The Drowsy Chaperone – County Players

Review By Teresa Gasparini

County Players closes out its 61st season with The Drowsy Chaperone

Musical theater takes its share of jabs – “No one just bursts out into song like that!” Fans would agree that it is “unrealistic,” but they know that to be the point. All theater is an escape no matter how closely it seeks to portray reality; musical theater makes no pretense of the matter. The point is precisely to let the glitz and glam of the costumes, lights, song, and dance transport the audience out of “real life.” If that is indeed the point, then County Players’ 61st season’s grand finale production of The Drowsy Chaperone is right on target.

As the lights go down and the audience awaits the signature start of an overture with the crash of cymbals or the blasts of brass, we sit in the darkness for several quiet moments. The overture does not come. Just when one begins to question whether something went wrong, out of the darkness comes the hesitant yet passionate voice of Man in Chair. The opening monologue is a delight, tapping the thoughts of many a dubious theater-goer: “Oh, please let this be good … I can handle two hours, but please not a three-hour show … And for the love of God, please don’t have the actors come into the audience!” It sets the stage for the entertaining commentary throughout the show that we hear from Man in Chair as though he himself is an audience member sitting next to us, breaking the fourth wall.

Man in Chair introduces us to the fictitious 1928 musical The Drowsy Chaperone while he sits in his simple apartment adorned with show posters. It is not hard to guess Man in Chair lives the life of a recluse, finding comfort within his four walls, and in the worlds created by his records. As he sets the needle down on the show recording, the musical comes to life in his apartment, with elegant décor such as lush draperies, a glowing chandelier, and elaborate floral arrangements, followed by the eclectic cast of The Drowsy Chaperone. A betrothed couple tailed by the best man, an elderly hostess with her faithful butler, a show business producer and a brash “put me in the show!” chorus girl, two gangsters posing as pastry chefs, an overrated actor, and of course the infamous drowsy chaperone mix together to transport us back to the 1920s when musicals were carefree, lighthearted and always end in a wedding… or two… or three … or four!

Dylan Parkin as Man in Chair

Dylan Parkin captivatingly plays Man in Chair – a deceptively simple character name for the pivotal character of the show. Parkin easily engages the audience as he narrates this story safely from the confines of his chair until he can no longer be a bystander and gets in on the act himself. He acts as a perfect tour guide on this journey through the chronicle of The Drowsy Chaperone as a musical theatre lover with a heavy heart. It’s fitting that his character is nameless because Parkin makes Man in Chair so relatable that anyone in the audience can identify with him, thus placing themselves in the chair.

Janet Van de Graaf is skillfully played by Amy Schaefer, whose voice is as stunning as her performance. Of particular note is her rendition of “Show Off” which is complete with quick changes, comedic talents, a big belt at the end, followed by an encore of the song. This was accomplished with such finesse and style that Ms. Schaefer is welcome to “show off” anytime.

Glen Macken as Adolpho is a highlight of the show, and his catch phrase of “Whaaaaat?” is one of those take-away lines you say on the car ride home. His comedic timing, line delivery, and character development are instinctual skills. He plays this character with an unabashed joy which makes his every entrance amusing.

In the title character, Michele George shines as The Drowsy Chaperone. She is brassy, brazen, perpetually a bit tipsy, and everything you want out of a 1920’s diva. George owned every line, costume, and step of her character. Her performance of “As We Stumble Along” would have one wondering if the song was perhaps written specifically for her because she owned that as well.

The entertaining duo of The Gangsters played by Michael Frohnhoefer and Emily Woolever were an audience favorite. They played off each other perfectly often creating fits of hysterical laughter. Woolever’s ability to transform into different characters is remarkable; Frohnhoefer is at absolute play in this character, and together they steal every scene they are in. With their performances, a musical based solely on The Gangsters would be a box office hit.

It is wonderfully notable that County Players so often features performers making their debut with the company, and The Drowsy Chaperone is no exception. Matthew Fields playing Robert and Kevin Wadzuk playing George, are a great pair as the groom and best man respectively. Their tap dance number “Cold Feet” has an appeal that makes it impossible to watch without an ear-to-ear smile. Also making her debut is Eliana Russotti as Trix the Aviatrix whose dynamite voice makes one hopeful we will see her time and time again on stage. No stranger to the stage, but a first timer with County Players, is the lovable Frank Petruccelli. He pulls double duty as the Superintendent and several roles in the ensemble and is a wonderful addition to the company.

Michael A. Boden as the stressed Broadway producer Feldzieg (get it?) and Lora Rinaldi as Kitty, provide a lot of laughs along with some wonderful production numbers filled with bounce and vitality. Stephanie Hepburn as Mrs. Tottendale and Thomas G. Byrne as her faithful butler, Underling are enjoyable with their hot and cold relationship filled with humor and eventually love.

