PREVIEW: The Crucible – The New Deal Creative Arts Center

The New Deal Creative Arts, a non-profit performing arts group based in Hyde Park, offers a gripping rendition of Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama, The Crucible. The play opens this Friday, November 8, and runs for two weekends.

Written by Wendy Urban-Mead

In the spring of 1692 in present-day Danvers, Massachusetts, began a series of events that led to the execution of 20 people. Scores more were accused and jailed. The fear of witchcraft was hanging in the air. Had the disreputable Sarah Goode, or the upright church-member Goodwife (“Goody”) Nurse signed the Devil’s Book?  Seventeen-year-old Abigail Williams, formerly in service at John and Elizabeth Proctor’s homestead, had been hired by no one since being dismissed from their employ eight months earlier. Why? Why was Abigail leading the cluster of girls making the accusations? Why was Abigail’s aunt, Ann Putnam, afflicted with multiple births of babies who died within days? Did the Putnam family’s enslaved servant, Tituba, with her knowledge of the occult, have a role in the misfortunes?  What stew of generational, class, and gendered rivalry was feeding this storm?

New England’s English settlers were in an Atlantic world that belied its seeming isolation and ostensibly single-minded focus on the Puritan religion. War between England and France, lethal attacks by Native Americans, a smallpox epidemic, and the hardscrabble challenge of making the rocky Massachusetts soil yield a prosperous living informed the stark social climate. Their world intersected with economic, social, cultural, and religious forces from the Caribbean, the African slave trade, and the New-World colonial rivalries among the British, French, and Spanish powers.

Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi

Fast-forward three centuries. Playwright Arthur Miller found himself aghast at the unfolding of the Red Scare in the early 1950s. The fear of communism was high; people accused of being closet Communists lost their careers, social networks, and friends. The heavy hand of Cold War paranoia affected every facet of life in the US at that time. Keen to find a way to capture this dynamic in a stage play that might goad its audiences to wake up and see the damage being done to people’s lives and the soundness of the American republic, Miller ultimately decided to triangulate, by looking at the events in Salem. Miller pored over the records of the court trials, and ultimately settled on the story surrounding John Proctor as the centerpiece of the drama.

The Crucible is one of the most-often produced plays in North America, and indeed around the world. Why go to this one here in Hyde Park, this month? My answer is, because this production will take you by the throat and not release you until the heart-rending final scene. Because there is an impressive collection of talented actors bringing their best to tell this story from 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts. The members of the cast have moved deep into that moment defined by intrigue, witchcraft, sexual tension, vengeance, human frailty, peak courage, and political paranoia. Because the production’s physical setting takes you back to the spatial sense of the era. The performance space is at Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Fiddler’s Bridge and Hollow Roads. The church is tucked at the edge of a great wall of rock, at a sharp bend in the narrow road, and sits under a canopy of tall, dark trees. It is as if time has rolled back several centuries.  The audience sits inside the church’s plain white walls, illuminated with natural light through plain glass windows, under the high peaked roof, in the simple dark-wood pews. The building’s stark simplicity portends the stern lessons that unfold over the course of the play. Am I at the Salem courthouse after all? Behold, I see the demure white head coverings on the women, their wide white collars and sober, dark dresses, the leathern tunics of the farming men and lacy jabots pouring out of the black great-coats of the court officials and clergy. 

In short, there is pitch-perfect costuming by Tory Elvin and the decision by producer Teresa Gasparini to set the play at this church was a brilliant move. The director, Thom Webb, is an actor’s director. Himself an accomplished stage performer, Webb brings both his respect for the actor’s creative process and his sharp historical knowledge to bear in this, his newest work as an emerging director of merit. The scenes unfold briskly and audiences are taken deep into the story, ably held by the strength of the acting.

Joe Eriole concedes that playing John Proctor is a dream come true. Proctor’s iconic line, “[b]ecause it is my name, because I cannot have another in my life,” with which he urges court officials to take his soul, but not his name, is for Eriole the heart of his character. 

Joe Eriole as John Proctor
(Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi)

Steavie Hergenrader Reed plays Abigail Williams, the young girl who saw in her employer Proctor’s sexual advances a promise – that she would replace his wife Elizabeth. Instead, Proctor repents of his lust, and agrees when Elizabeth insists that Abigail be turned out. Reed reflects: “for a young girl who feels so utterly misunderstood and wronged, Abigail has the exhausting and exhilarating journey in The Crucible of concealing, adjusting, and attempting to control, which has been the most challenging and enjoyable part of this process.”

Elizabeth Proctor’s composed, if not chilly, demeanor conceals someone who never believed she could win someone’s love. She ultimately concedes that “suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love.” For actor Alexandra Petrova-Emisti, whose rendering of Elizabeth is compelling – both restrained and powerful – this is the critical moment when Elizabeth’s reserve slips to show her vulnerability; till then she had looked outside herself to find the source of blame for all that went wrong. 

Cast members of The Crucible
(Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi)

These are the insights of just three of the actors in what is a large, lively cast. Andy Crispell’s Hathorne, Austin Carrothers’ Reverend Hale, Denis Sylvestri’s Parris, and Michael Froehnhofer’s Governor Danforth are notable for their vivid, distinct renderings of the individuals making up the gang of powerful men at the top of Salem’s social-political scene. Hale’s character arc, ending in a compelling speech about the sanctity of life, is haunting. In the midst of the tragic chaos of the hangings, an easily forgettable line became the one that pierced my heart on the lips of Maria Hasenpflug’s Rebecca Nurse, who remarks on her way to the gallows: “I have not had my breakfast.”

