Brooklyn’s little school that could does it again and better than ever.

YOUTUBE VIDEO OF THE SHOW BELOW

Generations produced by Genesis/M Center

Reviewed by Evan Meena

The M Center for the Arts culminates each season with an annual “recital” but somehow the recitals get bigger and bigger each year. Having attended a healthy share of them, this writer saw the growth of the studio and its students.

Mary Elizabeth Micari, the founder of the establishment and of the P.A.T.H. method (Performing Arts Training Holistically) brings together her finest students in their finest moments for a one night – in this case – one afternoon presentation.

The school initially had recitals in churches and other local Brooklyn centers, and then the season finale moved to The Producers Club in Manhattan as well as the original Musical Theater Works across from the Public. Now the 2016 season project added its name to the litany of shows that were part of the 13th Street Repertory. But that wasn’t all that made it the best yet. This year, the tiny few lines bringing together the students song work became a full-scale three act script written by Jay Michaels. And we’re not finished. One of those acts was picked up by John Chatterton’s Midtown International Theatre Festival and opened just a week ago. Way to go M Center.

The story this year was a soaring one. GENERATIONS follows three generations of artists. The first group was a gaggle of little girls awaiting an unknown audition but for all their cat-on-Facebook cuteness, were tough cookies. Leading the pack of marshmallows with crunchy centers was Alinna Gonzalez, whose comic timing for someone her young age is stunning. Somehow, she and newcomer Ella Paturno managed to pull off comedy routines with precision, eliciting belly laughs form the crowd. Bringing up the rear in this first segment was Agapi Bakopoulou, a trained film performer; here Agapi showed that she had stage chops as well. All there found a moment to sing cleverly woven-in tunes with excellence. Alinna shifting gears from the brassy to the sensitive with a lovely pop piece before Ella proceeded to  blow the speakers out of the theatre with This Girl is On Fire and Agapi showing comic versatility with Get this Party Started. And what a surprise… they end with Naughty from Matilda. These three were beyond cute and really talented. Alinna then surprised the crowd by sitting down at the piano and playing a song she composed. I was speechless.

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Act Two found a group of teenagers attempting to break a writer’s block and finish a new song. All the usual players were present: the sassy “popular” kids and the shy soul with so much inside. Isabella Sirota and Ashley Chico – dressed identically in fashionable “artist” grays – played the popular kids with aplomb, fast talking and excited. Ashley handed in two power-packed numbers while Isabella saved her winner for the 11:00 number of the act; a song she wrote. There seemed to be a thru line even behind the scenes.

It then turned out that Ashley’s best of the two numbers was also written by Sirota. The M’s students were surprising all the way around.

But the star of that movement was – of course – the shy girl, Brigid Elizabeth Drake. She created a realistic lonely little girl just wanting her chance. Her song At Seventeen was so moving that even she was brought to tears. Why should she be any different than anyone else in the theatre at that moment? Her natural acting ability and lovely countenance will take her far in this industry.

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Act III took us some 30-40 years in the future… in terms of performers’ age. M Center has a division dedicated to the more senior artist and for that act; some really wonderful moments were presented. Two favorites of the school and one relative newcomer played office workers on the eve of their termination due to reorganization lament about their days in showbiz.

Emmy Pai, an Asian dynamo returns to the M Center stage as an accountant who dreams of being a showgirl. She presented a sultry FEVER and uproarious Come On-a My House. Christine Conway, a familiar M face for much of the studio’s life, played a woman obsessed by horror movies. Conway gave us lots of laughs with “Boyfriend” from Young Frankenstein and “Khandarian Demon” from Evil Dead the musical. Towering above them is relative newcomer Dave Richards. A former stand-up comic Dave shared his obvious well-timed humor and competent voice in a group of tunes which seemed designed to exemplify the mood of the show. Two wistful ditties about what he should have done and how he landed there,  grounded the fun in stern reality. Their piece, maybe because of the identifiable subject matter, maybe their convincing performances, was the most realistic and engaging. It’s no wonder it went on to a legit off-off Broadway bow.

Two other cast members were more-than evident in the production as their roles seemed to weave in and out of all three stories. Andrew Gonzalez played a street smart kid who wanted to be an actor. He, through outlandish means, infiltrates the little girls audition and supplies the scene with some strong laughs and a rousing number from Disney’s Aladdin. He reappeared in the teen segment and displays some really compelling acting chops with Pippin’s perennial “Corner of the Sky” and some really touching moments with that cast. His final showing was in the epilogue of the final segment and gave the audience a laugh that was joyous, cathartic and inspiring. Gonzalez displayed unusually high talent as an actor in these three segments, so much so that the energy considerably rose on stage and in the audience at each appearance. His singing voice is only starting its journey but already shows great promise. I’m sure we’ll see his growth meteorically happen at future M productions.

The second thru line artist was Mario Claudio. Claudio brought down the house a few years ago in another M concert and here we now see the same level of strength in a more mature, focused entertainer. He got an opportunity that most actors would kill for. He played four separate characters. The humor was that they were all identical siblings. He began as a glad-handed stage manager for the unseen production of the children. All coos and smiles; he was the perfect counter to the streetwise brats. Then he was an affected music teacher, complete with light gait and bow tie. Here Claudio gave us the effete flicker of the stereotypical high school teacher of back-in-the-day. Finally, two for the price of one. A somewhat callous office manager and his bartender brother. The former, deadpan and hushed, Claudio gambled on glares and glints – which paid off well. As the latter tough-guy brother/barkeep, he gave us more mood than substance and while this might seem negative, considering the scene in which Dave’s character goes through a major turning point, it actually was more of a help. Mario’s name is in much of M Center and Genesis Repertory’s (the school’s sponsor)  press, so one can fathom his star is on the rise.

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[A call to our editor at press time implied he is now a member of the cast of the perennial LINE, whose run surpasses Cats, Phantom, and Fantasticks.]

One could forget this was a concert of students thanks to the script written by Jay Michaels. A few connecting quips to get from song to song in such a project is expected but instead the audience received a competent multi-act play with character and transition. This expert tome enhanced the actors own performances exponentially.  Corralling this rag-tag group is musical director Mason Griffin. His control of the varied score and the performers elevated the production even higher.