A production like this is only as strong as the ensemble. Rounding out the cast with energy and effervescence is Connie E. Boden, Alexis Morgan, Laura Seaman, and Lance Turner.

The cast of The Drowsy Chaperone

Kudos to the crew, both backstage and production. Jen Mille as Stage Manager, assisted by Audra Siegel, runs a bustling backstage with many scene changes, and certainly several quick costume changes. Another nod to Jen Mille and her clever set design that kept the pace of the show moving with seamless transitions. Not to give anything away here, but the use and design of the bed was one of genius! The design of the show across the board should be commended with special note being made to Kevin Barnes on lights and Mark Weglinski’s sound. Karen Ustick Eremin and Rosemeary Evaul’s costume design was as alive and vibrant as the 1920s itself.

Matthew Woolever is making a mark on the Hudson Valley theatre scene as a well- seasoned musical director. It is quipped in the show that overtures are “musical appetizers”, and with Woolever and the 12-piece orchestra giving the audience a taste of the bright, upbeat 1920s score right from the beginning, we find ourselves extremely full and satisfied by the show’s end.

Nothing beats a great production number, and nothing completes it like a great dance break. Denise Wornell makes a triumphant return to County Players as the production’s choreographer. Wornell should be applauded for her choreography that catered to the different dance skill sets among the cast. Routines were delightfully done in 1920s jazz/flapper era reminding us all how we wanted to be alive and part of that roaring time in history.

Jeff Wilson has directed a quintessential community theatre production with all the elements to make this possibly one of County Players’ best. Wilson skillfully assembled a score of highly talented individuals to make up his cast, orchestra, stage crew, and production team. His vision played out beautifully on stage. Wilson’s greatest accomplishment may very well have been to let his cast have fun. The Drowsy Chaperone is the type of show that cries out “Have fun!”, and once all the work is put in with lines, choreography, music, then it is time for the fun and too often that’s forgotten about. Not in this case! The cast so clearly enjoyed the show and each other that it seeped out into the audience, making this a real winner for Wilson.

Sure, we can agree that elements of musical theatre are unrealistic, since generally we don’t break into song and dance when emotion elevates in our lives. But, to permit yourself to suspend reality for two hours allowing a show to take you to another world, seeing how the characters will sing their way out of a situation, or just merely tapping your foot along to a show stopping number without the distraction of cell phones, emails or other interruptions of life, truly makes up the glory of musical theatre. Do yourself a favor and leave the real world behind for a bit to immerse yourself in this “musical within a comedy” expertly presented by County Players.

The Drowsy Chaperone plays through May 19th and tickets can be reserved by calling the box office at 845.298.1491 or online at countyplayers.org 

Teresa Gasparini

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

Marjorie Prime – Phoenicia Playhouse

Review By Joe Eriole

In promoting its production of Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, the Phoenicia Playhouse asks the following question: “If you could purchase a ‘copy’ of a recently deceased loved one, would you?” The show is described as “a chilling drama about the unreliability of memory and the mystery of immortality in the age of artificial intelligence.” It is a credit to the playwright and this production that both the question and the description are accurate, but inadequate. Director Michael Koegler and his talented cast invest this beautifully devised script with such a depth of possible interpretations that no audience member can fail to connect with one or more of its poignant threads. It is further evidence of the Company’s understanding of the importance of the themes that they have invited the audience to participate in talk-backs with the cast after every show. It is difficult to imagine an audience that will not want to stay to bond further with these performers.

Marjorie Prime was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in drama in 2015. On the most basic level, the story explores a future where the image of deceased loved ones can be conjured as more than physical replicas or holograms, but as learning-enabled “Primes,” who continually process the information with which they are initially programmed in light of all they are told by the living who conjure them. We meet our first Prime when Marjorie (Prudence Garcia Renart), a woman in her eighties, in failing physical health and suffering from dementia, is engaged in reminiscing with the most dashing Prime version of her long-dead husband Walter (Austin Lightning Carrothers). Marjorie lives with her dutiful but edgy daughter, Tess (Rebecca Brown Adelman) and earnest son-in-law Jon (Phillip X Levine), whose difference of opinion about the value of the Prime provide our first, but by no means last, exploration of the play’s deepest themes. The title gives enough of a glimpse of the narrative’s next movement that it is no spoiler to mention it here: we eventually meet Marjorie Prime, after Marjorie’s death. Beyond that, it would betray the power of seeing this beautiful piece to divulge more about the storyline: this is a play that should be seen.

Suffice it to say the storyline allows us the opportunity to see Primes perform their function without the context of what their “character” was like when living, and also to see them after we’ve gotten to know them during their lifetime. This dynamic, coupled with the ordinary limitations of our memory, our natural desire to remember things as better or worse than they were in order to help process where we find ourselves now, and the fact that all of our relationships are viewed through individual lenses which include biases, lies, truths and pretenses, longings, and  joys, work together to create a simmering intensity of feeling in which the audience is a full and willing participant.

