Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Unnecessary Farce"

Theatre review
"Unnecessary Farce" at Cortland Repertory Theatre
Ithaca Times
July 29, 2009
654 words
"Get Smart"

full text here

Get Smart

Mark Tedeschi

"Unnecessary Farce," by Paul Slade Smith. Directed by Kerby Thompson, with assistant director Corrine Grover. Starring Dustin Charles, Crystal Rona Peterson, Morgan Reis, Mark Bader, Justin Theo Klose, Joshua Murphy, and Erica Livingston. With scenic designer Carl Tallent, costume designer Wendi Zea, lighting designer Kathryn Furst, and sound designer David Hubner.

Ah, the farce. Ribald repartee, spirited slapstick, doors galore. What's not to love? Unnecessary Farce, playing at Cortland Repertory Theatre through this Saturday, has all the ingredients an audience craves in a helping of drama's trustiest genre.

Paul Slade Smith's script focuses on comedy over storytelling, though the action paces fast throughout. Around the peppered-in exposition lies a charming, twisty plot involving espionage, political intrigue, and plenty of bedroom chaos. Director Kerby Thompson - also CRT's producing artistic director - ensures the commotion's precise delivery.

The inventive set, designed by Carl Tallent, mimics a duo of adjacent motel rooms, each with a closet and a bathroom, divided by an invisible wall and adjoined by a door - technically, two - bringing the entry/exit count to a grand total of eight. The organic lighting, designed by Kathryn Furst, equally validates the milieu.

The right-hand room is occupied by Eric Sheridan, a nervous, reticent cop played by a mustachioed Dustin Charles (no stranger to farce at CRT) and his ambitious partner Billie (Crystal Rona Peterson), so excited to be part of an undercover operation that she just had to wear her police uniform. Their mission: capture video evidence of Mayor Meekly (Mark Bader) meeting next door with his accountant, Karen Brown (Morgan Reis), reportedly so he can bribe her to cover up his embezzlement.

Karen is privy to the sting, and her platonic meeting with Eric the previous night sparked an apparently never-lit fuse in her libido. Reis and Charles nail the awkward combination of Karen's newfound sensual energy with Eric's carnal timidity, and the characters spend much of their alone time losing the fight to postpone jumping each other's bones.

The plan faces further complication when Agent Frank steps in. He's head of security for the Mayor and played with bipolar emotion by CRT newcomer (and hopefully future repeat performer) Justin Theo Klose; he's torn between his sense of Town Hall duty and an allegiance to a powerful crime syndicate called the Scottish Clan and its mysterious leader known only as Big Mac.

It gets weirder. The head assassin for the Scottish Clan is nicknamed the Highland Hitman, a menacing moniker compared to his given name: Todd. As Todd, Joshua Murphy, tall and insistent, thickens his Scottish accent on cue, rendering it indecipherable when his character becomes angry or flustered. Billie discovers a knack for decoding Todd's jargon; one translation turns into a long tongue-twister that Peterson delivers flawlessly.

When Todd first appears, he's wearing a sharp suit and sunglasses, but we've already learned of his penchant for carrying out executions in full traditional Scottish garb. When the time comes, costume designer Wendi Zea has him in a kilt, knee socks, a fuzzy headdress, a baggy-sleeved shirt, and a "man purse" - he even dons bagpipes. (Additional recognition goes to Zea for underwear design, as there's quite a lot of disrobing in the show.)

In the second act, we meet the Mayor's wife, Mary Meekly (Erica Livingston, fresh from her "Damn Yankees" stint), a polite old lady combing the motel to locate her husband, who's been catching everyone at the wrong moment. Bader allows Mayor Meekly to live up to his name - earnest and humble, he responds to bedlam with a calm grace.

I have two small grumbles, and one regards the characters' lack of intelligence. Farce characters generally aren't known for their perspicacity, but in this play, their denseness often seems too exploited for Smith's intentions of telling a semi-believable story with credible characters. Similarly, the repeated jokes become tired the more they occur ("That's clan... with a C!"), especially when they deal with sex (e.g. Mayor Meekly's frequent habit of stepping into a room with a struggle occurring on the bed).

But despite the rampant lunacy, Unnecessary Farce is a smart play and an enjoyable diversion. Paul Slade Smith is, for sure, a promising playwright who understands the undeniable necessity of farce.

Crystal Rona Peterson, Joshua Murphy and Justin Klose in the Cortland Repetory Theatre’s production of ‘Unnecessary Farce.’ (Photo provided)

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Theatre review
"Damn Yankees!" at Cortland Repertory Theatre
Ithaca Times
July 8, 2009
756 words
"Grand Slam"

full text here

Grand Slam

Mark Tedeschi

"Damn Yankees!," book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Directed by Jim Bumgardner. Starring Erica Livingston, Jef Canter, Dominick Varney, Peter Carrier, Tom Frye, Meghan Rozak, Robert Finley, Alyson Tolbert. With musical director David Hahn, choreographer Daniel B. Hess, dance captain Jared Tius, scenic designer Jason Bolen, costume designer Wendi Zee, lighting designer Shawn Boyle, and sound designer David Huber.

Every summer, Cortland Rep chooses a "bigger" show as its seasonal centerpiece to run for three weeks instead of the usual two. Last year's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and 2007's Fiddler on the Roof were laudable exemplars of consolidation, shrinking the larger-scale musicals just enough to work on the Edward Jones Playhouse stage. This year, they're putting on the 1955 Broadway hit Damn Yankees!, and darned if CRT didn't make the classic seem born to be played in a smaller space. The fickle characters become endearing, the Faustian story feels accessible, and the hammy humor hits home.

In this Jim Bumgardner-directed production, the beer-bellied and bum-kneed Joe Boyd (Jef Canter with a pillow in his shirt) glues himself to an easy chair and shouts at his favorite baseball team on TV (as do his friends in the boisterous opener "Six Months Out of Every Year") while his wife Meg (Erica Livingston) hands him a beer and bemoans his cocoon of preoccupation (a concern for the other wives, too).

After the game, Boyd steps outside - actually, through a wheelable door frame matched by a quick change in lighting, respectively courtesy of Jason Bolen and Shawn Boyle. He makes an offhand comment to a slick-looking salesman, Mr. Applegate (Dominick Varney), about selling his soul if it meant fewer losses for the Washington Senators at the hands of those damn Yankees. Applegate offers him a deal involving a last-minute escape clause and turns him into a fit, 22-year-old baseball wunderkind named Joe Hardy. During the transformation Boyd sings "Goodbye Old Girl" to himself, the song apparently all he needs to justify abruptly and discreetly leaving his wife to fulfill a pipe dream for six months. Nevertheless, he heads to the ballpark, Applegate in tow.

Peter Carrier plays Joe Hardy as modest and earnest, making it easy to like him - plus, he has an excellent voice, evidenced in two duets with Livingston, "A Man Doesn't Know," and later, "Near to You." Hardy meets the Senators after their "Blooper Ballet," a tour de force of music (David Hahn, director), sound (David Huber), lighting, and choreography (Daniel B. Hess). The baseball players pantomime a number of blunder gags with razor-sharp timing and unmissable athleticism - and even some acrobatics.

In the locker room, Coach Van Buren (a spry Tom Frye) leads the Senators in the harmony-laden "Heart," the catchy number wherein the team boasts, "We always lose / but we're laughing 'cause / we've got heart!" Applegate convinces Van Buren to let Hardy try out. Afterward, he's taken to meet Commissioner Welch (Robert Finley, last seen at CRT in "Ten Little Indians") while the crafty local sportswriter, Gloria Thorpe (a zestful Meghan Rozak), comes up with a hook for Hardy's public image: "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO."

As Hardy poses for endorsements (note Bolen's impressive painted set pieces) and carries the Senators closer to the pennant, he can't help missing his wife. Applegate calls upon Hell's signature femme fatale, Lola (Alyson Tolbert), to distract him. She details her experience working for Applegate in "A Little Brains, A Little Talent," a number that showcases Tolbert's excellent dancing capabilities but plays a bit more happy than seductive. Likewise, it's easy to understand Hardy's reluctance to "give in" to her advances in "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)," as she poses as a naïve coquette with a squeaky, nondescript South American accent - it's even kind of sad when Applegate calls her on overdoing it, saying "They cut that from 'Carmen,' honey." The later Lola/Applegate duet "Two Lost Souls" plays much more comfortably, likely because Lola has admitted she's begun to empathize with Hardy.

Varney, though, never falters. After starring in two farces at CRT (How The Other Half Loves, Leading Ladies) he knows how to work the crowd. He's never sang at CRT before this show, though, and his confident vocals in "Those Were the Good Old Days" prove yet another strength. His comic delivery employs tenacious timing and highlights Applegate's joyful approach to causing trouble.

He also fits right into Zee's sleek costume design, everything from dress shoes to ringmaster cape using a combination of black and crimson. Zee's other colorful costume pieces - striped ties, plaid aprons, baseball uniforms, thick-framed glasses - place you promptly into the early 1950s.

Damn Yankees! runs about two and a half hours, but it contains enough singing, dancing, and comedy to maintain the fun. Fans of the show and first-timers alike should appreciate a version that proves "scaled down" can be a compliment.

The Broadway hit ‘Damn Yankees!’ at the Cortland Repetory Theatre. (Photo provided)

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"Once on This Island"

Theatre review
"Once on This Island" at the Hangar Theatre
Ithaca Times
June 24, 2009
746 words
"Crossed Lovers"

full text here

Crossed Lovers

Mark Tedeschi

"Once on This Island," book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Jesse Bush. Starring Lauren Davis, Jamal Lee Harris, Brianna Horne, James Jackson, Jr., Isaiah Johnson, Joaquina Kalukango, Jewell Payne, Frank Viveros, Jacque Tara Washington, Raena White, Darryl Jovan Williams. With scenic and lighting designer Steve TenEyck, costume designer Kenann Quander, sound designer Don Tindall, musical director J. Oconer Navarro, and choreographer Cjay Philip.