Mary Elizabeth Micari’s bio shows an enviable level of expertise which she selflessly bestows on her students – and the caliber of talent displayed showed it. Ms. Micari and her P.A.T.H. method are an invaluable open-door to anyone looking for a career in the arts.

“You’re Gonna be  Star”

The school boasts a platform that allows students to enter the “real world” while studying at the M. Lots of schools take credit for the student’s successes even though they had very little to do with it. Other schools have local showings that they call opportunities. M is different. Proof of that came with Act III of Generations, which one month later became “Grey is the New Black.”

The three hapless 9-to-5’ers took their act on the road. Actually, uptown about a mile at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, John Chatterton’s venerable array of new works and variety acts. There,  a newer version of their musical angst fest about day-job hell was presented. Here the stakes were higher. Language was stronger and more music was added – and the three caballeros rose to the occasions quite well. The basic story was the same, three former show folk are now about to be let go from a job they never really wanted and what should they do at this more senior time in their lives without means of support.13769589_10208733851756495_890233557892075228_n

Maybe without the festivity of the kids and concert and an audience filled with parents and friends, the story seemed deeper and darker. Dave, our former comic seemed like a man whose masculinity was taken when he opted out of job at Dangerfield’s decades prior. Dave Richards supplied with us with a subtle sense of pathos which resonated with the crowd beautifully. His stand-up chops were used as a new narrative supplying us with constant alleviation.  His rueful songs banged in the ears of an audience of strangers whose only connection is a deep understanding of the words “dream” and “lay-off.”

Christine Conway provided a deft character study of someone who made a mistake and how that hinders everything else in your life. Her clunky presence and child-like horror heroine fantasies allowed the audience to laugh now – and cry later. Sadly, her film references were somewhat obscure so the real punch of hearing about Hammer Films and Peter Cushing was not there, but the author’s choice of film names allowed the message to still shine. Not much doubt about a movie called Frankenstein’s Monsters from Hell. Finally Emmy Pai gave us a live wire showing as an immigrant whose dreams were halted by unnecessary tradition. Pai’s rapid fire energy and delivery was a joy. Always funny, Emmy Pai was the comic relief of the comedy – go figure. Her delivery while funny was in some cases too fast and the humor of her speaking Chinese and some really clever one-liners were lost. While fast and loud is best, sometimes less is more.

Michaels and Micari returned as the production team handing in an expertly written and subtly staged work. While Jay Michaels is known for more elaborate works (his NYIT Award nominated Hamlet was running downtown and the same moment), the intimacy of the simple set and austere lighting hit the spot. Musically, Mary Micari along with longtime collaborator Dan Furman kept the music – old and new – smooth and enticing. Now the pair handed the three chums harmonies and even a few ensemble numbers. If the show has any level of autobiography in it, then it is assumed the three have left the arts and came back, which makes the intricate musical work that much more impressive.

Spoiler alert – there’s a happy ending

After visiting many of concerts and watching the growth in familiar faces, one can conclude that the M Center is not like other schools of its ilk. It doesn’t train its actors to be all they can be. It trains them to be better. And then they find a place to put them in the professional world. Many schools falsely use the word “star” purely colloquially.

M delivers.

New Acting School gets ANGRY: Twelve Angry Men opens ACT-OUT Acting Program Master Class

ACT-OUT Acting School in association with Genesis Repertory presents a master class final project:

TWELVE ANGRY MEN
Adapted by Sherman Sergel. Based on the Emmy award-winning television movie by Reginald Rose. Produced by special arrangement with The Dramatic Publishing Company of Woodstock, Ill. 
An ACT-OUT Master Class

Review by Bob Greene

The golden age of television brought us classic dramas from anthology programs like Playhouse 90 and Studio One. The latter featured works by teleplay writer Reginald Rose. While he was somewhat prolific in this time period, today he is known almost solely for one great work: Twelve Angry Men. The jury room drama that appeared on television, film, and stage. The most recent live outing came thanks to John Stillwaggon’s Act-Out acting program. Prof. Stillwaggon used this ensemble drama as sort of a final exam for his class of adult artists, some continuing their theatrical education, other embarking on one. It was impressive to not be able to – at a glance – see who were the veteran performers and who were the novices.

The play’s plot is simple. A young man of some ethnic persuasion (most productions keep this fact ambiguous, not here as this production was modernized, the ethnicity was topical as well) is on trial for the murder of his father. While we are handed facts that are meant to lead us – and the jury – to believe that this boy is guilty beyond a doubt, one lone juror, wants to re-examine the facts. What results is an hour of taught, engrossing drama that shows none of its 57 years of age.

Twelve Angry Men worked well for Stillwaggon’s class as it is meant to be a group of a dozen strangers, so a class of varied types fit right in: Raja RG was solid as the foreman and held the narrative well in a no-nonsense manner, while Joyce Adams provided levity by being consistently confused. Ms. Adams light interpretation made her truly likable. William Doyle was excellent as the famed belligerent juror with an ax to grind. Here we found a totally fleshed out character straight down to his spot-on costume choice. We believed his ardor came from ignorance so we never truly hate him. Olga Privman gave us a professional woman character that was most refreshing. It put the play squarely in the present and her powerful presence moved the action well. The same can be said for Andy Guzman’s ethnic juror who will not forget where he came from. Guzman and fellow juror Andrew Marcillo contributed a genuine toughness that could easily have been lost among some of the more outspoken characters but both men delivered strong sensitive portrayals that enhanced the action. Robert Aloi and Mohammad Saad were true standouts as the blow hard, ignorant juror and the new American, proud to be as such. Aloi’s clumsy swagger and over-the-top delivery was the stuff of great drama and when it was combined with Saad’s focused piercing delivery, peppered with an accent that made lines about being American that much more poignant, the play was at its peak. Kristen O’Blessin handed us a smarmy advertising middle exec, whose journey from the “obvious” to the real was both humorous and touching. Robert Saunders and John Harrison played two ends of the same coin – one, a sad man hoping to make a difference and the other, a sad man too blind to see the detriment he was making. Saunders’ slow gait and warm voice made us care, while Harrison’s monologue in the latter half of the play about “those people” brought gasps from the audience. The choice to show us who was on trial by mentioning the unmentionable event of 2001 could have destroyed the play but in the hands of Mr. Harrison, it was a wake-up call.