Weighty questions are stirred up from the first moment to the last.  Which version of our loved ones would we imagine, and what purpose would we want them to serve? Is it enough to say that we miss them and want them around to talk with us? Or, do we want them to say something in particular, even if they might never have said it while they were alive? And, if our living loved ones brought us back as Primes, what memories of our relationship would we discover were most important to them? Perhaps most fundamental, would access to such possibilities be good or bad for us? 

There is also a not-so-subtle subtext which derives from the element of Marjorie’s dementia, and from the debate of Tess and Jon over how to “program” the Prime: even without access to the “Prime” technology contrived by the playwright, we do, to some extent, live in imagined worlds all the time,  as we strive to fill gaps in relationships, interpret what we’ve done, or motivate and justify what we intend to do. The Prime technology, for the time being, is science fiction; but the play is not.

The cast is clearly attuned to these elements, and one need not wait until the post-show talk-back to confirm. From its opening moments, the depth of connection between each actor and their role is evident.

The set of Marjorie Prime

In the role of Marjorie, Ms. Garcia Renart commands attention. She is at once the mischievous Marjorie of her youth and the muddled Marjorie of her last years; we have no problem seeing her as the Marjorie of her daughter’s mind’s eye, or as the Marjorie her spouse’s Prime is programmed to reflect – a programming in which she herself, participates. And her transformation when she is her own Prime, is exceptionally effective.   

Adelman Brown is gripping as Tess. The performance is filled with a palpable sense of dangerously controlled anger and longing; her mastery of Tess’s caustic and colorful personality is mesmerizing. Brown’s powerful presence is the fulcrum on which the other characters, both real and imagined, balance.

Levine imbues Jon with a painfully appealing longing of his own; the desire that both his mother-in-law and his wife should be happy, that they surround themselves with their best reality, is played with such sincerity, that our last glimpse of him on stage – unable to create that same illusion for himself – becomes one of the most powerful moments in the play.

Carrothers gives a haunting performance as Walter, who is never known to us in life; we only meet him though the bruised, battered and often wishful memories of those who knew him. The strength of his performance in this mode of forced temperance does as much as anything else in the show to make us question what Prime technology would really mean to us.

Garcia Renart and
Austin Carrothers

The show is wonderfully directed by Michael Koegel, whose light but decisive touch reveal a trust in the actors and in the importance of the material which is refreshing. It leads to a show that is engrossing, not heavy or ponderous, despite its often weighty and emotional themes. The show is eminently watchable, sharply paced, and beautifully presented.

Phoenicia Playhouse is commended for putting on such an interesting piece when local playhouses are under such pressure to showcase bigger shows with better-known titles. But, of course, no commendation will do as much to ensure more work of this quality than to have audiences see the show. Local theater-goers could not make a better choice this season than to spend their entertainment time and resources on this compelling and masterfully performed show.
Marjorie Prime runs through Sun, May 19, 2019; Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2, Tickets: $20 and $18 (Seniors & Students) Tickets are available online at https://phoeniciaplayhouse.com/productions or oat the door

Joe Eriole is a local actor, director and artist, who has been part of the live music and theater arts community in the Hudson Valley for over 30 years. Professionally Joe is an attorney, organizational executive and management consultant. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife and has two children who are currently making the world a better place.

Newsies – Up in One Productions

Review By Caitlin Connelly

EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!!!

“Newsies stop the world!” is a signature statement of this exuberant musical, and for the next two weekends, they’re doing just that at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. The cast and crew of Up in One’s Newsies give a foot stomping performance at The Center.

Newsies: The Musical is adapted and based on the 1992 film. The show features a Tony Award- winning score by Alan Menken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics) and a book by Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein. The captivating story line is drawn from real-life events that took place in New York City during the Newsboy Strike of 1899 before New York State child labor laws provided the protections they do today. Many underprivileged children living in New York City would sell newspapers on the streets in order to survive. Their epic, self-organized strike, in which they took on newspaper tycoons such as Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal, made headlines and changed history. The story of their fight for a living wage continues to resonate, unfortunately, today.

The show opens true to its historical roots – the year is 1899 and the early morning light is shining down upon the rooftops of New York City. This production’s set is a magnificent feat. Three stories high in faux-steel perfection, with beautifully painted backdrops, and dressed with ladders, landings, clotheslines, ragged Newsies’ garments, and often the ragged Newsies themselves, it gives the audience a complete and engrossing visual experience. The action utilizes every inch of the stage and set, both vertically and horizontally, and it draws the audience into the City in which the Newsies action plays out. The aesthetic achieved is a credit to Andy Weintraub (Set Design), Wil Cornell (Set Construction), Keli Marie Snyder (Scenic Artist), and Harley Putzer (Scenic Artist).