In a 1996 article in which playwright Miller reflected on why he wrote The Crucible, he observed that “below its concerns with justice the play evokes a lethal brew of illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural, and political manipulation, a combination not unfamiliar these days.”* He might as well have written that in 2019.

New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production of The Crucible plays in a setting that strongly evokes the stark feel of the Puritan meeting house central to the telling of this story. It is a drama which – rather soberingly – continues to resonate, goad, and haunt. Performed by a committed and talented group of seasoned local actors, under able direction, this must-see offering of The Crucible runs November 8, 9, 15 & 16 at 7:30 PM and November 10 at 2 PM, at the Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church, 2 Fiddler’s Bridge Road, Staatsburg. Tickets are $20 in advance ( or $25 at the door. Student tickets are also offered at the door for $10.

Gabrielle St. Evenson as Tituba with members of the cast of The Crucible
(Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi)

*(Arthur Miller, “Why I Wrote The Crucible: an artist’s answer to politics,” The New Yorker, October 13, 1996. )

REVIEW: Sweeney Todd – The Two of Us Productions/RARE Inc.

Review by Tamara Cacchione

            Many did indeed “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” in the beautiful Taconic Hills Auditorium up in Claverack, NY.  This bold and elegant production, produced by The Two of Us Productions and The Roving Actors’ Repertory Ensemble was a captivating and moving theater experience in a busy regional theater season.

            When audience members first enter this grand auditorium, they encounter an 18-piece orchestra, a rare treat for a musical playing in community theater in the area, and an indication of the company’s goal of bringing high-quality, full-scale theatrical productions to the local stage.  The producers noted in the program that “live full-orchestra music is an integral part of (their) shows & provides the musical support that this show is designed to present to …audiences.”  Conducted by director Stephen Sanborn, the orchestra is a true gift in this production.  It is thrilling and provoking to hear a strong orchestra underscoring a deeply moving musical, and it is imperative for Sweeney Todd, as music plays throughout much of the action of the production, with unique harmonies and sinister tones that support the dark subject matter of 19th century London. 

            Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is the tale of a deeply damaged man determined to find some ease of mind by seeking revenge on those who destroyed his family.  To give you an idea of what type of resolve Sweeney has, he has escaped prison in Australia to get back to London and find Judge Turpin and the Beadle, whom he holds responsible for the death of his wife and the kidnapping of his daughter. He has literally traveled across oceans to seek revenge. Once arriving back in London, there is no stopping him. Sweeney connects with Mrs. Lovett, whose affection for Sweeney causes her to assist him by adding her own personal flair to his madcap plan to murder those who have hurt him and his loved ones.  When Sweeney’s initial plan does not go as he hoped, he uses his anger to murder nearly everyone who sits in his barber chair.  What to do with the victims of Sweeney’s sharp knives? Business begins to boom in Mrs. Lovett’s meatpie shop now that the new supply of meat bcomes bountiful.  Together, they seek to find happiness- for Lovett, this means happily married to her the murdering barber, perhaps by the sea, while for Sweeney, this means blood to satisfy his desire for retribution.

Joshuah Patriarco and Constance Lopez

            Director Steve Sanborn and Assistant Director Constance Lopez’s ambitious undertaking of a complex score with such dark and intense life struggles can only succeed with a strong cast and ensemble, and this production’s cast did not disappoint. 

            In the role of Sweeney Todd was the powerhouse force of Joshuah Patriarco.  Patriarco’s strong command of his rich baritone voice and his nuanced choices displayed the depths of Sweeney’s pain and journey in a way that made a murderous barber somehow more humane.  From the moment Patriarco arrived on the stage, the fire behind his eyes and full commitment to this bizarre and dark world was palpable, enabling audience members to root for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Patriarco’s performance was intriguing and tittilating while being moving thanks to his subtle shifting of character throughout Sweeney’s time on stage. Patriarco’s bold choices were paired with many precise movements that punctuated his journey from anguished survivor to cold-blooded killer. His range of movements and actions was entrancing to watch, from a sharp and unusual rising from a shallow grave to the smooth and precise slashing of throats, almost a balletic and rhythmic dance. 

            Constance Lopez’s beguiling Mrs. Lovett was a gift of quirk and charm.  Lopez was clearly enjoying herself, as the Lovett character requires in order for her not to seem one-dimensionally twisted and maniacal. Lopez makes the endearing and powerful choice to remain deeply rooted in love, which is evident in her chemistry with the actors around her, in particular with Sweeney and Toby, (a youngster who she encounters through her escapades with Sweeney).   Lopez’s Mrs. Lovett provided a light to Sweeney’s darkness that allows the audience a respite from some of the more intense plotlines and subject matter.   

            Sam Sultan shone as Pirelli, a rival barber.  Sultan demonstrated his keen gift for humor with pinache in the song entitled “The Contest”, in which Pirelli brags about his skills as a barber while competing with Sweeney for the closest shave.  Sultan found every moment for jocularity possible while remaining true to the character to the point that one wishes that he would repeat his scenes so that one could catch the jokes that rapidly poured forth in his performance.

