At CRT, murky play attacks big issues

Reviewed by George Basler

Steven Dietz has said “conspiracies are catnip to a playwright” because of the level of obsessiveness and outlandishness for the personalities involved, and because there’s always enough “truth” to ground their actions.

Obsessiveness and outlandishness are certainly on display at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene, which is ending its season with a production of Dietz’s Yankee Tavern, a play about the conspiracy theories and paranoia surrounding the attacks of 9/11. Read the rest of this entry »

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Unappealing protagonists sink ‘Separation Rapid’ at Chenango River Theatre

Reviewed by George Basler

I wish I could say I liked Separation Rapid, which is getting its world premiere at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene. Unfortunately, I can’t.

The professional, non-profit theater company should be given credit for taking the risk of mounting a new work. And the staging is extremely creative in spots as director and set designer Bill Lelbach (who is also CRT’s artistic director) recreates a 20-foot,wooden boat careening down the mighty Colorado River. Read the rest of this entry »

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Sedaka hits woven seamlessly into CRT musical comedy

Reviewed by David L. Schriber

High-energy acting, strong vocals, flawless choreography and lighting, and a clever stage musical combined to showcase songs of Neil Sedaka as the Chenango River Theatre in Greene presented “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” (seen Friday, Aug. 19, as part of the show’s final weekend). The Eric Jackson-Ben Winters musical comedy,which  premiered in Albany in 2005, wove in 16 of Sedaka’s songs so well that one would think they were written expressly for this show.

It’s summer 1960. Marge Gelman (Leah Monzillo) arrives at Esther’s Paradise Resort on Loch Sheldrake in the Catskills. It’s supposed to be her honeymoon, but her fiancé left her at the altar, so she’s accompanied by her best friend, Lois Warner (Kim Morgan Dean), who’s determined not to let it “snow on her parade” and to help Marge get her groove back. Esther’s headliner crooner is narcissistic Italian stallion Del Delmonaco (Richard Rella Jr.), whose act drips with charm and testosterone. Marge doesn’t think much of Lois’ notion to finagle their way into the act as backup singers … until a backstage glimpse of shirtless Del convinces her that she too wants to be “Where the Boys Are.”

Del feigns a romantic interest in Marge, whose father, he believes, can advance his career, but it’s Del’s handyman cousin, Gabe Green (Joe Lehman), who has more in common with Marge. He’s also the ghostwriter of Del’s songs, and he needs to write a big one, because a Dick Clark talent scout will be in the audience Saturday.

Such a notable visitor puts pressure on resort owner and widow Esther Simowitz (Lourelene Snedeker) and her long-time emcee and comic, Harvey Feldman (John Felix), to spruce up the somewhat past-its-prime resort.

“Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” but Del has no trouble dumping Marge when he finds out her father is not a talent manager. Marge is devastated again, but Lois has a plan to get revenge while exposing Del for less than he seems and Gabe for more than meets the eye.

Rella played his character to the hilt, with fine vocals and body language that Elvis would have been proud of. He even got the audience lady in front-row center into the act, bringing her on stage to serenade her with “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen.”

Lehman was convincing as geeky, gawky cabana boy Gabe,whose fantasies of Marge gave clues of his metamorphosis-to-come. His tenor/soprano duets with Monzillo blended nicely.

Monzillo played the twice-jilted Marge believably. Some of her more introspective vocals started very quietly, but probably could still be heard throughout the intimate theater. In her duets with Dean she proved herself quite capable of filling the house with song. Dean played the self-assured Lois with verve, full-throated vocals and provocative vamping.

Felix was a perfect supporting actor, never upstaging the principals (well, OK, there was Mr. December in “Calendar Girl”). Patiently awaiting his moment in the plot, he showed the slap-happy Harvey’s vulnerability as he struggled to find a way to confess his love for Esther. Snedeker gave a solid supporting comedic performance as the slightly ditsy Esther, who kept having to make matter-of-fact announcements about the resort’s poison ivy and food poisoning.

