Newsday Review

Santa’s little helper spreads plenty of Christmas cheer

Erik Gratton stars as Buddy "Elf the Musical"
Erik Gratton stars as Buddy “Elf the Musical” at John W. Engeman Theater in Northport through Dec. 30. Photo Credit: Michael DeCristofaro

November 20, 2018
By Barbara Schuler

WHAT “Elf the Musical”

WHEN | WHERE Through Dec. 30, John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport

INFO $73 ($78 Saturday evenings); 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com

BOTTOM LINE Corny but fun holiday romp based on the hit film.

Precipitation is falling at the John W. Engeman Theater again, only instead of the impressive deluge of May’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” we get a paper-shredder blizzard in the happy holiday romp “Elf the Musical.”

The Northport theater welcomes the season with this family-friendly adaptation by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin of the hit 2003 movie starring Will Ferrell. Here the lovable, galumphing elf Buddy is played by Erik Gratton, who couldn’t be more comfortable in the role, having done it last year at Madison Square Garden. Buddy towers over the other elves and his toymaking skills are woefully lacking — no surprise since he’s really a human orphan who climbed into Santa’s sack one Christmas and ended up being raised at the North Pole.

Santa (the delightfully jolly Gordon Gray, who also serves as narrator) spills the beans, revealing to Buddy that his publishing executive father, unaware he had a child, is on the naughty list because he’s lost the Christmas spirit. Needless to say, Buddy sets off to New York to do what elves do — fix things.

It’s a corny, predictable story with a first act that could stand tightening, but the infectious performances win out under the direction of Matt Kunkel. Gratton is perfect as Buddy, an adorable klutz who mixes childlike wonder with worldly wisdom. Wandering the city, he ends up at Macy’s, where he meets his future wife, Jovie (Caitlin Gallogly), before finally connecting with his family — dad Walter Hobbs (Joe Gately), a stressed-out workaholic with little time for his wife, Emily (Christianne Tisdale), and son Michael (Zachary Podair).

The ensemble gets quite a workout in the show, especially when, as elves, they are required to perform Mara Newbery Greer’s lighthearted choreography on their knees. Ouch! But the best number was the tap-dancing chorus line of fake Santas, in an eclectic mix of red outfits (love the Santa camouflage) by costume designer Leon Dobkowski. The charming set by Nate Bertone adds to the merriment.

In general, the music by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin is generic and not especially memorable, though Gallogly manages to turn “Never Fall in Love (With an Elf)” into a sizzling torch song, and the Macy’s staff’s “Sparklejollytwinklejingley ” is a lot more fun than beleaguered seasonal workers normally display. Needless to say, holiday spirit is restored in time for the finale — as Buddy brings his family together, the cast joyfully proclaims the best way to spread Christmas cheer is “singing loud for all to hear.”

 

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Newsday Review

‘Man of La Mancha’ review: An impossible dream come true

Richard Todd Adams, left, is Don Quixote and Carlos Lopez is Sancho Panza in “Man of La Mancha” at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. Photo Credit: Michael DeCristofaro

 

“Man of La Mancha” is one of those musicals you’d think audiences would be sick of seeing. Not so, says Richard Dolce, producing artistic director of the John W. Engeman Theater. In fact, he says the 1966 Tony-winning best musical is one of the shows they’re most frequently asked to bring back.

So 10 years after its first run at the Northport theater, the musical inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ classic 17th century novel “Don Quixote” is getting a return engagement, with a beautifully crafted, emotional production celebrating the enduring story of an idealist who holds fast to his dreams.

If you’ve forgotten the story, here’s a quick brush up: Awaiting trial before the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes and his manservant, charged with foreclosing on a monastery, are thrown into a dungeon with an unsavory bunch of thieves and murderers. Threatened, Cervantes devises a fantasy about a mad knight in search of lost chivalry, distracting his fellow prisoners by awarding them roles in his bit of make believe.

Directed by Peter Flynn, who also helmed Engeman’s 2008 production, the show rests — as it always does — on the actor playing Cervantes, and Richard Todd Adams delivers. He portrays the madman with just enough duplicity to let you know he’s making it all up. And with his rich baritone, he captures the soul of the familiar score — and not just in the covered-by-everyone-under-the-sun hit “The Impossible Dream.”

Janet Dacal is gripping as Aldonza, the wild, lusty wench who in Quixote’s vision is a fine lady he calls Dulcinea (though in early scenes, her hair and makeup could use a little roughing up). Other fine performances come from Carlos Lopez as the devoted servant who becomes Sancho Panza, the squire always ready with a sarcastic quip; Bruce Winant, playing the innkeeper in the fantasy with sardonic wit, and Morgan Anita Wood and Phyllis L. March, as Quixote’s niece and housekeeper, respectively, who give the tongue-in-cheek “I’m Only Thinking of Him” a wry edge.