            As the Beggar Woman, Benita Zahn dazzled with humor and pathos.  Zahn created an engaging character whose droll oddity belied her darker struggle for survival. This made Zahn’s performance particularly poignant. Zahn’s multi-dimensional choices represented to audience members one important facet of the struggles of the inhabitants of London and demonstrated the survival of the most devastated, those who have the least, (such a home and many of her faculties).  It might have been easy to fall into stereotypical choices that audience-members might have laughed at, and while there was humor, the Beggar Woman resonated thanks to Zahn’s dedication to the role and the work that she clearly put in to create a realistic and sympathetic woman who was down on her luck. 

            Another joy of the production was the beautiful voice and energy of William Flaim as Anthony Hope. Flaim’s renditions of Johanna (both when he first falls in love with her and when he realizes that his new paramour is not free to love whomever she wants), were both poignant and moving.  It would be difficult not to root for Flaim’s hopeful ambitions; the character of Anthony stops at nothing to be with the woman he loves while remaining somewhat idealistic and determined in a more pure way than those around him.  Flaim’s gleam is a harsh contrast to those who are clawing for survival and any brief balm that might ease their suffering in the dark underbelly of London. 

            The splendid voice of the striking Isabel Costa was a strength of another the effectiveness of the production. As Johanna, Sweeney’s long lost daughter and the paramour of Anthony, ward of the sinister Judge Turpin, she is called upon to represent the show’s beacon of beauty and hope in an otherwise desolate landscape, and Costa does not disappoint, demonstrating earnest romanticism generating from a bruised heart.

            As Judge Turpin, Frank Leavitt was abe to represent the monster who Sweeney blames for the destruction of his family, and turn him into a captivating human being.  Leavitt found the vulnerability of the man (as when he attempts a courtship).  Of particular note was his haunting rendition with Patriarco of “Pretty Women” and his remarkable and hair-raising monologue as he convinces himself that the best thing for his ward is to wed her. 

            As Judge Turpin’s diligent henchman, The Beadle, Brian Yorck created a sinister character mixed with a tinge of jollity.  Yorck’s choice to bring some geniality to the hard-working bad-guy sidekick allowed The Beadle to become even more deliciously smarmy.  Yorck’s smooth voice further enhanced the creep-factor, in songs such as “Parlor Songs”, where Yorck’s suited and efficient singing belies the threat of destruction that he might bring upon the meatpie shop he has come to inspect.   At other times, such as in the song “Ladies and Their Sensitivities”, Yorck seemed to be the voice of reason, slowing down some of the destruction that Judge Turpin hopes to force upon his ward, Johanna. Yorck was a delight to watch. 

            As Toby Ragg, Carmen Lookshire was charming and astute.  Her fun and quirky choices were highly entertaining to watch. Lookshire is an actress masterfully in control of her craft in this production; she initially masks Toby’s deeply-rooted pain, and gradually revealed her character’s strong desire for love and ultimate deference to those she loves.

            Mark Luening was solidly menacing and effectively domineering as the master of the lunatics asylum, Jonas Fogg.

            One would be remiss not to acknowledge the strong ensemble, without which Sondheim productions can devolve into cacaphony; a committed and effective ensemble is essential for any production of Sweeney Todd to be entertaining. It did not disappoint here. Many actors doubled up roles in order to flesh out the world of Victorian London.  One standout number was“City on Fire”, in which each actor plunged themselves into the gripping and unorthodox moves of patients in an asylum. Chloe Conway, Lucia Martin, Zach Nayer, Molly Oliviera, Karissa Payson, and Lauren Wicks each created varied characters in scenes such as at the contest between Pirelli and Sweeney, in Mrs. Lovett’s meatpie shop, dancing at a sinister party at Judge Turpin’s abode, and being murdered by Sweeney.  William Flaim, Frank Leavitt, Mark Leinung, Carmen Lookshire, Sam Sultan, and Brian Yorck also seamlessly blended into different characters in various scenes to become ensemble as well, which further enhanced the story and the trajectory of Sweeney Todd. 

            While a capable musician himself, director Steven Sanborn and Assistant Director Constance Lopez emphasized the music in this production by bringing on Paul and Joanne Schubert, as vocal directors, which reflects their respect for the music and a deep need for strong voices in this production.  The Schuberts demonstrated masterful skill, guiding the cast through some of the most complex and challenging music written for the stage. Their ability to flesh out both the subtlety and the heat in the score’s vocals was evident in the diverse and rich voices within this production.  Sanborn and Lopez’s blocking and choreography further augmented the text, particularly in group scenes where the ensemble was so very important to the story.  Costumes, by Kim Mauch further strengthened the grim and mysterious world of this production of Sweeney Todd.  With sets developed by Michael Rivenburg, Scenic Art by Michael Virtuoso, and a macabre lighting design, each element of the production seemed to work seamlessly together to support the text.

The Two of Us Productions and RARE Inc. has been a long standing staple in the Hudson Valley theatre scene for decades. If you have not had the opportunity to attend one of their shows, we implore you to do so as their mission to bring quality productions to local audiences is being met with each endeavor. Their 2019 season is not over yet! Mark your calendars for their dinner cruise murder mystery The Science of Murder on Saturday, October 26th, Karaoke night on Saturday, November 2nd, and in conjunction with Hudson Valley Academy for the Performing arts, a presentation of The Nutcracker on Sunday, December 1st. Find out more information about The Two of Us Productions/RARE Inc. by visiting their website:

Tough Topics and A Powerful Reading

Article by Tamara Cacchione & Joe Eriole

A New Work by a Local Playwright Leaves its First Audience Moved and Intrigued

A sold-out crowd of theater-goers mingled over wine and cheese at the Clove Creek Dinner Theater on the last Sunday evening of September.  As the audience found their seats, Louisa Vilardi thanked them for attending the debut of her new and moving play, Tough Love, produced by The New Deal Creative Arts Center.