Packing over 20 attention-grabbing musical numbers in under two hours, Once on This Island, the Hangar Theatre's second mainstage production of the summer, will have you humming long after you've left the theatre.

Set in the French Antilles, Once on This Island is based on Rosa Guy's 1985 novel "My Love, My Love," itself a Caribbean reworking of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid." The plot, told here as a story within a story, deals with the socio-racial complications of a pair of star-cross'd lovers, Ti Moune (Joaquina Kalukango) and Daniel (Jamal Lee Harris). At the Hangar, Jesse Bush directs, spotlighting the best elements and carrying the show with engaging kinetics.

Don Tindall's sound design kicks the show into gear with a noisy thunderstorm that shakes up a peasant village, particularly one young girl (Jewell Payne) whom the villagers rush to comfort with the escapist warmth of a good story. The storytellers act as the characters in their tale; in "We Dance," they introduce the setting, similar to their own, that's ruled by four "powerful, temperamental gods": Asaka, Mother of the Earth (Raena White); Agawé, God of Water (Frank Viveros); Erzulie, Goddess of Love (Brianna Horne); and Papa Ge, Demon of Death (Isaiah Johnson). At first, it's a little tough to parse the cast's faithfully thick Caribbean accents, but the dialect becomes transparent once they roll through the unfamiliar names.

Following a torrential flood, Mama (Jacque Tara Washington) and Tonton (James Jackson, Jr.) discover an orphaned child, spared by the gods, crying in a tree. The ebullient girl is also played by Payne, a student at Ithaca's Boyton Middle School who handily tackles Cjay Philip's vibrant choreography. Mama and Tonton adopt the girl, name her Ti Moune, and poof! She grows up ("One Small Girl").

During "Rain," Daniel - a lighter-skinned young man of the wealthy, French-descended Beauxhomme family - loses control of his car and suffers a nasty crash. Ti Moune discovers him and, through protests from everyone in her family, brings him back to the village, caring for him and praying to the gods. But when Tonton treks to the Beauxhomme mansion to report their discovery, they promptly retrieve Daniel, despite Ti Moune's insistence that her love is the only thing keeping him alive. In "Forever Yours," she offers Papa Ge her own life in place of Daniel's. Papa Ge accepts, knowing that he will return eventually.

In the second act, Ti Moune finds the Hotel Beauxhomme and steals into Daniel's bedroom. After he awakes and realizes who she is, they admit their love for each other, ignoring the cultural distance between them. In "Some Girls," the only full-length, single-performer number in the show, Harris as Daniel belts an earnest solo praising Ti Moune for her unaffected perspective on life. Later, though, the divide proves sturdier than Ti Moune anticipated; Daniel's father Armand (Darryl Jovan Williams) tells him in "Pray (Reprise)," "You are my son / You'll do what must be done / No matter how you feel."

Kalukango proves herself a skilled leading lady, working through Ti Moune's deceptively acrobatic vocal parts in songs like "Waiting for Life" and stopping the show in its tracks during "Ti Moune's Dance" at the ball. In the latter number, Johnson accompanies her on a conga over the orchestra's euphonious, percussive Afro-Caribbean beats. As Papa Ge, Johnson gives his performance a laudable blend of snide causticism and demonic duty.

Kenann Quander's costumes fit the milieu: worn-and-torn garments for the peasants and more regal wear for the Grandes Hommes. Both allow ample movement, since the many musical interludes and crafty staging demands it.

Stephen TenEyck, lighting and scenic designer, endows the stage with a few crucial elements for a poverty-stricken village. Some crates and faded shack doorways fill one side of the stage, but standing out across the background and at the show's thematic root is a large two-dimensional tree, monochrome until the light points at it just right. Thatchy steps lead up to its branches, allowing Ti Moune to bound up and down at will.

That tree, where Ti Moune was first discovered, signifies the villagers' kinship with the Earth and their relationship with the gods. They knew they would learn from Ti Moune, and her unshakable belief in love as a power transcendent of all others is why they continue to tell her story. Guiltless optimism in the face of misfortune, amplified in the Hangar's production, is precisely what makes Once on This Island so enjoyable.

Ti Moune (Joaquina Kalukango) in the Hangar Theatre’s production of “Once On This Island.” (Photo by Thomas Hoebbel Photography)
Members of the cast of ‘MASS,’ at Cornell’s Schwartz Center. (Photo provided)

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"Gutenberg! The Musical!"

Theatre review
"Gutenberg! The Musical" at The Kitchen Theatre
Ithaca Times
June 17, 2009
748 words
"Writer's Blocks"

full text here

Writer's Blocks

Mark Tedeschi

"Gutenberg! The Musical!" by Scott Brown and Anthony King. Directed by Rachel Lampert, music directed by Larry Pressgrove. Starring Karl Gregory and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson. With pianist Thomas Jefferson Peters, costume designer Abigail Smith, lighting designer E.D. Intemann, and stage manager Abigail Davis.

"Gutenberg! The Musical!," the Kitchen Theatre's final show of its 2008-2009 season, is no routine playdate with theatrical convention; it's a celebratory satire of the unbridled passion that accompanies the dramatic process. The show's kid-because-we-love send-up, though, is merely a bonus success of its larger victory: relentlessly reducing its audience to ferocious fits of laughter.

Written by Scott Brown and Anthony King, "Gutenberg!" features just two actors - Karl Gregory as the squirrelly, pliable Bud Davenport and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson as the committed, excited Doug Simon. Bud and Doug, two aspiring writers with a shared vision, stage a pared-down approximation of a musical they created for a hopefully Broadway-producer-laden audience. They preface and interrupt their performance with explanations and clarifications, wherein we learn of their intentions to tell the story of Johannes Gutenberg: Since Google informed of the "scant"-ness of specific details on the inventor's life, they take some artistic liberties. In other words, aside from medieval Germany, Johannes Gutenberg and a printing press, they make it all up.

Holding fast to the verisimilitude of a budgetless performance, the extremely minimal set consists of a backgrounded table of some 30 hats labeled with character names and a couple of other multi-use props. The Kitchen's stage appears strikingly spacious, almost barren, placing all attention and pressure on the capabilities of the two leading men.

Under Rachel Lampert's knowing direction, they deliver. Bud and Doug play every character in their show, donning a cap to let us know who they are at all times. Lampert and musical director Larry Pressgrove have collaborated for many years (recently "Bed No Breakfast" and "Tony and the Soprano"), and their seasoned partnership strengthens the subtleties in "Gutenberg!"

In a nutshell: Gutenberg works in a winery. He comes up with the idea to press words instead of wine, to the consternation of the evil Monk and his apprentice Young Monk. Monk persuades Gutenberg's coworker and love interest, Helvetica ("Her name is also a font!") to smash the new machine. I won't reveal any more, except for a few character names: Old Black Narrator, Beef Fat Trimmer, Dead Baby.

During busier portions with many cast members "onstage," their effortless transitions more than once made me forget that I was actually only watching two people.

Pianist and assistant musical director Thomas Jefferson Peters is also there, and in addition to playing an impressive range of styles to accompany Bud and Doug, he helps unleash the wonderful comic timing embedded in the music.

The songs in "Gutenberg!" adhere to a structure parodic in its strictness. The opening number, "Prologue/Schlimmer" introduces the quaint town where citizens have little to do but lament their illiteracy, evidenced in the second song, "I Can't Read." Act I closes with the ballad "Tomorrow Is Tonight," and the climactic, penultimate song in Act 2 is a medley at the biggest event of the year - the German festival, "Festival!"

Often, Bud and Doug explain theatrical terms to the audience, preceded by, "That's what people like us call..." After they perform the non-sequitur "Biscuits," they announce that that was their strategically placed "charm song." They also read set directions aloud: "The stage is filled with doom. And fog."

King, artistic director of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, and Brown balance "Gutenberg!" with judicious arrangement and modest wit. The story behind the Bud-Doug dynamic is hinted at a few times because it's somehow funnier filling in the rest of the blanks yourself. Any passing strife they encounter takes a back seat to their zeal for the project they've created, as it's clear they've had to compromise to get this far.

There's a smattering of unexpected profanity, but not much - Brown and King take care to capitalize on the element of surprise, and their humor stays smart and consistent instead of pretentious or cheap. However, there is some risk that comes with this brand of satire; the determined if misguided Bud and Doug insist that all great playwrights tackle at least one "important issue" in their work, so they choose the Holocaust. It's not inherently a bad decision - it's just not as likely to draw laughs as the rest of the content.

Despite having very little respite, Gregory and Henderson lose no momentum through the many dance breaks and exhaustive character changes. The quality of the show and the nature of its affection toward its audience make it a splendid summer diversion and a fine conclusion to another season at the Kitchen.

Karl Gregory and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson in ‘Gutenberg! The Musical!,’ now at the Kitchen Theatre. (Photo provided by Megan Pugh)

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Theatre review
"Crowns" at Syracuse Stage
Ithaca Times
May 20, 2009
737 words
"Crowning Glory"

full text here

Crowning Glory

Mark Tedeschi

"Crowns" by Regina Taylor, adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. Directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris. Starring Dennis W. Spears, Shannon Antalan, Chandra Currelley, Crystal Fox, Roz White, Valerie Payton, and Terry Burrell. With musical director/pianist William Hubbard, percussionist Otis Gould, scenic designer Felix E. Cochren, costume designer Reggie Ray, lighting designer Jennifer Setlow, and sound designer Jonathan R. Herter.