The principals showed their versatility in a show demanding acting, singing and dancing. Mark Scherer’s choreography was carefully and confidently executed in the compact space. Julie Duro and Bill Brower’s lighting transitioned scenes clearly and focused attention well in busy scenes, especially when the focus was off-center stage. The four-piece band was tight with the flow. The whole cast and crew worked smoothly together with good pacing, never losing momentum or energy. Direct eye contact from the actors and occasional audience participation drew the audience right into the show. One would not have thought this cast came together from so many different places — New York, Chicago, and Florida — with much of the production staff (diector, music director, costume designer and stage manager) from West Virginia’s Greenbrier Valley Theatre.

Two hours seemed to fly by. In the end, with changes of fortune — some predictable, some surprising — all of the characters got what they deserved, and even Harvey and Esther discovered that “Love Will Keep us Together.” On so many levels, this was a thoroughly enjoyable show!

‘Rounding Third’ hits a home run at Chenango River Theatre

Reviewed by Lee Shepherd

“Rounding Third,” the second production in the Chenango River Theatre’s 2011 season, hit a home run on opening night. No knowledge of baseball is required to know they’re batting 1000.
Despite 2 inches of rain, a power blackout that afternoon and a flooded parking lot, the show went on before a sell-out crowd.
“Rounding Third” is a two-man play that paired gifted actors Jack Harris and Drew Kahl in an unforgettable “odd couple” of Don and Michael. At first glance, they couldn’t have been more dissimilar – from different social classes and backgrounds, with diametrically opposed life philosophies. Blue collar versus white collar. Sports jock versus nerd. Beer-swilling boor vs. a touchy-feely tee-totaler. You get the picture.
Winning is all to Don, a house painter, who lives for baseball and coaching to spice up his otherwise empty life. He’d do whatever it takes to score. “I’d rather lose than cheat,” counters the principled Michael.
Don envisions glory for his son through baseball; he’s aghast when the boy chooses to dance in “Brigadoon” instead. “Jimmy’s gone over to the other side,” he moans. Although Don is a womanizer, he’s derailed when he learned his wife is having it on with his best friend and former assistant coach. Workaholic Michael wants to spend quality time wants his son and ensure that the boy doesn’t inherit his dad’s geekiness or be unpopular with the other kids, as he was.
As playwright Richard Dresser peels back these characters layer by layer like an onion, the audience discovers that they have one thing in common – they’re both striking out in the game of life. As they learn to look beyond superficial appearances and discover commonalities, they form a strange friendship that makes them both life’s winners.
Harris, a regular at CRT and a founding member of EXIT 18 Theatre Company in New Paltz, and Kahl, a member of the theater faculty at State University College at Oneonta, play their parts to perfection. Kahl is master of the double-take, reacting with hilarious deadpan to every obnoxious statement that his co-actor utters. Harris’ depiction of an unprincipled jerk is masterful and utterly believable. I’d eat my baseball cap if these guys aren’t really the characters they depict on stage.
Set design by Bill Lelbach (also sound designer) is clever, minimal and efficient. Lighting by Julie Duro and costume design by Barbara Kahl are first-rate. Choice of tunes broadcast on the P.A. between acts underscore the play’s messages cleverly. Refreshments and sweet guitar music by Tom Rasely in the lobby beforehand were a bonus to a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

“Rounding Third” continues Thursdays-Sundays through July 31 at the Chenango River Theatre, located at 991 State Route 12, Greene. Next production: The musical, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” billed as a romp of mistaken identity, friendship and love set at a Catskills resort in 1960, Aug. 4-21. Box office: 607-656-8499, or visit www:chenangorivertheatre.org.

‘Almost, Maine’ completely splendid

Reviewed by Sarah Roche

Last night (June 10), I attended the Chenango River Theatre’s (CRT) production of “Almost, Maine” as well as the actor talkback session held after the production. Driving to the location with my Google map in hand led me to believe that I was in for a community theater production. The theater is about 20 minutes outside of Binghamton and housed in a large aluminum building that looks a bit like a garage. Upon entering, I was greeted by a friendly ticket booth operator who directed me down the hallway and through a door. Once through the door I walked into a dark theater that seats approximately one hundred patrons. I would never have expected such an intimate theater in such a large building.

The scenery on stage was simple, a back screen with a low horizon of mountains. The snow piled around the stage was convincing enough that a number of patrons stopped to touch it. Throughout the play a wooden bench is moved around the stage between scenes. The lack of stage decoration really allowed the audience to focus on the characters.