With light blocking at important moments and a cast of five skilled actors who have worked with her throughout the development of the piece, Vilardi was able to convey the vision she has for her new work. 

A simple black curtain, actors in all black, and a strong, clear voice reading important stage directions (David Perez-Ribada), allowed audience members to imagine with sufficient clarity what a fully staged performance might look like.

Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi Photography

Vilardi has set her play at Sunday dinner in an Italian home which she acknowledges is reflective of her own family history. Indeed many of the most endearing and eclectic aspects of the Sunday dinner setting and the family dynamics themselves, are drawn from her own experience, such as the fact that they eat in the basement of their modest home on Sundays, and that the possibility that there will be no bread at dinner rises to the level of tragedy. The same mix of her own experience and original creative process colors her characters, as well. But the play is not strictly autobiographical.  “I am inspired by people I love. And I am inspired by people I can’t stand. So, I took a bunch of those people and threw them in a play,” Vilardi says.

For many families, Sunday dinner is a time to connect with loved ones, a time to rest and recuperate from a long week, and a time to share exciting and important news. For the Marino family, this particular Sunday dinner does not go as planned. The elder Marinos, Rae and Lou, have an announcement they’d like to make, which they assume will be the main event of the afternoon. But each of their two children have news of their own to report, which throws their revelation to the back of the line in a hurry. Their oldest son, Eric, announces he has made partner at his job.  After the excitement of this announcement dies down, lackadaisical son Danny, still living at home and typically sleeping until noon, announces that he is moving out and has taken a “lover” (a word to which he is gleefully and obstinately attached despite the rest of the family’s cringing each time it is uttered).  But even these momentous changes will not be center stage for long. As the evening continues, the reverberation of these announcements and the further unfolding of more personal concerns, begin to threaten the Marino family’s precarious stability.  Secrets are revealed and hidden feelings verbalized, ensuring that the Marino family will never return to quite the same Sunday dinner table again.

Vilardi smoothly takes the audience on a journey that begins, and is laced throughout, with uproarious laughter.  The show, however, often evokes tears and delivers many poignant moments as well.  Vilardi’s dialogue is witty and natural, her characters fully fleshed out people that the audience will surely recognize.  It is a testament to the effectiveness of the dialogue that in the talk-back conducted after the show, the audience participated enthusiastically in musing about the possible futures of the family, as well as the connections they felt to their own past which were aroused by the show.

Laurel Riley-Brown (Rae) ably demonstrated the aching desire of the Marino matriarch to see all of her children at peace without shaking up the status quo of the family.  Riley-Brown’s ability to bring character and charming personality to her role, while maintaining her naturalism is no small feat. It would be quite easy to fall into a satire of an Italian mother, but Riley-Brown’s deep respect for the text created a humorous and lovable Rae. 

Joe Eriole skillfully captures the flawed but well-meaning patriarch, Lou.  We don’t know precisely  what Lou is going to announce to his family, but it is clear that there is a crisis  in the Marinos’ marriage, and Eriole deftly gives us the impression that one of them may be less convinced of the impending course than the other. Lou’s journey throughout the play may seem more slight than that of other family members, but it is no less penetrating thanks to the execution of Eriole, who nabbed the subtle moments and seized key opportunities to evoke a layered and complex character, emoting moments of pathos, humor, anger, and bumbling confusion.

Kate, Eric’s long-suffering wife, is stunningly portrayed by Teresa Gasparini.  Gasparini gracefully creates a Kate filled with compassion and a gentleness that belies a deep fire underneath. As the play turns from humor to something more sobering, Kate’s transformation entranced the audience as Gasparini subtly shifted and revealed a powerhouse of pain and strength.

As Danny, Austin Lightning Carrothers’ sleek portrayal of the youngest Marino was a delight.  Carrothers breezily rolled through the hills and valleys of showing us what happens when a laid-back young man is forced into the spotlight of a serious family drama.

Steven Bendler, as older brother Eric, gave a superb performance. There was a fire in his eyes as Eric hid his stress and anxiety behind anger, and tears in his eyes as secrets were revealed.  Eric is a man hinged on trying to make everything work out the way he thinks will be best. Bendler’s portrayal of what happens when he can’t control what other people do and the outcome was captivating.

Austin Carrothers and Teresa Gasparini at a table read of Tough Love
Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi Photography

Vilardi says the script will continue to develop, and that the comments and reactions of a live audience are vitally important to her developing a script that will move audiences to feel the wide range of familial tensions and connections which she seeks to present in Tough Love. Vilardi elaborates, “I’ve had to pick up a lot of pieces in life, not only for myself, but for others, and that’s what Tough Love is really about: giving up or giving in when things fall apart, and the strength that comes from picking up those pieces.”  

While rooted in the mind’s eye of its playwright’s personal experience, any success in its future will be due to the universality of its themes of familial love and tension. In her own words, “What’s most important to me right now is getting the words heard in front of audiences and to get feedback.”