Finally, Christopher Sirota’s performance as the famed “Juror #8,” the lone juror with the almost impossible task of swaying his colleagues, was inspired. Playing him as a meek unimportant, unnoticed little man was very clever. Never loosing this quality, we truly saw – not only his battle with his fellow sequestered colleagues – but the inner battle with himself to stand up for what’s right. Sirota walked the fine line between performability and reality by giving us great command of the stage in a subtle portrayal. Thinking of this piece by today’s standards, he struck a strong chord for the “everyman” everywhere.

Giving his students a bigger obstacle, Stillwaggon staged the piece in the round. He is to be commended for offering his students a bevy of challenges not normally found in an acting program. One might say he is a juror #8 by having abundant faith in his students.

While it must be said that there were lost moments due to volume or diction, sight line issues with the in-the-round setting juxtaposed with audience placement, and questions regarding choice of costume and color, the overall product was a great night in the theater.

One might also ask: did his get 12 students and then pick the play or was he lucky enough to get 12 students for the play?

Act-Out should be praised for providing such a service in a neighborhood setting and Genesis Repertory should receive its own praise for sponsoring such an event.

Bob Greene is a former playwright and retired history professor. Today, he writes for several online services.

BRIDGEBOY, many stories told in one happy hour.


BRIDGEBOY
Through March 6

http://www.theactivetheater.com

Review by Robert Liebowitz

Solid cast–for the most part, a refreshing yes. Stage-worthy play–again, for the most part, yes, provided by a playwright of strong talent. Technical design and execution–not the best, but capable, practical, and well suited for the production at hand. Dramaturg–errr, who? Dramaturg. Hmmmm…what’s that? Well, a general description would be a person skilled in knowing what will and what will not work on stage.The lack of Dramaturgy makes this play well-meaning but mixed.

“The play is the thing, etc…”, and here this tenet of the theater applies. Mr. Keuter has many profound, insightful things he wishes to say, and he knows basically how he wants to say it. The problem is that, at last count, there were three plays performing within one, and one suspects a fourth play broke out after the lights went black and the audience was filing out of the theater. There was simply too many competing, distracting ideas constantly butting into each other, which prevented the play from being a solitary, singular vision of work.

Fortunately for the playwright, the play he set out to write–some silly, inane contrivance concerning two very silly and unlikable 20-somethings–passed and faded from view after about 20 minutes. Thankfully, Mr. Keuter had much more up his sleeve.

The play takes place in some seedy bar near a bridge–(Red Hook, Brooklyn, perhaps? An obvious choice, something the directors left purposely vague, for reasons known only to them). Within minutes we are presented with what appears to be The Cliched Parade of Idiots–Drunk Bartender, Convict Brother, Convict Brother’s left-behind wife, The Girl Left Behind, and The Love Story, with The Gym Rat and The BagLady Greek Chorus thrown into the mix. Yet the play never delved into this tired territory, or into that place called I’ve Seen This Play Before. Well done.

Suddenly and without warning, the children thankfully went to ‘theater sleepland’, and the adults took over. Their stories–filled with harbored passions, monstrous jealousies, cowardice, and of course one Big Lie after another–was compelling listening and viewing throughout the 1 hour 40 minute running time. Marinated over this were wonderful insights into the human condition, with much to laugh at and some to ponder. All of it in natural, everyday conversational tones, with that heightened theatrical reality. A tip of the hat to you, Mr. Keuter.

The cast lived up to their end of the bargain, led by the superb Catherine Curtin as the wistful barfly Candy, and her comrade-in-arm Mary Jo Mecca as the long suffering neglected Lynn. The men were generally as strong, led by James Judy as the loutish but broken hearted and love sick Sal.

To The Active Theater–you have the writing, the acting, the technical…next time, though, one play, one story, told through the eyes of one director. These simple precepts, these basic blocks of theater building, would’ve easily have made ‘Bridgeboy’ a memorable production instead of a capable competent one.

Fine Performances Refresh Don Pasquale

Review by Robert Liebowitz

Opera is no doubt a powerful, highly expressive art, but most productions of operas usually disappoint. Why? Simple–every other production element that goes into making a theatrical event is simply ignored; all that is concentrated on is the actual singing. Acting, directing, set design, costumes, make up, lights…these get treated like step-children and, unbeknown to the director, their production suffers as a result. Add the Met’s recent production of Tosca to this list of passable but mediocre endeavors.

Happily, however,  this notion has made a U Turn of sorts, at least for the short while. The Bronx Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale has not only exceeded expectations, but has done the near impossible–taken a minor, insignificant work, and converted it into a captivating, entertaining, successful evening. Sometimes taking a small step, sometimes a great leap, this version surprises at every turn.

Donzinetti composed this near the end of his life, taking all of two weeks; sometimes it feels as if he were double parked while writing. The music is unmemorable and as dull as dishwater; the plot is a tiresome, grade-school cliched collage of trickery that dozens of composers have done better. The hidden gem, however, is the libretto, sung in English, and still sparkling 160 years after its inception. A tip of the hat goes to Director Royston Coppenger for simply having the good insight or fortune of casting correctly, which in turn brought this gem into a vital, glistening light.

It is highlighted by the brilliant, wise-cracking, scheming-but-with-a-good-heart Ms. Nicole Lee Aiossa. She portrays the sexy, wistful Norina with uncommon wit and charm, and is worth the price of admission by herself. She is helped by the able Jack Anderson White, who portrays the title role quite effectively.

The company is also to be commended for its non-traditional casting of Robert Arthur Hughes in the role of Ernesto, Don Pasquale’s nephew. Mr. Hughes need a bit more seasoning as far as his acting goes, yet his voice– in his arias but in particular in his duets with his love interest Norina–provides a haunting contrast, and made for several memorable stretches of true dramatic story telling.

