exposition of Act One, we get a payoff in Act Two and are particularly rewarded with a marvelous performance by Sara Kow-Falcone as Mayra, a mathematical and engineering genius who has devised the means to save the universe—if only greed does not distract her sponsors from the task. Scott Behrend directs in the exquisite New Road Less Traveled Theater at 500 Pearl Street. To see so much evil and self-interest get packed into so little space and time is deliciously engaging. The production also features capable performances by Steve Petersen, Jessica Stuber, Greg Natale, Bob Grabowski, Greg Howze, and Erica Lorenzetti. The production continues through Oct. 4th.

DOUBT, the drama by John Patrick Shanley set in a 1960s era Catholic school in New York City is presented by Buffalo Laboratory Theatre in Hamburg. Director Katie White offers an intimate and economical production featuring a stellar performance by Ellen Horst as Sister Aloysius, an unforgiving woman of uncommon insight and intuition who sets on a quest to rid the school of a sexual predator. David Hayes plays the priest who is the target of her scrutiny. Anne Roaldi-Boucher is Sister James, her reluctant ally. Annette Daniels Taylor plays the mother of the child in question. The production continues thorugh September 26th.

IN THE HEIGHTS, the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, directed by Randall Kramer at MusicalFare is a burst of joy. Ricky Marchese stars as the owner of a coffee shop in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City who needs to discover where his true happiness lies. (It won’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out where that might be, but the journey is sheer jubilation). This is a lively production, for which MusicalFare has joined forces with Raices Theatre Company, featuring the formidable talents of Marta Aracelis, Cecelia Barron, Taylor Carlson, Arin Lee Dandes, Arianne Davidow, Elena Victoria Feliz, Alejandro Gabriel Gómez, Rolando Martín Gómez, Adam Hayes, Dudney Joseph, Jr., Bob Mazierski, Smirna Mercedes-Pérez, Victoria Pérez, and Jon Yepez. This show sets the bar very high for every musical to follow this season. In the Heights continues through Oct 11.