Times of Huntington-Northport Review

Theater Review: The Engeman’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ is a musical treasure

January 23, 2020
By Rita J. Egan

The folks at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport have brought back the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll in its latest offering, “Million Dollar Quartet.” The show, which debuted on Jan. 16, celebrates four iconic musical legends with a sensational cast masterfully directed by Keith Andrews.

With book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, the production is inspired by the music of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and that historic day of Dec. 4, 1956, when a series of events created the stuff dreams are made of for many music lovers.

Recognized as one of the greatest improv jam sessions ever, it was on that fateful day that Perkins and Lewis were recording at Sun Studio in Memphis when Cash stopped by to break the news to owner Sam Phillips that he was leaving the studio’s record label. If that wasn’t enough, Presley stopped by on the way to his mother’s house with his girlfriend Dyanne on his arm.

On Broadway from April 2010 until June 2011, “Million Dollar Quartet” was nominated for three Tony Awards in 2010. That year Levi Kreis won the Best Featured Actor in a Musical award for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Right from the opening number of “Blue Suede Shoes” sung by Sam Sherwood (Carl Perkins), Sky Seals (Johnny Cash), Noel Carey (Jerry Lee Lewis) and Sean Michael Buckley (Elvis Presley), the audience knows they are in for a real treat. With classic rock songs such as the opening number, “That’s All Right,” “I Walk the Line” and “Great Balls of Fire,” it’s hard to choose a favorite. Each of the talented actors recognizes just how important it is to bring the spirits of these musicians to the stage, and they were spot-on during every number.

During last Saturday’s performance the foursome sounded especially beautiful when they sang “Down by the Riverside.” Sarah Ellis as Dyanne also served up steamy versions of “Fever” and “I Hear You Knockin,” and provides a refreshing female presence with her friendly portrayal of one of very few people, Marilyn Evans, who witnesses the recording.

Luke Darnell as Phillips is charming as he also serves as narrator, filling the audience in on Dec. 4, 1956, and how he met each of the singers and recognized their unique talents. He also portrays the character with a sense of integrity that leaves the sentiment that the Sun Records and studio owner truly cared about the music and not just the money.

Sherwood plays Carl Perkins with a good amount of cockiness, which is appropriate considering Perkins wrote and first recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” before Elvis Presley became known for the tune after performing it on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Buckley as Presley has all the right moves that the King was known for and also captures how down-to-earth the singer was.

In the role of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carey performs the eccentric singer from Louisiana to the hilt, which garnered plenty of laughs from the audience and captures the wild and controversial side of the musician perfectly. Seals’ Johnny Cash is stoic and gentlemanly and also has a knack for holding the guitar high like Cash did when playing the instrument.

David Sonneborn and Corey Kaiser as musicians Fluke and Brother Jay, respectively, round out the cast perfectly. Both are “Million Dollar Quartet” veterans as Kaiser played Brother Jay on Broadway and was part of Off-Broadway, national and regional productions, and Sonneborn is an original cast member of the national tour.

As the story ends, the entire cast, including Darnell on harmonica, puts on a performance that feels as if the audience was transported to a concert back in time. On press opening night, Buckley was adorable, flirting with an audience member like Elvis would do during “Hound Dog.” Those in attendance also couldn’t help singing along to “Ghostriders in the Sky,” “See You Later Alligator” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

Jordan Janota has cleverly crafted a set that seamlessly transitions from the interior of Sun Studio to the exterior, and costume designer Dustin Cross has chosen outfits that capture the personality of each singer, and the costumes during the last few songs are absolutely fabulous, especially Ellis’ dress.

“Million Dollar Quartet” at the Engeman is the ideal choice for a night out on the town and also shares an interesting peek into life in the mid-50s. Woven into the story of the legends’ lives is a bit of American history with mentions of the cost of living at the time and the influence of gospel music on rock ‘n’ roll musicians.

Phillips tells Dyanne that Sun Studio “is where the soul of a man never dies” toward the end of the musical. At the Engeman, the extraordinarily talented cast has celebrated and honored the souls of all of these legends — both living and passed — wonderfully.