I am not a fashion expert. In fact, you could say I'm more of a fashion minimalist. I missed out on the discussion of Aretha Franklin's recent inauguration headgear, and when I hear the word "hattitude," I think of Gary Busey giving a slipshod motivational speech in Rookie of the Year. Clearly I have a lot to learn, but fortunately for me, Syracuse Stage's Crowns offers an absorbing and in-depth investigation of a bright corner of the universe of hats - and the people under them.

This past season at Syracuse Stage, the second under producing artistic director Timothy Bond, has comprised myriad glimpses of global culture from Cambodia to Southern California. The final production, Crowns, directed by Patdro Harris, offers a look at African-American women and the role of church hats in their lives. Basically. It's not the hats that are important per se - rather, it's the surrounding societal circumstances and the empowerment these crowns represent.

Regina Taylor based Crowns on a black-and-white photography book from 2000 called Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. To transfer the rich stories embedded in the pictures to the stage, Taylor created a premise to illustrate the specifics of this historied phenomenon: Yolanda (Shannon Antalan), a spunky teen from Brooklyn, has to relocate to South Carolina after her brother is killed. She moves in with her welcoming grandmother, Mother Shaw (Chandra Currelley), and meets four of Mother Shaw's sagacious hat-enthusiast friends.

Costume designer Reggie Ray, owning the stage with his many gorgeous creations, has dressed the five women in easily distinct color motifs: Mother Shaw wears white; flirtatious Jeanette (Crystal Fox) usually dons an aqua blue; the animated Velma (Roz White) wears a regal purple; dependably candid Mabel (Valerie Payton) is adorned in red; and the fastidious Wanda (Terry Burrell) can always be seen in some kind of yellow. The ladies change costume several times in the show, but Dennis W. Spears, playing a multi-character "Man," has to change at least twice as often as the women. Spears's demanding parts range from an impassioned preacher to an ailing old man, and he plays all of them with equal dedication.

The acting in Crowns is all-around fantastic, and so is the musical performance. Like the costumes, the songs span a wide range of styles, serving the audience portions of drum-heavy African dance music, call-and-response church worship hymns, and even a spirited rap performance from Yolanda.

In solos, each of the women prove formidable tone and control, but White's Velma, in particular, brings forth an exhaustingly committed, carefully paced interpretation of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" that will stick with you well after you leave the Archbold Theatre.

Behind the scenes (actually, behind a translucent backdrop on Felix E. Cochren's wooden-wonderland church set), William Hubbard goes to work on the ivories and percussionist Otis Gould beats the hell out of anything near him. Their sound controls the mood and directs Harris's choreography, a frenetic blend of African and American spiritual fervor.

The influence of African tradition in Crowns extends beyond its music and dance; the characters are modeled partially from devotional elements in the Western African Yoruba religion. Additionally, for many cultural groups in Africa, adorning oneself for worship is a standard practice, revealing African roots in the church hats' significance.

Yolanda's grandmother and her friends eagerly elucidate the intricacies of hat-tradition, including hat humor. They demonstrate the proper way to hug a woman in a hat and chuckle about garish lampshade-esque hats or those with big red feathers: "It looked like it could fly!"

The crowns in Crowns act as storytelling relics. They spark familial memories even for Yolanda, who clutches her brother's red baseball cap for most of the play. Moreover, the elaborate hats are status symbols (as are the matching shoes, gloves and pocketbooks), despite the "modest apparel" church worship supposedly calls for. But the characters do acknowledge the objection to their evident materialistic inclinations. When Spears's priest decries their regular appearance in new hats despite their claimed inability to consistently pay tithes, Mabel defends their actions and insists the hats are not more important than praise.

But she doesn't really need to explain. Church hats are a powerful cultural symbol for many people, period. Crowns may not exactly tell you why, but it'll show you how. And I can guarantee it will provide you with a healthy and thorough understanding of the word "hattitude."

Valerie Payton, Crystal Fox, Dennis Spears (The Man), Shannon Antalan (Yolanda), Roz White (Velma), Terry Burrell (Wanda) in "Crowns." (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

University of Rock

Arts feature:
WVBR's University of Rock
Ithaca Times
May 6, 2009
779 words
"Rock Formations"

full text here

Rock Formations

Mark Tedeschi

When a light bulb switches on in Ryan McGuire's head, it stays lit. "I'm an anti-procrastinator," he explains. "I had the idea about six weeks before we started."

Just over two months ago, McGuire, a 27-year-old Thursday-night DJ for WVBR, racked his brain for a way for radio to contend with its burlier cousins, TV and the Internet. "Radio is a powerful medium," he says, but of all three, "it probably has the least amount of interaction."

He came up with a solution in University of Rock, a reality-esque show that pits three Cornell-student bands against each other in six weekly challenges. By earning the most points, the winning band would be awarded six hours of professional recording time at Ithaca's Rep Studio. But first - auditions.

"We had 12 to 15 bands audition from 8am to 7pm on a Saturday in a jam studio on campus. They were pretty unique auditions... they played two or three songs and answered a list of random, wacky questions," McGuire says. "We knew they had to be talented, but also interactive enough for people to listen to weekly. We gave truth or dare questions, asked them to act out scenes from Willy Wonka, things like that."

Three groups made the cut: One Trick Pony, Weggalo Star, and Funk & Disorderly. The guitarist for Funk & Disorderly, Ethan Cohen, says, "As soon as I saw Ryan's shoes and his Spacecar, I expected the oddball questions."

While One Trick Pony has a sound that McGuire describes as "their own kind of country rock," its members call it simply, "Pop." They remained confident through the audition. "It was kind of dorky," remembers Matt Schmohl, guitarist and bassist for One Trick Pony. "We had fun with it. I think they liked our attitude."

Joey Stevens, One Trick Pony's guitarist and primary songwriter, explains how the band's history directed their approach to the contest: "We weren't trying to put on a show the second we got together - we were just trying to focus on playing." Their first gig wasn't until a year after they'd initially formed, and once they joined the contest, he says, they "dedicated pretty much the same amount of time that we always had to the band" and found that delicate balance between music and academics.

For the first challenge, each band was given 15 minutes to compose a song about a sandwich from Collegetown Bagels (check to hear what they came up with). In the second week, they had to produce an original music video.

Despite the four-day time constraints, each band used the video assignment to highlight their sense of humor and jocular approach to music. "We basically came up with it all in one night," says Ariyan Basu, guitarist, bassist, keyboardist and vocalist for Weggalo Star. "We finished at two in the morning... there was fake blood all over our attic."

After a "junk jam," a cover of Frank Sinatra's "Luck Be a Lady," a concert in an unconventional location, and a more standard concert on West Campus on April 29, the scores were tallied: Weggalo Star emerged victorious. "I'm very proud of all three bands," says McGuire. "Funk & Disorderly has an amazing sound... it can be hard to capture the full extent of the quality of [singer Magee Lawhorn's] voice on the radio."

Weggalo Star, ever modest, agreed. "We're all sophomores," says guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist David Vieira. "Half of Funk & Disorderly are seniors."

"It was so intimidating because they're all older and more established," Basu adds. "We saw One Trick Pony [perform] in October, and they were actually the reason we started a band. We said, 'These guys are awesome!'" Not only are Weggalo Star relatively new, they hadn't actually played for an audience before their University of Rock audition.

For now, the group will wait to cash in their prize so they can "hit the ground running" next year. And speaking of next year, McGuire says the voter turnout was easily enough to ensure that the contest will materialize again.

"All three bands will continue to be promoted on WVBR," he says. With all of the self-promotion, he says, "The whole six weeks groomed them toward being real rock stars."

Basu got to meet a real rock star at Slope Day last week. "[The Apples in Stereo's] Rob Schneider was like, 'Weggalo Star? How do you spell that? That's one of the coolest band names I've heard in a while, actually.'"

When asked to explain their moniker, Basu says, "Every show, we make up at least two stories about how we got the band name... we're going to leave it a mystery, I guess."

They're learning fast.

All three bands have fan pages on Facebook, and all three will be playing a "guaranteed to be a blast" University of Rock concert at 10pm this Saturday, May 9 at the Nines.

Magna cum loud-e: The winners of University Rock, Weggalo Star. (Photo provided)

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Theatre review
"MASS" at Cornell's Schwartz Center
Ithaca Times
March 11, 2009
641 words
"Theatrical Synergy"

full text here

Theatrical Synergy

Mark Tedeschi

"MASS," music by Leonard Bernstein, text from the liturgy of the Roman Mass, with additional texts by Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein. Directed by David Feldshuh, musical direction by Scott Tucker. Starring Dominic Inferrera and featuring over 100 performers from Cornell and the Ithaca area. With projection design by Marilyn Rivchin, choreography by Joyce Morgenroth and Christine Olivier, scenic design by Ken Goetz, costume design by Sarah E. Bernstein, lighting design by E.D. Intemann and Ford Sellers, and sound design by Warren Cross.

When Leonard Bernstein's "MASS" premiered in 1971, it carried the subtitle "A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers." It was clear, with such a decisive title, that the ambitious piece should be finely calibrated in performance. Despite the demanding properties of "MASS," Cornell University's Department of Theatre, Film, & Dance - in collaboration with the Department of Music - has designed a full-throttle production rife with unique and credible artistic supplements.

Leonard Bernstein was a prolific, multitalented composer and musician who conceived of "MASS" by a commission from Jackie Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The structure of "MASS" mimics that of the preeminent Roman Catholic liturgy at the time and contains some modern critical commentaries on faith and piety. Naturally, divisive reception accompanied its premiere.

Because of its technical arduousness and controversial reputation, "MASS" is not often produced fully staged. Yet Director David Feldshuh and musical director Scott Tucker produced a 90-minute piece that embraces Bernstein's complicated style in its calculated staging and striking visual design.

