This merry month of May has seen a resurgence of theater offerings in Western New York which was very exciting but has turned the reviewing process into a mad dash to be everywhere. I finally got out to the suburbs for two venerable production companies’ offerings, both revivals of famous musicals, both of which close this Sunday, May 15. So, apologies, because they’re both very. very good and, if you can, you might want to venture out to 3200 Elmwood Avenue in Kenmore to see O’Connell and Company’s DAMN YANKEES or, a little farther afield, to the Lancaster Opera House to see JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, also very, very good. In each, the leads have strong voices and in each, the men’s choral numbers are as strong as the women’s.
Let’s talk about them both, alternating, starting with JOSEPH at LOH.
JOSEPH BASICS: JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, directed by Fran Landis, runs through May 15 with remaining showtimes tonight Saturday, May 14 at 7:30 pm and tomorrow, Sunday, May 15 at 2:30 pm at the Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Avenue, Lancaster, NY 14086. 716.683.1776 visit lancasteropera.org Pro Tip: Sit in the balcony for the best views. Runtime: 70 minutes without intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This was the first effort from the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice which began as a 15-minute “pop-cantata” in the early 1970s, and was slowly developed following the success of their JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, ultimately earning JOSEPH 10 Tony Award nominations in 1982. Popular in high schools and community theaters, one estimate is that it has been produced well over 20,000 times since then. JOSEPH re-tells the Biblical story of Jacob’s son Joseph and his 12 brothers, how the others in a fit of jealousy sold Joseph into slavery, how his skill at interpreting dreams led to his becoming the Pharoah’s #2 guy, and how he forgave his brothers and saved them from starvation. It’s chock-full of musical send-ups from Country & Western, to Gospel, to Elvis, to Petula Clark, to French ballads, to Go-Go music, to Calypsod, to Jazz (you might recognize Dave Brubecks’ “Take Five”). The lyrics, for the most part, are rhyming couplets, which could get tedious, but the music carries them through.
DAMN YANKEES BASICS: DAMN YANKEES, the 1955 musical by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler, directed by Joey Bucheker, presented by O’Connell & Co. also runs through May 15 with a few “double headers” to their updated show lineup. The remaining showtimes are tonight Saturday, May 14 at 8:00 pm and tomorrow, Sunday, May 15 at both 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm on the OCC main stage 3200 Elmwood Avenue, Kenmore, NY 14217 Call 716.848.0800 or visit oconnellandcompany.com/ Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Based on the novel, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by Douglass Wallop (who co-wrote the musical book) the classic (1955) musical DAMN YANKEES won 7 Tony Awards including “Best Musical” in 1956. This musical comedy is a modern re-telling of the Faust legend, updated to be the story of middle-aged baseball fanatic Joe Boyd who trades his soul to the Devil (Mr. Applegate), and leaves his wife loyal wife Meg for a chance to lead his favorite team to victory in the pennant race against the New York Yankees as the younger, trimmer, 22-year-old home-run-hitting sensation Joe Hardy. He leads his losing Washington Senators on to victory, but at what cost? Will Lola’s seductions damn him to hell forever?
Now, back to JOSEPH and the PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Right off the bat, Music Director Fran Landis’s larger than usual Lancaster Opera House orchestra delivered. I had my complaints about LOH’s last show, but this 10-person ensemble had perfect intonation, rhythm, and ensemble and I loved every minute. Jennifer Horton as the narrator has a beautiful and powerful voice and set the pace for the others, but was matched by Sarah Blewett as “Mrs. Potiphar” (and ensemble roles). Joseph Ian Hayes had the “strong male lead” vibe, but all the men were good, and especially strong as a chorus.
It’s an updated, pared-down version, with lots of contemporary humor. Two favorite moments: When Jacob’s brothers concoct the scheme to convince their dad (Jacob) that Joseph was mauled by animals in the desert, they decide to smear his coat of many colors with the blood of “a passing goat.” Or, in the best tradition of NY Times Crossword editors, the blood of a G.O.A.T. who throws (football) passes. Who is that? Why, #12 himself, Tom Brady. Another favorite moment was the extended curtain call with quick reprises of all the numbers. It was skillfully staged and the audience loved every minute of it, as did I.
DAMN YANKEES PLAYERS, PLAY, AND PRODUCTION: Well, it’s been hit or miss for O’Connell and Company for awhile, but when they have a hit, it’s a home run. This was high energy, with wonderful ensemble work and a very strong male chorus and good soloists, the costumes, makeup, and wigs were something special. And talk about quick changes! From hellish vamps to housewives in seconds, from baseball players to reporters in even less time, those were a lot of fun.
DAMN YANKEES was directed and choreographed (keeping a lot of original Bob Fosse moves) by Joey Bucheker, with musical direction by Stephen Piotrowski, and the off-stage orchestra, like the orchestra out at Lancaster Opera House, was the best this season.
The cast includes the brilliant physical comedy of Kris Bartolomeo as Applegate (the devil), Aimée Walker as seductress Lola with lots of Fosse moves, Kevin Deese with a beautiful voice as Joe Hardy, Katy Miner with her always sweet soprano as Meg Boyd, Colleen Pine perky as can be as Gloria the reporter, Michael J. Galante as old Joe Boyd, Chris Riso as VanBuren, Kyle Baran as Rocky, and Daniel Lendzian as Smokey with Corey Bieber, Anthony Giambrone, Sára Kovácsi (out when I saw it), Sara Jo Kukulka, Kristen Marie Lopez, Jessie Miller, Julia Murphy, Vincent Murphy, Steven Ott, Daniel Pieffer, Leanna Pulinski, Michael Starzynski, and Michael Wells. All in all, a very accomplished assemblage.
The production crew includes Michael Morog – Stage Manager; Michele Marple – Assistant Stage Manager; Matthew Myers – Scenic Designer; Sara Jo Kukulka – Costume Designer; Connor Donnellon – Lighting Designer; and Bill Baldwin – Technical Director/Master Carpenter.
An interesting Musical History Note: The original producers didn’t want to take a chance on the newcomer Gwen Verdon to play “Lola” but after Bob Fosse met with her, he decided to take a chance. It was the start of a famous, five-decade close collaboration. How close? They even got married in 1960. If you didn’t see it last year, the limited television series “Fosse/Verdon” starring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams was excellent and is still available for streaming.
Damn Yankees rating:
*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 touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!