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Times of Huntington-Northport Review

Theater Review: Kids take center stage as ‘Matilda the Musical’ arrives in Northport for the holidays

November 21, 2019
By Rita J. Egan

“Matilda the Musical” opened at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport Nov. 14 with all the spunk of a Broadway production.

Inspired by the 1988 book by Roald Dahl, the musical introduces audience members to the real and imaginary worlds of 5-year-old Matilda Wormwood, who is misunderstood by her dim-witted family. While the Wormwoods make life difficult at home by making fun of her passion for reading and her smarts, the days become even more troublesome when she begins school with the dastardly Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress of Crunchem Hall. However, with her love of reading, a magical imagination and caring teacher Miss Honey on her side, Matilda finds her happy ending.

The musical, with book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and orchestrations and additional music by Chris Nightingale, debuted in England in 2010 and opened on Broadway in 2013. While the show closed on the Great White Way in January of 2017, “Matilda the Musical” is still running at the Cambridge Theater in London. It was also released as a movie in 1996 starring Danny DeVito and Rhea Pearlman as the Wormwoods and Mara Wilson as Matilda.

Igor Goldin has directed a superb cast in the Engeman version, which includes many talented children actors. AnnaBelle Deaner and Elsa Dees alternate in the role of Matilda. On the night of Nov. 15 when I reviewed the musical, AnnaBelle played the part. The actress is darling in the role and portrays Matilda perfectly as the brave and precocious girl she is. She hits every note during her solos and her version of “Quiet” is beautiful and touching.

AnnaBelle along with her fellow youth actors stole many scenes. During one depicting the first day of school, they along with the ensemble performed a sensational “School Song” where everyone involved was strong in both vocals and dance moves. The company also delivers a fantastic “When I Grow Up,” the signature song from the musical.

Sara Gallo as Mrs. Wormwood and Michael Perrie Jr. as Mr. Wormwood are hilarious. While the two characters aren’t the best at parenting, Gallo and Perrie are pros at garnering laughs from the audience. Gallo plays her character to the hilt during the song “Loud” as she and Al Lockhart as Rudolpho, her dancing partner, show off some fantastic dance moves. And Perrie’s vocals are strong on “All I Know,” known as “Telly” in the Broadway and London versions. He also does a wonderful job interacting with the audience toward the end of intermission. Richard Westfahl as Michael Wormwood is also funny as Matilda’s dim-witted brother.

Dane Agostinis as Miss Trunchbull, the Olympic Hammer-Throwing Champion headmistress who believes children are maggots, plays the antagonist role perfectly. Agostinis can deliver her songs smoothly without breaking character despite the funny lines and laughs from the audience. Kate Fahrner as Miss Honey is simply endearing and sings a beautiful “My House” in the second act.

Emily Kelly as The Acrobat and Alex Herrera as The Escapologist are delightful, especially when Herrara joins Matilda on the song “I’m Here.” Nicole Powell was a charming Ms. Phelps, the librarian who looks forward to Matilda’s stories. Jamie Colburn as the Doctor and Sergei rounds out the cast perfectly.

On the night that I attended the show, I was fortunate to have with me 15-year-old Jonathan Guttenberg, who has seen countless productions, including “Matilda the Musical” on Broadway and London. Jonathan said “School Song” and “Revolting” were his favorite numbers in the Engeman production because they were both powerful and thought the theater did a phenomenal job.

Scenic designer Nate Bertone has put together a fun and colorful set with clever oversized books that fold out one way to serve as the Wormwood’s living room and another to provide the backdrop for the library. Mara Newbery Greer also has choreographed several energetic dance numbers, which the actors have mastered, including the youngest members of the youth ensemble, with special mention to Lily Tamburo.

With the chilly weather settling in along the North Shore, “Matilda the Musical” has arrived just in time with its funny, heart-warming story and will be a hit with local theatergoers of all ages.