As mentioned, some of the other elements of dramatic story telling fall by the wayside in a sea of neglect. If an actor is waiting for a cue for their entrance, they must not be seen in the wings actually waiting. If one receives a letter from a servant, it must be in an envelope; if it is not, it changes the plot of the play. If one is packing clothing in a pair of suitcases, it must appear that there is at least something in these cases besides air. If a significant part of the Act II plot hinges on an actual slap, from husband to wife, then an actual slap–fingers to cheek–must occur. When you are successful, the willing suspension of disbelief enjoyed by the audience will go a long way…but then is momentarily destroyed when these inexcusable missteps occur. The costumes are from the Edwardian England Era, which would be quite an accomplishment, since the opera takes place in Italy, and the Era was nearly 70 years away, safely ensconced in the following century. A program note of time and place is required.

No matter. The Bronx Opera on the beautiful Lehman Campus hosted an enjoyable night at the opera!

One Great Opera … Two Casts … Drei Pintos

[The Bronx Opera presented the New York staged premiere of Weber & Mahler’s Die Drei Pintos. As is tradition at the oldest opera company of its kind… the production was double cast. here is the first review by Lenny Stough. A second review of the other cast is forthcoming.]

Every season, The Bronx Opera dares to be different and present a rare or unique opera to start its year. This time, they present one that is rare AND unique. Die Drei Pintos, a piece created by Carl Weber, was incomplete at time of his passing. It was parceled from composer to composer until – 65 years later – it was brought to fruition by Gustav Mahler. What is finally there is an engaging, joyous work brought to appreciative audiences in The Bronx and Manhattan. The plot focuses on privileged student Don Gaston deciding to have a little fun with immensely MORE privileged squire Don Pinto by stealing his papers and attempting to woo his rich fiancée, Clarissa – call it 17th century identity theft. He drags girlfriend Inez and long-suffering servant Ambrosio along for the ride. He thought it would be easy as Clarissa’s father, Don Pantaleone, never met the man to become his daughter’s husband, until he encounters a stumbling block in her secret boyfriend Don Gomez – who Pantaleone also never met. Get the picture?

Eapen Leubner as Gaston has a marvelous voice and excellent stage presence. He played the adventurous young man like a matinee idol complete with self-absorption and ultra-brite smile. He was a great foil to Kirk Dougherty’s Gomez who – macho in voice and presence – found all the fun in the role. Jeremy Moore achieves perfection as the droll servant Ambrosio with a top notch voice peppered with great falsetto and well-timed double-takes. Moore was a standout. Hannah Rosenbaum was lovely as Inez, playing the innkeepers daughter with a wink towards Carmen. Catherine Meyers and Patrice Eaton were simply superb as the befuddled bride-to-be and her savvy servant. Both were in great voice and both handled Ben Spierman’s witty topical translation to perfection. Kudos to Brace Negron, who played the pompous Pantaleone with great command, and special nods to Jonathan Harris as the snarky innkeeper and Michael Sarnoff-Wood as the sycophantic servant to the lord of the manor.

And then there was the titular Pinto. An orchestra unto himself, Michael O’Hearn’s interpretation of the foppish Pinto in question was truly uproarious. Clothed straight out of Moliere, O’Hearn’s deep tones and larger than life presence was a guilty pleasure from beginning to hilarious end. His delivery of such simple lines as “I shall marry … a woman” brought peals of laughter from the house. A touch of a snore was enough to make an hilarious drunken bit end perfectly. One can imagine O’Hearn as a Falstaff with ease.

Ben Spierman’s deft pairing of classical style staging with a witty and even slightly sarcastic translation make a visit to The Bronx Opera enjoyable for all tastes. Meganne George’s sunny day in Spain set was gorgeous and made for a fine canvas to Joshua Rose’s expert lighting plan. Meg Zeder’s costume design – like Spierman’s juxtaposition of past and present – gave a hint of time period and a helping of social status for each character with Gaston looking like a (non-Tramp) Charlie Chaplin, Ambrosio straight out of Dickens and Pinto – as a parable to him being behind the times – in full classical wig and cloak.

The orchestra sounded lovely under the baton of Michael Spierman (Eric Kramer – who penned the bright and breezy overture of the opera – conducted the opening). And a top-notch chorus was wrangled well by Michael Hagler.

If you were to Google current productions of Boheme or Traviata, you would undoubtedly get scores of hits – pardon the pun. Goggling rare works like this will supply a lot less – and that shows the real bravery and dedication of The Bronx Opera. They are on to the more intimate and recognizable Don Pasquale in May in its native Bronx and out to Long Island. With quality an expectation from this sincere company, I am sure it will be worth the trip to The Bronx – and beyond.

MAD MEN: It’s business as usual in Robert Liebowitz’ The Check Is In The Mail.

New York International Fringe Festival 2009

Reviewed by Christian Graysen

Unless you’ve been living in outer space for the last few years, you know that every industry that had a “boom” is now going “bust.” For further evidence, there’s Genesis Repertory’s production of The Check Is In The Mail for the 13th Annual Fringe Festival. This high-speed one-act gives us an eye-in-keyhole view of the travails of a once flourishing business, now suffering due to one stupid move.

Playwright Robert Liebowitz once again hands us a well-written play spoken by the people for the people. Two Fringes ago, he put family matters in The Twilight Zone with the ghost story, The Wisdom That Men Seek. In this case, Check is the story of two partners in a prosperous printing firm (Allen Lewis Rickman and Jay Michaels) who made their first million in the days when business was run on cocktail lunches, a working knowledge of Yiddish and ribald humor, and a healthy dose of misogyny. The aforementioned stupid move was from founder, Leon Lipkin (Rickman), shortchanging star salesperson Janet Kupper (Cynthia Granville). Kupper instantly quits and sends the company into a tailspin with no way out … except one.

