The Observer Review

Engeman Theater to new heights

March 22, 2018
By David Ambro

In its 12th season of bringing Broadway to Main Street, the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport is coming of age.

Now showing on the main stage at the Engeman Theater is the critically acclaimed Broadway hit In the Heights, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize nominated musical written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote and currently stars in Hamilton, the hottest ticket on Broadway. In the Heights opened at the Engeman Thursday, March 15, the first professional production of the show on Long Island.

“It’s exciting to do a show that people haven’t seen a lot before,” said Richard Dolce, who produced the show and is the theater’s producing artistic director. “That’s what was exciting about [the previous show] Once. People came in having heard about it but it’s not like My Fair Lady or West Side Story where everyone remembers it and has seen it. This is something they have heard of and maybe they have heard of Hamilton, but to experience it and for us to be the people to bring it to them is very satisfying. It’s why I do this.”

Set in a closely knit neighborhood on 183rd Street in the Washington Heights section of the Bronx, In the Heights is a story about a diverse Latino community of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, struggling to improve their lives in America. On the Engeman stage, Spiro Marcos plays the central role of Usnavi, a Dominican immigrant who operates a bodega with his cousin. Sonny, played by Nick Martinez, and under the watchful eye of neighborhood matriarch Abuela Claudia, played by Tami Dahbura. Mr. Marcos is captivating as Usnavi, a role he delivers in rhythmic rap. Mr. Martinez and Ms. Dahbura are terrific in their performances. Sonny warm, funny and engaging and Abuela compassionate and endearing.

A defining moment in the story comes when Abuela dies suddenly during a New York City blackout on a blistering hot July day. Having been raised by Abuela, her death hits Usnavi hard. He decides to give up the bodega, the heart of the neighborhood, and return to his homeland. Central to the plot is romance, Usnavi is enamored by Vanessa, a neighborhood hairdresser played by Chiara Trentalange. Josh Marin plays Benny, an African-American in love with his boss’ daughter, Nina, played by Cherry Torres.

Steeped in the Latino culture and highlighting the struggle of the American melting pot. In the Heights at the Engeman features a deep cast of stars supported by an ensemble that is more than 20 voices strong at times. It is must-see contemporary theater on the Northport stage.

For tickets, go to engemantheater.com, call 631-261-2900 or visit the theater box office at 250 Main Street in Northport village.

In the Heights is told in a mixed dialogue of English and Spanish and a variety of musical styles including Rap, Hip Hop, Salsa, Merengue, Reggaeton, Rock ‘n Roll and traditional Broadway style, all with a Latino beat.

“Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and the guy who is Hamilton, tells a story about his life growing up and he wanted to use the music of his youth and of his culture,” Mr. Dolce said. “[Miranda] is a really big fan of rap and Latin music and a big fan of Broadway so he took this amalgamation of all this different music. There are characters who primarily rap, but there are also a lot of characters who do pretty standard ballads and storytelling and it’s all put together to portray a slice of life in Washington Heights back in the mid to late 2000s.”

“It is so much fun,” Mr. Marcos said during an interview in the lobby after the show. “We have become family. We have only rehearsed for two weeks. This is the third week of rehearsals and it has included five performances. So we are exhausted, but we have all just held each other up and we have all made it a point to tell the story and to do it justice and do it with respect and also share a little bit of our culture with the people of Northport. It is kind of amazing.”

“So I am elated. The show is fun. it’s upbeat, it warms your heart and it is all about the legacies -we leave, and I think this is so important,” he said. “People have to understand that you leave your mark wherever you are, and that is very important to me.”

Mr. Dolce said that because the script is a mix of English and Spanish, a largely Latino cast was selected to bring authenticity to the show. “Obviously, they are trying to be as authentic as possible. Fortunately, we cast actors who are Latino, so they came with their own background and their connection to the material. So it was a matter of the director, choreographer and musical director working with the actors and material to bring out the authenticity.”

“The big thing for me is showing the respect for the Spanish language because it drives the culture of almost half of the people in this country,” Mr. Marcos said. “In wanting to pay respect to the language and doing it justice, sometimes you get people who do parts like this, and they don’t know the language. It’s just them trying to figure it out and learning the words on a page. But for me it is the connection to that world and knowing exactly what I’m saying and how to say it and not just learning the lines. I know exactly what I am saying and not just words on a page, so I can pay respect to this language.”

“Lin-Manuel had a reason for putting that in this show. He had a reason for including it and I think it is so important to respect that decision of his because he is the first one to do it like that,” Mr. Marcos said.