Times of Huntington-Northport Review

Engeman Theater’s ‘Sunset Blvd.’ cast shines in iconic tale

September 20, 2019
By Rita J. Egan

On Sept. 12, the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport debuted “Sunset Blvd.” Filled with memorable performances, the cast members are definitely ready for their close-ups.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christoper Hampton, “Sunset Blvd.” tells the story of Norma Desmond, an aging silent screen star who is desperately holding on to her glory days. Set in 1949 and 1950, Desmond meets struggling writer Joe Gillis. The screen star feels a spark of hope in her reclusive life when she asks Joe to edit a screenplay that she hopes will pave the way to her comeback.

The production, based on the 1950 movie of the same name starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden, spins an intriguing web of seduction, unrequited love and jealousy. The musical’s culmination is a dramatic Hollywood ending.

Opening on Broadway in 1994 and running for more than two years, the show won several Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Glenn Close. The production was revived in 2017 for a brief Broadway run with Close once again starring as Desmond.

The Northport version, under the direction of Matt Kunkel, is filled with a talented cast that brings the Great White Way to the North Shore. Judy McLane as Norma Desmond steals the spotlight the moment she steps on stage with her striking appearance, strong stage presence and sensational vocals. It’s no surprise that McLane’s a Broadway veteran appearing in hits such as “Mamma Mia!” (Donna and Tanya), “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Chess.”

McLane shines in her solos especially during “With One Look,” “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and in her duet with Bryant Martin, as Joe Gillis, in “New Ways to Dream.”

David Hess, who appeared in “Sunset Blvd.” on Broadway, is perfect as the stoic Max, Norma’s butler, who has been in love with her since the first time they met on a movie set. Hess’ vocals are fantastic. During the first act, he performs a beautiful version of “The Greatest Star of All” while giving Joe a tour of Desmond’s run-down mansion.

Martin is a suave and charismatic Joe on whom Norma sets her sights not only to work with but to be her lover early in the musical. The character also serves as the narrator of the complex tale. Martin gets to show off his singing chops in a duet with McLane titled “The Perfect Year” during Act I, and later in Act II while performing “Too Much in Love to Care” with the talented Sarah Quinn Taylor, who plays a delightful Betty.

Because she’s his friend’s fiancée, Joe tries to fight off falling in love with Betty but finds it difficult to resist her as they work on a screenplay together. The budding romance between Joe and Betty soon creates tension between him and Norma, which leads to a dramatic twist that seals his fate. Douglas Waterbury-Tieman as Betty’s fiancé Artie Green, Martin, Taylor and the whole ensemble, perform an entertaining “This Time Next Year” toward the end of Act I. Ensemble member Cody Gerszewski steals the scene at times as he convincingly portrays a drunk partygoer.

Eric Jon Mahlum is also a scene-stealer during the number “The Lady’s Paying” as the tailor Manfred who has been hired to make over Joe with a stylish new wardrobe. And during a visit to the Paramount Pictures studio, Larry Daggett, with his strong vocals and an air of confidence, captures the essence of old-time Hollywood perfectly playing director Cecil B. DeMille.

Among the show’s stars are the musicians conducted by Charlie Reuter and the costumes by Kurt Alger. The costumes encapsulate the spirit of the period, especially with Norma’s glamorous outfits. As for Paige Hathaway’s scenic design, it’s a clever one using sliding wood doors and a movable staircase that help transform the stage seamlessly from Norma’s mansion to the Paramount Pictures backlot.

The musical leaves a lot to ponder about growing old gracefully and the difference between true love and obsession, and the Northport cast of “Sunset Blvd.” delivers the iconic classic with grace and talent.

Times of Huntington-Northport Review

Theater Review: A dream-worthy ‘Man of La Mancha’ opens at the Engeman

September 23, 2018
By Rita J. Egan

The cast and crew of John W. Engeman Theater’s “Man of La Mancha” have set off on a quest resulting in a production worthy of Broadway. The musical opened at the theater Sept. 13, and on the night of the press opening, Sept. 15, theatergoers filled the venue looking forward to the reincarnation of the perennial favorite.

“Man of La Mancha” debuted off-Broadway in 1965 and went on to win five Tony Awards. Written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the Northport version is masterfully directed by Peter Flynn.