If the feedback Ms. Vilardi received at this reading is any indicator, it is not difficult to imagine its path to a wider audience, beginning in our own backyard. Produced by New Deal Creative Art Center, a quickly expanding local arts outlet based in Hyde Park, the reading was as much event as theater; New Deal’s founder and Executive Director, Teresa Gasparini, who did double duty as the script’s Kate, says, “this public reading brought a new work to life and brought a wide range of audience members at no cost to experience this regional premiere, which sets New Deal apart from other arts organizations in the Hudson Valley.”

Vilardi has the long play in mind. She notes, “I do hope to see it on small stages, big stages and being read in people’s hands.” Tough Love is off to a rousing start. Vilardi has written a winning play with characters and storylines the audience will find both familiar and unexpected.

The cast of Tough Love (l. to r.) Austin Carrothers, David Perez-Ribada, Joe Eriole, Teresa Gasparini, Laurel Riley-Brown, Steven Bendler, and playwright Louisa Vilardi.
Photo Credit: Tav Images Photography


Ms. Vilardi is a writer and theater director originally from Northern New Jersey where she taught high school English and Creative Writing for over a decade before moving to the Hudson Valley. Louisa was formerly a resident director and producer for New Players Company (Ridgewood, NJ). She is a proud member of The Dramatist Guild of America. Her writing has been featured by The Huffington Post, Today Parenting Team and Scary Mommy. 

The New Deal Creative Arts Center, founded in 2017, is a non-profit 501©3 arts organization located in Hyde Park, NY. New Deal is strongly following their mission that includes new opportunity for both artists and audiences alike. This is not a one off for the young organization as they are currently accepting new works now through November 15th for a chance to be fully produced by New Deal. More information can be found on their website:

ForAll Theater Makes its Debut in Peekskill, NY

ForAll Theater gears up for a production of Macbeth opening October 11th!

See a need, fill a need. This is exactly what brought Nils Sawnson to open ForAll Theater in Peekskill earlier this year. An emigrant to the Hudson Valley from Colorado by way of New Jersey, Swanson was in search of a theater company in the area with which he could connect, and most importantly, create. He and his wife, Amy, fell in love with the Peekskill area for both its beauty and its thriving fine and visual arts culture, but his search revealed a gap when it came to the performing arts. 

Serving as ForAll Theater’s Artistic Director, Swanson’s first step in seeking  to fill that gap was to form a meet up group to gauge interest and support for a local company. After several “think tank” meetings, he and his colleagues were well on their way bringing this to fruition. Established as a 501(c)3 non-profit, ForAll Theater found their first home in an old dance studio which has been transformed into a charming, 50-seat, black box theater. 

Swanson notes the space is open to the community and is not just intended for theatrical productions. He promotes it as a mixed use space. Currently the theater is being used for a zumba class, Sunday service, a rehearsal space for a local comedy improv group, and of course, theatre performances.

ForAll Theater’s opening show earlier this summer was an original work by local high school students entitled Alone in Paris. A unique and bold choice for an opening show of a brand new theater company, Swanson made it clear that this space was for both traditional theater as well as new works.

ForAll Theater’s future look bright with an appealing upcoming season and long term  plans. This fall they will be presenting a three-weekend run of Macbeth opening October 11th. Shows will be Thursday-Sunday with tickets ranging $20-$23. Swanson has ideas for holiday offerings, as well, including Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol and Santa Land Diaries.
Swanson is already heavily invested in the community, offering local businesses “dinner and show deals,” inviting business owners to dress rehearsals, and dubbing all Thursday shows as “pay what you will” performances.

ForAll Theater is an intriguing name with a fascinating logo and meaning behind it. “This all came together about five minutes before our meeting to incorporate.” says Swanson. The the upside down “A” is the universal quantification symbol; it’s a shorthand character in symbolic logic. For Swanson, the symbol’s universality “is a sign meaning, ‘for all,’ and everything just fell into place with that name.” 

Swanson’s main goal is to bring theater to the masses. Whether it’s the first time theater attendee, someone who hasn’t been to theater is years, or the regular theater-goer. The name, and the message rings loud and clear: this theater company’s mission, vision and future is an invitation to all to come experience the unique and ever-new wonder of live theater. 

ForAll Theater
Nils Swanson, Artistic Director
706 N. Division Street
Peekskill, NY 914.817.8334

The Fantasticks – Rhinebeck Theatre Society

Magic and Mood in Rhinebeck

“Without a hurt, the heart will hollow.”

This painful truth is nearly hidden in the lilting, nostalgic melody of The Fantasticks’ iconic opening song, “Try to Remember.” It is fitting, really, that it should be so, since much of the staying power of this record-setting show is to be found in how effectively its whimsy veils the depth of its commentary on how we love and lose our way.

One of Broadway’s most beautiful songs opens the show with a melodic simplicity to which the score never returns. Indeed, Tom Jones’ and Harvey Schmidt’s score presents considerable challenges for the musicians and the vocalists. In this Rhinebeck Theater Society production, the score is ably carried by musical director and pianist Michael Berkeley and harpist Teresa Mango, to great effect. The production’s standout vocalist is Rhinebeck newcomer Katie Nicole Weiser in the role of Luisa, and Austin Lightning Carrothers sets the tone for the romantic fable with a thoroughly inviting rendition of “Try to Remember.”

