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Ghosts galore! Two reviews: ADDAMS FAMILY and SECRET GARDEN 

Two kid-friendly musicals chock full of ghosts opened this mid-October, and while both are well produced, as a guy I found the yuck-filled THE ADDAMS FAMILY at O’Connell & Company’s new (for them) space on Bailey more to my taste while the tasteful THE SECRET GARDEN: SPRING EDITION at Shea’s Smith (downtown) wasn’t quite as much my cup of tea.  But, hey, let’s take them one at a time.  

Photo by Shari Rife

THE BASICS:  THE ADDAMS FAMILY MUSICAL, by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice, and composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa, directed by the Artie Award-winning Dewayne Barrett, with musical direction by Joe Isgar, presented by O’Connell & Company, stars Joey Bucheker as Gomez Addams and Anna Fernandez as his wife, Morticia Addams, with 18 others (see below). It runs through October 30 (the night before Hallowe’en!) Fridays – Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm with an additional matinee at 3:00 pm on Saturday 10/22.  NOTE NEW LOCATION! O’Connell & Company, 4110 Bailey Ave. at Oxford, Amherst, NY 14226 in the former Eggertsville Youth & Community Center (about 500 feet south of Bocce Pizza).  Ample off-street parking. 716-848-0800. www.oconnellandcompany.com

Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Based more on characters from the TV series (which I didn’t watch) than the cartoons of Charles Addams in the “New Yorker” magazine (which my family did read), Wednesday Addams has grown up and fallen in love with a nice young man from a “respectable” family.  Problem #1: Her parents have never met him.  Problem #2: When Wednesday finally confides in her father that she’s engaged, she begs him not to tell her mother. Problem #3: Gomez Addams has never, ever kept a secret from his beloved wife, Morticia.  And now, the Addams are about to host the boy’s family for dinner.  A little like Cage aux Folles/The Bird Cage (trying to impress the “respectable” family) what could possibly go wrong?

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  As is my wont, this interview is going to the pits … the excellent backstage “pit” orchestra led by Joe Isgar.  Using the former altar area of the church before it was a community center and before it was a stage, Isgar’s band was right on the money with Lucas Colon, Keyboard 2, Aneris Rivera-Wagner, percussion, Dawson Horey, Reeds, Yamilla Tate (real standup) bass, Daniel Isgar, trombone, and Lily Jones, trumpet.  I’m a big fan of honest instruments, not keyboard samples, and these folks were on fire.

While it’s obvious that the kooky spooky ADDAMS FAMILY is right for the month of Hallowe’en, it’s also right for October as Hispanic Heritage Month, where composer Andrew Lippa has worked in a wide variety of Spanish dance rhythms in honor of family patriarch “Gomez” Addams.  While the original cartoon patriarch had no name, the character created for TV by John Astin became “Gomez Addams,” a passionate Latin lover, ready to dance the seguidilla, a habanera, or a tango, just to name a few of the rhythms you hear in this musical.  

I haven’t always loved everything O’Connell & Co presents, but this one is a winner, folks.  And everybody came together.  Stage Manager Ann Perno (assisted by Marley Judd) was one busy bee, with the constantly changing, very cleverly designed set (Matt Myers) and lighting by Mattvey Kitchen.  Costumes by Timmy Goodman came together with Make-Up designed by Kris Bartolomeo.  I’m told by Executive/Artistic Director Mary Kate O’Connell that each actor handled their own wigs. 

Photo by Shari Rife

I was particularly impressed by the fluid movement of personnel on the relatively small stage, so kudos to Director / Choreography Dewayne Barrett with Aimée Walker as Dance Captain.  That is saying something, with a cast of 20 (with 40 arms and 40 legs).  In addition to Joey Bucheker who seemed born for the role of Gomez, and the tall and lovely Anna Fernandez, marvelous as Morticia, were “the kooky, mysterious and spooky ‘Ancestors’”: Lizzie Arnold, Kris Bartolomeo  (looking very Marie Antoinette, but with head still attached), Corey Bieber, Timmy Goodman, Vincent Murphy, Daniel Pieffer, Leanna Pulinski, Emory Redfearn, Aimée Walker, Michael Wells.  Well done, all.

What makes an actor/actress fill their roles?  Is it casting, talent, desire, effort, or good direction?  Honestly, it’s all five.  Funny-man Michael J. Galante delighted the audience over and over as Uncle Fester; Madalyn Teal was charming as Wednesday Addams; Jared Eichel as friendly up-for-anything boyfriend Lucas Beineke; Sara Kovacsi as Grandma; young John Perno as Pugsley Addams; Dan Mink as suitably tall and lurchy Lurch; Kelliegh Murray in a wonderfully athletic role as the seemingly mousey Alice Beineke (just wait); and resident comedian with the dead-pan delivery, Michael Starzynski as Mal Beineke.

And when you go (and you should go) watch how each character (alive or dead) stays in character when on stage.  This might be a good musical to take a pre-teen or middle school boy to.  It’s very active, with lots of scene changes, and plenty of zombie-like characters.

