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: Uplifting flight into Northport for Mary Poppins & company

The Observer

November 24, 2016

David Ambro

 

What Julie Andrews brought to the iconic role of Mary Poppins in the 1964 movie version, Analisa Leaming brings to the role in the production that opened at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport last week.

Mrs. Leaming, who was swarmed by the children of the cast when she arrived at the cast party after the opening-night performance Saturday, November 19, is the perfect Mary Poppins. She looks the part and boy can she sing.

During a pre-performance interview, Ms. Leaming said Mary Poppins is a “big sing” for her, and it is a sing in which she comes up big. She has an angelic voice with great range that allows her to capture the spirit of Feed the Birds and the excitement of A Spoonful of Sugar and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Much the same can be said for Luke Hawkins as Bert, Mary Poppins’ lighthearted and magical chimney sweep sidekick. Bert is a role made famous on the screen 52 years ago by Dick Van Dyke, and it is a role made unforgettable by Mr. Hawkins on the Engeman stage with his rendition with the ensemble of Step in Time, a tap-dance spectacular that was an audience and cast favorite.

Described in a word, this show is uplifting.

“I think it turned out beautifully,” said director and choreographer Drew Humphrey during an interview after the press-night show Saturday, November 19. Asked about his favorite part of the show, Mr. Humphrey thought for a short moment, and like many other chose the tap-dance extravaganza Step in Time.

“It is a story that everyone can relate to. Everyone has experienced some problems when they come home to their family and it is not working right and I think this show does a wonderful job of telling people that dealing with their problems is not impossible.”

Mr. Humphrey said there are high expectations when you take on a show like Mary Poppins. “Whenever you are dealing with source material that is iconic as this is, there is a pressure to do it justice. If you stay true to it and approach it honestly and approach it with love, you set yourself up for success,” he said.

David Schmittou, who plays George Banks, the strict and high-strung father of the children in Mary Poppins’ care, is a veteran of the Engeman stage, having performed in A Christmas Story. During an interview after the show Saturday he said he loves the Engeman Theater and has a fondness for this show, having performed Mr. Banks twice before.

“I love this show,” he said. “I think it is a great story. I’ve loved the story since I was a kid and saw the movie.”

“It is my second experience at the Engeman and I think it is a fantastic experience,” said Mr. Schmittou, who resides in New Jersey. “It’s great, and I think that the story had such an appeal to me as a kid but as an adult is also has appeal to me too because of the family dynamic and the stage show.”

Mr. Schmittou said the favorite part of his role was fixing the family, when he comes out of his stern character at the end and celebrates the Banks coming together as a family unit. It’s a fun scene, where he kicks up his heels and breaks into dance with Bert.

“The family drops the walls that are going up and comes together as a family,” he said. “Mary Poppins heals the family. I don’t want to give too much away for anybody who hasn’t seen it, but it is about the family.”

Although he is not on stage for it, Mr. Schmittou said his favorite part of the show is Step in Time. “I stand in the wings and watch it every night. That is truly a show stopping number,” he said.

“If my wife and I were season ticket holders here and we came to see this show, the first thing we would do is call my brothers and sisters and say get all of the children, nieces and nephews, and take them to see this show,” said theater owner Kevin O’Neill. “That’s what this should be. This is a family show if ever there was one.”

“It’s not a Christmas oriented show, it’s not a holiday show, but overall it’s a show for family that’s tough to beat,” Mr. O’Neill said. “We’re bringing our booster seats out, because the little ones are coming.”

Katherine LaFountain, of Bayport, who plans Jane Banks, one of the children in Mary Poppins’ care, said it has been inspirational to work with Ms. Leaming. “She has done things on Broadway and she is a great role model for me,” Katherine said.

“I think it went very well, and I love this show so much,” Katherine said.

Like many of the others, Katherine said Step in Time is her favorite part of the show. “It is the most beautiful thing to watch and I love tap-dancing,” she said. “So, it’s so fun.”

Christopher McKenna, of Syosset, who plays Michael Banks, said he is really excited to be in the cast because it is his first big role. “My favorite part is Perfect Nanny because it’s me and Jane’s song. I just loved it because it’s our first big scene,” Christopher said.

While Step in Time was a show stopper and an audience favorite, another audience favorite, mine as well, is Feed the Birds, a duet by Ms. Leaming, as Mary Poppins, and the Bird Woman, played by Suzanne Mason. Although this is her only song in the show, Ms. Mason makes it something very special with her angelic voice that shines in concert with Ms. Leaming.

While Step in Time and Feed the Birds are audience favorites, Mary Poppins at the Engeman captures, with great authenticity, the iconic classics in this magical fairy tale. It’s a must see, another stellar example of how the Engeman brings Broadway to Main Street.

For tickets, visit the box office at 250 Main Street, Northport, call the box office at 631-261-2900 or order online at engemantheater.com.

 

 

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