Fundamentally, "MASS" is a musical work. Bernstein composed its music using the text from the liturgy of the Roman Mass, presumably to capture the emotional resonance it has on its practitioners; delivered by an 80-plus-membered "Liturgical Chorus," the Latin portions' aural impact reverberates through the Schwartz Center's Kiplinger Theatre. In the pit, blues, rock and jazz instruments cooperate with a more standard orchestral setup, and together they bob and weave through precise changes in rhythmic motifs and myriad musical styles.

At the center, though, stands professional opera singer Dominic Inferrera as the central man of cloth, known only as the Celebrant. He drives the Mass onward, his control of diction and dynamics enabling his voice to sustain clarity even buried under the boom of the Liturgical Chorus and the protesting cries of the smaller, more contemporary-sounding Street Chorus.

The former, comprised of members of the Cornell University Chorus and Glee Club, wear black cloaks and stand mostly motionless onstage throughout, while the latter cycles through soloists to represent varied degrees of contentedness in the state of faith. The Street Chorus soloists pounce on their interlude portions, as do the eight members of the Children's Choir (borrowed from the Choraliers of the Ithaca Children's Choir and under the direction of Jennifer Haywood). But the lack of differentiation amongst group members even in the show's program reinforces the thematic focus of shared experience over dissociation.

The foregrounded characters are, however, obviously differentiable in their clothing, as designed by Sarah E. Bernstein. The Celebrant wears all black, while the Street Chorus don emblematic costumes from firefighter to bum.

Joyce Morgenroth's and Christine Olivier's choreography tangoes with Kent Goetz's scenic design. The details are minimal, but the dimensions metamorphose as "MASS" progresses. Giant head puppeteering and rainbow-ribbon dancing are just two highlights of the Alice-in-Wonderland chaos in the early portion of the show; later, when the Liturgical Choir occupies the risers, the lighting design plays a large part in defining the stage space.

With enveloping blues and brazen magentas, E.D. Intemann's lighting flashes and glows at the Celebrant's journey, synchronizing the state of his spiritual trek with the look of his surrounding environment. Sparkles and flares from deep onstage silhouette a population of crosses against a retractable, full-length projection screen, a neat trick that reflects the creative attention paid to the video design overhead.

On three large screens above the stage, filmmaking lecturer Marilyn Rivchin's projection design plays in snyc with the goings-on below. Her contribution usually involves either shots of devotional European paintings or investigation of the words being sung, through English translations of the Latin texts - a different typeface for every portion - or a kinetic typography excursion.

The eventual resolution feels cyclically predictable, and the symbolism periodically too hasty to catch, but Bernstein's vision remains intact, and "MASS" is a work of both bold religious inquiry as well as bold theatrical synergy.

Members of the cast of ‘MASS,’ at Cornell’s Schwartz Center. (Photo provided)

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"The Diary of Anne Frank"

Theatre review
"The Diary of Anne Frank" at Syracuse Stage
Ithaca Times
April 15, 2009
683 words
"Growing Pains'"

full text here

Growing Pains

Mark Tedeschi

"The Diary of Anne Frank" by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Directed by Timothy Bond. Starring Craig Bockhorn, Stephen Cross, Catherine Lynn Davis, Peter Hourihan, Brad Koed, Joel Leffert, Arielle Lever, Leslie Noble, Maureen Silliman, Alexa Silvaggio, Joseph Whelan, and Stuart Zagnit. With scenic design by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, costume design by Lydia Tanji, lighting design by Les Dickert, sound design by Jonathan R. Herter, projection design by Maya Ciarrocchi, and dialect coaching by Malcolm Ingram.

Sometime in middle school, I read The Diary of a Young Girl - or rather, as I looked at it, I was forced to read The Diary of a Young Girl. I'm loath to admit the book had little resonance at the time - back then it was another school-imposed chunk of paper from which to memorize facts for the latest pop quiz. Fast forward a couple of years: Syracuse Stage has produced a version of that play, adapted again by Wendy Kesselman to accompany the latest version of the diary, that illuminates the unmistakable might in the pages of Anne Frank's sedulous handiwork.

"The Diary of Anne Frank," directed by Syracuse's Producing Artistic Director Timothy Bond, begins with a recorded passage from the diary read by our Anne, Syracuse University junior Arielle Lever. Lever's Anne is the straightaway heart and soul of the show; her vivacity stays the knowledge of the dire, World War II-era circumstances. As Lever's impassioned reading of Anne's elegant writing plays, her family begins settling into a new residence with their very few belongings. Within a few minutes, Anne establishes herself as the vocal center of attention, an energetic (sometimes tireless) girl of 13 insistent upon her destined fame.

Miep (Leslie Noble) and Mr. Kraler (Joseph Whelan), two selfless friends of the Frank family, usher Anne and her father Otto (Joel Leffert), mother Edith (Maureen Sillman), and elder sister Margot (Alexa Silvaggio) into the hidden annex of an Amsterdam office building.

The annex itself, composed essentially of two bedrooms, a common/dining area, and a small attic space, is visible in its entirety throughout the play. The multitalented scenic designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg constructs a space that conveys constriction and congestion, but allows a depth in presentation that, in collaboration with lighting designer Les Dickert, reveals unnoticed nuance as the story progresses.

Soon, we meet the Van Daans, another Jewish family in hiding: Mr. Van Daan (Craig Bockhorn), Mrs. Van Daan (Catherine Lynn Davis), and their 16-year-old son, Peter (Brad Koed). As the families strive for a semblance of equilibrium amid the perpetual terror, they're joined, at the regretful request of their hosts, by Mr. Dussel (Stuart Zagnit), a Jewish dentist with nowhere else to turn.

Despite Anne's eloquent characterization of the relationships manifesting and evolving in the annex, she often finds herself at odds with everybody - probably thanks to her refusal to quell her dramatic temperament - excepting her patient father, whom she nicknames Pim. Silvaggio's Margot, quite a far cry from her last role at Syracuse Stage, The Mute in last year's "The Fantasticks," is more reserved than Anne, but reveals her own vitality through a love of dance.

Most of the characters joke about the inevitable romance between Anne and Peter, an irritable boy easily targeted by Anne's button-pushing penchant. Soon, though, the proximity draws them closer, and Anne shows an emotional astuteness when she reveals the budding relationship outright to Margot, apologizing for having someone with whom to share confiding moments.

Anne addresses the audience as if we were her beloved diary: "I feel spring in me...I feel it in my entire body and soul," she shares with earnest spirit. "I'm utterly confused, don't know what to read, to write, to do. I only know I am longing."

Surprise tricks in sound and lighting punctuate scenes of escalating strain; bombs explode just outside the annex and projected images of a shouting Adolf Hitler adorn the stage. Just as the tension approaches unbearable levels, Edith catches Mr. Van Daan stealing bread in the middle of the night, a crime for which he breaks down in grief and she insists he be exiled.

During a rare moment of levity, the concluding scenes are set in motion. By this point, Bond has managed to mitigate the impending dread of the hiding families' inescapable fate by focusing on the text's lucid characterization, a refreshing quantity of humor, and the extraordinary maturation of Anne and her writing. Lever declaims the originally omitted passages dealing with Anne's sexual development with insight and courage.

In March of 1944, four months before she was captured, Anne heard a radio broadcast by a Dutch education official encouraging victims of oppression to keep personal records of the wartime events. She began revising her diary for a possible future audience; ultimately, her diligent desire to establish renown for her writing was fulfilled. Her ability to relate her life's narrative with a compelling voice and a curious personality created a story seamlessly translatable to the stage. Syracuse Stage has harnessed and released that potential.

Arielle Lever as Anne Frank in ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ (Photo provided)

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Theatre review
"Archaeology" at the Kitchen Theatre
Ithaca Times
April 15, 2009
711 words
"Uncovering Adulthood"

full text here

Uncovering Adulthood

Mark Tedeschi

"Archaeology," by Rachel Axler. Directed by Margarett Perry. Starring Charlie Forray, Ace Heckathorn, Jack Paque, and Kristin Wheeler. With scenic designer Norm Johnson, lighting designer Jerry Thamm, costume coordinator Abigail Smith, sound designer Ben Truppin-Brown, and stage manager Abigail Davis.

A person's mid-twenties are typically viewed as an era for rediscovery and introspection. Childhood, teenage years, and time in college all provide separate but similar playing fields for untested activity, for experimentation. Eventually, it comes time to make heavy personal choices, and newly christened "grown-ups" look back at what they've learned. They dig through the scrapbooks of their memory to evaluate varied consequences and lessons learned. The theme of young-adult historical analysis permeates "Archaeology," an impressively produced but sometimes disappointing new play at the Kitchen Theatre.

"Archaeology," directed by Margarett Perry and written by former "The Daily Show with John Stewart" writer Rachel Axler, centers on Astin (Jack Paque) and Claire (Kristin Wheeler), two best-friend twentysomethings sharing a house in Upstate New York. Early one summer morning, an earthquake uprights the foundation of their (and only their) living space. The entrance and walkway to the house are both tilted sideways, door hanging open, beside the neat Wizard of Oz-meets-Dali vortex background (Norm Johnson, scenic designer).

Astin, a once-fat, math Ph.D.-dropout sporting an orange polo and plaid pants, stumbles onto the yard, confessing to Claire that he's too hungover to remember exactly when the tremor transpired - nor, for that matter, anything about the previous night. Claire, clad in her housekeeper's uniform and sipping absently on a vodka and lemonade, offers little help; it's immediately clear she's hiding something, some possibly crucial information that remains buried for most of the play.

Soon, help arrives - sort of. Two apparently untalented musicians-cum-grocery baggers-cum-part time Red Cross volunteers, John and Jon (har, har) storm onstage with paired wagons in tow filled with myriad supplies from Twinkies to electromagnets. John, or "H" (Charlie Forray) finds use for the latter when Astin confides that he's been working on an elaborate machine kept secret from Claire - instead, he'd told her he was creating a serialized robot corn cartoon. After an astute if slapdash explanation about Möbius strips and Klein bottles, John stares drop-jawed; Astin comments on his probable lack of understanding, and H becomes insulted.

