Theater in WNY / WNY natives connect Broadway and Buffalo
Broadway performer Alex Wyse plays Quasimodo in HUNCHBACK.
Three Williamsville East alumni have joined forces to create STARRING BUFFALO, a program that brings Broadway performers to Buffalo for concert events that also feature area talent from professionals to students. The initiative launched in October 2018 with The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Buffalo State’s Rockwell Hall on October 19 and 20.
“City Center in NYC puts on a series called Encores!, which is short run, unstaged versions of musicals starring superb Broadway performers. The series draws a huge following and is able to secure fantastic casts because the schedule is short enough to fit in between other gigs,” says artistic director Drew Fornarola, an award-winning playwright/composer who has written for DreamWorks’ Shrek and VeggieTales franchises and headlined concerts around the world. “I realized this would be a great model for bringing NYC performers to Buffalo and would allow busy Buffalo actors to fit more musicals into their calendars as well. The final twist was to make the professional performances a participatory opportunity for students.”
Armed with the idea, Fornarola approached former schoolmate Laura Brodie, vice president and general manager of Burt Rigid Box and CDD Millwork, two custom manufacturing businesses headquartered in Buffalo and operating in Central New York. Brodie previously worked in development and education at the American Symphony Orchestra.
“We quickly brought in Michael Russo, the arts administrator for the Williamsville Schools, and Steven Tartick, fellow Williamsville East grad and creative director of NYC Broadway marketing firm RPM, as partners,” says Brodie, who became board chair. “The group is working to strengthen the bridge between Buffalo and Broadway, expanding connections between the acting and professional communities of the two cities, and illuminating a path for WNY students interested in a future in musical theater. Everyone involved, from the musicians and actors to the choral teachers and board members, are the kind of motivated, on-the-go people with at least two full-time jobs already, so the toughest part has been coordinating schedules!”
Nonetheless, with Brodie and Fornarola spending five to seven days a month in town, they were able to schedule STARRING BUFFALO’s first concert, secure top-notch Buffalo talent, and bring on four high school choruses—Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, Fredonia, Tonawanda High School, and Williamsville East, natch. Broadway performers are Alex Wyse and Dan’yelle Williamson, with two more to be announced. Residential talent includes Leah Berst, Charmagne Chi, Arianne Davidow, Keith Ersing, Matthew Iwanski-Jackson, Dudney Joseph, Ben Michael Moran, Katy Miner, and Raphael Santos.
“We wanted to choose a show with wide appeal and real musical integrity,” says Fornarola of their choice to begin with Hunchback. “The score shares music with the Disney film, which makes it approachable and exciting for families, but it hasn’t been on Broadway or on tour lately, which makes it equally interesting to musical theater buffs.”
If all goes as planned, Brodie envisions selling out three to four shows in the series each year, with an expansion into other artistic genres. “There could be choreographed dance routines from high school or college performers, poetry readings during intermission, and art shows in the lobby, all related to the performance,” she says. “The key dream is that the performance experience and master classes given by our visiting actors can contribute meaningfully to launching Western New Yorkers into the Broadway world.”
To learn more, visit StarringBuffalo.org.