The cast is a group of seasoned pros and fresh faces: Allen Lewis Rickman and Jay Michaels as partners Leon Lipkin and Jerry Case, respectively, are enthralling. At once Bialystock & Bloom, then Felix & Oscar, Laurel & Hardy, Jekyll & Hyde, then Hyde & Hyde, the two banter almost non-stop for 70 minutes with humorous kibitzing giving way to dark accusations and devastating plot twists with Michaels excellently carrying the lion’s share of maneuvering the plot through all its sharp turns. Cynthia Granville deftly plays salesperson Janet with a world-weary air while maintaining a vulnerability needed to carry the subplot involving her relationship to Leon. Completing the quorum is Francis Callahan as Tommy, the lawyer for the unlawful. Callahan imbues Tommy with a savage persona then covers it with a lilting tenor tone. A perfect wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Populating the office was a bevy of supporting players whose countenance served as commentary for the action. Theresa Chow as Jerry’s officious assistant played the admin-afraid-of-losing-her-job with grace; Domenick Petito, stone-faced and imposing, as Cavanaugh’s right arm; and Kristin O’Blessin, the light comedy of this dark comedy as Helen, the befuddled office manager. O’Blessin’s presence turned her scenes with the two partners into a vaudeville routine prompting high-pitched screams from Rickman and old-fashioned double-takes from Michaels. O’Blessin then joined the dance trio for top-notch routines. That is not a typo, there are dance routines.

The play by itself is lively and engrossing but in the hands of director Mary Elizabeth MiCari (that’s right a female director for a play about chauvinistic white men) it is turned into an inspired piece of theatre. Injecting modern music, eerie lighting, and surreal dance breaks that seemed to both sum up and foretell, MiCari turned a naturalistic play into an ancient parable of hubris. Three dancers (O’Blessin, veteran dancer/choreographer Joyce A. Adams, and the fleet-footed Stefanie Smith, memorable as Leon’s less-than-perfect date) tapped, swayed, clogged, and marched to the beat of tunes played under foreboding newscasts of world affairs spoken by actual announcers from WPLJ. The company prides itself on finding ancient markings within all art and MiCari (the company’s new artistic director) outdid herself. The dancers were pagan priestesses, Greek chorines, or Macbethian witches, take your choice.

Technically, the show proved that less is more. Two desks made different by a soup of character driven props were all that was provided. While you might have wanted Leon to have an old woody desk and Jerry some modern piece of glass; the old monitor and chatkies on Leon’s desk told his tale while Jerry’s laptop, prescription pill buffet and stone statue summarized him. Likewise were the costumes. Jerry’s pinstripes battled the rumpled brown of Leon, with Janet in basic black and Tommy, a Clarence Darrow knockoff. Genesis’s crew – Shauna K. Smart from Hunter and Andrew Liebowitz from Brooklyn College (from the company internship program) – led by stage manager Robyn Gabrielle Lee, handled the lighting set-up, precision light and sound cues with ease.

Genesis Repertory is a parable of these changing times in and of itself. Once owners of the Jan Hus Playhouse, the company survived its lean years coupling with colleges and arts programs. Now a decade old, it can take its place as a fixture of the New York independent theatre scene, always presenting worthy works. This fall it begins work in its new 350 theatre in Brooklyn.

The Fringe – ironically – also is a parable. After 13 years, the Fringe is no longer the innovators but the competitor, with Fringes and Fringe-style Fests cropping up from Brooklyn to the Berkshires. But with clients like Genesis remaining loyal to the company store, New York will always have Fringe benefits.

The Check Is In the Mail has one more weekend – August 29 & 30. Go to http://www.fringenyc.org for details.

Reviving by reading: The Madowman of Chaillot (Readers’ Ensemble Company Summer Festival 2009)

Reviewed by Rich Grey

The expression “history is written by the winners” can be interpreted for theater productions as “works that are affordable are remembered.” Encores got a hold on countless musicals teetering on the brink of obscurity and gave them life, now the Readers’ Ensemble Company does the same for straight comedies and dramas. This new group dedicates itself to finding and presenting, in de-constructed format, works that are either not done or can’t afford to be done anymore. The latter case fits their second entry in a four-play series – The Madwoman of Chaillot. We’ve all heard of this play, we may have seen it in a university setting, but when was the last time you saw a 24-character play performed on, or directly off, Broadway?

Director J. Michaels gave himself every obstacle in this Jean Giraudoux surreal comedy written as a response to World War II. A staged reading is tricky – daunting when done by two-dozen actors. He added performance elements (a dancing deaf mute, masque work – albeit very simple, and touches of modernization like a Spanish-speaking flower seller and a yuppie stock broker). His gamble paid off as the evening yielded a fine show.

The play opens in cartoon fashion with a President, Baron, Broker, and Prospector (Nick Fondulis, M. Alan Haley, John Stillwaggon, and Michaels himself, respectfully) gleefully chatting about their wealth, how to get more, and the middle and lower classes whom they disdain. Fondulis supplies us with an excellent mixture of mustache twirling villainy while keeping things real enough to make us think of every bank president across the country today, he is complimented by Haley’s confused aesthete of a baron, willing to sell his name to make money. The electricity was turned-up tenfold by Stillwaggon’s high-speed banter and game show host smile as the broker. J. Michaels added to the humor as a humorless old hermit prospector, deadpanning around the three corporate stooges.

They are greeted by the titular character, Countess Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot. The casting choice was spot-on with Sheila Mart. Ms. Mart’s majestic presence in a tiny frame epitomized the character. Her staccato delivery fooled the audience by alternating between doddering and ingenuous. This allowed us to follow her down her rabbit hole (literally) to the play’s surreal conclusion.

There are also lovers (of course). The innocent, not-from-these-parts, Irma (played by Brianna Carlson-Goodman) and the repentant juvenile Pierre (Jim deProphetis). Carlson-Goodman and deProphetis played off of each other well, sharing innocence and pain, love and loss. Carlson-Goodman’s Act I monologue was a refreshing moment of clarity, while deProphetis’ scenes with Aurelia were charming and engrossing.

The financial wizards are forced to do battle with a cacophony of tradesmen and vagrants including a sassy waitress (played with great vigor by Sara Minisquero), a Latina flower seller (played in Spanish by Jessica Real-Mohr, whose gestures allowed even the most dense to understand her dialog), a lunatic foot doctor (Tracy Lipson doing her best impression of a 3 a.m. infomercial), two wacky policemen (Josh Silverman, hilarious as a new cop on the beat, and John Payne, truly funny and commanding as an old-fashioned beat cop complete with brogue) all led by an urban Ragpicker, played by Lorenzo Valoy. Valoy’s high energy and inventive delivery as the bearer of bad news in Act I and fire and brimstone channeling of all the evil of the world in Act II were high-points of the evening.