Meanwhile, Jon (Ace Heckathorn) and Claire discover a crawl area beneath some loose floorboards in the house. Through some apt set and lighting manipulation (Jerry Thamm, lighting designer), the stage's floorboard section becomes the crawl area, where they submit to their childhood instincts and begin to dig. A sizable portion of Jon's stage time is spent highlighting his surfer-dude personality; nonetheless, his affectionate spontaneity impresses Claire.

Axler's script relies on boobish lines like "Man, who knew there was so much dirt underground!" and "Oh, you mean like E equals M.C. Hammer?" for laughs. They're delivered about as sharply as they could be, but the timing feels off even on some of the better jokes, an uncharacteristic directorial departure for Perry, whose knack for strict delivery allowed this season's Dykstra plays to hit their potential.

As Astin and H reconcile and make headway on the machine, Claire and Jon dig up some peculiar artifacts. During one scene of discovery, Ben Truppin-Brown's sound design makes savvy use of some Casio keyboard music in lieu of dialogue to accent the imagination that accompanies unearthing something unexpected; the transitory music choices elsewhere in the play are equally evocative.

Claire finds out about Astin's machine and blows her stack. The hot-blooded arguments that bubble up in "Archaeology" may seem overcooked at first - but the confused emotional drive stays authentic to the almost-full-fledged-adulthood age the characters are grappling with.

The homonymy twins share little in common save their name, their volunteer uniforms, and their tendency to try really hard to sound profound. Their entrance into the disordered lives of Claire and Astin cuts into the lead characters' tangible best-friend chemistry. But inspection of the unspoken provides motivation for both journeys in "Archaeology"; Claire seeks explanation in stratification, while Astin ventures to manipulate time itself.

I won't spoil the final scene, since it's one of the most interesting in the play - certainly the best acted and featuring a laudable metamorphosis in the set design. Here, Perry returns to the superior sense of subtlety seen in, to name one, last year's "Old Times." The conclusion doesn't address every unanswered question, but Axler seems to prefer leaving the arching metaphors open to interpretation. Near the end of the first act, Jon hits something while digging. Claire says, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," a flag that what we're seeing isn't what it looks like. Fair enough; people don't often acknowledge that the mid-twenties are mysterious, elusive years.


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Monday, April 6, 2009

"A New Brain"

Theatre review
"A New Brain" at Ithaca College
The Ithaca Journal
March 11, 2009
657 words
"Ithaca College stages a smart 'New Brain'"

full text here

Ithaca College stages a smart 'New Brain'

"A New Brain," the new show from Ithaca College's Theatre Department, embarks on a difficult, thin-ice mission: to explore equally the comedy and tragedy of a sudden, life-threatening ailment. A serious malady has the unremitting power to bring out the best and the worst not only in its victim, but its victim's friends and family alike.

When composer/lyricist William Finn was diagnosed with a cerebral arteriovenous malformation, he feared that his best work would remain unfinished, so he harnessed his talent and focused his efforts toward creating "A New Brain." With music and lyrics by Finn and book by Finn and James Lapine, "A New Brain," directed by Susannah Berryman, manages to sustain an enjoyably light story while paying appropriate respect to the gravity of lamentable circumstances.

First, there's the matter of Cornell University Professor Kent Goetz's phenomenal set design. Goetz has transformed the Clark Theater stage into something reminiscent of the laboratory of a mad scientist harboring an obsession for American modernist painting. All sizes of green squares, red and yellow circles, and black lines decorate the floor and backdrop. Surprise projected lighting design tricks by the highly skilled, local-theater-staple IC senior Kelly Syring keep the simple setting - present-day Manhattan - dynamic and spirited.

Ben Fankhauser plays Gordon Schwinn, a songwriter for a children's television show. Troubled by writers' block, Gordon, after a brief run-in with a decrepit homeless woman (Catherine Lena Stephani) meets with his agent, Rhoda (Meredith Ashley Beck) for dinner. Shortly after the first of several hallucinations involving a man (Jeffrey Schara) in an elaborate frog suit (think plaid vest and gigantic polka-dot bow tie), Gordon utters, "Something is wrong!" and collapses.

He is taken to the hospital, where his loving mother, Mimi (Mariah Ciangiola) arrives, his indifferent Doctor (Alex Krasser) confirms the imperativeness of dangerous surgery, the hospital Minister (Bruce Landry) gives little help, and two nurses - the "thin" one, Nancy (Hillary Cathryn Patingre), and the "nice" one, Richard (Jeremy Cole Reese) offer their support.

As Gordon is taking in this barrage of new information, his life partner Roger (Danny Lindgren) returns from a sailing trip. Their relationship is compassionate and without significant strife throughout "A New Brain"; the main characters' closeness strengthens the show's focus on the individualized responses that Gordon's hospitalization evokes. And with less attention to traditional story narrative, the production's energetic style opens up.

There are 34 musical numbers (arranged by Jason Robert Brown) in "A New Brain," but the show itself is well under two hours with no intermission. Most of the storytelling occurs through song, a Sondheim-esque method delivered here with a just-right combination of music (directed and conducted by Joel Gelpe), volume (Jillian Marie Walker, sound designer), and elocution. Finn's thick lyrics flow clearly from the actors in, for example, "Family History" and "Gordo's Law of Genetics," as they simultaneously execute innovative choreography by Adam Pelty, the man behind the beautifully chaotic dancing in IC's "The Wild Party" last November. Director Berryman (whom you might have seen acting downtown at the Kitchen Theatre this season in "Happy Days" and "Tony and the Soprano") brings the performances together with her superior sense of timing and transition.

By the first full-ensemble number, "Heart and Music," it's easy to see the wealth of talent onstage. Not all of the numbers are vital ("Sailing," while well written, felt unessential), but all of the cast members have terrific voices. Often, Ainsley Anderson's costumes enhance the characterization in performance: Stephani, in a beat-up Buffalo Bills sweater and a tattered overcoat, breaks out in the powerful ballad "Change"; and Ciangiola, wearing a black evening gown, plucks at the heartstrings in "The Music Still Plays On." Nurse Richard doesn't look nearly as fat as he's apparently supposed to, but Reese's vocal versatility blossoms in "Eating Myself Up Alive."

Fankhauser brings forth Finn's initial vexation and subsequent determination. "I want to love, but I need to write," Gordon admits. If Finn indeed reached the same conclusion as Gordon and produced songs like the closing "I Feel So Much Spring" as a result, I say he made the right choice. In "A New Brain," Finn's artistic and emotional legacies are one and the same.

Sheryl Sinkow/Provided
William Finn's wry musical "A New Brain," at Ithaca College Theatre through Saturday, April 4, looks at a life interrupted by illness and reclaimed through love and forgiveness. Pictured are Ben Fankhauser, Danny Lindgren and Max Lorn-Krause.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009


Theatre review
"Up" at Syracuse Stage
Ithaca Times
March 11, 2009
793 words
"Balancing Act"

full text here

Balancing Act

by Mark Tedeschi

"Up," by Bridget Carpenter. Directed by Penny Metropulos. Starring Christopher Duval, Susannah Flood, Suzanna Hay, Todd Jefferson Moore, Graham Powell, Mhari Sandoval. With scenic designer Michael V. Sims, costume designer Maggie Dick, lighting designer Thomas C. Hase, and sound designer/composer Ryan Rumery.

This year's Oscar-winning documentary was about a man who spent four years planning and executing an illegal wire walk across the two World Trade Center towers. The film presents explicitly the How of his feat, but can only rely on conceptual explanations for the Why. The single, inexorable reason offered by Philippe Petit, the title "Man on Wire": It was his dream.

Since Petit completed the walk in 1974, the amount of time, energy, and money he spent fulfilling his dream has been baffling minds perhaps moreso than the actual event. Petit's long-term dedication advances his accomplishment from ludicrous to transcendent. He nurtured a love and a talent, set a goal utterly insane by quotidian standards, and followed the plan to completion. The fascination with dream pursuit, as it relates (topically) to family and finance - as well as an investigation of Philippe Petit as an inspirational archetype - courses through the veins of Syracuse Stage's latest feature, Bridget Carpenter's "Up."

Director Penny Metropulos has praised Carpenter's "ability to move in and out of reality with disarming agility." In "Up," Metropulos holds true to that form. The ethereal production design is grounded by a rock-solid cast, unleashing performances at once comforting and exciting. "Up" zeroes in on the Griffins - Walter (Todd Jefferson Moore); his wife, Helen (Mhari Sandoval); and their son, Mikey (Graham Powell) - a family scratching to find that holy-grail balance between what they wish to do, what they "should" do, and what they can afford to do. Playwright Penny Metropulos based Walter on a real person named Larry Walters who, like Petit, decided the sky was the limit; in 1982, he tethered 42 weather balloons to a lawn chair and flew, unauthorized, 16,000 feet into the air across Southern California.

The play takes place 16 years later: Walter insists on keeping his thoughts out of and away from the box, focusing his efforts on impractical inventions that place a monetary burden on his loving, hard-working, mail-carrying wife. Powell plays their son with a crippling uncertainty as two conflicting ideologies wreak havoc on his developing psyche.

Mikey finds a bit of direction on the first day of sophomore year, when a spunky, six-months-pregnant new girl, Maria (Susannah Flood) spots and grills him. At first, Mikey is as scared of her as I'd have been at that age, but her congenial sincerity bonds them into a close friendship rife with romantic chemistry. Maria's Aunt Chris (Suzanna Hay) offers him a gig in her office supply sales business, and Mikey discovers a lucrative knack.