Austin Carrothers as El Gallo

As Director Tina Reilly points out in her notes, the playwrights intended to both celebrate and mock romanticism, in Jones’ words, “to touch people, and then to make them laugh at the very thing that touched them.” Like any enduring fairy tale, the lessons to be learned are obvious to us all; yet we fall for it again and again. The romantic ideal is at once our fundamental virtue and flaw.   

The story is of the young Luisa and her paramour, Matt (Chris Backofen); enamored of each other due, in equal measure, to their youthful notions of romance and their fathers’ pretended objections to their pairing. Their scheming fathers enlist the aid of the enigmatic El Gallo, who doubles as a narrator, to stage a pretended abduction of the fair Luisa, from which Matt will appear to “save” her. In Act Two, we are reminded that “what at night may seems oh so scenic, may be cynic by and by,” and the two young lovers learn that more than romance is required for true love to prevail. The show will not be spoiled by revealing here that love triumphs in the end.      

Amber McCarthy as The Mute, Katie Nicole Weiser as Luisa, and Chris Backofen as Matt.

Carrothers is an elegant stage presence and is just as dastardly and dashing as the part of El Gallo requires. His partners in the staged rescue of Luisa are the Shakespearean actor Henry (Lou Trapani), whose thespian gifts are comically fading, and his trusted sidekick Mortimer (Thomas G. Byrne). Trapani’s Henry is entirely endearing and effective, and Byrne gives a slapstick performance as his aide reminiscent of Vaudeville and Hollywood’s earliest comic characterizations. Amber McCarthy, who gives the show a natural but professional energy as the show’s choreographer, also plays The Mute, who adds to the magic of the show with, well…the occasional magic trick, among other flights of fancy. Andy Crispell and Michael Britt are a delight every time they are featured in the roles of the fathers.

Weiser and Backofen are utterly charming as the protagonists. Each bring an exuberance to their portrayals which make them entirely believable as the youth who open the show, deep in puppy love. Weiser gives us a precocious Luisa who is not entirely without an instinct for self-determination. Backofen’s Matt is equal parts naïve and noble; we buy him as the varsity letterman when the show opens, while it is no stretch to think he might be a perfectly capable hero if called upon in something other than a rouse.

Andy Crispell and Michael Brit

Reilly’s choice to present the instruments and the vocals unamplified, against the minimalist set reflective of that which exemplified the more than 17,000 performances of the show in its original off-Broadway run, are wise and creditable choices. It adds to the organic intimacy of the show, which is undoubtedly part of its enduring appeal. Likewise, the show is costumed by Donna Letteri in an easy and playful style that calls to mind playing “dress-up” out of a trunk full of vintage clothes found in the fantastical attics of idyllic youth.  The Fantasticks runs through October 6 at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck. Tickets are available online (, by phone at the box office (845.876.3080), or at the door (661 Route 308 Rhinebeck, NY)

The cast of The Fantasticks

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – County Players

Review by Teresa Gasparini

Hilarious. H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S. Hilarious.

Caution: Actors at play.
How many times do we say to ourselves “Oh, to be a kid again.”? The thought of it is often appealing when you think back on your carefree childhood with low stress and fun around every corner, at least as it compares to our adult stressors. Most of us are not likely to be able to be a child at play again, but for a few fortunate and talented actors that chance comes when they find themselves cast in the laugh-out-loud production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Six pre-pubescent adolescents (all played by adults) compete in a county spelling bee, run by three idiosyncratic grown-ups. A school gym is set to host the finals and this leads to “a very nice beginning” as we meet the local winners and are introduced to the unique and exceptional qualities of the characters as brought to life by each of the players. 

One by one, each contestant (including a few unexpecting audience members) are quizzed, challenged, and tested on a litany of words given, defined and used in a sentence by the adult moderators. And, one by one, we learn the background stories of each participant, some purely comedic and others with a bit more substance, before we say goodbye as, one by one, spellers are eliminated.  

Chloe Kramer as Schwartzy

Spelling Bee is marvelously cast and is directed with great skill by Jeff Wilson. Wilson’s direction lets the actors take full charge of their characters, presenting them as uninhibited youth with thoroughly entertaining exuberance and heart. Special note should be made of musical director, Karen Sheehy, whose talent was highlighted by the cast with their flawless harmonies backed by an on-point pit. Sheehy pulled triple duty as musical director, pit conductor and keyboardist, and juggled this seamlessly. The musical numbers were pleasing to both ear and eye,  thanks to the delightful and light-hearted choreography by Denise Wornell.

We are first introduced to Rona Lisa Peretti played wonderfully by Amy Schaffer (who also doubled as Olive’s Mom), and we soon find out that she is a former spelling bee champion with passion for both the bee itself and for the participants. Schaffer did not disappoint with the skilled singing voice she is known for, as she had several ballads and gorgeous harmonies to undertake. She is joined by two other adults, one being comedic master Jeff Sculley as Vice Principal Douglas Panch. Sculley embraces this role with all the humor and fun it deserves. Listening to Sculley’s delivery of his character’s responses to “Can you use the word in a sentence?” is worth the ticket price alone (it is suspected Sculley, an improv actor, may come up with some of those sentences himself!). Rounding out the adults is the always entertaining Glen Macken as Mitch Mahoney – a reformed convict there to be a comfort counselor to those eliminated from the spelling bee. Every departure is a delight with his “good bye” song and hugs that are as burly and strong as you can expect from a tough guy handing out juice boxes. Macken also impresses with his ability to go from Mitch Mahoney to the flamboyant Dan Dad and once again flip into the distant father of Olive. Between Schaffer, Sculley, and Macken, being an adult never looked so fun! 