This is a striking production, with the grim stone dungeon well rendered by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case — the actors dragging themselves in and out of the orchestra pit is an interesting touch. Adding to the overall effect are Kurt Alger’s appropriately ragged costumes and dramatic lighting by Alan C. Edwards — except for the occasional projections, which seem distracting and unnecessary.

None of that really matters though. Judging from the audience reaction when Adams closed the first act with a moving “The Impossible Dream,” it’s almost certain the show will be back in another 10 years — if not sooner.

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Newsday Review

‘Newsies’: Dancing that’s above the fold

July 24, 2018
By Barbara Schuler

In this age of screen-to-stage musicals, “Newsies” is remarkable because the movie it was based on was an out-and-out flop.

But thanks to video, the 1992 film starring Christian Bale developed a cult following, leading Disney to create a musical that ran for two years after its 2012 Broadway debut, winning Tonys for Alan Menken’s score and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography.

Now making its Long Island debut at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport,  the musical is a rough retelling of the newsboys strike of 1899, a David-and-Goliath struggle pitting a ragtag bunch of tenement urchins against Joseph Pulitzer, the powerful publisher of the New York World. Facing declining circulation, he forces his young hawkers to pay more for their “papes” (period lingo), sparking a rebellion that ultimately led to revisions in the city’s child labor laws.

The Engeman cast, under the fast-paced direction of Igor Goldin, will win you over with its inexhaustible energy and unbridled exuberance, managing to make you forget the flaws, some of which have been with the show all along. The closest thing to a memorable song is the celebratory “King of New York,” and perhaps the amusing “Watch What Happens,” in which Katherine, a character modeled on famed journalist Nellie Bly, sings of her writer’s block. Much of the other music feels repetitious, not helped by a few too many reprises, and while Dan Tracy has more than enough charisma to sell his role as the newsboys’ crusading leader Jack Kelly, vocally he struggles at times.

That can also be said for most of the men in the cast, clearly chosen primarily for their dance skill, which is considerable — a good thing since they rarely get a break from the relentlessly athletic (and again, repetitive) routines thrown at them by choreographer Sandalio Alvarez. Especially impressive is Nick Martinez as Crutchie, who has some cool moves despite having to manage them while maneuvering a crutch. Other highlights in the show (along with DT Willis’ set and Kurt Alger’s costumes) include Mike Cefalo, as the boy with the brains, Zachary Podair as his scene-stealing younger brother, and Whitney Winfield, in lovely voice as the spirited Katherine.

Of course, the most frightening man in “Newsies” is Pulitzer, played by Tom Lucca with enough menace to make me shudder just a bit (full disclosure: I used to work for his grandson). But he was a brilliant editor, and this musical could have used one.

 

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Newsday Review

‘Singin’ in the Rain’ review: A sunny Hollywood spoof

Brian Shepard, left, Tessa Grady and Danny Gardner
Brian Shepard, left, Tessa Grady and Danny Gardner will brighten your day performing “Good Mornin’ ” in “Singin’ in the Rain” at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. Photo Credit: Michael DeCristofaro

May 22, 2018
By Barbara Schuler

After slogging around in the rain for most of last week, the last thing anyone needed was another downpour — unless you count the deluge of pure delight that was the Act 1 finale of  “Singin’ in the Rain” at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport.

Taking on the iconic role so associated with Gene Kelly in the 1952 film (talk about pressure!), Danny Gardner put his own thoughtful spin on Don Lockwood, the silent film star caught up in the transition to “talkies.” He splashed his way through that title number in flawless song-and-dance-man style, seeming to have as much fun kicking the increasingly substantial puddles as any kid on a rainy day.

The musical adaptation, first on Broadway in 1985, doesn’t stray much from the film, considered among the best movie musicals of all time. It’s one of those shows that constantly surprises with songs you may have forgotten were in it — gems like “Make ‘Em Laugh,” made famous onscreen by Donald O’Connor as Cosmo, Don’ s loyal sidekick. Then there are the love songs, “You Are My Lucky Star”  and “You Were Meant for Me”; the peppy “Good Mornin’ ” (sadly without that well-known overturned sofa), and the razzle-dazzle production number “Broadway Melody.”

The Engeman has upped its game when it comes to casting of late, and this show has star turns everywhere you look. Among the standouts: Brian Shepard as Cosmo, who truly does make you laugh in that number; Tessa Grady, walking a fine line as love interest Kathy Selden, bringing a little modern sensibility into a role that could easily be a cliché, and Emily Stockdale as Lina Lamont, the inept silent-film star who bravely manages to sustain throughout a voice so grating you could only wish for nails on a chalkboard.