Act II brings a group of new characters. A sewer man (played with surreal joy by Robert Saunders) who thinks he’s a stand-up comic; three other madwomen: Constance (Dana A. Iannuzzi), whose choice of puppet dog over invisible dog – how it is normally played – was inspired; Gabrielle (Carla Kelly), an innocent chanteuse with an overactive libido, whose facial expressions and strange noises were a source of great humor, and the commanding Josephine (queenly played by Theresa Chow). Chow manages to make some of the play’s most absurd dialog sound totally logical.

Wide-eyed, tattered, and diminutive, teenager Adele Wendt – a trained ballerina – danced her lines (another inspired touch) as the deaf mute, adding a new dimension to this reading. Her frenetic “conversations” with Irma were a witty diversion and her Act I “ballet” (choreographed by Joyce A. Adams) became the play’s parable – the smallest flower can have the deepest soul.

Producers Dana A. Iannuzzi and Justin Flagg are to be commended for making possible a series that includes a rare George Bernard Shaw one-act (last week’s Press Cuttings), a Russian work made famous by Lon Chaney (next week’s He Who Gets Slapped) and rising star Lynn Nottage’s African-American drama, Intimate Apparel, which closes the festival. The small, warm theater chosen for the presentations might be an indication of an austere budget – a fitting parable as to why certain plays are allowed to vanish.

The festival is at University of the Streets on East 7th Street.

For more details log on to readersensemblecompany.org

Review: Any Dream Will Do — Brooklyn Assoc. for the Performing Arts. Reviewed by J. Michaels

Academics and musical theatre mavens talk of the evolution of the American musical. Well, there was similar progress bestowed upon the American musical revue. Today, the revue is a small ensemble-driven analysis of the works of a great composer. Examples are Some Enchanted Evening (Rodgers & Hammerstein), Smokey Joe’s Café (Leiber And Stoller), and, of course, Side by Side by Sondheim (you know who). But the early musical revues were grand nights of music designed to sooth the savage beast that was the Broadway audience. They usually had tiny plots designed to simply hold the music together. Today, aside from memories of Ziegfeld and White, we have Crazy For You and Anything Goes as the more perfect examples.

Rocco L. Buonpane and his Brooklyn Association for the Performing Arts invited us to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear with an old-fashioned musical extravaganza celebrating the works of the composer who – arguably – returned musical extravaganza to Broadway … Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Like the grand musical revues of almost a century ago, we have a more-than two hour night featuring more-than three dozen singers, dancers, and musicians serenading the large audience with ditties from the composer’s popular (Phantom, Cats, Superstar, Evita, JoeATD), cult favorites (Sunset Blvd, Starlight Express, Aspects of Love) and the rare and not-always-well-received (By Jeeves, Song & Dance, Whistle Down The Wind, The Beautiful Game, Woman in White). Like the revues of the days of vaudeville, you had star-turns, great moments, and missteps.

The star-turns were definitely that. Dustin Cross (the production’s choreographer) was the finest voice on the stage. Whether it was a sharp, comedic tilted-brow number like “Let’s Have Lunch” from Sunset Blvd, full-voiced powerhouses like the title song in Starlight Express, or heart-wrenching ballads like “Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cross displayed ease on stage and vocal strength virtually unmatched. As a dancer, he displayed the same vigor; as a choreographer, he created witty moves for a large group on a small stage. Of equal footing is Buonpane himself, who – with the hand-in-pockets ease of an old thespian – captivated his crowd with showstoppers from Woman in White and Evita. Christopher Lee Short, William Doyle, Rob Bradbury, and George Tsalikis also supplied great range, humor & charisma, and a sense of power. Tsalikis – a theatre/rock crossover artist with a new CD out (see related article in OuterStage) – could have had more to do in this show, as he is a recognizable face and voice. Finally, Celine Rosenthal’s rendition of “Tell Me On Sunday” from the original version of Song & Dance was wonderfully sung, deep and emotional, and totally believable. It was a highpoint of the night. And speaking of dance and highpoints, Elizabeth Brocsious – lead dancer in most numbers – was absolutely brilliant. Her face reflected each song’s mood, her acumen as a dancer was obvious in her looks-easy-but-we-know-how-hard-it-is moves, and the joy that radiated from her was infectious.

The night was filled with memorable moments including solos by Carly Howard, Erica Vasaturo, and Nadine Djoury who stepped out of the ensemble to deliver some fine renditions of rare tunes; Jayme Stevens, whose opening piece framed by the entire chorus was delightful, Nadine Jacques especially potent as Evita in “Buenos Aires,” Dawn Barry’s unique rendition of “Memory” – playing the strength not the emotion – and Charlie Eichler hitting the high notes of Whistle Down the Wind and the closing tune of Joseph…

Missteps were few but definitely there as the inevitable couple of performers chose to spend their stage time running for the center mic, over-singing and upstaging, and pulling out shticks and tricks to prove their charm when simply singing what was given to them would have done the trick.

Down in the pit, musical director Jake Lloyd – the third partner in the triumvirate of arbiters of this production led a tight and expert orchestra (including violinist Daisuke Suzuki, whose contribution created true magic), and made dozens of singers sound like a perfect unit in ensemble pieces and each soloists sound angelic. He also wrote the unique orchestrations for this production. Rumor has it Mr. Lloyd is a composer in his own right. If his mastery with the orchestrations is any indication of his own musical prowess, then one could expect this [Jake] Lloyd to prove competition to that Lloyd [Webber].

The technical aspect of the show needed work. There was a hint of curtains and patterns on an interesting amalgam of stairs and platforms – too much. The stairs themselves were fascinating but the curtains kept obscuring singers when they were under them. The lighting was a series of cross fades and spots – too much. With a ton of people and interchanging moments, a simply wash of light would have been sufficient and saved the problem of actors stepping out of a too-small spot. The costumes were OK … then too much. Everyone was dressed in black and looked like they were attending an artistic party or gathering – pretty cool. However, there were moments when suddenly there would an isolated ensemble member with too much jewelry or a bright color or an interesting accessory that would draw the audience’s attention unfairly. One gent was heard to say “nice dress” to his escort in the audience. Considering the soloist was a man at that point proved that the attention was not correct. The mics were a big issue. Body mics were shared oddly, the volume on the three standing mics was uneven, hand-helds were there, sometimes not. Maybe – next time – just the stairs, a wash of light, the orchestra to the side, and no mics might be the way.

