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HUNCHBACK this weekend builds bridges from Buffalo to Broadway (and beyond?)

In the concert performance of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME there’s a tale as old as time made magic by Academy Award‑winners Alan Menken (remember BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN, and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS?) and Stephen Schwartz (remember WICKED and GODSPELL?). HUNCHBACK takes Victor Hugo’s larger than life classic novel, a story of love and acceptance between Esmeralda and Quasimodo, and assembles a huge cast on the spacious stage of Rockwell Hall on the Buffalo State College campus at 1300 Elmwood Avenue for three shows only: Friday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, October 20 at both 2 and 7:30. (

Dan’yelle Williamson
Ben Fankhauser

Yes, there will be songs from the Disney animated movie, as well as new songs from Menken and Schwartz. Yes, it’s dark and gothic but it’s a classic, and here with gorgeous music, and a Disney pedigree, it’s perfect for the entire family in this pre-Hallowe’en season. The show welcomes Broadway guest artists Ben Fankhauser of NEWSIES as Quasimodo, and Dan’yelle Williamson (MEMPHIS, ROCKY, THE LION KING on tour) as Esmeralda.

Besides the visiting Broadway actors, and a live professional orchestra, and an extraordinary group of Buffalo’s top professional performers (see below), the stage will also feature outstanding Buffalo‑area high school students and members of the University at Buffalo’s Zodiaque Dance Company.

It’s all the brainchild of three graduates of Williamsville East who launched STARRING BUFFALO to create “events that will offer Buffalo audiences unrivaled access to the world’s greatest theater artists, while providing Western New York students the chance to learn from, work alongside, and be inspired in both master class and concert environments.” STARRING BUFFALO founders Drew Fornarola, Laura Brodie, and Steven Tartick along with their operations coordinator Michael Russo want to not only give back to the community, but also build on their Broadway and entertainment experience to build bridges for aspiring actors and other creatives in our area.

According to theater critic Anthony Chase, when the old Studio Arena Theatre closed (which launched the career of Buffalo’s Tom Dudzik and his successful OVER THE TAVERN franchise, including a musical version coming to MusicalFare November 14 to December 6 this year) the bridge from Buffalo to Broadway was damaged and has never fully been rebuilt. While touring Broadway companies do put on workshops for area students while they’re in town, the connection could be much stronger.

Artistic Director Fornarola says, “My upbringing and education in Western New York allowed me to fulfill my dream of becoming a professional writer in the Broadway and Hollywood communities.  I’m excited to try to build that bridge for more aspiring Buffalo artists, as well as to add more high‑quality theater to the already vibrant and growing downtown arts scene.”  STARRING BUFFALO Board Chair Laura Brodie adds that the Buffalo area is flush with creative people and “I’m thrilled to offer audiences and participating students a different way to engage with performance, while exposing our visiting artists to the amazing talent in Buffalo as well.” The other two principals are Steve Tartick whose day job is promoting Broadway shows (ever heard of HAMILTON or WAITRESS?) and Michael Russo of the Williamsville Schools who is in charge of operations.

‘High school me’ would have been out of my mind excited to perform with this group of professionals.

While of course we might not know the high school students, and perhaps the Broadway stars aren’t yet household names, but as Chase says: “To be on Broadway at all you have to be pretty terrific.” We do know the prominent local performers (many of them recently seen in the Kavinoky’s season opening SWEENEY TODD) including Charmagne Chi who said: “I wish I could have been a part of something like this when I was in high school! ‘High school me’ would have been out of my mind excited to perform with this group of professionals. I really hope this becomes an annual event and that someday, the pros participating will be like ‘I REMEMBER WHEN I WAS IN THE HIGH SCHOOL CHORUS FOR STARRING BUFFALO!’”

Dudney Joseph

Dudney Joseph added: “So when Drew reached out the first thing that came to my mind was this was what we need, this is what we’ve been waiting for to get Buffalo back on the map… It reminds me of all the legends of Buffalo theater who often talk about… Studio Arena and how it was kind of the gateway to getting Equity points or your Equity Card and it was that yellow brick road to getting to New York. I feel like the road was closed for a little bit, but Drew just opened it back up. And his connections are super strong so I’ve been able to take lessons and workshops with people in New York. I’ve been really fortunate to be part of the experience.”

Leah Patricia Berst

Leah Berst who also recently starred in SPRING AWAKENING (on the old Studio Arena Stage now known as “710 Main”) as well as SWEENEY TODD liked that connection idea: “I think it’s extremely exciting and important that we are creating a bridge between our theatre community in Buffalo and that of Broadway, bringing about new opportunities to collaborate on beautiful pieces with some really great people!”

Fonarola’s ideas certainly resonate with Ben Michael Moran who said: “This project has been the most challenging one I’ve ever worked on, and that’s coming off of learning and opening SWEENEY in 4 weeks at The Kavinoky. That being said, the most challenging projects tend to yield the highest rewards, so I’m up for it! It has already been incredibly rewarding and humbling to work alongside such incredible talent.”

Arianne Davidow

Of course, it’s the gorgeous music that attracted others. Arianne Davidow, who has sung in musicals on all the major Buffalo stages said: “I love being immersed in this beautiful music that I grew up listening to, sung by the best of NYC coupled with the best of Buffalo” and Katy Miner, who has also earned her stripes on variety of stages, chimed in: “Of course I jumped at the chance to perform in HUNCHBACK with this stellar cast. I was not familiar with the fleshed-out stage production and was enamored with the wonderful songs Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz added to the original Disney animated film.”

And local actor Matthew Iwanski-Jackson added: “When Drew first contacted me and told me about his idea to bring talent from NYC to do a staged reading of Hunchback… I knew it was something I wanted to clear my schedule for!”

Note: a “concert performance” doesn’t involve sets or props or extensive on-stage action. Tickets are available through but again, there are only three shows at Rockwell Hall’s main stage on the Buffalo State campus at 1300 Elmwood Avenue: Friday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, October 20 at both 2 and 7:30. Premium seats are $65, Standard seats are $45, and students and seniors are $25.


Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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