The acting in "Up" lends the already poignant script an additional closeness. When Flood weeps, she seems to notice her tears less than you will your own. She and Moore as the two teenagers find themselves entrenched in scattered emotional outpours as their characters discover that living doesn't inevitably become easier with time. Long tormented by that truth, Walter turns to Philippe Petit (Christopher Duval), who saunters occasionally across a platform "wire" high in the background, for nuggets of advice like "A bird does not carry a wallet!" that sounds a little too idealistic to be helpful.

Michael V. Sims's hypnotic set, the background and translucent pillars (moved about by crews clad in jumpsuits and headsets) all painted with a cloudy sky pattern, evokes a waking dreamworld under soft yellow lighting (Thomas C. Hase, designer). When the conflict intensifies, the stage is shocked with a blaze of green or red, the former accompanying a spike in overlapped dialogue. Sound designer and composer Ryan Rumery creates a mood that matches the setting - quiet, orchestral tunes featuring an array of instruments from acoustic guitar to accordion.

The costumes (Maggie Dick, designer) reveal character: Aunt Chris wears a loud vest and sparkly jeans, sequins all around; Walter looks frazzled in his ruffled shirt with rolled-up sleeves; and cautious Mikey in a blend-in polo becomes go-getting Michael between acts with a handy tuck-in and posture adjustment.

Eventually, Walter focuses considerably more on distancing himself from the stranglehold of money than Helen does on earning enough to support their family. Michael defends his father's right to follow a dream, but responds with fury when he finds out his father has been flat-out dishonest about his latest enterprise.

Though it concludes with a note of triumph, "Up" leaves the characters we've grown close to in a state of bleak disrepair. As Maria reminds Mikey, most people search their whole lives to find what makes them special, but she doesn't offer any counsel on balance - a crucial element, especially today, that the Griffins can't seem to pin. Still, the sentiment of Philippe Petit and Larry Walters, simple in theory and backbreaking in practice, remains: Follow your dreams, however high, no matter the cost.

Suzanna Hay, Todd Jefferson Moore and Mhari Sandoval in the Syracuse Stage production of ‘Up.’ (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

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"A Play on Words"

Theatre review
"A Play on Words" at the Kitchen Theatre
Ithaca Times
March 4, 2009
807 words
"Word Matters"

full text here

Word Matters

Mark Tedeschi

"A Play on Words," by Brian Dykstra. Directed by Margarett Perry. Starring Brian Dykstra and Mark Boyett. With scenic designer Kelly Syring, costume designer Hanna Kochman, lighting designer E.D. Intemann, and sound designer Nate Richardson.

In the summer of 1995, Bill Watterson wrote what might be my all-time favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Calvin tells Hobbes that the point of a conversation is to block another person's thoughts and take the subject matter in the opposite direction. Hobbes counters that conversations aren't contests, and Calvin awards him a point.

Watterson nails the humorous side of the one-upmanship inherent in most verbal exchanges, a subject that is also of great interest to playwright/actor darling of the Kitchen Theatre, Brian Dykstra. In last year's "The Two of You," his meticulous dialogue is itself nearly a character, bringing an extra, tangible potency to the theme and tone. While "The Two of You" is a deliberation on theatrical protocol, his new play tackles the rhyme and reason of communication.

In the autological "A Play on Words," a world premiere production at the Kitchen, Dykstra distills his love of linguistics into a play about - and positively spilling over with - language. "A Play on Words" features two actors - Dykstra as Max and Mark Boyett (last seen at the Kitchen in Dykstra's "Clean Alternatives" two years ago) as Rusty - and no doubt intentionally, both characters' names have uses as other parts of speech. Best friends since high school, Max and Boyett have a backyard conversation that alternates paces quick and slow, reaches scales epic and trifling, and leafs through just about every aspect of language you can cover in that amount of time.

So, what's the story? Dkystra knows you're thinking that, too - that's why he made it the first line of his play. Rusty is trying to find out what Max is doing; it looks like he's staring riveted at a piece of cardboard, but we don't get any specifics until well after Max pesters Rusty to explain whether he actually wants to know, why he asked him in that manner, and what he was thinking immediately before he brought it up.

Max and Rusty interrupt some of each other's sidebars before they can carry on. Often the chain-reaction changes in discussion topic deviate so far from the original issue that neither character - let alone the audience - can remember where the exchange began. Consequently, we don't find out what Max's story actually is until Rusty refuses to let the conversation move elsewhere.

Max is a button-pusher, and Dykstra plays him as recurrently disagreeable. In one moment, he'll demand that Rusty elucidate on every minutiae of his contribution; in the next, he'll assert that their digressions are, simply, "not fun." Boyett reveals Rusty's enthusiasm when he finds he can jump on the offensive, often arguing for the position that "language is the opposite of communication." Max chides his naïve position and they engage in long segues on the semantics of semantics, reappropriated commercial jingle lyrics, and apocryphal stories about famous authors' writing processes.

Undeniably, though, they are good friends - what's a little jocular prodding between buddies? All the while, both deliver the incredibly thick dialogue (they even nail a portion of tongue twisters!) with expert timing and (when called for) emotional output - patently due to Margaret Perry's patient direction.

The set, lighting and sound are minimal so as to focus on the guys' confabulation. Their chinwag takes place in late afternoon, and a careful eye will catch the subtle shifts in lighting that indicate a gradual sunset. The siding of a house and a toy basketball hoop line the background; the ground is divided evenly between a sheet of artificial turf and a scattering of words enclosed in boxes reminiscent of magnetic poetry.

And speaking of words, what would a play with this wonderful title be without some euphonious vocables? Here are some of the good ones: obfuscate, curmudgeon, leviathan, ecclesiastical, moratorium, intractable, pithy. Dykstra even invents some of his own words (a perfectly cromulent thing to do) and dissects the etymology (or is it entomology?) of grog, "give a hang," and E-I-E-I-O.

Dykstra's consistently daring ambition lends itself to magnifying-glass inspection; after all, a piece focusing on language should itself boast consummate phraseology. Good news - for the most part, it does. The main problems come from Dykstra's inability to resist an injection of the same hyper-left worldview amplified in his one-man show "The Jesus Factor" last year. The potshots at "faith-addicted Christian fundamentalists," fashion models, and "alcoholic politicians" draw too-easy laughs from an Ithacan audience but distract from the best parts of Dykstrian writing.

In "A Play on Words," Dykstra's intelligence affords his work a charming wit and a strong current of thoughtful commentary. We typically take language for granted, giving it a transparency in our lives. Word junkies, behavioral scientists, phonologists - see "A Play on Words" once, even twice. You'll give your vocabulary some exercise and chuckle at the confusing, bizarre structures we've customarily adopted.

Brian Dykstra and Mark Boyett in ‘A Play on Words,’ now at the Kitchen Theatre. (Photo by Megan Pugh)

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Putting it Together"

Theatre review
"Putting it Together" at Syracuse Stage
Ithaca Times
February 11, 2009
660 words
"Song & Dance"

full text here

Song & Dance

Mark Tedeschi

Putting It Together, words and music by Stephen Sondheim. Devised by Stephen Sondheim and Julia McKenzie. Directed and choreographed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, with musical director Dianne Adams McDowell. Starring Chuck Cooper, Tyler Hanes, André Ward, Lillias White, and Stephanie Youell. Scenic design by Felix Cochren, costumes by Maria Marrero, lighting by Josh Bradford, sound by Jonathan R. Herter.

Stephen Sondheim's musicals disguise comprehensive ambition with lucid storytelling and fresh subtleties. By the early 1990s, his cohesive and lyrically bright songs had earned a level of popularity and prolificacy wherein compilation was inevitable; the result of his collaboration with actor/director Julie McKenzie, a musical "review" called "Putting it Together," premiered in England in 1992, on Broadway in 1999, and at Syracuse Stage last month. "Every little detail plays a part," inform the lyrics of the title number. "Putting it Together": It's what Sondheim does best.

Usually, though, when Sondheim "puts it together," he crafts a nuanced story replete with organic songwriting - not a story chassis around which to write songs, or in the case of "Together," a stock backdrop (the characters literally nameless) that sort-of fits with a handful of his preexisting tunes. Fortunately, his songs are dependably enjoyable, so the show at Syracuse, directed and choreographed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, while not to the brim with pure Sondheim, is still plenty full.

André Ward (Man 3), his big, genuine smile extremely contagious, delivers the scripted curtain speech and with vim and vigor. He introduces and intermittently narrates the "story": An older married couple invite a younger unmarried couple to their swanky, contemporary Trump Tower penthouse for cocktails. They ruminate on their respective marital situations via song while Man 3 sticks around to comment.

The older, black couple (Man 1 and Woman 1) are played by Tony Award-winners Chuck Cooper and Lillias White. Cooper's resonant baritone booms early on in "Rich and Happy" from "Merrily We Roll Along" and quietly captivates later in "Good Thing Going" from the same. White solos deftly, her character progressively tipsier, with "My Husband The Pig" ("A Little Night Music") and "Could I Leave You?" ("Follies").

Like the couple they portray, the older performers are more seasoned and experienced, but Man 2 (Tyler Hanes) and Woman 2 (Stephanie Youell) have plenty of youthful exuberance to highlight their talent. Hanes holds his own alongside Cooper in "Company's" "Have I Got a Girl for You" and the "Sweeney Todd" number "Pretty Women," while Youell nails two songs from the movie "Dick Tracy": "Sooner Or Later" and "More."

Man 3 is chiefly included as a narrative tool; he introduces the songs with a single categorical word like "Happiness," "Seduction," "Competition," or "Desperation" in an attempt to justify the jumpiness of an undeveloped plot. However, Ward's irrepressible enthusiasm, showcased in his feature solo number "Buddy's Blues" ("Follies") wins him a buoyant, absorbing stage presence.