“West Side Story did it back then and I was in West Side Story. I played Bernardo, and it was crazy because in that show they almost bastardized Puerto Rico. They were all ashamed of Puerto Rico and they wanted to get out of Puerto Rico. And this is a show that is celebrating Puerto Rico and it is just amazing that he created something that celebrates Latin American culture when the only time you’re seen it in a show it has been bastardized. And that was a huge, huge inspiration for me.”

While the dialogue is delivered in English and Spanish and the music has an uplifting Latino beat, the choreography is also modern and new to the Engeman.

“It is probably the most modern dance that we have done,” Mr. Dolce said. “It mixes elements of Hip Hop and Break Dancing with traditional Broadway dancing and with Latin musical dancing, Salsa dancing. When we did Memphis and Hairspray it was 50s Rock youth style of dancing. This is more modern. So again, it is exciting to be able to present something like this. That feels fresh, that hasn’t been done.”

“We are thrilled to be able to do the show. It is a fantastic show, and it is a complicated show, but it is one that, now that we are 12 years in, we felt we could handle and our audiences would enjoy,” Mr. Dolce said.

He said the heavy lifting was done by the authors of the script. “The script is there, the music is there. We just had to stay time to it, and just work our actors’ and our directors’ concepts into the story.”

“1 think it is fantastic,” Mr. Dolce said. “I think it’s exciting. I’ve been around the theater for a long time and it is exciting to watch Broadway theater evolve over the years. Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and A Chorus Line and Phantom, Les Miz, and then you got into Rent, and now we have In the Heights and Hamilton, and Next to Normal—you have all of these exciting shows. So it is very exciting for me, as someone who has been there for my entire life, there was a time when I could only produce shows like My Fair Lady, Oklahoma and Sound of Music, and now I feel that audiences are more accepting and receptive to these newer styles of musicals.”

The Engeman’s last production was Once, the most successful show at the box office in the theater’s 12 year history. “Once is very different than typical Broadway, and it was one of my most successful shows,” Mr. Dolce said. “I’m hoping, based on audience reaction tonight, that In The Heights will become another wonderfully successful show and that audiences are excited and receptive to seeing musical theater in a new way, with modem music and different cultures and to disappear into a different world and a different story for two and a half hours.”

 

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Observer Review: Three cheers to ‘Once’ at the Engeman

The Observer
David Ambro
January 25, 2018

The name certainly doesn’t define it because I would go see Once at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport again and again…

If you are Irish you’ll love this one. It’s brought out the McCooey in me (my mother’s Irish maiden name).

It is a groundbreaking performance on the Engeman Stage. In its 11th season, Once is the first Engeman show to have all of the music performed on stage, no instrumental accompaniment from the orchestra pit below. Cabaret and Rent had some music on stage, but there was an orchestra as well.

Once is all instruments played by the cast: a handful of acoustic guitars, two violins, three mandolins, an accordion, a cello and a piano. It’s an incredible experience. When some of the instrumentalists aren’t in a scene, they still sit in the wings on stage and provide musical accompaniment and it’s rousing.

Set in a pub in Dublin, Barry DeBois, making his Engeman debut, plays the lead role of Guy, a Hoover vacuum repair man in his father’s shop struggling to become a musician. He is about to hang up his guitar, but then he meets Girl, a Czech immigrant making a new home in Ireland, played by Andrea Goss, a Broadway veteran in Indecent, Cabaret, Once and Rent.

The plot of Once is straightforward, Guy and Girl fall in love but are committed to others, Girl to a husband still in her homeland and Guy to a girlfriend who left Dublin for New York City. Guy is about to give up his music, but Girl encourages him to continue, and he achieves stardom.

Ms. Goss and Mr. DeBois are wonderful together. They are both terrific singers, Ms. Goss even sings with the Czech accent, and she is wonderful on the piano and he is brilliant with an acoustic guitar. And, the ensemble joining them brings Broadway to Northport.

Song after song starts with an instrument or two, DeBois on his guitar, Goss on the piano, or both in duet, then it builds, a violin, then another, the cello, then a mandolin, and soon there are more than a dozen instruments playing together and it is uplifting. And, there are some great little ditties along the way, songs like Falling Slowly, Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy and Abandoned in Bandon.

DeBois shines in a scene where he plays at a live mike night at a local tavern, and in Gold to end Act I he is terrific. And Goss is spirited as she drives the story along. With lines to DeBois such as, “you are such a lovely person. I’m so glad my Hoover was broken,” she is engaging and makes this show fun. And, the cast is one like no other, which brings me to the other groundbreaking element of this show.