Cast members of Newsies

The image is further enhanced by the authentic costuming of Lobsang Camacho (Costume Design, Lighting Design, Projections), and the technical team support the production ably through the efforts of Brion Carolan (Sound Design), and Joe Beem, Jan Brooks, and Heidi Johnson (Spot Operators).

The band performs the entire show in full, but unobtrusive view of the audience, perched on the second level of the impressive scaffolded set, and amidst the constant action of the choreography. It is conducted by talented pianist and musical director Cheryl B. Engelhardt, and the band backs the production with the energy and depth of sound of an entire pit orchestra.

The protagonist of this story is Jack Kelly (Deitz Farcher), the charismatic leader of the Manhattan Newsies. His smart-mouthed charm and street smarts are balanced by his genuine altruism and care for his fellow Newsies, which creates a rich, compelling dynamic in our hero’s intentions and personality. Farcher embodies Kelly with an easy command of characterization and voice, which draw you to his performance just as the Newsies are drawn to his leadership. He opens the show singing the prologue “Sante Fe” with his friend Crutchie, a fellow Newsie with a bum leg, whose character is sweetly and humorously captured by Terrence Boyer. Farcher’s and Boyer’s harmonies sell the show right from the beginning.

As the Newsies line up to buy their daily “papes” the deuteragonists of the story, Davey Jacobs (Wendell Sherer) and his little brother Les are introduced. The Jacobs boys differ from the rest of the Newsies. Unlike the orphaned, independent Newsies who live in boarding houses or on the streets, the Jacobs have a family, and a home to sleep in at night. When their father, who was hurt on the job, gets well again, they will return to school. They are only selling papers to help their family get by.  But, Jack points out that the injustice of their father’s circumstance as an unrepresented worker, aligns their situations more closely than they first imagined, and the boys quickly become allies.

Sherer’s tight laced, practical, honest, and more formally educated Davey has a sort of knowledge which is crucial to the Newsies’ cause. What Jacobs lacks in magnetism, he makes up for in organizational skill, and together, they become the necessary pieces to this puzzle. Sherer’s voice is a noticeably strong addition to the strength of the musical score, and both Farcher and Sherer bring acting chops to their performances which elevate the show.

One of the most impressive performances is that of Brayden Gianelli, who portrayed Les Jacobs, Davey’s ten-year old brother. Les’ personality is a bit more akin to that of Jack, who immediately takes him under his wing. Jack’s intention is to use Les’ young age to their advantage when selling papers. Les Davey’s character demands tremendous enthusiasm and comedic timing, traits Gianelli nailed to perfection. Without serious acting instincts, the actor could rest satisfactorily on being adorable, but Gianelli adds to that a real depth of character.

Cast members of Newsies

The boys soon meet one of their key allies in the cause, Medda Larkin, who “owns the mortgage” on a Burlesque House in the Bowery, where Jack Kelly is discovered to be a talented painter and scenic artist. A powerful, funny, and sensual performance is given by Jody Satriani in the role, in the number “That’s Rich.”

The character of Katherine Plummer is a welcomed addition to Newsies (The Musical). Her character did not exist in the 1992 Disney musical movie. The choice to rewrite Jack Kelly‘s love interest for the musical gives a voice to woman’s rights, which during the turn of the century, was also a hot topic on the forefront of change. The creation of this character strengthens the storyline and adds an interesting surprise twist near the end of the show. Katherine’s character is one of great wit, sass, sarcasm, self-respect, and high moral standing, making it easy to see why her and Jack Kelly would be drawn to one another. Ms. Plummer is perfectly portrayed by Maria Coppola. Her vocal performance of “Watch What Happens” resonated. Coppola is not only a talented vocalist, but an accomplished dancer as well. During an impressive tap number, Coppola teases the audience with a tidbit of what she’s capable of as a dancer, before later throwing down and stealing a scene.

Newsies is a masterpiece of movement. The choreography, designed by the show’s director Kevin Archambault and captained by Katelyn Shoemaker (Dance Captain), is impeccable. The classic jumps seen in the Broadway version of the show are all here, along with many other new touches and visual surprises, such as an incredible backflip, perfectly landed by the Newsie Finch, portrayed by Jacob Anspach. Every Newsie and ensemble member holds their own in the demanding dancing required for this show. A musical of this size is only as impressive as the ensemble backbone because their support is crucial to the energy delivered throughout the performance. The energy was indeed upheld at all times, and every cast member brought their characters to life with unique flourishes, while also being aware of and working the other players throughout every music and dance number.