Together, the five performers master their harmonies (no easy feat with Sondheim's musical acrobatics) and explore the set under Maharaj's diverse choreography. "Bang!" from "A Little Night Music" uses quick and meticulous movements, while the minimalist gestures in the arresting "Company" song "Being Alive" softly communicate resolute hope and conviction.

Felix E. Cochren, scenic designer, also worked on "Into the Woods" and "A Little Night Music" at Syracuse previously; here, he creates a well-to-do setting using a chandelier, a top-shelf bar, fancy curtains, and two symmetrical staircases leading to an upper-level landing at center stage. The characters' clothing, designed by Maria Marrero, fits smartly with the surroundings: a sequined crimson dress, a sharp pinstripe suit, an aqua collared shirt under a diamond print sweater. Additionally, Josh Bradford's atmospheric and often inventive lighting design contributes to the posh ambiance of the palatial surroundings.

Also on stage sit the two instrumentalists: percussion and synthesizer player Jimmy Johns and musical director, conductor and show pianist Dianne Adams McDowell, who makes playing piano flawlessly for almost two straight hours seem easy.

In "Putting it Together," context destroys subtext - or at least obstructs it. Sondheim's conversational lyrics and musical motifs relate specifically to an all-inclusive show, so swiped from their original source material, the songs lack a certain logical depth. But while a full Sondheim musical may prove more fulfilling, the quality of performance and faithful delivery at Syracuse will satisfy the fans and intrigue the uninitiated.

Andre Ward, Stephanie Youell, Chuck Cooper, Tyler Hanes and Lillias White in ‘Putting It Together,’ now at the Syracuse Stage. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"I Become a Guitar"

Theatre review
"I Become a Guitar" at the Kitchen Theatre
The Ithaca Journal
January 22, 2009
710 words
"Kitchen's 'I Become a Guitar' juxtaposes dreams and reality"

full text here

Kitchen's 'I Become a Guitar' juxtaposes dreams and reality

Consciously every day and subconsciously every night, we dream. The fantastic and intensely personal sojourns that our minds embark upon reveal a remarkable amount of our character: hopes and fears, confusions and curiosities, memories and prognostications. A new play at the Kitchen Theatre directed by Sara Lampert Hoover, "I Become a Guitar," explores the struggle of a modern Washington family plagued by persistent dreams of a different life.

Written by Kitchen newcomer Francesca Sanders of Portland, Oregon, "Guitar" focuses on the Stewarts: a father, mother and son frustrated with fate's curveballs. Each reacts to his or her situation in a different way, but all are guilty of letting fantasy take over. The 20-year-old son, Pablo (Nicholas Caycedo), though, has no choice - since he was six, he's suffered from Klein-Levin Syndrome, a rare and complicated neurological disorder that causes unpredictably cyclical episodes of excessive sleep lasting days, weeks or even months in which he'll rise only to eat or use the bathroom.

But we don't know that at first. Sanders recalled in an interview that one artistic director aptly noted of "Guitar": "This play starts out complicated and gets very simple." It begins with a narrated poem under blue and purple lights (Kelly Syring, lighting designer); Pablo sits in his raised bed, lyrically describing a Mexican village he lives in with his friend, Silvio. Pablo's bed is attached to a ladder, in front of a backdrop painted with a staircase in odd perspective that "connects" to an adjacent living room set with a dining table and armchair (scenic design by Kent Goetz).

Once he lays back down, the rest of the stage lights up and his parents, Kevin (David Moreland) and Madrigal (Sally G. Ramirez), enter; it's soon apparent that their love has dwindled due to a prolonged lack of communication and intimacy. Madrigal holds fast to the "eternal optimism" that their son could come to at any time, keeping his favorite foods ready 24 hours a day. The aloof Kevin constantly distracts (and thus distances) himself, exacerbating the difficulty of a return to normalcy. He has a recurring fantasy about a sultry sex therapist or "sexual surrogate," Catherine (Laura Ciresi Starr, bold and provocative), who consistently dares him to perform - consistently to no avail.

A striking sound design by the ever reliable Don Tindall, in cooperation with a poignant original score by Ron Kristy, deepens the emotional strain within the Stewart family. Rain falling or an elegiac acoustic guitar tune magnifies their constant, desolate uncertainty, a feeling likely had by any family with a Klein-Levin patient.

When Pablo does come to, his parents' expectations for his behavior fall flat. It takes him a while to regain what prior vocabulary he had, and he often acts moody and disoriented. Madrigal coddles Pablo, sparking an indifference in Kevin until they discover that their son has spent so much time in the dream state that he considers it his reality, and a preferred one at that. His slumberland existence with "Silvio" is odd, but Kevin and Madrigal realize that for their own happiness, they have to want for their son's as well.

The acting in "Guitar," no doubt thanks to Hoover's skilled direction, intensifies as the story decrescendos into a strange equilibrium. Moreland (recognizable as the principal in "Donnie Darko") stutters as he argues with his wife in the beginning, but his resonant voice crystallizes once Kevin finds potential comfort in accepting his family's unconventional situation. Ramirez's on-edge demeanor flawlessly fits a mother drowning in her own hope, and Caycedo surmounts the unenviable charge of playing a disabled, childlike adult. Occasionally, he hams up the cuteness, but when Pablo becomes upset, Caycedo's talent is undeniable.

"I Become a Guitar" raises questions about the nature of actual dreams versus invented aspirations (are they any different?) and further, fantasy versus reality. When her idealized vision of a family is marred, Madrigal laments, "It's not supposed to be!" Sanders shifts us in and out of each character's dream world, highlighting each family member's hopefulness that something from his or her illusion will cross over. When nothing does, it becomes necessary to adapt to unusual circumstances. Awakening doesn't have to entail abandonment of dreams - rather, as in this play, it can simply mean embracing new possibility.

"I Become a Guitar" runs at the Kitchen Theatre through Feb. 8. Tickets are $21-$36. Call 273-4497 or visit for more information.

The Kitchen Theatre presents the world premiere of Francesca Sanders' play “I Become a Guitar,” with David Moreland and Sally G. Ramirez, through Feb. 8. (Megan Pugh/Provided)

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

"The Santaland Diaries"

Theatre review
"The Santaland Diaries" at Syracuse Stage
Ithaca Times
December 17, 2008
706 words
"Ho Ho Help"

full text here

Ho Ho Help

Mark Tedeschi

The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello. Directed by Wendy Knox. Starring Wade McCollum. With scenic and costume designer Jessica Ford, lighting designer Alex Koziara, and sound designer Sarah Pickett.

There's a one-actor play at Syracuse Stage called The Santaland Diaries that's about an hour and fifteen minutes long, roughly the same amount of time it takes for a drive to the theater from Ithaca, one way. If you're a diehard David Sedaris fan, though, or just in the mood for some top-notch seasonal comedy, this show is well worth the trip.

Santaland is based on the essay that, when Sedaris read it on NPR's "Morning Edition" in 1992, sparked literary attention for his shrewd, irreverent style. Four years later, Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello adapted Sedaris's "Santaland Diaries" for the stage, placing much of the original text verbatim into the show and adding his own equally punchy portions of elaborations and side-stories.

At Syracuse's Storch Theatre, Jessica Ford's set extends into the hallways, successfully disguised as cheery Christmas decorations under the customary call of bubbly holiday staples like "Feliz Navidad." As Wade McCollum, the lone performer in Santaland, launches his narration, the pine-green wreaths, shiny ornaments, and ribbon-tied presents adorning the edges of the stage begin to conjure the all-too-familiar but annually tolerated stresses of the season. Santaland is a true account of Sedaris's starving-artist decision to apply for a job as an elf in Macy's Santaland and the borderline insane encounters he has with flirtatious co-elves, a sundry spectrum of Santas, and exasperated parents.

McCollum's character gives himself the elf name "Crumpet" (one of those inherently funny words - later, he changes it to "Blisters") and vividly describes both the elf outfit he must wear (Ford designed that too) and the surreal environment in which he is to wear it. Luckily, this is a theatre performance, not an essay reading; we actually get to see both. He changes into candy cane leggings, a yellow turtleneck, a green vest, a green hat, and oversized green shoes. After dressing, stone-faced, he expertly delivers the classic Sedaris line, "This is my work uniform."

When the curtain goes up, surprise! Santa's illustrious chair sits in front while snowdrift-covered trees and houses recede deep into the Santaland background.

McCollum, under Wendy Knox's direction, confidently pitches Sedaris's rapid-fire language from deadpan mentions of "parents relentless on their quest for documentation" to lurid fantasies of Santaland's transformation into a kind of hellish Satan-land. The latter is a prime example of McCollum's performance cooperating with the lighting (Alex Koziara) and sound (Sarah Pickett): the entire stage bathed in crimson, a low rumble emanates from the speakers as McCollum envisions the "pools of blood and feces" the visitors must wade through.

Gross, huh? Sedaris's humor isn't typically for young children, and this is no exception. His jokes are often harsh and sometimes risky enough to miss their target from time to time, but the joke density in a Sedaris piece is thick enough to move smoothly from one to the next without breaking momentum. Crumpet's observations on the folks who ask for their child to specifically see either a black or a white Santa could fall flat, but the ruminations' objectivity enhances their comedy.

Other imitations of Santaland visitors occur at regular intervals; McCollum proves a knack for giving each a distinct flair. A jokester dad from Jersey provides his best fodder, while his occasional crowd-milking mugging as in a dimwitted waitress ranks among the weaker moments. The consistent discovery natural to Sedaris's dependable style shows up on the stage; lighting tricks like a bright flash indicating a kid-with-Santa photograph or a falling-snowflake effect are saved for the second half of the show.

Four days to Christmas, the holiday stresses escalate. Crumpet begins to snap back at disgruntled guests who whine, "I'm gonna have you fired!" with, "I'm gonna have you killed!" Closer to the day, Mantello dives into a heartfelt but nonetheless cornballish departure from straight comedy in favor of a sobering reminder of the "It's Christmas" spirit of selflessness we see in countless holiday stories from Miracle on 34th Street to Bad Santa.