There were some minor issues which time will take care of.  Several scene changes felt a little slow (but only by a second).  This is a brand new space for everyone, the stage was being constructed during rehearsals, and there aren’t big “wings” for actors to disappear in.  I’m sure that will settle down after a few performances once people get used to the space.  Also, unless you were in the front row, the sightlines were not good, as the seating is not yet tiered.  That seating problem, O’Connell assured me, will be fixed by the time you read this.  If not, my advice is to get there early and score a good seat right up front.

Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, and especially if you could bring a pre-teen boy and a friend of his along, I would make a real effort to attend.

But, THE ADDAMS FAMILY isn’t the only musical to feature a large cast of pale dead people, which brings us to…

THE BASICS:  THE SECRET GARDEN: SPRING VERSION adapted and shortened from the musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, which was based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, directed and choreographed by Michael Oliver-Walline with music direction by Allan Paglia, presented by Second Generation Theatre, runs through October 30, Thursdays – Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 pm at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main Street, Buffalo NY 14202. Tickets at (716)508-7480 or sheas.org/performances/the-secret-garden. Information and virtual playbill at secondgenerationtheatre.com.

Runtime: 1 hour, 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Mary Lennox (played by Ella Hinklin), a privileged English girl born in India and raised in the British Raj, is orphaned by a cholera outbreak when she is ten years old.  She is sent away from her home in tropical India to the chilly moors of Yorkshire, England, to live in the manor of her brooding uncle Archibald Craven (Louis Colaiacovo), whom she has never met.  Think “Downton Abbey” and you’ve got the decade and the zeitgeist.  Craven continues to mourn the loss of his beautiful wife Lily (Kelly Copps) who died giving birth to his son, Colin (Clark Garvey), a son he has never interacted with, as the boy is kept bed-ridden and isolated by his uncle, Dr. Neville Craven (John Panepinto).  Although scolded frequently by the dour housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Anne DeFazio) about not venturing through the mansion nor into the garden, the curious Mary finds an ally in the servant Martha (Amy Jakiel), in the gardener Ben Weatherstaff (John Kreuzer), and a friendly local boy, Dickon (Joe Russi).  She discovers both Aunt Lily’s long-neglected secret garden and long-neglected Colin and with her trio of allies nurses both garden and boy back to health.

I never read the 1911 young person’s novel “The Secret Garden” nor did I see the movie version, but secrets and gardens and collusion with allies and mysteries are the very stuff of YA fiction.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  As with THE ADDAMS FAMILY there are some ghosts, although here they are attractive and elegant including Mary’s dead mother and father, Rose and Albert Lennox (Leah Berst and Bob Mazierski), and the unidentified barefoot white-suited actors/chorus Collin McKee, Anthony Lazzaro, Jenny Marie McCabe, and Charles McGregor.  Maria Pedro with a clever hand puppet plays a robin, the harbinger of spring and symbolic of both Lily and Mary’s virtues as good people.

Of special interest is Mrs. Winthrop, the strict schoolmarm, an unusually minor role played by a favorite Buffalo actor and four-time Artie Award-winner Jenn Stafford.  What’s going on here?  Stafford’s major real-life role is mother to the show’s star, Ella Hinklin, a student at Second Generation’s theatre education program since 2017.  Clark Garvey is also in that program, taking this company from “second generation” to “third generation.”  

Speaking of the second generation brings me to several standouts and those are daughters of Steve and Mary Jakiel: sisters Kelly Copps and Mary Jakiel.  Copps is outstanding as the graceful ghost of Lily and very impressive in her unblinking mannequin stillness and beautiful voice.  And once again, just as she did recently in Second Generation’s production of CABARET, Amy Jakiel uses that powerful voice to take the production to a whole other level.  Jakiel is simply outstanding as a comic actor, with grace and warmth and a sense of timing that I do not think can be taught.  You’ve either got it or you don’t.  Amy Jakiel’s got it. 

The other outstanding actor is Joe Russi, most recently seen as the sexually ambiguous emcee in CABARET.  Russi plays androgynous to a tee, the way he moves on stage is truly something magical, and here, as Dickon, a local boy, he uses that ability to keep his relationship with Mary very innocent. 

What didn’t I like?  Well, for starters the pit consisted of Alan Paglia, who is a great musician, at a keyboard which for the most part was set to sound “like” a piano, but the tone was harsh and after about ten minutes, really annoying.  The paucity of instrumentation was at odds with the lavish costumes by Jenna Damberger (any one of which could have been worn on “Downton Abbey”) and set/lighting/sound by Chris Cavanagh, full of backlit silhouettes, mysterious entrances, complete with a central fountain.

Also, the sequence of scenes at times felt rushed, as if getting this musical down to about 90 minutes required cutting bits that might have helped us get to know the characters better.  At times, to me, it had the feeling of a series of cleverly integrated skits.

Still, on a Sunday afternoon, I was gratified to see about twenty middle school-aged children scattered about the audience, so, if there is going to be a “second generation” (or third generation) of theatergoers, this is a good musical play to start developing that lifelong interest.  

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. And if you have a pre-teen in your life, I would absolutely take her. 

*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!

The post Ghosts galore! Two reviews: ADDAMS FAMILY and SECRET GARDEN  appeared first on Buffalo Rising.

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