There was indeed one negative to speak of – the lack of plot. As mentioned, a thread-bare plot would be employed for shows like this back in the day. A silly “hey, let’s do a show” or declamatory “and our next number…” motif… anything. Even doing the shows in sections might have helped. Going from song to song might not be a problem if this was Cole Porter, where every song was its own entity or Rodgers & Hammerstein, in which 90% of their material is well-known (OK, maybe not Pipe Dream, State Fair, or Me & Juliet) but when you have a composer with productions that did not run long, ran only in England, or were rewritten by the time it arrived on our shores, you run the risk of confusing your crowd. Again, The audience seemed to forgive the lack of story and settled in for a pleasing concert.

Magical Medicinals Part II: The Magic Apothecary mixes new brews.

Robert Greene wrote the following article in Drama-queens last year regarding the new line of herbal products for the skins and what is below. Next week, OuterStage will interview The Apothecary and discuss the new lines of perfumes, lotions, make-up, and other Natural Notions.

The world is starting to see the light – through the grit – but still seeing it. In fits and starts as well as planned change we are now looking to heel our bodies.

Bodies, here, can be euphemistic many times over.

We have polluted the main body – the earth; we have polluted our government with a war and crippling inflation; we have polluted out minds with Internet imagery; and there is no doubt we have polluted our own bodies. Whether it is through the inertia of slothful inactivity or ingesting harmful chemicals or tortured animals (I’ll have my antibiotic-filled hamburgers super-sized, please), we are hurting ourselves and want to stop.

Enter The Magic Apothecary. Creating a line of hand made products that – through herbal properties and aromatherapy – will help you heel.

Heel can be euphemistic many times over.

The Magic Apothecary is a line of soaps, bath products, oils, incense, candles, and meditations designed to empower you to better living. Named after ancient deities long associated with various strengths and powers, these simple handcrafted items, mixed with your own desire for better health and happiness, assist in your body’s natural desires for everything from courage to calm.

Each bar of soap, each candle, each bag of incense is handmade with real ingredients. Real herbs from bay leaves to chickweed and genuine essential oils including the likes of Rose of Damascus (a rare and expensive item in and of itself) are found in each. Each shower or bath opens your senses to the properties in these herbs; each mediation over a candle or incense fills your soul with the temperament of that particular god or goddess.

Make no mistake, The Apothecary’s weight-loss soap bar or her scented love candle will not magically make you thin and popular; the money soap and High-John the Conqueror candle will not get you the job at HBO, but the herbs in them will help strengthen your natural resolve to pull the god or goddess out of you. Sometimes all we need is that special aroma or texture to make us say, “I deserve it.”

Skeptics abound, even within the very community that supports such ideologies, so I asked a few of her clients (without telling them why). I got these comments:
Bob of Brooklyn said he’d been alone for far-too long. He bought a love kit and now he and his girlfriend are very happy (she just met mother); Mitch from The Bronx remarked on how he was living from paycheck to paycheck. He showered with the money soap until he could see the penny in the center of the bar. A loan came through enabling him to move to a better apartment; and even deeper, is Pat from PA – recently diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy – was allergic to most lotions and perfumes, so the burn of her treatment seemed unstoppable. She was able to sooth her chemo-seared skin with The Magic Apothecary’s Moon bar … safely, naturally.

The Magic Apothecary does not have a product that washes away skepticism but at costs below similar chemically made, factory-produced, store-bought items… what’s the harm? And she even supplies certificates of authenticity with her merchandise.

Reprinted by permission of site and author. Originally published July, 2008,

Two Casts, One Great Opera: The Bronx Opera’s THE MAGIC FLUTE

The Bronx Opera gives a lot of people a chance. The audience – to see great works of previous centuries; schools – with programs designed to woo children into this noble art form; and artists – by handing itself the obstacle of double casting its short runs. Ironically, it is a compact version of what opera is. Like Shakespeare, you don’t go necessarily to see Hamlet; you go to see Ralph Fiennes’ Hamlet or Burton’s Hamlet or David Tennant’s Hamlet. Well, here is where you can see two interpretations of the same work.

Case in point: The Magic Flute.

The Magic Flute

Friday Cast

By Erica Vasaturo and Fran Bacine

The well-remembered comment made by the Emperor in Amadeus is that Mozart’s work has “too many notes.” If so then it takes masters to make each of these abundant notes flow seamlessly into the other. Such masters can be found at The Bronx Opera, at 41 years and counting – the oldest opera company of its kind in New York. The Mozart in question is one of his most familiar – The Magic Flute.

The plot weaves around Prince Tamino who, through a series of trials, must win the hand of Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night, from Sarastro and the Temple Elders. He is given mystical weaponry including a magic flute bestowed upon him by three of the Queen’s mystical minions. He is also given a comedic sidekick – of course – the bird catcher, Papageno, who joins the adventure in the hopes of getting more food and drink but gets much more than he bargained for … good and bad. The Quixotic pair, both stricken with silence at points, both battle darkness and supernatural forces at other points.

Ben Spierman directed this English language production with a subtle hand. He imbued last years’ Pagliacci & Impresario with a stark “ripped from the headlines” flavor but this production received subtle shades of then and now. His wink-and-nod form of updating with one hand and maintaining tradition with another is done here beautifully. Starting with Tamino, dressed like a 1930s movie serial adventurer in the scope of Indiana Jones or Flash Gordon, somehow lands in this secluded mountain range filled with dragons, mysterious robed worshippers, and a sorceress. Not to mention. Lions and tigers and bears… literally. By keeping all but Tamino in traditional garb, the sense of transporting him to a mystical realm was emphasized. His bits of shtick entwined with traditional staging were also refreshing. Musically, Michael Spierman was the true sorcerer, commanding a huge cast and orchestra (literally spilling out over the sides of the orchestra pit) through a sea of stunning orchestral accompaniment.

