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“Hot Lips” still has it in SIX DANCE LESSONS at Shea’s 710

THE BASICS: SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS, the comedy by Richard Alfieri starring Loretta Swit (of M.A.S.H. fame) and David Engel opened its four (4) day run September 14, closing this Sunday, September 17, Friday & Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2 at the renamed “Shea’s 710 Theatre” 710 Main Street at Tupper (the old “Studio Arena Theatre”) (1-800-745-3000). www.sheas.org/710main.  The full-service bar has been redesigned and is more open. Runtime: two hours with one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  In this very funny, but ultimately touching comedy, we meet a well to do retired teacher, Lily Harrison, who has contracted with the “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks” company for weekly lessons in her spacious condo overlooking St. Petersburg Beach, Florida. When instructor Michael Minetti shows up at her door, things immediately get off on the wrong foot as each person, who could not be more outwardly different, sizes up the other. What begins as a sniping, acerbic, antagonistic relationship blossoms into a warm friendship as Lily and Michael reveal not only their past, but their deepest secrets, fears, and joys.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Without a doubt, Loretta Swit, whom most of us know from her 11-year role as Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the television series M.A.S.H., still has it. She has the energy and comedic timing needed for the stage, along with her ability to suddenly drop the “tight ass” façade and reveal her innermost self. It’s an art. She did that on almost every episode of M.A.S.H. and so was perfectly cast here as Lily.

What I didn’t know until I read her bio in the playbill is that she has thousands of stage performances under her belt and it comes through in her performance. Television and movie experience is one thing, but most performers will tell you that nothing prepares you for live theater like putting in the hours in front of audiences. So, yes, I originally wanted to go to see a “star,” but I can tell you Swit doesn’t coast on her reputation at all. She’s the real deal. What timing she has.

David Engel plays the dance instructor whose personal life is a hot mess, but he plays the character without resorting to outward effeminate gay stereotypes.

David Engel plays the dance instructor whose personal life is a hot mess, but he plays the character without resorting to outward effeminate gay stereotypes. Well, one stereotype. His clothes fit him to a tee, the creases are sharp, and whatever costume he’s wearing, he’s workin’ it. And, as he shows up to teach the six dances lessons – Swing, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, Cha-Cha, and Contemporary – he does come to the condo each time in costume, for example a rather Zorro-like outfit for the Tango, white tie and tails for the Viennese Waltz, and a Frank Sinatra hat for the Foxtrot.

The production is smoothly staged managed by Ron Nash, who has put on a number of plays with Loretta Swit. But we had two locals involved, too. The Scenery Designer is Dyan Burlingame who has worked all over Western New York and is the resident designer for Buffalo’s Road Less Traveled Productions, often praised in this space for their well-crafted sets.  Why kudos are more than deserved is that, even though the Shea’s 710 Theatre stage doesn’t look huge, as say the stage at Shea’s Performing Arts Center does, it IS huge. You need to create wings in this thrust stage and then your set should extend to those wings.  It ain’t easy, but Burlingame makes it work. The lighting was by Buffalo’s Harry Mandris and was also very effective in this production where the set is static.

Well, almost static. One of the continuing delights were the two stage hands, dressed in black with their headsets, who come on as the lights are dimmed to reset for the next scene as they are grooving to the music from the last on-stage “lesson.” For example, when they reset the stage following the waltz, they waltz with the coffee table and they waltz with the area rug. Okay, that’s cute, but that’s it? No, they do a lot more than that throughout the evening, but I don’t want to give it away. I’ll just say this: Sitting through scene changes is usually boring and here, every scene change was followed with applause. EVERY SCENE CHANGE. APPLAUSE. When’s the last time you ever saw that? If you are a stage manager who is not busy during this Curtain Up! weekend, you might really enjoy these bits of theatrical shtick.

Sitting through scene changes is usually boring and here, every scene change was followed with applause.

One question that was asked of me: If I recently saw a very high-level production of this play at O’Connell & Company starring two of Buffalo’s best, award-winning Greg Gjurich and Anne Gayley (who tied for the 2015 “Outstanding Actress in a Play” Artie for her role as Lily), why would I want to see it again? The obvious answer I gave before the play is because it stars Loretta Swit. It’s fun to see a star.

Now having seen it I would recommend it because it’s a very good play with everything that implies – great character development, strong dramatic arc, eliciting a wide variety of emotions – it’s worth seeing twice.  But what made a big difference on opening night was an audience that was both excited to be there and ready to laugh right away. Buffalo audiences can be a little stiff at first, but not here.

Next up at Shea’s 710 Theatre: MENOPAUSE THE MUSICAL returns Tuesday October 10 through Sunday October 15. The official She’as 710 Theatre “season” opens with IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A LIVE RADIO PLAY produced by Road Less Traveled Productions with a preview Thursday November 30 running through Sunday, December 10.

Again, as mentioned, SIX DANCE LESSONS with Loretta Swit is only up through Sunday, September 17th.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For Classical 94.5 WNED and on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists to get at the answers. That's why he loves writing reviews. A show with a strong message that makes him laugh and cry and think about life is a good show. On “Theater Talk” his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" In every situation he's in Peter wonders: "What's the big picture here?" And, "if I had to teach this, how would I break it down to explain it?"

Heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM "Theater Talk" repeats Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED, the radio station where Peter is currently the producer and host of “Buffalo Philharmonic Live” (Sundays at 5 p.m. repeating Fridays at 10 p.m. on WNED).

Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business. He is currently a member of the "Artie Awards Committee."

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