The Spellers are a mixed bag of adolescents that add to the “pandemonium” of this show. Irving Zuniga brings to life the boy scout with an unfortunate problem (no spoilers here!), Chip Tolentino. An early eliminated participant, Zuniga pops up in unexpected ways and at unexpected times as he too takes on more than one role. He does this with vigor and truly finds the humor in his character. Zuniga makes his debut at County Players along with Chloe Kramer playing the strong-willed Logainne Schwaztandgrubenniere (affectionately called Schwartzy). Kramer is a big personality on stage and draws the audience’s eye (in a good way!) with her comedic line delivery and facial expressions. Jontae Walters takes on the role of Marcy Park with such seriousness that you would think her character should be the adult in this spelling bee, reminiscent of the super-serious participants in these real-life competitions. It is a delightful twist when Walters is able to let loose with her song “I Speak Six Languages” as we see a playful and free side of Marcy Park. 

Thomas O’Leary as Leaf Coneybear

New to County Players is Thomas O’Leary who takes on the role of Leaf Coneybear with such conviction that he is absolutely irresistible on stage. His wide eyed and youthful expressions and mannerisms only add to this eccentric character. O’Leary will have you in full belly laughs between his characterization and simply from moments such as falling out of his chair out of nowhere. Also making her County Players debut is Lisa Delia who plays Olive Ostrovsky – a shy, timid character who absolutely steals the hearts of the audience. Her performance in “The I Love You Song” (along with Macken and Shaffer) is wonderfully moving and is a poignant moment that takes a break from the comedy, and gives the audience the aforementioned substance. Delia is a wonderful addition to the County Players’ line up. Rounding out the cast is a County Players favorite, Dylan Parkin in the role of William Morris Barfee (pronounced “Bar-fay”!). Having seen Parkin in several roles, he once again indubitably shows off his acting chops with another wildly entertaining performance in this role. 

Following The Drowsy Chaperone earlier this year, Wilson has assembled another impressive ensemble to give County Players and their audience an amusing and simply delightful night out. There are just two more weekends to catch this comedic romp, so be sure to reserve your tickets before the final performance on September 28th. Visit to reserve your tickets and get ready to laugh uninhibitedly just like when you were a kid! 

Teresa Gasparini

Teresa Gasparini is a co-founder and contributing writer for Hudson Valley Ovation. She serves as the Artistic Director for Clove Creek Dinner Theater in Fishkill, NY and a founder as well as Executive Director of The New Deal Creative Arts Center in Hyde Park, NY.

The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Boiler Room Girls – A Regional Premiere at The Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck

A Kennedy Myth & Mystery, Through The Eyes of The Women In The Eye Of The Storm

“Boiler Room Girls.”
The nickname was not hard to come by. The windowless work area in the basement of Senator Robert Kennedy’s Washington, DC campaign offices did, indeed, double as the building’s boiler room. And the “girls” to whom it referred? Well, in 1968, it was equally inevitable, despite the fact that every one of them was in their twenties.

During Bobby’s ill-fated run for the presidency, these women coordinated one of the most important aspects of any campaign. They monitored and coordinated all communications from the six regions of the country into which the nation had been divided for purposes of the campaign process, and it was through them that the executive team and Kennedy himself perceived the mood of the voters during this critical chapter of American political history.

In 1968, the six Boiler Room Girls ranged in age from 23 to 28. Among them, the oldest, Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, died a year later in the infamous Chappaquiddick incident. The other five, Esther Newberg, Susan Tannenbaum, Rosemary “Cricket” Keough, and sisters Nance and Mary Ellen Lyons, all testified in the highly charged hearings on Chappaquiddick in the aftermath of Kopechne’s tragic death.

Despite their integral role in one of the most high-profile presidential campaigns in history, and the opinion of those who knew them that they were “frighteningly intelligent, politically astute, capable as all get-out,” (described in a McCall’s article by Vivian Cadden), this new musical is the first treatment of their story from the perspective of the women themselves. Why? 

The cast of Boiler Room Girls in rehearsal

“Come see the play to find out,” says Cheryl B. Engelhardt, the show’s lyricist, composer and musical director. The musical, according to its authors, seeks to do more than tell the story. It looks to provide some insight into the cultural, and cultic, factors which explain why the story has become essentially a footnote. Book writer, director and choreographer Kevin Archambault observes, “as a society we are fed history through our media outlets, and that becomes ‘the truth.’” Archambault thinks the result, and perhaps even the intentional desire of both media and the public, is that we can “believe that our political heroes are above human error.”

The repression of the contributions of women and minorities in every aspect of history is a well-known phenomenon against which many, especially in the arts, have pushed back in recent years. Neat classifications of the “white hats” and the “black hats” among our leaders can be appealing. We want to boo or cheer, so to speak. The result, when we determine someone is a villain, can be a wholesale destruction of their image in life, or their legacy in death. But, Archambault notes, our desire to have unblemished cultural icons has dangerous repercussions as well. Remembering our heroes as spotless can allow us a false sense that we’ve come farther than we really have in our treatment of women and minorities. Bluntly, Engelhardt and Archambault posit, in Archambault’s words, “we haven’t come far at all.”

