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Make a play date for May

This month is exceptionally spectacular with a rich and varied bounty of interesting shows.

ICTC's "The Weir" starred Vncent O'Neill, Margaret Massman, and Gerry Maher

Irene Haupt

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Even though O’Connell and Company did The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee last season, MusicalFare was undeterred from launching their own production. Their version owes its unique status to actor Greg Stuhr’s involvement as director. A Buffalo native, Stuhr has achieved considerable success on Broadway, including a stint in Spelling Bee.

“Though I came to the show after it was already on Broadway, I worked with the original cast, including several of the actors who created their characters,” Stuhr tells. “I’d like to think that working with them, as well as folks like [original director James] Lapine and [composer/lyricist William] Finn, gives me a somewhat deeper perspective on the material, which at first glance, can appear to be a broad, silly kind of show. It’s a much more sincere show than that, and funnier for it.”

Spelling Bee started as an improvisational sketch piece, but soon evolved into a Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical featuring student spellers and the adults around them.

“Every character, including each ‘grown-up’ character, is an outsider. The Bee brings all these outsiders into contact for one night and acts as a kind of pressure cooker,” Stuhr explains. Working with MusicalFare artistic/executive director Randy Kramer, musical director Jason Bravo, and choreographer Doug Weyand, Stuhr has selected a cast that includes Michele Marie Roberts, Debbie Pappas, Norman Sham, and Marc Sacco.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through May 15 on the Time Warner Cable Stage at MusicalFare Theatre on the Daemen College campus (839-8540).


Shining City

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost ten years since the Irish Classical presented The Weir by Conor McPherson. The haunting play featured stunning performances (by Saul Elkin and Vincent O’Neill) and a script that left me wanting more. Finally, McPherson returns to ICTC with Shining City.

The actual “Shining City” is Dublin, where the action takes place in a counselor’s office. It’s also where McPherson, whom ICTC artistic director O’Neill calls “one of the finest dramatists of his generation,” was born.

O’Neill explains that like The Weir, “Shining City is a ghost story, a thriller. McPherson leads the audience through a complex psychological maze, exploring relationships in the deepest sense of the word. There is a fascination to Shining City as it captures modern Dublin, which has been radically transformed in the past decade.”

To bring Shining City to life, O’Neill and ICTC producing director Fortunato Pezzimenti recruited guest director Gordon McCall, whose directing work in Montreal and Indiana impressed him.

“Gordon is steeped in Irish theater and has directed at the Abbey, Ireland’s National Theatre Company—and my alma mater,” O’Neill says. “Gordon’s grasp of the modern Irish scene, his sensitivity to the material, and his extensive directing experience made him the ideal choice.”
McCall wanted O’Neill to play the widower, John, after seeing his work in last season’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. Pezzimenti says the casting process was “quite comprehensive” as they sought to find the right chemistry between the actors. The end result finds Chris Kelly as Ian, the counselor; Kelly Meg Brennan as Ian’s girlfriend; and Michael Renna as a young runaway.

Shining City continues through May 22 at the Andrews Theatre (853-ICTC).


The Grand Manner

This month brings us 2011’s second A. R. Gurney production, the Kavinoky staging of The Grand Manner.

“The play imagines a backstage encounter between the youthful playwright Gurney, Katharine Cornell, her director-husband Guthrie McClintic, and her lover/manager Gert in New York City in 1948,” says director Robert Waterhouse. “At stake is the Grand Manner—a highly theatrical, grand acting style then losing ground to the styles of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, and television.
“It’s a touching, funny play about vulnerability, age, sex, and Buffalo, whose aging grandeur is likewise doomed by modernity. The play is a sweet homage to Cornell, who is credited with inspiring the young Gurney to become a playwright, and to Buffalo, which comes across as a town with a big heart, an aging audience, and a debatable capacity to adapt to change,” he continues. “It is, for Buffalo audiences today, a timely, insightful play.” (See the September 2010 Spree for Anthony Chase’s overview of Cornell’s career.)

Starring the outstanding Barbara Link LaRou as Cornell, The Grand Manner also features Richard Lambert as McClintic, Eileen Dugan, and Andy Herr. It continues through May 29 at the Kavinoky Theatre on the D’Youville College campus (829-7668).


The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

One of the bigger announcements of this season came from Road Less Traveled Productions when they revealed that Tony Award nominee Stephen McKinley Henderson would be reprising his original Off-Broadway role from The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in a new RLTP presentation. The Stephen Adly Guirgis play stages a contemporary trial of Judas Iscariot, the infamous disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, Henderson could not appear in the show this year, due to his busy schedule. Henderson played Pontius Pilate in the 2005 LAByrinth Theater Company production of Last Days; the RLTP production will feature Rolando Gomez in that role.
“I think the play concerns the private hells to which we condemn ourselves,” Henderson says. “God’s forgiving arms are ever open and ready to receive us when we acknowledge that it is possible for us to be forgiven.”

RLTP artistic director Scott Behrend, who is directing the show, agrees that faith is “the major theme” of this “giant, epic, sweeping piece,” which is a “logistical uphill climb,” he says. “The subject matter has to be handled extremely well.”

In addition to Gomez, Behrend’s cast features Brian Riggs and Lisa Vitrano. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot continues through May 22 at the Road Less Traveled Theater in the Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre (800-745-3000).


Jar the Floor

During the 1996–97 season, the Paul Robeson Theatre production of Jar the Floor by Cheryl L. West received three Artvoice Theater Award nominations and won for Ensemble of a Play. The comedy-drama, which examines the contentious relationships between four generations of women in an African American family, is again being produced by PRT.

“I chose Jar because of several reasons,” says PRT artistic director Paulette D. Harris of its return. “Anytime you can heighten awareness about breast cancer while also engaging in a good time is an excellent recipe for theater. Also, several patrons who enjoyed the production in 1996 asked me to consider doing the show again.”

Through the often-amusing verbal jousts between characters, Jar the Floor explores many feminist and familial issues. It is about “unspoken pain—family love being expressed through a blanket of painful words,” Harris says. “These are women who hide behind their ability to hurt each other because they can’t adequately discuss their love and/or pain.”

Harris is approaching this production as if it were the first time, but it does feature June Duell returning to her Artie-nominated role. This staging also stars Debbi Davis, Betty Stone, and Buffalo State College students Daigi-Ann Thompson and Kaitlynd Brzostowicz.

The Paul Robeson Theatre production of Jar the Floor continues through May 22 at the African American Cultural Center (884-2013).


Also Playing

Elsewhere on Western New York stages we have: an Irish Classical/Torn Space collaboration Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen; a BUA remount of Nicky Silver’s Fit To Be Tied; Jewish Rep’s season-ender Lebensraum; a provocative production of Medea at Alt Theatre; and last, but certainly not least, the return of Wicked at Shea’s.

See you at the theater! You won’t be disappointed.


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