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Tooley and Mary at Alleyway

Neal Radice, the founder and executive director of Alleyway Theatre has written musicals before: Beowulf: The Rock Opera; a musical version of Peer Gynt; The Perpetual Motion Man; a Sherlock Holmes series; Over the Falls, a show about the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel; a musical about Christopher Columbus; Italian Serenade, about Italian immigration to Buffalo. His interests are eclectic.

Neal Radice's Tooley and Mary opens this weekend at the Alleyway Theatre and runs through May 1.

Tooley and Mary, which opens at Alleyway this week, is a bit different from the others. To begin, Radice describes the piece as a ballet. The story is told largely through dance; choreography by Veronica Irene will be interpreted by dancers Peter Bennett (Tooley), Allie Hartwick (Mary), Chantelle LeFevre, and Demarkis A. Bonner. It is also an opera, featuring singers Stephen Macdonald, Katy Miner, and Kim Piazza. In addition, while Tooley and Mary has never been produced before, it is not exactly a new Neal Radice show. Tooley and Mary has been sitting on the shelf for about 20 years.

“To begin with,” explains Radice, “I didn’t expect that I would be the one to produce it. As a dance piece, it is different from the other shows we have done at Alleyway. We came close to doing it a couple of times, but either we didn’t have the right combination of elements, or something else always intervened.”

This year, the planets aligned for Tooley and Mary. Alleyway had announced a production of a musical version of Silence of the Lambs, but the dickering for the rights became impossible when its creators saw the glimmer of an off-Broadway production on the horizon. In addition, Radice finally found a collaborator with whom he felt he could realize his vision. He had always imagined Tooley and Mary as a project for choreography legend Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, a constant collaborator from early in both their careers, but she has long since left Western New York. Then, when he saw Veronica Irene’s choreography for Inside Out: A Dansical, produced by Alleyway’s women’s theater division, Theatre Plus, earlier this season, he was impressed.

“Interestingly, Veronica Irene worked with Lynne, so everything is connected,” says Radice. “Michael Hake had already signed on as musical director, and he is both Lynne’s favorite musical director and mine. Todd Warfield has provided a projection design that’s integral to the production as well.”

Tooley and Mary will finally make its way to an opening night.

Described as “An Allegory of the ’60s,” Radice explains that the show is actually himself looking back at the optimism of that era. He conceived of the show during the Reagan years.

“I thought back to the ’60s, and how far we all thought the world had travelled,” explains Radice. “We never dreamed that we could go back to the kind of conservatism we had lived in the 1950s. “

Appropriately, Tooley is a “small town boy of the 1950s who becomes an average teenager of the 1960s. When he leaves his high school sweet heart behind and moves to the big city, he discovers that he’s not so ordinary after all. The decade of peace and love declares him a phenomenon, but with his dreams nearly in hand, his flower-powered revolution suddenly falls apart before his eyes. Ultimately personifying a generation, he is struck by the uselessness of his sacrifice, the futility of his dreams, the incongruity between his personal desires and public ambitions, and the overwhelmingly short amount of time in which to deal with it all.”

Okay, that seems like a journey large enough to burst into song and dance. Radice reveals that the score is largely up tempo.

“As I looked back,” says Radice, “I thought, ‘What happened to those ideals? How could they have vanished? Where did they go?’ And then I realized, maybe they didn’t disappear at all.”

The passage of time did give Radice one sobering realization—it became necessary to explain a world he had witnessed firsthand to a crew of young dancers.

“They hadn’t heard of Kent State. They didn’t know who Bobby Kennedy was. That was a little startling.”

Radice is glad to say that the material interests him now at least as potently as when he first wrote it—albeit in different ways.

“The show also deals with the struggle between public and personal struggles,” he says, “which is a common thread in my work. Our personal lives always pull us away from bigger issues. Even in my own life, I think, for example, that’s why I never had children.”

For Tooley, this struggle will mean the loss of Mary. The lyrics do not specify the how of this. “She died or got a job or she ran off with someone else,” reveals Radice. “The point is that he loses his personal life.”

Radice does not flinch from revealing elements of the plot. “Like an opera or a ballet, the program will provide the argument of the piece. The engagement of the audience comes through the performance.

That engagement begins at Alleyway Theatre tonight and continues through May 1. Call 852-2600, extension 0 for ticket information.