The segue, different from the comparatively cynical ending of the source material, is unexpected - but not unwelcome. Sedaris is the first to include himself in his fault-finding; but when the unstoppable force of his societal criticism meets the immovable object of holiday atmosphere, even self-deprecation can take a breather.

Wade McCollum in ‘The Santaland Diaries,’ now at Syracuse Stage. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

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"Love's Labour's Lost"

Theatre review
"Love's Labour's Lost" at Cornell University
The Ithaca Journal
December 4, 2008
720 words
"Amusing ‘Love's Labour's Lost' offers classic Shakesperean wordplay"

full text here

Amusing ‘Love's Labour's Lost' offers classic Shakesperean wordplay

Rumor has it that the comedy “Love's Labour's Lost” is one of Shakespeare's least-produced plays. It contains an formidable wealth of wordplay and, says Shakespeare scholar Tucker Brooke, a greater percentage of rhyming lines than any of the Bard's works. It was purportedly intended to be performed for the intellectual students at the prestigious Inns of Court; for these reasons, it's been considered inaccessible to modern audiences. The production currently running at Cornell's Schwartz Center — amusing and absorbing — makes one wonder from whence these cries of esotericim do cometh.

“Labour's” indeed fits its reputation of comprising overt craftiness, but that feature is hardly a handicap; rather, the pleasure of catching any of Shakespeare's rapid-fire witticisms, especially boosted by quality acting, is even more of a treat. And, as in any Shakespeare production, if intent skims by, there's plenty more quips to follow — and moreover, you can still blissfully bask in the words of the best (arguably, I suppose) English-language writer who ever lived.

The comedy, here directed with intimate familiarity by Bruce Levitt (he directed “Labour's” at Cornell 20 years ago), begins with the retired King of Navarre's (Ian Jones) explication of a solemn oath he and his three Lords — Berowne (Jeremy Flynn), Dumaine (Myles Rowland), and Longaville (Chris Romeo) — have taken. They've agreed to spend three years studying, totally free from distractions, but when Berowne realizes the King included women in that lot, he protests and reminds him that the Princess of France (Mary Gilliam) and her three Ladies — Maria (Alicia Weigel), Katherine (Ariel Reed), and Rosaline (Katherine Karaus) — were planning a visit in the near future.

The King agrees to house them nearby, outside the court. As expected, the men fall powerless to their impulses. They promptly fall in love with their color-coded counterparts (by the hand of costume designer Sarah E. Bernstein, though one couple is inexplicably not matched) and even compose love sonnets in secret.

Meanwhile, the clown Costard (Jeffrey Guyton), schoolmaster Holofernes (Sonja Lanzener), Spanish nobleman Don Adriano de Armando (J.G. Hertzler), and his page Moth (Alex Viola) join forces to put on play for the nobles centered around the Nine Worthies. During its presentation, the Princess receives some disturbing news and “Labour's” draws to, by Shakespeare's standards, an unconventional close.

By the time the message is delivered, the background lighting (Daniel Hall, designer) has imperceptibly shifted from a cheery midday blue to a deep, melancholic purple. The rest of “Labour's” looks and sounds pristine--at times, the the spotless set (Sarah Lambert, designer), immaculate regal clothing, and delicate harp interludes (Gary Mackender, composer), border on saccharinity, but appropriately fit the royalty-at-leisure garden setting. The multileveled set extends beyond the stage, too, helping to engage the audience in the jam-packed text; the actors skip and hop about the aisles and even perform from the balcony on either side of the stage.

The cast is composed of professional actors as well as students, though experience doesn't necessarily guarantee reliability. Guyton's energetic Costard convinces as a witty swain and Paul Hebron fits impeccably into the role of Boyet, a nobleman accompanying the French visitors; on the other hand, Hertzler, popularly known for his role as the Klingon Martok on “Star Trek,” lets his accent slip into inconsistency and Lanzener's unpredictable take on Holofernes detracts from the character's potential strength.

Flynn as a skittish but astute Berowne offers the best performance of the leading men, followed closely by Jones as the King. The talents of the four principal actresses were notable as well, but unfortunately, Shakespeare didn't offer them highly distinguishable parts. Viola's scampish Moth, though, entertains in every scene.

“Labour's,” while certainly more approachable than its reputation precedes, stays dated on a few fronts. The slapstick of an extended rear-end-slapping scene is a bit much to bear, and the Latin-language jokes, probably side-splitting to Elizabethan academics, have a dwindling target audience in 2008.

But the familiarity of Shakespeare's predominant themes and plunges into verbal expression will always resonate. When Berowne, in hiding, anticipates hearing Dumaine's love-fueled poem, he declares, “Once more I'll mark how love can vary wit!” As Shakespeare knew of the infinite potency love brings to language, he penned “Love's Labour's Lost” as an atypical, self-conscious story. The main characters recognize the dependable anomaly of love and, in the end, find it ever hopelessly evasive.

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"Tony and the Soprano"

Theatre review
"Tony and the Soprano" at the Kitchen Theatre
Ithaca Times
December 3, 2008
718 words
"Family Fun"

full text here

Family Fun

Mark Tedeschi

Tony and the Soprano, book & lyrics by Rachel Lampert, music by Larry Pressgrove. Co-Directed by Margarett Perry & Rachel Lampert. Starring Susannah Berryman, Jesse Bush, Robert J. DeLuca, Jessica Flood, Charlotte Senders, Erica Steinhagen, Joey Steinhagen, and Sophie Potter. Music direction by Richard Montgomery, set by Dan Meeker, costumes by Jon Donk, lighting by E.D. Intemann, scenic artist Juls Bueher, opera arrangements by Richard Montgomery, and stage manager Preeti Nash.

Three years ago, a musical cleverly titled Tony and the Soprano blew the socks off Kitchen Theatre audiences on the night of its world premiere. Sadly for me, I was not in that group - but thanks to those who have been clamoring for a repeat performance since then, I had the delight of attending one of this season's sold-out encore performances. And even better, it features nearly all of the original show's cast and crew. If you saw it then, you know it's worth a repeat attendance; if you missed it, you should catch it this time around - and you can bring your whole family along, too.

In 2006, the cast featured well-known Ithaca favorites; today, they're positively demanded at a show like this. Joey Steinhagen plays Tony, a 35-year-old auto mechanic stuck living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn with his mother Rose (Berryman) and spending his spare time hanging out with latchkey kid Carrol (Charlotte Senders) and impetuous restauranteur Vinny (Bush). One of the few things he looks forward to is souping up a vintage Chevy the three of them have been hoarding for the right time. Erica Steinhagen (Joey's real-life wife) plays a charming, naive opera singer from Iowa, Frances, who moves in above Rose and Tony, rattling things around for everyone she encounters. Meanwhile, Vinny racks his brain to put off paying back a loan he was given by a slick mobster called Carmine (Deluca) and strains to train his flustered, ill-equipped new waitress, Isabel (Flood).

This story framework, together with bright direction (Perry and Lampert) and blithe musical numbers (Pressgrove), sprinkles some clever herb-and-spice additions onto the traditional back-and-forth love triangles - and balances the comedy and romance with astute familiarity.

You can bet that Berryman appreciates playing the role of Rose, a part more subdued than her most recent undertaking at the Kitchen (Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days), but that's not to say she's taking a break; her Brooklyn accent and Italian-mom concern are spot-on from the opening "Hello Carroll Street" onward. From a faux upper-story window, she calls down to Tony that dinner is ready; nearby onstage, he leans against his simple ground-level stoop and calls back up.

Meeker's set, based on the show's original design, allows credible interaction by the cast for quick, easy changes - for example, when the scene switches to Vinny's restaurant, Vinny rushes around to set up the bar and tables as if he's actually getting the place ready for customers.

Bush's Vinny would be sleazy if he weren't so eager to please; he asks Tony to evaluate "Bugs Bunny," a silly, short, Barber (or Rabbit) of Seville-inspired opera number he penned to try to win over Frances. Steinhagen as Frances sports a fantastic Midwest accent and a wide-eyed adoration for opera music, despite Rose's claims that her Italian is dreadful.

Steinhagen and Senders make a chummy team as Tony and Carol. Senders - a seventh grader at Trumansburg Middle School - holds her own on stage, even (especially!) during her solo number, "Carol of Carroll Street."

Deluca certainly looks the part with a spotless suit, slicked-back hair, and mob-guy hand gestures - but his accent, a must-have for a character like Carmine, slips in some of the heavier dialogue scenes. Flood as his crony "Isabel," though, impresses on the Kitchen stage as usual. Her powerful voice matches Frances's, even when they battle during "Vedrai Carino" and match up in "They Always Get Their Way." Isabel goes through several incarnations in haphazard attempts to either draw attention or disguise her identity, and she wouldn't be able to do either without costume designer Jon Donk's handiwork.

Pressgrove's music with Lampert's lyrics, as in last year's Lampert/Pressgrove collaboration Bed No Breakfast, together provide both belly laughs and the earnest appreciation of heartfelt realization. "Oh, No It's Vinny" and "Oh, No Tony" use Intemann's quick lighting design to draw laughs, and Richard Montgomery's opera arrangements pay respectful homage to their Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi source material. The only quaky number is the first-act "Gotta Go," mostly just a set-up for the better reprises of the song later in the show.

All told, though, you'll find more quality entertainment for both kids and adults in Tony and the Soprano than in plenty of the dopey-fodder "family-friendly" movies that studios love to churn out. Tony runs until Dec. 14, so jump on the chance now - otherwise, you may have to wait until the year 2012.

Erica and Joey Steinhagen in ‘Tony and the Soprano.’ (Photo by Wendy Woods)

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