Savoyards’ ‘Patience’ has something for all

Reviewed by Tony Villecco

The Summer Savoyards opened their 51st season Thursday (July 14)  at Binghamton University’s Anderson Center with, surely, something for everyone. With its colorful costumes, stage lighting, sets and music, this performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience” will please the most diehard G&S fans while, perhaps, make believers out of those with no previous exposure to the English duo’s satires with their very unique place in musical evolution.

“Patience” was G&S’s take on the excesses of the aesthetic movement. The pace for this production was set by Michael Woyshner as doleful poet Reginald Bunthorne, his first lead role with the troupe. One has to ask: “Where has he been hiding?!?” Woyshner is a good singer with a strong voice, and his acting is exceptional. His stage presence and comedic
skills are jaw-dropping.

As Patience, the milkmaid loved by Bunthorne, soprano Jana Kucera sang with a lovely rounded tone, her soprano having no difficulties in the higher register and plumy warmth in her middle and chest register. Why she isn’t singing more operatic literature in this area is a puzzlement.

Another young man making his debut was Patrick Tombs as the Duke of Dunstable. For one so young (a mere 16), he has a lovely sound, which will no doubt develop over time, and his acting was spirited and enjoyable.

Gregory Keeler proved once again that G&S is a very easy place for his fine tenor and comedic timing. As Archibald Grosvenor, Bunthorne’s poetic and romantic rival, Keeler conveyed the character’s love of self especially with lines such as “I am a trustee of beauty.”

The fine chorus had some shining moments as well, the ladies in their Isadora Duncanesque posturing and the uniformed dragoons in their fruitless pursuit of these “twenty love sick maidens.” Stage director William Clark Snyder has an affinity for these popular operettas and has devised, as usual, some very effective and catchy staging. (Watch for one moment in particular for a humorous and shameless plug for our local public radio station.)

Almost all secondary leads were done very well; the only complaint was a loss of diction which was due, in part, to the fast patter of some of the material. Jessica Pullis was a funny, “over the top” Lady Jane with Julia Mahar as Lady Ella and Julia Adams as Lady Angela. Michelle Thompson’s lovely voice spilled out Lady Saphir.

Rick Barton as Col. Calverley and Michael Lipton as Major Murgatroyd both had some fine moments in ensemble and solo passages. Humor, if not always understood due to the very nature of the British, was evident throughout.

Special mention must be made of the small but fine playing orchestra led with clarity by Heather Worden. It was so good at times that one almost forgot that this was a community theater production.

The opening night audience was small but appreciative, responding enthusiastically to many of the show’s standout numbers. Let’s hope future performances are better attended as we sometimes forget the wealth of accessible talent within the local ranks here.

NOTE: “Patience” continues at 8 p.m. today and Saturday (July 15 and 16) and 3 p.m. Sunday (July 17) in the Anderson Center Chamber Hall. Tickets are $18 ($16 today for “Family Night.”)  Call 777-4237.

Audience plays detective in murder mystery

Play honors Northside theater booster Michele Tully

Reviewed by David L. Schriber

It wasn’t your usual murder mystery stage play Sunday (June 19) at Centenary-Chenango Street United Methodist Church in Binghamton. In fact, most of this drama took place amongst the audience, seated at cabaret tables.

“Next of Kin,” directed by Foster Daniels Jr.,  was an improvisational audience-participation drama. Characters mingled with the audience, conversing with them and answering their probing questions. The audience was invited to get up, move around, interview suspects and examine evidence, in order to try to solve the mystery.

The plot revolved around “Big Daddy” Sugerbaker, a wealthy Southern patriarch who must decide which of his worthless, underhanded, crazy kin will inherit his vast estate. Would it be Rhett, his arrogant elder son, whose wife Scarlett comes from the wrong side of the tracks? Or Ashley, his weak and insipid younger son, a failed poet whose work is appreciated only by his wife, Melanie, an exotic dancer? What about Savannah, Big Daddy’s high-strung ex-wife (second wife, it turns out)? Then there’s Philomena, his bitter alcoholic sister, who’s spent time behind bars of more than one kind. What’s Big Daddy’s relationship with Bobbie Joe, the sweet young thing he rescued from homeless abandon to become his devoted nurse? And what’s the role of his lawyer, Beulah Busty Esq., and his physician, Dr. Chivago Kildare?

Things got dicey when Big Daddy was apparently poisoned to death in front of them all. Accusations flew literally from all sides of the room. You weren’t sure who to pay attention most to. You had to listen carefully for revealing clues in what was said, and keep your eye on certain props – the glass, the pills, the gloves — because there was more than one murder before this case was solved!

Some audience members were given walk-on bit-parts in the drama, speaking at Big Daddy’s eulogy. I myself had the distinct honor of speakin’ — in dialect, o’ course, — as John “Jack” Daniels – no relation to the director – whose family worked closely with Big Daddy’s whiskey business. The improvisational skills of the actors were challenged as they had to respond in character to anything the audience asked or said. For nearly two hours the audience was fully engaged as detectives. Throughout the drama the actors maintained high energy, their characters constantly bickering and tossing insults like any thoroughly dysfunctional family.

Versatile Mickey Ray (Rhett) spouted bombast, matched by Shirley Cothran’s (Savannah) melodramatic mourning. Ciano Briga (Ashley) and Julia Mahar (Melanie) played well off each other as the co-dependent couple. Bonnie DeForest was very convincing as the cranky lush, Philomena, but wouldn’t share the contents of her flask with us. Jean Graham-Otis (Bobbie Joe), Camille Muscatello (Beulah),and Foster Daniels Jr. (Chivago) each played coyly, leading you to wonder what secrets they might be hiding. Hilary Terboss (Scarlet) and Cothran even got into a very physical cat fight on the floor!

If you recognized in Susan Haley’s play the shadows of Agatha Christie’s 1939 “And Then There Were None” (also known as “Ten Little Indians”), made into a wonderful movie in 1945, the solution of the mystery was close at hand.

The show honored the memory of Michele Tully, founder and artistic director of the Centenary-Chenango Street Players, whose vision was to bring the arts to Northside Binghamton. In reprising the 2008 staging of “Next of Kin,” director Daniels  brought back several of the original cast, including Michele’s husband, William, who played Big Daddy with relish.

Daniels is a veteran of the Renaissance Revival Theater Company, SRO III and Theatricks by Starlight. He intends his new company, the New Reality Players, to promote new and little-known stage works and local playwrights.

“Next of Kin” is the perfect play for a small intimate theater where the audience can really feel absorbed into the drama. The fact that I’ve performed with three of the cast (DeForest, Daniels, and Ray) in a few musical productions (and met Muscatello two nights previous singing with the Relay for Life Singers at MacArthurPark) made the show especially fun for me.