“Almost, Maine” is a contemporary play that debuted in 2002. It is a series of vignettes, each lasting 10 minutes or less, united in the literal takes on phrases associated with love. To tell you much about them would be to spoil the scenes.

Each vignette features two actors on the stage at a time. CRT used four actors to play the myriad of roles. By the second scene, it had become apparent that these were professionals, able to completely absorb their changing roles.

The play is wonderfully written, with well-placed laughs and poignant moments.  I was thrilled that a local theater company chose to work with contemporary material, and I felt that the choice of this play in particular was exemplary. It allowed the audience to see something that they most likely hadn’t seen before balanced with an enjoyable, relatable production.

This is an entertaining play that I would strongly recommend you attend.  If you know someone who is a bit intimidated by theater, this performance would be a great introduction.

In the actor talkback session after the play, the audience discovered that this particular play had a very short rehearsal time, cut by a week from the industry standard. I would never have guessed that these actors had rushed to learn the material, and judging from other comments, neither could the rest of the audience members.  The four New York City-based actors discussed the audition process, methods they use for changing characters so quickly and graciously thanked the audience. They were generous with their time and answered questions sincerely.

I think one of the great things about this production is the quality of the actors. They are a strong ensemble that allowed the characters they were playing to come to life.

I left the theater to the see fireflies flashing and hear bull frogs croaking. I would never have guessed I would find a professional theater company in Greene, NY, and I was thrilled by the surprise. I can’t recommend “Almost, Maine” enough, and I am very excited for the rest of the CRT season.

Editor’s note: Performances continue through June 26.

Top-notch performers create great ‘Of Mice and Men’ at CRT

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan      

Coming from New York City, home of some of the best theater in the world, makes you sometimes doubt whether you can see great theater anywhere else. This was my notion as I went to see Chenango River Theater’s production of “Of Mice and Men.” However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my notion was false. CRT in Greene offers up a stunning production of this classic play. Read the rest of this entry »

I felt art-full this past week; did you?

Had a wonderful time (as always) at Colorscape in Norwich, enjoying both the visual and performing arts. There aren’t many places where you can say you listened to Aztec Two-Step while watching a 96-year-old woman (!) making a pine needle basket. I had hoped to round out my Chenango County “tour de art” with one of the final performances of “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” but … hooray for them! boo hoo for me … Chenango River Theatre was sold out all weekend.
How about you? Were you art-filled this past week?

Was this an art-filled week for you, too?

I know nothing can beat MY arts experience this past week, watching the original comic play (“The Empire Strikes Bank”) presented by the teen acting/improv workshop at Chenango River Theatre. Another big round of applause for teacher/director Heidi Weeks and her merry band.  BUT … there was much art and entertainment to be had as August began: “King Lear” by EPAC, “Last of the Boys” at CRT, operas in rep at Glimmerglass, Spiedie Fest concerts, First Friday, etc. Did you go to any of these events? Or did you just catch a good bar band worthy of a larger audience? Please share.

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Were you lively in the lively arts this past weekend?

 Please share your views on whatever art or entertainment events you attended this past week.

May the Bard be with you: Shakespeare made mod

Reviewed by David L. Schriber

The thought of combining 37 Shakespearean plays into a single two-hour farce was too good to pass up, so we took a drive up Route 12 to the Chenango River Theatre (CRT) in Greene to take in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” Written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield; premiered in 1987 and performed subsequently in London and off-Broadway, the spoof encourages improvisation, adaptation to local culture and interaction with the audience.

This version, while not exactly belly-laughing slapstick comedy to the frenetic level of Mel Brooks or Robin Williams, definitely had a certain offbeat “Monty Python-meets-Reader’s Digest Condensed Books” character to it. Detailed knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays was not really necessary to appreciate the humor of themes such as “The Real Housewives of Verona,” a compilation of Will’s 12 comedies.

Read the rest of this entry »

Are you starting 2010 in an art-full way?

Did you brave the snow for First Night? How about for the first First Friday of 2010? And what’s coming up for you? How are you warding off the January doldrums — in an art-filled way, of course?