An excellent principle cast was led by Neal Harrelson as Prince Tamino. His sweet sound, towering presence, and mane of blonde hair made him the ideal adventurer and of perfect contract to Jason Plourde’s channeling of the late Dom Deluise with a litany of facial expressions, double takes, and food sight gags as the lonely yet luxuriate bird catcher, Papageno. His own terrific tones made for a great pairing.

He was not the only humor injected into the opera. Helen Lyons, Leslie Swanson and Shirin Eskandani play the Queen’s mysterious envoys in perfect harmony and as three lusty maidens wanting Prince Tamino for their own. Noteworthy also is Laura Shofner as Papagena, the comic relief’s comic lover.

Ushering back to the Hollywood witch of the 1930s was Astrid Marshall as the Queen of the Night. Draped in black with towering headgear, Ms. Marshall was Agnes Moorehead with dashes of Margaret Hamilton. Her famed aria of the second act was well worth the wait. And to counter this dark force is her daughter, Princess Pamina, angelically sung by Alfonsina Molinari.

Two standouts within the production came from the supporting cast: Jorge Ocasio as Sarastro, High Priest of the Temple has easily one of the most powerful presences on that stage and his deep rich bass-baritone voice only secured that image. The Temple Priests had a very difficult job – here is where too many notes come in. There are long orchestral sections upon their entrances and filling the stage was the first order. Ocasio was able to do this with ease. Each stride or turn was energizing. The second is Leslie Tay as the manic Monostatos. Filled with nervous energy, Tay brought a sense of urgency to his role making him that much more captivating. Even standing behind the action looking on, he was a story unto himself.

Maintaining a classical venire is a double-edged sword. While the declamatory style one might expect to see in classical staging allows the artists to sing above the orchestra and project better into the house (purists that they are, The Bronx Opera does not employ microphones) not to mention creating some absolutely stunning stage pictures, it also drains some of the urgency from this mature fairy tale plot. The exuberant audience certainly didn’t seem to mind though.

The lighting by Jim Elliot was lovely. Subtle changes in color and area created a panoramic sense with an oil painting finish. Meganne George’s set design simplistic use of moving fabrics and window panels depicting everything from the mountains to the dungeons was well used in conjunction with Mr. Elliot’s lights. While Meg Zeder is to be commended for inspired color schemes and establishing a sense of time period, each temple elder seemed to be in a different pair of shoes and stockings. Sadly, the maidens’ chorus suffered from the same footwear issue but their costumes seemed to cover it better. The men’s chorus again suffered the double edge sword of performing in period. While they look compelling in the flowing robes, a certain posture must be displayed or the costume wears the actor.

The Spierman family and The Bronx Opera fight the good fight. Like Prince Tamino they must battle dragons and darkness with nothing more than beautiful music. The Bronx Opera’s dragons are a wretched economy and its darkness is the stereotype for which the Bronx has weathered for far too long. Yet through it all, they present top-notch work at magically low prices.

Here’s hoping nothing silences their voice.

The Magic Flute

Saturday Cast

By Robert Greene

At first glance, this opera seems very much the fairy tale. Dragons, bird-catchers, and secret societies battling sorceresses… but looking deeper you have an ancient tale harkening from ancient societal rituals. One might look upon this as an Iron John-style manhood trial amid pagan practices and beliefs.

We begin with Prince Tamino (Eapen Leubner), trapped in a mysterious mountain range occupied by ancients of all kinds – a Queen of the Night (Heather Hill) battling a secret fraternal order (and by now we all know which one Mozart was alluding to). The dashing Lindbergh lookalike, Tamino, is joined by a towering troubadour named Papageno (Jeremy Moore) whose love of wine, women, and song places him at Tamino’s side and in the face of danger. Needless to say, there is a damsel in distress (Katherine Wessinger), a great wizard-like leader of the fraternal order (Michael O’Hearn), three supernatural handmaids (Elizabeth Perryman, Paula Jean Rocheleau, Paula Roediger) the lusty henchman (Kennan Vasudevan) and a gaggle of spirits (The Bronx Highbridge Voices chorus).

Eapen Leubner and Katherine Wessinger as the Tamino and Princess Pamina were simply lovely together and powerful individually, displaying great stage presence and vocal strength; Heather Hill made the Queen of the Night a formidable figure with a genuine sense of realism within her otherworldly role. Adeptly avoiding stereotype or overdoing it as the role can suggest, she brought urgency and reality to her delivery. Progressive thinking in opera for sure. Michael O’Hearn was truly magnificent as Sarastro, leader of the order. His expansive frame was only dwarfed by a presence worthy of grand venues. And his deep basso tones were perfectly placed. But the real fun was Jeremy Moore as Papageno. Combining leading man looks with genuine comic timing and a superior voice made him worth the ride alone. His early exchanges with his lady love, Papagena (played with flair by Andrea Leyton-Mange) were like old English musical hall humor. And for the cuteness factor, the gifted children of Highbridge Voices appearing as sprites along with a herd of dancing animals did not disappoint.

It is the wise company that knows when simplicity and implication are the ways of design and The Bronx Opera is a wise company. Meganne George series of drapes and stained glass panels allowed us to believe we were on mountains or in temples or beneath castles. There was just enough to hold the hand of our imagination. Gentle hues amid romantic shadows, gothic midnight, lighting flashes, and even mystical auras were all brought to us by Jim Elliot. Meg Zeder’s beautiful color scheme and use of ancient versus present made for opulent costumes. This long piece moved briskly thanks to director Benjamin Spierman and assistant Nicole Lee Aiossa. Michael Spierman, the company’s founder and guiding force conducted the production including a larger than expected orchestra and full chorus to great success.

Many remain unaware of the great work of The Bronx Opera due to its off-the-path location(s). I was dragged to my first production last year by their ardent press rep. Now I am a fan. Not just because of what I see as consistency of professional standard but to revel in seeing promising young artists take an ancient form of art and carry it into this new century.

Today, we laud the large ensembles when they update and translate.

Well, uptown, The Bronx Opera’s been doing it for 40 years.