The tyranny of Joseph Pulitzer must be captured effectively in this story for it to work. A mustache twisting, coin purse tightening, typical tycoon of his era. The nemesis of the Newsies who diabolically raises the cost of the newspapers that are bought and sold by them, without any regard for their quality of life, is brilliantly captured by Mark Grunblatt.  Pulitzer’s “Team” is rounded out by Joe Felece (Bunsen), Thom Whebb (Seitz), Erin Herbert (Hannah), and Ken Thomson (Nunzio/ Teddy Roosevelt), along with his evil goons, aka “the bad guys,” performed by Howie Riggs (Wiesel), Chris Backofen (Morris Delancey), Jordan Castro (Olive Delancey), and Dan Delpriore (Snyder). All are equally and effectively, distasteful. It should be mentioned that Teddy Roosevelt, ably performed by Ken Thompson, also makes a memorable appearance as governor in this show. You’ll have to see the show to find out how the street urchin Jack Kelly made the Governor’s acquaintance.

Cast of members of Newsies

Director/ Choreographer, Kevin Archambault and Producer, Diana DiGrandi both boast impressive resumes when it comes to making magic happen at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, and they have done nothing to lower the bar here. Their level of expertise and professionalism in utilizing the space is evident. Archambault’s shows once again an ability to get the best out of whomever he is directing.

Hats off to Linda Herzlinger (Stage Manager) and Tina Reilly (Assistant Stage Manager) and the crew. The demands of a show this big in the intimate space of the Center are considerable.

A powerful performance by all, Newsies has the energy, zeal, and abounding talent that an audience yearns for. This show is an exceptional theatre collaboration and it is clear that as a cast and crew were in it to “Seize the Day!” Newsies has the potential to connect a twenty-first century audience to the hopes and dreams of its nineteenth century characters. Mission accomplished.

Don’t just read about it in the papers, folks! Reserve your tickets now – this show is bound to sell out soon! Newsies plays through Sunday, May 12th. Performances at 8pm Friday and Saturday. Sunday matinees at 3pm. Appropriate for all ages. Call the box office: (845) 876-3080 or buy online: http://www.centerforperformingarts.org

Caitlin Connelly

Caitlin Connelly is an actor, vocalist, and artist living in the Hudson Valley. She is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Bard College at Simon’s Rock, from where she holds degrees in Vocal Jazz/ Music Performance, Accessories Design, and Performing Arts. She is an avid performing artist and through it hopes to create the change she would like to see in the world.

The CENTER for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization which is dedicated, through its arts and education programs, to providing arts experiences for people of all ages.

The Letters – Bridge Street Theatre

Review By Teresa Gasparini

“What is irreplaceable nowadays?” A sentimental mug you bought in Germany when you were living abroad? No, if that breaks you can just go online and order it from the tiny shop on the corner in Berlin. Letters? Perhaps, but with technology these days you can always scan them to preserve their legacy. Love? Well, maybe. In a simple and almost mindless way, you can replace one person’s love with another. But what about the person who gave you that love? Now, that’s irreplaceable. 

“What is irreplaceable nowadays?” is the gripping question asked within the first few lines of David Zellnik’s The Letters, and it sets the course for the powerful and emotional world premiere of this work at Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, NY.

The Letters opens in 2014, as we follow 34-year-old Rajiv on an impromptu and much needed day off from work. He is processing the news of the death of his college roommate, Henry. Rajiv finds solace in the company of a co-worker (Laura), who didn’t know Henry, making her perfect company. Rajiv feels liberated (and at times exposed) as he reminisces about the letters Henry wrote to Rajiv over the course of their 20 year friendship. 

Rajiv and Laura’s art museum rendezvous and roof top conversations recrudesce between scenes from 2002, when Henry and Rajiv are post grads living in Berlin, at an age when mistakes are considered learning experiences. Their third roommate, Rachel, completes a convoluted love triangle, and together they navigate a complex world of love, friendship, and uncertain futures.

The transitions between 2014 and 2002 effectively shape and move this story in unanticipated directions, keeping the audience enthralled and longing for answers from the first line to the last.

Shivantha Singer as Rajiv, Sara Parcesepe as Rachel, and
Christopher Joel Onken as Henry (Photo: John Sowle)

The small cast of four, all making their debuts at Bridge Street Theatre, are under the brilliant direction of John Sowle. Mr. Sowle’s resume is impressive, and it was evident this performance was guided by a skillful hand. Special note should be made of Sowle’s minimalistic and resourceful design, including projections on a brick wall, which served not only to set the scene, but to denote the time periods to and from which we were transported.

Shivantha Singer’s stand out performance as Rajiv is invested with pathos, charm, and humor. Singer flawlessly transforms between the carefree 22-year-old Rajiv of 2002, and the regretful, unsatisfied 34-year-old of 2014, typically with mere moments to make the transition. Singer portrays his character’s sense of having a “cross to bear” in such a palpable way the audience carries the weight with him. To achieve this sort of response is the work of a highly committed and engaged actor.

Sara Parcesepe’s energetic performance as Rachel adds an interesting complication to the story. Parcesepe bounds on stage with keenness and enthusiasm which she carries through the entire show, infusing the performance with subtle differences in expression as she, like Rajiv, evolves across the span of the two time periods, while questioning her relationship and future with Rajiv.

Laura is played by the capable Alexis Cofield, who provides a steady anchor to the 2014 Rajiv. Her raw honesty keeps Rajiv “in check”, and Cofield is able to do this with a coolness and humor that makes her extremely likable on stage.

Christopher Joel Onken as Henry is a marvel on stage and his performance is unforgettable. Throughout Act I, he comes alive talking about his character’s passion for languages, but for the better part of the Act, Henry acts an observant bystander; watching Rajiv and Rachel’s love story unfold. Even in this passive role, Onken is fully present and engrossed in every moment of every scene and draws the audience to his presence in a way which connects us to Rajiv’s grief at his loss. In Act II, Onken’s performance explodes with a level of authenticity and emotion that leaves the audience in captivated silence, hanging on his every word and action, as we learn the story of Henry’s fate.

Shivantha Singer as Rajiv and Alexis Cofield at Laura
(Photo: John Sowle)

Award winning playwright David Zellnik has penned a story perfect for our times, specifically singing out to the newly named Xennial Generation (a micro-generation stuck between GenX and Millenials). Xennials grew up in an analog world but are now living as adults in a digital world, and this provides an intriguing backdrop for the story. Zellnik explores whether our words free us or imprison us, whether love is rare or everywhere around us, and whether we are, or even want to be, smaller and smaller in a big world. The script captures the audience’s attention and will remain in their thoughts long after the show is over.

“What is irreplaceable nowadays?” There are moments in The Letters which suggest an answer to that incisive question. Performances such as this, which touch the audience in a meaningful way, set in a welcoming, unique, and intimate house, allow us to leave the real world behind and truly participate in an art form. An experience like that? That is irreplaceable.

The Letters plays through May 5th at the Bridge Street Theater in Catskill, NY. For tickets or further information visit www.bridgest.org or call 518.943.3006.

Teresa Gasparini

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

The 39 Steps – Clove Creek Dinner Theater

Clove Creek Dinner Theater’s Production of The 39 Steps Entertains, Sets Bar High

Review By Louisa Vilardi

Steven Bendler as Richard Hannay

Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps directed by Teresa Gasparini at Clove Creek Dinner Theater (Fishkill, NY) is an amusingly eccentric comedy for all ages! With a strong ensemble, a beautiful set design (Teresa Gasparini), powerful light and sound designs (Jeff Wilson), and delicious food choices, this is the perfect way to spend your evening or Sunday afternoon.

As two strangers sit next to each other in the famous London Palladium Theater watching the marvelous Mr. Memory delight the audience, a gun is fired and hysteria ensues. As an urgent escape plan, Annabella Schmitt (Messalina Morley) asks if she may join her box seat partner, Richard Hannay (Steven Bendler), in his flat until the frenzy dies down. When she is found with a knife in her back in the early morning hours, Hannay panics before deciding to flee to evade the authorities and takes the audience along for the rousing (and often hilarious) ride.

This comedy is filled with fun and replete with insanity, thrills, clownery, speeding trains, runaway spies and much more. The entertaining ensemble of five actors impress us during the energetic pursuit, as they play over 100 different roles: slipping out of doors, genders, wigs, hats, costumes and a multitude of outstanding, flawless accents. Rounding out the cast are Jeff Sculley, Patrick Spaulding and Brandon Patterson.

Steven Bendler and Messalina Morley

Teresa Gasparini’s directorial choices are impressive and creative resulting in a laugh-out-loud physical comedy that does not surrender to the standard slapstick qualities of this kind of show. Gasparini’s choices would thrill Hitchcock himself, including her imaginative accommodations for the space. Her strength lies in creating memorable moments both on and off the stage, as Gasparini notably chose to break the fourth wall to create fun interactive moments with the patrons of Clove Creek Dinner Theater.

Hannay, played by the deft and dashing Steven Bendler, is on the run for most of the play and he makes the chase exciting and enchanting all at the same time. Bendler is stellar in this role and his timing and execution of lines are remarkable and superb. His comedic idiosyncrasies are distinctive, placing audience members on his side as he flees. Hannay is the central thread of this show and Bendler a magnificent backbone for it.

The beautiful Messalina Morley, playing various roles, is in and out of Hannay’s life as different women. Morely charges in full of vigor and is strong in her choices as she distinguishes between all of her characters well, offering each their own comic style. Her performance is fierce and energetic, making her a strong leading lady (or three) in this show. 

Jeff Sculley is not afraid to pull out all the stops, and gives an outstanding performance as he switches from character to character and has the audience in fits of laughter. Each of his characters is unique, proving that Sculley is a smart and clever actor who executes with pure glee and technique. He is such a talent and refreshing to watch on stage.

Patrick Spaulding tackles such interesting characters in this show and makes each distinct in his own way. His comedic chemistry with his ensemble members is impressive and adds to the rhythmic pacing of the show. Spaulding has an effortless, wild, energy that has audience members trying to catch their breath.

Brandon Patterson breathes life into this production and is simply hysterical to watch in each of his roles. His choices are marked by precise timing and innovation. Whether it is a change in accents, costumes, wigs or his own gait, Patterson is great in this production, and most of the hilarity in the play is a credit to him.

Want to know what The 39 Steps actually are? You can find the answer at Clove Creek Dinner Theater through May 19, 2019! This high quality production sets the bar high and you don’t want to miss it! Tickets at www.clovecreekdinnertheater.com

Louisa Vilardi

Louisa Vilardi is a writer and theater director who lives in New York with her husband and two sons.  Her writing has been featured in The Huffington Post, Today Parenting Team, and Scary Mommy. More at www.LouisaVilardi.com

Patrick Spaulding, Steven Bendler, and Jeff Sculley

The Letters: A Haunting World Premiere Opens Bridge Street Theatre’s 2019 Subscription Season

“What are you supposed to do with the people you love who you can’t save?”


Shivantha Singer and Alexis Cofield. Photo Credit: John Sowle

Catskill’s intimate Bridge Street Theatre inaugurates its 2019 Subscription Season with the world premiere of playwright David Zellnik’s magnificent and deeply moving new work, The Letters. This haunting new play from the author of Sharon/Herzl, The F#@%ing Wright Brothers, Serendib, and the musical Yank!, features a magnificently diverse cast of four directed by Bridge Street’s Artistic and Managing Director John Sowle.

It’s 2002. Henry and Rachel are language nerds – he studies dead languages, she studies living languages. And Rajiv is an artist who lives with them both in a squat in Berlin, embroiled in a post-collegiate tangle of friendship, love, and sex. They’re all 22, the world is full of possibility, and they want it all. Then suddenly it’s New York City 12 years later and it’s all coming apart. Henry is gone and Rajiv and Rachel’s long engagement is fraying when a fourth character enters their lives. In the course of a single day (with flashbacks to the times they shared in Berlin), these achingly human characters wrestle with the past and try to chart a future for themselves in a language they have yet to create.

Featured in the cast (all making their Bridge Street Theatre debuts) are Shivantha Singer (Rajiv), Sara Parcesepe (Rachel), Christopher Joel Onken (Henry), and Alexis Cofield (Laura). The show is directed and designed by John Sowle, with costumes by Michelle Rogers and sound designed by Carmen Borgia. Production Stage Manager is Joshua Martin. The play was developed with the support of New York Stage and Film, March 2018, and production of this world premiere has been underwritten in part by a generous gift from Nina Matis and Alan Gosule.

“Bridge Street has developed something of a reputation for finding and producing exceptional new plays,” says director John Sowle, “and we’ve been dying to present this one for over two years, ever since David sent us a perusal copy of his first draft of the script. We are beyond excited to be presenting its first ever full production here in Catskill.”

The Letters is recommended for audiences ages 16+ and plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm from April 25 – May 5, 2019 at Bridge Street Theatre, located at 44 West Bridge Street, in Catskill, NY, just a block and a half west of Main Street across the Uncle Sam Bridge, which spans Catskill Creek. Eight performances only. General Admission is $25, Students 21 and under are only $10. Discounted advance tickets are available at letters.brownpapertickets.com or by calling 800-838-3006. Tickets will also be sold at the door one half hour prior to each performance on a space available basis. “Pay What You Will” performances will be held on Thursday April 25 and Sunday April 28 (“Pay What You Will” tickets are available only at the door one half hour prior to those performances). Subscribe to Bridge Street Theatre’s entire five-play 2019 Season and receive substantial discounts on many other BST events plus special offers from local businesses. To purchase your Season Pass, visit bst2019.brownpapertickets.com or call 800-838-3006, and for more information, visit the theatre online at BridgeSt.org.


Shivantha Singer, Sara Parcesepe, and Christopher Joel Onken).
Photo Credit: John Sowle

Events at Bridge Street Theatre are supported in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and by Public Funds from the Greene County Legislature through the Cultural Fund administered in Greene County by the Greene County Council on the Arts.

Much Ado About Nothing at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck

Review by louisa vilardi

Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Triumphs at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck

The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck opened their production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing on April 5, 2019, making much ado of everything we love about theater: love, hate, language, character, truth and lies.

With impeccable direction from Parker Reed, the Center’s take on the well-known plot honors the Bard’s language with a laudable simplicity and fidelity, played on a beautiful set (Richard Prouse) replicating The Globe Theater, and costume and lighting design by Lobsang Camacho.

Don Pedro (Thom Webb) and his company return from a journey to the home a friend, Leonato (Joe Eriole), bringing with him Benedick (David Foster) and Claudio (Jeremy Ratel), as well as his half-brother, the  discontented Don John (John Schmitz). With encouragement from Leonato, romances are sparked; among them Claudio with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Stevie Hergenrader Reed) and Benedick with Leonato’s free-spirited niece, Beatrice (Tamara Cacchione). Benedick and Beatrice are duped into confessing their longstanding love for each other, and Claudio is tricked into rejecting Hero on their wedding day, under the impression that she has been unfaithful. “Much ado” ensues, but by the end, all’s well, as the characters celebrate both couples’ weddings and love for each other.

Lou Trapani as Antonio and Rebecca Rivera as Ursula

From the first syllable uttered on the Rhinebeck stage, it is evident that Reed paid particular attention to each and every word, and equipped the cast to give these words life. The verbal sparring was lively, and the lines of love and passion were spoken with pace that moved the audience like a beautiful ballad. 

The ensemble of sixteen worked seamlessly and tirelessly to entertain the audience, and seemed genuinely entertained by each other.

Joe Eriole as Leonato is altogether moving as both leader and protector. Eriole is a polished actor who is able to push limits whether it be as a noble and tough-minded chieftain or a tender father and uncle. His portrayal of Leonato is powerful as he fights for the truth regarding his wronged daughter.

It is possible to have  Benedick’s protestations of true love seem a bit worn-out in productions of Much Ado, but David Foster’s comedic portrayal of Benedick leaves the audience doing more than merely enduring Benedick’s antics in the full knowledge that he is destined to fall victim to his fears. Foster’s impressive movement and confident comic delivery give us a more jovial Benedick than may be typical in the role.

Beatrice is a formidable character to tackle, but Tamara Cacchione does it with grace and command.  One has the impression Cacchione is as fearless as Beatrice, and she delivers her lines with finesse, powerfully capturing the character’s timeless complexities in a powerhouse debut performance at the Center.

Steavie Hergenrader Reed gives a beautiful and skillfull performance as Hero. Hero is a character who can play as one-dimensional, but Hergenrader Reed’s presence and skill proves Hero to be much more, and she is a joy to watch throughout the play.

Jeremy Ratel is impressive as Claudio. His gusto and wit provide equal measures of comic timing and the sadness of the Claudio-Hero subplot to the play, in what is a subtly complex Shakespearean romantic role.

We fall in love with Thom Webb’s Don Pedro as he adds intricacy and balance to the this enigmatic character. Even as he is caught up in the rouse that leads to Hero’s near downfall, Webb’s Don Pedro never loses the audience’s awareness of his benevolence, drawing out a sub-plot of empathy for the fact that he doesn’t end up with his own romantic attachment by the end of the play rarely highlighted in more typical productions.

Wendy Urban-Mead as Verges and Michael Britt as Dogberry

Lou Trapani plays Leonato’s brother Antonio as a character of cool appeal and calculated composure.

John Schmitz as Don John does a fantastic job playing the villain, is strong in his quiet movement and believable in his callous treachery. 

The calm villainy of his plot is comically juxtaposed against a haplass group of law enforcement officials led by Michael Britt as Dogberry, whose performance is so memorable that we forget we don’t meet him until Act II.

The rest of the cast consists of talented actors who harmoniously work together to tell this beautiful story: Vera Perry is delightful in dual roles as Margaret and Seacoal; Andrew Austin is both effectively deceitful and remorseful as Borachio; Chris Backofen an able gentleman-villain as Conrade; Ronnie Joseph a strong female voice in defense of the wronged Hero as Friar Francis; Wendy Urban-Mead is the somewhat more capable officer Verges in strong comedic support of Dogberry; Michael Curtis is funny and able in the dual roles of Balthasar and Oatcake; and Rebecca Rivera is enchanting as Hero’s gentlewoman Ursula and suitably grave as the Sexton who struggles through Dogberry’s inept “unraveling” of the plot against Leonato’s household. 

Steavie Hergenrader Reed as Hero, Lou Trapani as Antonio, and Joe Eriole as Leonato

All of the actors show great command of the language and a depth of understanding of their characters that leads to the strong impression that no character is playing a “small” part here.

William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at The Center is sheer fun filled with bounce and zeal and runs through April 14, 2019. Don’t miss it! Tickets at www.centerforperformingarts.org

Louisa Vilardi

Louisa Vilardi is a writer and theater director who lives in New York with her husband and two sons.  Her writing has been featured in The Huffington Post, Today Parenting Team, and Scary Mommy. More at www.LouisaVilardi.com