Since it is set in a pub, and since they did it on Broadway, the theater opens a half hour early and audience members are invited on stage to buy a pint of beer or a glass of wine. On opening press night Saturday, January 20, Managing Director Kevin O’Neill was the on-stage bartender manning the tap as the entire cast filled the stage and performed an impromptu concert with their instruments, folk songs mainly, with guitars, mandolins, violins and a cello.

That alone makes Once a must-see show at the Engeman, and maybe more than once. It’s like hanging out in the best pub in town with a wonderfully talented group of friends.

This one is fun. Mr DeBois and Ms. Goss are great to watch, and the rest of the cast, which includes Billy Cohen, Annabelle Deaner, Elisabeth Evans, Ryan Halsaver, John Thomas Hays, Stephen McIntyre, Rachel Mulcahy, Ryan Michael Owens, Terry Palasz, Bristol Pomeroy, Sam Saint Ours, Sophia Lily Tamburo, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman and Lauren Wright, really lifts the Engeman to a new level. Bravo.

Once will play through March 4. For tickets call the Engeman at 631-261-2900, order online at engemantheater.com or visit the box office at 250 Main Street in Northport Village.

 

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The Observer Review: The Full Monty a hit on Engeman stage

The Observer

David Ambro

January 26, 2017

 

At the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport, you get The Full Monty, if you know what I mean.

If you’re looking for a fun-filled night out this winter, this is it.

The Full Monty, starring Brent Michael DiRoma in a reprise of the lead role of Jerry Lukowski, an unemployed Buffalo steelworker who convinces a group of average Joes to become male strippers for quick cash, opened Saturay, January 21 at the Engeman Theater. It’s hilarious.

This is arguably the most playful, engaging and funniest show ever to hit the Engeman stage.

The Full Monty runs through March 5. For tickets call the box office at 631-261-2900, or visit the box office at 250 Main Street, Northport, or visit the theater website, EngemanTheater.com.

Mr. DiRoma, and his cast of misfit strippers, Ryan Dunkin as Jerry’s best friend Dave Bukatinsky is a standout, and are all talented singers, eager actors, and upbeat slapstick dancers. Diane Findlay, as pianist Jeanette Burmeister, is a veteran of her role and she plays it to perfection; and at the other end of the theatrical spectrum stage novice Kyle Wolf shines as Jerry Lukowki’s son Nathan.

Although it’s Mr. DiRoma’s debut on the Engeman stage, he is familiar with the roleof Jerry Lukowski. He played Jerry at Stages in St. Louis to close its 2015 season, a show that got rave reviews.

It’s a wonderful part for Mr. DiRoma, who delivers an engaging and likable musical version of Jerry Lukowski, a character created in a 1997 Academy Award nominated British Film, The Full Monty! set in Sheffield, England, which was adapted to a musical for the American stage and reset in Buffalo, New York.

During a post-opening night interview at the Engeman Saturday, Mr. DiRoma said one of the things he likes about the show is the interaction with the audience. During the opening-night performance he momentarily went off script when an audience member screamed, “keep your hat on,” as he squeezed a black derby over his naked crotch.

“Oh,” he said. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

He laughed and returned to his lines, and with the six members of Hard Metal flipped the audience The Full Monty, R-rated and tastefully done with a backdrop of hard stage lights that turned the row of male strippers into black silhouettes.

“The whole show is like that,” Mr. DiRoma said. “From beginning to end the show is a ball. I mean the show starts out with a guy taking off his clothes.”

“It’s not a fluffy show, you know what I mean. It’s not like Anything Goes, it’s not like the Bronx Tale. It’s The Full Monty,” said Mr. DiRoma, who has performed Huey in Memphis, Hank Maiewski/Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys, Tony in West Side Story, and Princeton/Rod in Avenue Q.

“Every night an audience builds a relationship with the actors on stage, and I felt really close to this audience tonight,” Mr. DiRoma said.

The men turned to stripping after being laid off from a steel mill. The play opens at Giordano’s on Route 11 in Buffalo, a club where the wives of the laid-off steelworkers attend a show of the famous Chippendale male strippers. Divorced and struggling to maintain custody of his son, Jerry comes up with the idea for a strip show of his own, 1,000 women at $50 each, a $50,000 night.

While the group practices its striptease routine, Jeanette reminds them of how bad they are, criticism she heaps on with uproarious punch lines.

Days before the big performance, Jerry’s best friend, Dave Bukatinsky, who struggles with insecurity about his weight, backs out of the opening night strip show. Then Jerry, in a desperate act to sell tickets, promises “The Full Monty,” a totally nude show not even the Chippendales provide. When the curtain goes up though, Jerry backs out suddenly, but the show goes on without him. Encouraged by his son, Nathan, Jerry hits the stage just in time for The Full Monty.