Taking its cue from literature, the musical takes the story of “Don Quixote” written by Miguel de Cervantes and sets it to music. In the play, which takes place during the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 16th century, Cervantes is in prison waiting for his trial. Upon his arrival, his fellow prisoners try to take his belongings, including the manuscript of the story he is writing.

Richard Todd Adams (Don Quixote) and Carlos Lopez (Sancho Panza) in a scene from ‘Man of La Mancha’

Following the tradition of prisoners putting newcomers on trial, Cervantes is charged with being an idealist, and a mock trial begins. The writer, in an attempt to defend himself, has his fellow prisoners play the characters in “Don Quixote.” Through their re-creations, audience members meet Alonso Quijano, the aging man who believes he’s a knight-errant and calls himself Don Quixote. Quijano and his squire Sancho Panza embark on a journey where they meet an array of characters including Aldonza the bitter serving woman and prostitute at an inn who Quixote envisions as a virtuous lady.

Michael Bottari and Ronald Case have gone above and beyond with the detailed set design of a dungeon on the Engeman stage, and Kurt Alger has done an excellent job with costumes, especially with the Knight of Mirrors’ gear in the second act. Choreographed by Devanand Janki, the musical contains high-energy dance numbers that complement the stellar production. The actors and the orchestra, under the musical direction of Julianne Merrill, are in top form during every number.

Richard Todd Adams as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote is charismatic as the main character who takes his fellow prisoners on a fictional journey. His deep, rich vocals are perfect on every song. When he sings “Dulcinea,” upon meeting Aldonza and sees her as a pure, good woman, his voice has the potential to make many swoon. He also stops the show with his delivery of “The Impossible Dream.”

Janet Dacal plays Aldonza with the right amount of sullenness but yet perfectly portrays the character’s softening later in the musical. Her singing, especially her solos, “What Does He Want of Me?” and “Aldonza” are filled with power and emotion.

Carlos Lopez is a delightful and charming Sancho Panza and lends a good amount of comedic relief including during his solos “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.”

All of the ensemble members do a fantastic job, and each has time to shine in the spotlight. Morgan Anita Wood, Garfield Hammonds and Phyllis March are wonderful during “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” Deven Kolluri does a great job as the cynical Duke and Dr. Carrasco. In the prison scenes where he plays Duke, he portrays the character’s disdain for Cervantes perfectly. His vocals are strong when he joins Wood, Hammonds and March on “We’re Only Thinking of Him.”

Joshua Wayne Oxyer, Cody Mowrey, Juan Luis Espinal, Enrique Cruz DeJesus and Diego Gonzalez as the Muleteers sound fantastic together on the number “Little Bird, Little Bird.” Bruce Winant easily goes back and forth from the tough governor to the kind innkeeper, and Mowrey garners some laughs as the barber who tries to understand Quixote’s delusions.

The story of “Don Quixote” and “Man of La Mancha” is more than a tale of a man gone mad battling a windmill he thinks is a giant. It’s about seeing the good in people and the world even when strife seems to prevail. Cervantes and Don Quixote look to escape the realities of life by searching for the good in all things and people, and their attitudes are contagious. It’s obvious the cast gets this message as they seamlessly go from conveying doubtfulness over their new dungeon mate to showing hope in the impossible dream by the end. For theater lovers on a quest for a musical that has it all, the Engeman’s “Man of La Mancha” is a dream.

Times of Huntington-Northport Review

Engeman Theater soars to new heights in latest production

By Rita J. Egan
March 22, 2018

It may be chilly outside, but things are heating up inside the John W. Engeman Theater. The Northport venue debuted its production of “In the Heights” on March 15, and with a talented cast and the energetic sounds of salsa, reggaeton, merengue and hip hop, audience members are guaranteed a fun, hot night on the town.

Before he shared the story of Alexander Hamilton through rap and song in “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda created this spirited musical, which ran from 2008 to 2011 on Broadway and won four Tony Awards.

A love letter to Latinos who live in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the story takes place during July Fourth weekend on one city block and centers around bodega owner Usnavi and his neighbors. While the play includes a good deal of reality like money issues, the death of loved ones and the sacrifices one must make for a better life, its main themes are about love and hope, and most important of all, having patience and faith.