They all look fabulous, thanks to Kurt Alger’s stunning period costumes, all sequins and feathers that lit up David Arsenault’s soundstage set.  A word, too, for director-choreographer Drew Humphrey, who not only worked his wonders with the onstage happenings, but managed to pull off a series of silent films, with the requisite shaky, grainy footage, that helped move the story along.

But back to that rain. Kudos to whoever decided to leave the curtain open after the first act, allowing audience members who stayed in their seats to witness the herculean efforts involved in getting rid of all that water (wonder how many Wet Vacs they’ll go through?). First time I’ve seen a standing ovation during intermission.

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Newsday Review

In the Heights: Scorching numbers on a summer day

By Barbara Schuler
March 21, 2018

Spring is having trouble making an appearance on Long Island, but summer is in full swing at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater, with a spirited take on the high-octane, dance-obsessed, Tony-winning musical “In the Heights.”

This, you might recall, was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, started when he was still in college, well before “Hamilton” was even a gleam in his creative eye. Set on a scorching summer day, the play takes place in Washington Heights, where Usnavi (a fine performance from Spiro Marcos in the role Miranda originated) runs his bodega amid the turmoil of a neighborhood where no one is quite making it.

Director Paul Stancato has gathered an impressive cast, with voices that will blow you away and enough stage electricity to energize a small city. Tami Dahbura is endearing and heartbreaking as Abuela Claudia, the barrio matriarch who raised Usnavi (he’s named for the first thing his parents saw upon arriving in America, a ship that said U.S. Navy) after his parents died. Cherry Torres internalizes her pain as Nina, the girl who got out, coming home from her first year at Stanford with alarming news that sends her ferociously protective parents Kevin and Camila (Paul Aguirre and Shadia Fairuz) into quite the tailspin.

Other standouts include Chiara Trentalange as Usnavi’s feisty, don’t-mess-with-me love interest; Josh Marin as the out-of-place Benny (shades of “West Side Story” right down to the balcony scene), who has his sights on Nina; and Vincent Ortega as the piragua guy, selling shaved ice to anyone he can convince to pass up Mister Softee. Not to mention an ensemble of accomplished singers and dancers who bring Christopher Vergara’s street-kid costumes and Christopher Ash’s storefront set to life, while making it clear they know how to sell salsa (and we’re not talking the stuff you put on chips.)

But it’s Usnavi who holds it all together and Marcos plays him with a quiet, reserved charm and curtailed cockiness that wisely never attempts to channel Miranda (tough, because an unmistakable resemblance cannot be denied). Marcos is comfortable wherever the music takes him, moving effortlessly from haunting ballads like “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “Alabanza” to the hip-hop flavored “96,000.”

“I know I wrote a show about home,” Miranda said in his rapped acceptance speech when he won the 2008 Tony for best original score. And in the end, that is the loving message of “In the Heights,” no clicking of sparkly red shoes required.

 

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Newsday: ‘Once’ review: Two lonely people make beautiful music together

Newsday
Barbara Schuler
January 23, 2018

The vacuum cleaner isn’t the only thing that’s stuck.

In “Once,” the seductively charming musical that opened last week at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, the same could be said of the characters known only as Guy and Girl, two lost souls who aren’t functioning much better than her broken Hoover.

The Dublin street singer and the Czech immigrant meet as he’s about to abandon his guitar on the sidewalk and give up on his music. She is a lonely pianist, struggling to raise her young daughter with a husband who’s not around. Guy, perhaps a little too conveniently, works in his father’s vacuum repair shop where her promise to pay by playing for him leads to a musical collaboration, a demo tape with major potential and the stirrings of romance.

Andrea Goss, who understudied the role on Broadway, gives Girl a quiet, commanding presence, able to make things happen with but a soft-spoken word. Or a glare. Barry DeBois is less assured as Guy, perhaps because of difficulties with the Irish accent. But both are glorious when singing the pop-folk music of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (stars of the 2007 indie film that the musical is based on), most notably in the haunting “Falling Slowly,” which won the original song Oscar.

Interestingly, while the show is an ode to the power of music (“Ya can’t have a city without music,” says one character), there’s no orchestra. Under Trey Compton’s direction, the actors portraying all the other characters — Girl’s Ma, Guy’s Pa, a ragtag bunch of musicians — double as musicians, playing more than competent guitar, violin, mandolin and the like whenever they’re not speaking. Much of the action takes place in a finely rendered Irish pub (set by Nate Bertone) where the audience is invited to buy a drink and mingle before the play starts.

There’s no happy ending, at least in the traditional sense, to this bittersweet love story, winner of the 2012 best musical Tony. But when tiny Sophia Lily Tamburo, playing Girl’s daughter, fetches a violin and joins in on the show’s last few notes, the message of hope soars with the song.