The Full Monty features a zany and comical plot interlaced with family drama, a story told with a wide ranging musical score highlighting the skill of the Engeman cast. Mr. Dunkin, Spencer Glass as stripper Malcolm MacGregor, Peter Simon Hilton as stripper Harold Nichols, and Noah Bridgestock as stripper Ethan Girard, are all wonderful singers, Big-Ass Rock, Michael Jordan’s Ball and You Walk With Me showcasing their wider range. And in Big Black Man, Milton Craig Nealy as Noah “Horse” Simmons turns in one of the show’s most entertaining numbers. And, early in the second act, Mr. DiRoma showcases his talent with the solo Breeze Off the River, a stunning ballad he delivers beautifully.

“I’m a singer first, but Jerry isn’t, so I try really hard to get away from the perfect vocals and the trained voice to give it more of a punching bag feel as opposed to trying to do it with all the technique and voice because I hate when people try to Jerry like that,” Mr. DiRoma said. “He’s a man’s man, and that’s how he wants to be seen. So, I think if you sing the ballad beautifully, that takes away from that manliness.”

DiRoma said though, that although the music is there, the role of Jerry Lukowski is in the acting, not the singing. “I do have to sing every night, and that takes work, but all my focus is on who Jerry is. And if Jerry were to sing a song, how would he go about it,” DiRoma said. “That’s what’s most important to me.”

“It’s a big role in that it is top to bottom and very little time off the stage, and as challenging as it is I share a lot of similarity with Jerry, and there is plenty that I don’t share with Jerry,” DiRoma said with a laugh. DiRoma, who was 25 when he first played Jerry and is 26 now, said as he gets older he can relate more closely to Jerry’s plight, a 32-year-old unemployed man trying to provide for his family.

About the Engeman Theater, Mr. DiRoma said performing in Northport has been a treat.

“I love it man. I love what they’re doing here. The people who run this theater are brilliant. It’s a theater for musicals with cup holders on the seats, so you can drink. That’s the way to see a show,” he said. “You know what I mean, especially for the husbands and dads who get roped into coming to see The Full Monty or something like that. I think they are pleasantly surprised to come into a theater that is welcoming in that way.”

“This is a show that is about the camaraderie of these characters and the music and the comedy aside, there is somebody they can relate to in these guys,” he said. “The theater itself is brilliantly run. Two weeks is a very difficult rehearsal process. Usually it is three weeks, but two weeks is fast.”

Ms. Findlay also said performing at the Engeman has been a treat and she loves this version of The Full Monty.

“I love this theater. It is a little diamond here and [Producing Artistic Director] Rich [Dolce] and everyone concerned are charming, they know what they are doing, we are treated beautifully, the cast that they selected is top notch all the way – it’s a perfect experience,” Ms. Findlay said after the show.

This is her fourth time as Jeanette. “It’s a great show,” she said. “I think this is the best cast I have ever worked with. I think that our director Keith Andrews really selected a cast that personifies each character.”

“I’m very proud to be a part of this perfect cast and beautiful Engeman theater,” she said.

Kyle Wolf, 13, of Glen Head, who has been a professional actor for less than a year, played Jerry’s son Nathan Lukowski in his biggest role ever.

“It’s a lot of fun. The show is so much fun,” he said during an interview in the Engeman lobby after the opening Saturday night. “It’s a very different experience because usually for every part that I have had it has been a younger version of the main character. So this is really cool because I am a main character throughout the show.”

“I really like the story because it is really funny and at the end it is heartwarming,” Kyle said.

He said his favorite members of the cast to work with are the gang of strippers, which includes his dad Jerry. He said his favorite part of the show is the closing scene in which he convinces his dad to go out on stage and strip with the other members of Hard Metal, the unorthodox group of male strippers his dad assembled and then tried to bailout on amid last minute stage fright.

He said another one of this favorite scenes is You Rule My World, with Vicki and Harold. “That’s a fun scene,” he said.

“This is my first time coming here. I’ve always wanted to do stuff here because it’s on Long Island and it’s a very good theater, but I have never gotten involved with it before,” he said. “So, this is a very good experience.”

Kyle performed off Broadway at the Davenport Theater in Manhattan as Young Vince in Molasses in January and he was Young Terk in Tarzan at the White Plains Performing Arts Center.

“This is one of, probably the best theater I have ever worked at. It is a real good theater,” he concluded.

Mr. DiRoma said although inexperienced, Kyle has been easy to work with.

“Kyle is awesome. He is my favorite Nathan that I have ever worked with doing this show,” he said. “It is interesting because everyone knows that if a kid is on stage they are the one who everyone is looking at. So I’m happy to be involved with him.”

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