There are added layers to the question of the Boiler Room Girls’ relative anonymity, however, which make this show intriguing. First, it must be noted that part of that low profile is the result of the nearly total silence of the surviving women since the tragic ending of the Bobby Kennedy campaign and the Chappaquiddick affair. Second, and possibly inexorably linked to this silence, is the question of the magnetism of the Kennedys both during their lifetimes and as an American cultural phenomenon. All of these women appear to have been fiercely pro-Kennedy when John and Bobby were alive, notable given the fact that they were certainly privy to their personal character flaws to an extent the general public was not, until decades later. And, even after Teddy’s reprehensible behavior at Chappaquiddick became relatively well-known, the women have not sought to betray the Kennedy mystique during the several decades that have elapsed since. Was this because they were afraid of potentially dangerous repercussions of breaking ranks? Or did they, like so many, simply consider the more idealistic aspects of the Kennedy platform to outweigh the benefits of such disclosures?

Archambault’s first inclination to write the play was borne of this very Kennedy mystique. Growing up in a Catholic household, JFK’s magic had a central focus in his home.  He confesses a “crazy obsession with the Kennedy curse” from his earliest consciousness of their story.  When the creative team first began to explore the possibility of a musical treatment of the subject, they thought the Chappaquiddick story itself would be the focal point of the piece. The more research they did, the more they were convinced that the Boiler Room Girls had to be the vehicle.

Kevin Archambault

“What happened, surrounding the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the death of one of their own, that would cause these women to form an unbreakable bond that has lasted their lifetimes?” Archambault asks. Archambault and Engelhardt set out to paint that picture.

The two met in 2013 when Engelhardt appeared in a musical Archambault was directing at the Rhinebeck Center for Performing Arts. In ensuing collaborations, Engelhardt has served as musical director in Archambault-directed pieces, and out of the friendship, they developed a mutual interest in an original project. By 2014, they had committed to the Boiler Room Girls’ story. Progress was slow at first, as both delved deep into the innumerable wormholes down which the Kennedy story can often lead. About eighteen months ago, Engelhardt encouraged accelerating the process by setting dates for its live premiere. “Yep,” she quips. “I realized that I work best under a deadline, and at some point we had to give ourselves a date to work toward.” That’s when the script and the music being presented to audiences in this month’s production really started to take shape.

Both come to endeavor with significant pedigree to recommend the quality of the work. Archambault is a director and choreographer out of NYC. He spent years on the road as an actor, dancer and singer, and now calls the Hudson Valley his permanent home. His list of directorial credits is vast, and when he appears as an actor, he is widely regarded as one of the region’s finest. He also serves as the Assistant Artistic & Managing Director at The CENTER for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck and is an adjunct professor at SUNY Dutchess. 

Engelhardt is a prolific composer and singer/songwriter with dozens of film and ad score credits, 4 piano-pop albums, 20 tours, and 40+ TV placements on her resume. She began her career in a hip-hop recording studio in NYC and went on to work at a post-production house, which led her to her stint as a jingle composer before starting to tour with her band. Also a Hudson Valley resident, Engelhardt says the music is largely pop-inspired, “…we did not want to be bound to trying to write a 60’s soundtrack,” she says. The story, Archambault and Engelhardt agree, is important in its own right, and there is no need to date its music stylistically. While the production will emulate the style of the times in its costuming and set design, the piece is not an homage to the top forty hits of the era.

Cheryl B. Engelhardt

The duo is very excited about the cast they’ve assembled to present the material in its debut. Cast members Chris Backofen, Joseph Bongiorno, Tom Bunker, Bryelle Burgus, Mark Colvson, Michelle George, Victoria Howland, Rachel Karashay, PJ Kraus, Natasha Lende, Kiah Saxe, Wendell Scherer, Cheyenne See, Jordan Stroly & Elaine Young, are all experienced stage performers, and all were eager to be a part of telling the story.

The hope and expectation for the piece is that this premiere will lead to insights about the strengths of the project which will allow for even more tightening of the product for presentation in other theater workshops, festivals and venues regionally and nationally. And both of its creators are clear in the ultimate hope for the project. “The goal,” they say, “is Broadway.”

Having spent time with the creative team and gained some familiarity with the script, the music, and the underlying story, there is no reason to believe the work will not have a long and fruitful future. The compelling nature of the Kennedy myth, combined with the little-told story, distinguishes it from the Kennedy “white-noise” – there should be an appetite for the story given its newness, and both Archambault and Engelhardt have the experience and the talent to stage the story with audience appeal. The opportunity to see the show in its premiere production is a unique chance, therefore, to observe the organic development of such a project and indeed, to be a part of how it evolves. If the piece gets the legs it will no doubt deserve, its Rhinebeck audience may have the chance to look back on this intimate opening after they see it again under the bright lights in its future.

The show runs one weekend only, September 20th– 22nd. Tickets are available online and at the door, but online purchase is encouraged, as the buzz for this project may make box office purchase a risky venture. The project also has its own web and social media presences, as does Engelhardt’s musical library. All links are provided below.


Boiler Room Girls Website:



Cheryl B. Engelhardt’s Musical Library: