Review: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Westchester Broadway Theatre

Review: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at Westchester Broadway Theatre

The production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that opened Thursday night at Westchester Broadway Theatre is the real McCoy, a fact that will delight devotees of Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller and his music—the Harlem-style swing that bridged Ragtime and mid-century jazz idioms. It will also tickle anybody with a scintilla of rhythm. Those lacking that innate quality should sit back and let the syncopated melodies and mischievous wordplay get their toes and fingers tapping.

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Review: 'Backwards in High Heels' at Westchester Broadway Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

‘Backwards in High Heels The Ginger Musical’ tells the story of Ginger Rogers, perhaps best remembered as the dance partner of Fred Astaire. The musical was conceived and developed by Lynette Barkley and Christopher McGovern and the book/musical arrangements/original songs were written by Mr. McGovern. The production that runs at Westchester Broadway Theatre through Sept. 20 features vintage movie musical numbers as well as original songs to string together the major events in the life of the Hollywood star. The musical takes its title from a quote from a 1982 “Frank & Ernest” cartoon about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “Sure he was great,  but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did--backwards and in high heels.”

 Ms. Rogers was born Virginia Katharine McMath and won a Charleston contest in 1925 in her hometown of Fort Worth when she was just 15. With the help of her mother Lela (Owens) Rogers, she made her Broadway debut at age 18 and quickly became a star. She moved to Hollywood and danced her way into America’s hearts in a string of 1930s RKO films where she was partnered with Mr. Astaire. She won an Academy Award in 1940 for her title role in ‘Kitty Foy’ and was the industry’s highest paid star by 1945. She made 73 movies in all before her death.

 Darien Crago plays the trailblazer in this production that opened on Wednesday to a surprisingly filled matinee audience. She dances beautifully with the show’s director/choreographer Jeremy Benton. Ms. Crago’s credits include many productions set in this era and that probably makes her even more convincing. Her dancing skills are evident in the tap and ballroom numbers and her beautiful costumes designed by Heidi Giarlo move so well as she glides across the WBT stage. Mr. Benton, who appeared in the original company of this work, calls the chance to reprise his role as one of his childhood idols “not only exciting, intimidating, but a dream come true.” Although his time on stage is limited, he did a great job while he was there, and did commendable work with the staging and choreography. 

 The strong ensemble members have more than their share of dance numbers and all of them cover various roles. Avital Asuleen is a convincing Ethel Merman and Jacob ben Widmar (‘The Book of Mormon’ on Broadway) is great as choreographer Hermes Pan and others. Matt Gibson plays first husband Jack Culpepper and Sebastian Goldberg appears as Lew Ayers and others. Ryan Steer plays Bugs Burke and others and Amy Van Norstrand (Goodspeed’s ‘Holiday Inn’) stands out among the ensemble as Ginger’s assistant Louise and others. 

 A standout performance was handed in at this first showing by Erika Amato as Ginger’s mother Lela Rogers in her WBT debut.. She brings out the strength of the woman that had such an influence on her talented daughter’s career. Ms. Amato has a terrific singing voice, dances well and has the acting ability to match. 

 Avital Asuleen (center as Ethel Merman) and ensemblePhotos by John Vecchiolla

 Avital Asuleen (center as Ethel Merman) and ensemblePhotos by John Vecchiolla

 I liked the set designed by Steven Loftus that featured large Oscar statues on either side. The musical projections between acts by lighting designer Andrew Gmoser were inspired. Jose C. Simbulan did the musical direction and played keyboards with the four musicians in the offstage pit. 

 I probably did not appreciate the show as much as someone who has seen many of Ginger Roger’s film. The audience loved “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” However, I found the details of her early life and five marriages interesting enough and of course the dancing holds it all together. 

 Pia Haas announced the upcoming shows and read aloud the names of the various groups that were in the audience. The one with many preteen members were the most vocal. My teen and I were seated next to a lovely elderly couple from New York that were a little surprised to see someone so young enjoying something firmly set in another era and we had a wonderful conversation about college, music and life in general that was filled with their wisdom. 

Since this was my first experience with the lunch menu at WBT, I am happy to report that the lunch was just as good as the dinner offerings. In fact, many of them are identical to dishes offered during evening performances, so I tried the cheese ravioli with divine meatballs and my meat-loving teen sampled the beef stroganoff.  

Review: 'Godspell' at Westchester Broadway Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

‘Godspell’ was a project for John Michael Tebelak master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970. Mr. Tebelak developed the concept of the play and a friend of the director wrote the first score that attached rock music to lyrics from hymns and psalms. After the first performances, the show was optioned for an Off-Broadway production and CMU alumnus Stephen Schwartz was hired by the producers to write a new score, one that included a variety of musical styles. 

 The biblical parables told by actors dressed like clowns were now set to music from the genres of pop, folk rock, gospel and vaudeville. Because it appealed to so many, it was an instant hit and went on to a run on Broadway, then a successful movie version in 1973, a Broadway revival in 2011 and countless community theater versions that are among my favorite shows to attend wherever it may be.

 The professional production of Godspell that recently opened at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford NY is their 190th one and it is the new version of the score that Mr. Schwartz wrote for the 2011 revival. The fast-paced show was directed and choreographed by John Fanelli with associate director/choreographer Jonathan Stahl. Mr. Stahl was a member of the ‘98 national tour of ‘Ragtime.’ William Stanley was the musical director and conductor of the fine musicians in the pit; members of the cast accompanied themselves for the act two opener reprise of “Learn Your Lessons Well.”

 The directors decided to include the sometimes eliminated Prologue/Tower of Babble and had the cast wear jackets and glasses with sashes indicating which philosopher they were quoting in the cacophony. It worked nicely for me. There were references during the parables to Santa Claus, ‘The Lion King,’ and Donald Trump. There was a parachute integrated into the cute choreography at one point and the storytellers headed into the audience with flashlight “spotlights” during “Light of the World.” (I remember because I sang along when the spotlight hit me.)

 The eight cast members took on the solos and there was no chorus; this felt a little small to me, especially on the decent-sized WBT stage. Including Gilbert D. Sanchez as Jesus and Xander Chauncey as both John the Baptist and Judas, there were still only ten actors onstage for the entire show. Despite that fact, the finale was pretty impressive. 

 The set designed by Steven Loftus featured a sometimes subway car and city brick walls and the ‘West Side Story’ fire escape. I would describe the costumes by Matthew Hemesath as a more contemporary clown look with a Superman tank top for Jesus. As for the sound, I noticed a few lines were delivered before microphones were turned on during this Friday evening performance.

 Mr. Sanchez was very believable in the leading role of Jesus and with good reason. His past Messiah credits include ‘Godspell,’ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ and the fourth grade Passion Play at his Catholic School. This is his WBT debut. 

 Mr. Chauncey brought both charm and villainous vibes to his longer role as Judas the betrayer. Josh Kenney sang well “Light of the World” and Kereema Castro Khouri had the perfect voice for “Bless the Lord.” Greta Kleckner sang the wonderful “Learn Your Lessons Well.” Nicholas Park did “We Beseech Thee” and Devon Perry (Dorothy in last summer’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’) sang a plaintive “By My Side.” Nathan Andrew Riley took on “All Good Gifts” and Karley Willocks was plenty sultry on “Turn Back, Oh Man.” Sarah Smithton was absolutely adorable in her 'Beetlejuice' inspired costume as she sang “Day By Day.” Kudos to all on their joyous performances.

 The evening menu for ‘Godspell’ included the show special Chicken Cordon Bleu, as well as two kinds of pollock, and the large prime rib of beef. I couldn’t finish my pollock stuffed with crab meat but my teen managed to eat all of his roasted boneless pork loin with apples. The specialty cocktail was ‘The Righteous Raspberry.’

Before the show began, the 2015 Bob Fitzsimmons Scholarship, was awarded to Andrew Leonforte, a senior at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, NY. 

Westchester Broadway Theatre's 'West Side Story'

Nancy Sasso Janis

Westchester Broadway Theatre has been trying to bring 'West Side Story' back to their stage since its last production in 1998. The musical that was inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it has been called "possibly the greatest musical ever created" by Jerome Robbins with amazing music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a 27 year old Stephen Sondheim. I never get tired of watching the 1961 film version of this tale of two star-crossed lovers from different worlds in order to enjoy the outstanding choreography and musical score. The WBT production was the first time I have seen a non-student version of the show and I was immediately wrapped up in the total experience that makes 'West Side Story' a treasure of the musical theatre genre.

Carly Evans & Zach Trimmer as Maria & Tony in 'West Side Story' at WBT Photo By John Vecchiolla
 
Did you know that Robbins original premise for the show in 1950 involved a young, Italian, Catholic boy whose gang was embroiled in a fierce rivalry with a group of Jewish kids and was to be called "East Side Story?" I did not. Five years later when the project was reactivated, the decision was made to move the action to the upper west side neighborhood of San Juan Hill and the Jewish gang became Puerto Rican "Sharks" versus the Polish-American "Jets."
 
Director/choreographer Barry McNabb writes "It is the musical where story-telling and dance are the most integrated ever and that physical manifestation makes for a very visceral audience experience." The theme is dark with the focus on social problems and the ending is heart wrenching, but I would agree that the extended dance scenes set to the glorious music ("One Hand, One Heart," "America," and "Tonight" for sure) make it all worthwhile.
 
This production is up the usual WBT standards with beautiful costumes by Derek Lockwood and his assistant Roberto Silva and wig/hair designed by Gerald Kelly. The company danced the "Somewhere Ballet" in all white and it was all quite beautiful. The fine set by Steven Loftus employed a thin elevator along the front of the stage that was used well. The cast performed the excellent choreography based on the style of the period and Robbin's signature steps. Lighting designed by Andrew Gmoser was stunning and especially effective for the rumble. The chef added to the evening's menu pernil, arroz con gandules y tostones and a yummy roasted turkey breast.
 
The ensemble was strong in every way, although a few looked a little mature to be gang members. Mike Boland was both Doc and Officer Krupke and Ed Romanoff played both Schrank and a great Glad Hand. Xavier Reyes was young Chino and Brandon Contreras played a commanding Bernardo. Maggie McGrath was the frenetic Anybody's and Adam Soniak gave a strong performance as Riff.
 
Zach Trimmer gave a heartfelt performance and sang very well as Tony. Allison Thomas Lee brought strong acting to the role of Anita. As the lovely Maria, Carly Evans was sublime. This young actress played the role at Ogunquit Playhouse last fall and her singing voice was flawless. I will always remember her performance of this iconic character.
 
'West Side Story' runs at the WBT, celebrating 40 years of Broadway Musicals and fine dining, through July 5, 2015.