Read online: https://www.newsday.com/entertainment/theater/once-review-two-lonely-people-make-beautiful-music-together-1.16317180

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Newsday Review: ‘Annie’ Review – The sun comes out in this charmer, onstage and off

Newsday
Barbara Schuler
November 14, 2017

The orphans missed the entrance to one of their big numbers, the dog didn’t come when he was called and one actor’s mustache (hysterically) wouldn’t stay on his face.

No matter. Minor technical mishaps at a preview performance of “Annie” at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport took nothing away from the charm of this endearing, enduring classic. It could even be said they added to it.

Let’s start with those orphans, an adorable bunch of little girls with big voices and major charisma. Annie is played by Broadway vet Presley Ryan (“Fun Home”), who wisely gives the famed cartoon character a bit of street smarts to go with her wistful yearning for a family. (One quibble, though, with the wig she wears before switching to her iconic curls. Much too nice — does that orphanage have a hairdresser on staff?)

Her six compatriots light up the stage. When they finally got together on “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” they were, well, a knockout. And “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” has the show-stopping quality it demands.

Stealing some of the spotlight is Lynn Andrews as Miss Hannigan, the bedraggled, beleaguered matron of the orphanage. She’s a powerful belter, raising the roof in “Little Girls,” and she knows how to shake what she’s got as she flirts shamelessly with everyone from the laundry man, Bundles, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a pivotal character in this play).

Other standouts in director-choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo’s production include George Dvorsky as a touching Oliver Warbucks and Elizabeth Broadhurst as his loyal secretary, Grace Farrell. Jon Peterson as Miss Hannigan’s just-out-of-the-joint brother, Rooster, was appropriately sleazy. As for his errant mustache, it was so funny I wouldn’t be half surprised if the director decides to keep it in the show.

“Annie,” winner of the 1977 Tony Award for best musical followed by two Broadway revivals and countless community theater productions, has many charms. And not all of them happen onstage. Consider the pure wonder of the little guy next to me when he realized it was snowing on Christopher and Justin Swader’s lovely set, or the way parents snuggled a little closer to their children when Daddy Warbucks sings to Annie the haunting “Something Was Missing.” Or especially when Roosevelt urges his cabinet to raise their voices in the famed ode to positivity “Tomorrow,” and half the audience sings along.

Consider this production a holiday gift from the Engeman and join them.

 

Read online: https://www.newsday.com/entertainment/theater/annie-review-engeman-1.14980070

Newsday Review: Let Engeman’s ‘Gypsy’ entertain you, yes sir

Newsday

Barbara Schuler

September 20, 2017

 

A wise director knows not to mess with “Gypsy.”

The classic musical — some think it’s one of the best ever written — that opened last week at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport stays true to the vision that Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents first set down in 1959. The story of the ultimate stage mother determined to make at least one of her daughters a star unfolds seamlessly under the direction of Igor Goldin, while highlighting some of Broadway’s most loved songs — “Let Me Entertain You,” “Together Wherever We Go” and the plaintive first-act closer “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

From the moment she enters with that famous line, “Sing out, Louise,” echoing from the back of the theater, Michele Ragusa as Mama Rose has you in her grip. Following in impressive footsteps — Ethel Merman, the first Rose, was followed by, among others, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters — Ragusa is a wall of steel in portraying the steadfast determination required to get her daughters top billing, or any billing, really, on the vaudeville circuit.

The act moves from theater to theater (Nate Bertone’s evocative set could be backstage anywhere), but it’s a dud and the girls well know it. That doesn’t stop Rose from her relentless pushing, first with June (played by an adorable Kyla Carter as a child, then a somewhat grown up Charity Van Tassel), later with Louise (a delightfully dour Amanda Swickle as a kid, an older Austen Danielle Bohmer in a beautifully nuanced performance).

When in the second act Louise and her “Toreadorables” mistakenly end up in a burlesque house, Rose seems ready to throw in the towel and marry the ever-suffering agent Herbie (John Scherer). But the resident strippers — Suzanne Mason, Jennifer Collester Tully and Amber Carson in Kurt Alger’s witty costumes for the always showstopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” — have given her an idea. Next thing you know, the wedding isn’t happening and Louise undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, from awkward showgirl whose “strip” consists of shyly dropping a single strap of her gown to one of the most famous burlesque stars of all time (the musical is inspired by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee.)

When, at the end, Mama takes the stage for the heartbreaking “Rose’s Turn,” you finally understand her years of torment, of trying to live through her children. “Mama’s lettin’ go,” she sings. But, truthfully, you don’t believe that for a minute.

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