With book by Quiara Alegria Hudes and music and lyrics by Miranda, through dialogue and song “In the Heights” reveals the economic struggles of Usnavi and his fellow business owners, car service proprietors Kevin and Camila Rosario and beauty salon owner Daniela.

The musical throws in romance as Usnavi pines away for the beautiful Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon, and the Rosarios’ daughter Nina and their employee Benny engage in a forbidden romance. As the audience gets a peek into the heartache of Usnavi losing his parents at an early age, Vanessa yearning to move downtown, the bright Nina losing her college scholarship and the love felt for the neighborhood’s adopted grandmother, Claudia, one can’t help but feel a part of this close-knit community.

Spiro Marcos as Usnavi does a fine job filling big shoes (the role was originally played by Miranda on Broadway). The actor skillfully uses rap during most of his numbers to tell the story. Marcos is in touch with Usnavi’s softer side, making it impossible not to root for him as he longs for Vanessa and dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic, his birthplace, while trying to keep the bodega afloat.

Josh Marin is charming as Benny, and Cherry Torres is sweet and lovely as Nina. The two have a good amount of onstage chemistry during their romantic scenes, which is front and center during the song “Sunrise” where they sing beautifully together. Chiara Trentalange balances a bit of sass and attitude with a touch of softness to deliver a Vanessa who may be determined to put her neighborhood behind her, but audience members can’t help but like her, too.

Tami Dahbura is endearing as Abuela Claudia, while Paul Aguirre and Shadia Fairuz are perfect together as Kevin and Camila. Schehereazade Quiroga is perfect as the spunky Daniela and delivers comedic lines perfectly. Iliana Garcia is refreshing as naïve hairdresser Carla, and Vincent Ortega is delightful as the Piragua Guy, especially during his number “Piragua” and its reprise. Nick Martinez, as Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny, and Danny Lopez as Graffiti Pete, do a nice job adding some comic relief throughout the production.

The dancers are also among the stars in the show. Skillfully choreographed by Sandalio Alvarez, they energetically and masterfully transfer from salsa, merengue, reggaeton and hip hop dance steps.

The music in the production is top notch and is a mix of dance tunes that will have audience members wanting to dance in the aisles and emotional ballads for which some may need tissues. The band, led by conductor Alec Bart, does a superb job flawlessly moving from one musical genre to another, and the singers also do an excellent job.

During the first act, Torres expertly uses her vocal talents to perform an emotion-evoking version of “Breathe.” It is during this number audience members discover her time at Stanford University didn’t work out for her, and she now feels lost not knowing what to do with her life.

Aguirre’s number “Inútil” is just as heartbreaking as his character feels useless after discovering his daughter didn’t come to him to help her pay for school. Fairuz also displays strong vocals during the song “Siempre.”

Trentalange sings lead on the upbeat song “It Won’t Be Long Now” with Marcos and Martinez. The actress has fun with the song and her vocals are great.

Dahbura moves around convincingly like a frail grandmother, and then surprises audience members with her emotional vocals during “Paciencia y Fe.” Abuela Claudia remembers her youth in Cuba and arriving in the United States, during the song. Her mother would always remind her to have patience and faith, advice Claudia continues to share with those she loves.

During the first act, the ensemble performs “96,000” as they sing about what it would be like to win the Lotto. With the singers emanating so much energy, one can’t help but feel optimistic for them.

Quiroga gets the party started with “Carnaval del Barrio” and her vocals are outstanding. The high-energy song with exceptional dancing is sensational. It is soon followed by “Alabanza” where Torres sweetly sings the first lines and then the song builds up to a powerful number featuring the whole cast. Both performed during the second act are show stoppers.

Spanish is sprinkled throughout the dialogue and lyrics of “In the Heights” to add authenticity, but are always followed by English translations, or the lines are delivered with gestures that make things clear for those who don’t understand the language.

Many may want to see this musical because they are curious about Miranda’s earlier work, but “In the Heights” is an entertaining look into the life of Latinos in New York City and a beautiful tribute to the music that was brought to the United States from the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

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