Chris Critelli Shakes It Up at Artpark
by Anthony Chase
All Shook Up, which opens at Artpark this week, is a jukebox musical that uses the Elvis Presley songbook to tell a tale of a hip-swiveling, guitar-playing bad boy who wreaks havoc in a small Midwestern town by showing them how to have a good time. The publicity centers on Sally Struthers, who plays the uptight mayor, Matilda, whose own son falls under the corrupting spell of rock and roll—but Chad, the rocker in question, will be played by Buffalo’s own Chris Critelli.
Mr. Critelli has been making his career in New York City in recent years, and returns for All Shook Up.
“It is great to be back and to be working with Lynne Kurdziel-Formato [the choreographer] and Randy Kramer [the director] again,” Critellis says. “I went to St. Joseph’s Collegiate, and Lynne actually directed me in my first high school show. I played Doody in Grease. It was kind of a golden age of high school musicals at St. Joe’s. I also played Sky in Guys and Dolls, and then in my senior year, we were one of the first high schools to do the revised version of Les Misérables. I played Jean Valjean.”
Critelli’s rapid rise from Doody to Jean Valjean was characteristic of the dashing figure he cut across Western New York while he lived here. He went on to major in musical theater at UB, and took jobs in local professional theater.
The Surprising Sally Struthers
Audiences at All Shook Up who know Sally Struthers exclusively from her work on television may be surprised by her accomplishments as a stage actress.
She played Archie Bunker’s daughter Gloria in All in the Family throughout the 1970s, thereby becoming a part of television in history. For a time, the Encyclopedia Britannica featured just one photograph in its entry on the history of television. It showed Carroll O’Connor as Archie, Jean Stapleton as Edith, Rob Reiner as Michael, and Sally Struthers as Gloria. If she had never done anything else, Sally Struthers would still be remembered today for that show.
But Struthers likes to work. After All in the Family, she had her own spinoff, Gloria. From 2000 to 2007 she was featured on Gilmore Girls, ensuring that a whole generation too young for All in the Family now knows her. And in between, she has often been on the stage.
I first saw her on stage in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple: female version, on Broadway in 1986. She created the role of Florence, the female equivalent of Felix Unger.
While I knew she was a deft comedian, it was in musical work that Struthers really surprised me. In the late 1990s, I saw her as Elsa Maxwell at the Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, Virginia. It was a musical about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson called Only a Kingdom. Struthers gave a full-throttle comic performance with a raucous musical number. I was amazed.
In subsequent years, I saw her from time to time. Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof, Annie, The Full Monty, and Always Patsy Cline are in her credits. The performance I recall most vividly, however, was a turn she did in a Los Angeles tribute to Cy Coleman in which she sang and danced “I’m a Brass Band” from Sweet Charity. (Cy Coleman died unexpectedly less than a week later, and so Miss Struthers’ was probably the last performance of the song that he would ever see.) She was astonishing—graceful and funny and affecting. The caprice was that an overly energetic marching band nearly plowed her off the stage as she was doing the number. At one point a musician crashed a cymbal, nearly over her head, prompting her to exclaim, “Shit, Murray!” The audience roared. It was too perfectly timed not to be rehearsed, but appeared to be entirely spontaneous. Even with a lineup that featured some of Broadway’s finest, afterward, everyone was talking about Sally Struthers.
She can be seen in All Shook Up through August 22.
“Actually I got my first paycheck for performing for doing Smokey Joe’s Café at Artpark. My mother framed it!”
Also at Artpark, he would do a Cole Porter revue and the Kander and Ebb revue, And the World Goes Round.
Critelli credits the supportive Buffalo theater community for launching his professional career. “From St. Joseph’s, to UB, to the shows I did in town, I definitely benefitted from the fact that Western New York is so welcoming and supportive of young performers. At UB [BFA in musical theater, magna cum laude], I was able to work with Lynne again, and Vincent O’Neill, and Saul Elkin, and Stephen McKinley Henderson who all worked in the professional theater. It helped so much to be able to hear their stories and have their guidance. It made a professional career seem attainable.
“People who are not from this region are always surprised when I tell them how much is going on in Buffalo.”
As a young leading man, Critelli was featured in a string of high-profile productions in Buffalo. He played Bobby Strong in the MusicalFare production of Urinetown; he played Robbie in the Irish Classical Theatre production of A Man of No Importance. Each performance was vivid, beautifully realized, and memorable. Both productions are remembered for their excellence.
Critelli was among a wave of UB “kids” that included Bethany Moore, Adam Zelasko, and Chris Donnelly, all of whom are making professional careers.
“Jeff Denman went before us,” says Critelli. “He was also ahead of me at St. Joe’s, so he was both a legend and a role model for what we all wanted to do.” Denman has appeared on Broadway in The Producers and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, and works extensively and regularly on prominent shows.
While he is building his career, Critelli is learning to diversify his talents. He has appeared in such shows as The New Hopeville Comics, The Hypochondriac, Kidnapping Laura Linney, and Tinyard Hill. But in addition to acting, he is cultivating his abilities in songwriting, as a visual artist, and is even pitching an idea for a graphic novel. In addition, he and a group of friends are trying to launch their own theater, “The Hive Theatre Company,” focusing on new works and underappreciated writers.
“We hope to start with our first staged reading in September,” he says.
Critelli likes to say that his appearance at Artpark in All Shook Up is a return to “his old stompin’ grounds.”
He grew up in Niagara Falls, where his parents, Chris and Mary Critelli, still live. His father is a music teacher; his sister is a dancer and singer. “My mother is the brains of the family, but she does play the accordion!”
He is delighted to be starring in All Shook Up and confirms what everyone has been saying, that Sally Struthers is a remarkably nice person. “More than nice, she’s very talented and down to earth, and she’s my kind of kooky,” he says. “She’s always cracking jokes and is really adventurous in rehearsal. This whole show has been a good experience and people are going to like it!”
In addition to Struthers and Critelli, All Shook Up will feature Carey Anderson as Natalie. The production plays through August 22.
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