The Observer Review

Santa’s Elf Buddy on Northport stage

November 22, 2018
By: David Ambro

Gather up the children and get them to the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport.

The Engeman just opened its holiday show, Elf the Musical, which runs through December 30, and it is terrific.

Erik Gratton, as Buddy, provides a delightfully uplifting rendition of the Elf we have come to love from the movie starring Will Ferrell, right down to a big sip of maple syrup right out of the bottle after a big squeeze onto the pasta he’s eating for breakfast. Mr. Gratton can sing and he can dance, but he also brings heart to Buddy at the Engeman, delivering punch lines and facial expressions that evoke uproarious laughter.

Elf at the Engeman, set in a snow globe, accompanied by a live orchestra, narrated by Gordon Gray, as Santa Claus, a familiar role for him, is a fun-filled journey from the magical Christmastown in the North Pole to the busy streets of New York City, where buddy finds his father Walter Hobbs, played by Joe Gately, an executive at a book publishing company where he has lost his spirit for the holidays and for his family, which has him on Santa’s “naughty list.”

It works.

Mr. Gratton is surrounded by a talented cast of characters. Buddy’s brother Michael, played by 12-year-old Zachary Podair, already a veteran on the Engeman stage, and his mother Emily, played by Christianne Tisdale, are a wonderful supporting cast. Their duets, “I’ll Believe in You” in Act I and “There is a Santa Claus” in Act II, are highlights of a show that just keeps getting better and better with each scene.

Walter Hobbs doesn’t believe Buddy is his son, and has him thrown out of his office in the Empire State Building, landing him in the Santa photo display at the world famous Macy’s Department Store. There, Buddy comes in contact and then in conflict with the store manager, played perfectly in the movie image by Randy Donaldson.

It is also at Macy’s where Buddy meets the girl of his dreams, Jovie, played by Caitlin Gallogly. Although a bit off for an Elf, the relationship evolves typically, a simple boy-meets-girl, a first date, a kiss, etc. But, when Jovie is stood up by Buddy at Tavern on the Green in Central Park, Ms. Gallogly’s star shines in “Never Fall in Love with an Elf,” a voice of beauty that accents the Engeman mantra of bringing Broadway to Main Street.

Elf at the Engeman draws out the Christmas spirit in everyone, enough so that by the end, Santa’s sleigh flies off into the night sky. It is a wonderful holiday production not to be missed.

Tickets may be purchased by calling the theater at 631-261-2900, online at engemantheater.com, or at the theater box office, 250 Main Street in Northport Village.

Elf the Musical is produced by Richard Dolce, the Engeman Theater’s Producing Artistic Director. “We always try to tell our stories so people care about the characters,” Mr. Dolce said during an interview after the press night opening of Elf Saturday, November 17. “We want audiences to care about the journey, no matter what it is, whether it’s Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, whether it’s Jack Kelly in Newsies, or whether it’s Buddy the Elf, we just try to tell the story so that you care about it. So, that by the end of the play you care about who they are and what they’ve gone through. Hopefully we’ve pulled it off again.

Mr. Dolce said Jovie’s number “Never Fall in Love with an Elf” is one of his favorites. “What I love about her is that she is this tiny little person and then she comes out in that number and has this amazing voice,” he said.

Other favorites are “Sparklejollytwinklejingley,” although he didn’t say it exactly right, by Buddy and the company, “because it is the first big production number.” He also said one of his favorites is “Nobody Cares about Santa Claus,” “because it is a good tap number and a great way to start Act II.

Mr. Dolce said staging Elf has been challenging, especially because it is a blockbuster that has become so popular as a result of the Will Ferrell rendition in the movie.

“It’s difficult. I don’t envy the writers when they are tasked with taking a beloved movie and turning it into a musical. It’s difficult. But, I think they did a great job. I think this works really well, and I think the director, the choreographer and the musical director did a fantastic job with our production,” Mr. Dolce said. “It’s always tough because people come in knowing the movie. It’s the same with A Christmas Story. People know the movie so well. We don’t write it, so we have to work with the material that the Broadway playwrights came up with. So the intention is to try to give as much of the sentiment of the movie as possible.”

With Will Ferrell unavailable to play Buddy at the Engeman, Mr. Dolce said Mr. Gratton is great for the part. “He brings his own honesty and goofiness to it. And we try to make people feel and remember what they knew from the movie with the musical, so that is the challenge every time,” he said.

“This is one of the first holiday shows that we have done that is modern. We have done Miracle on 34th Street, we have done It’s a Wonderful LifeA Christmas Carol and even A Christmas Story is a little bit older. So, this is one of the first ones that we have been able to do that is a little more modern,” Mr. Dolce said. “It’s a different sensibility. I think it definitely hits my generation – the 40s to 60s who grew up with the Will Ferrell movie Elf. So it is nice to be able to do a holiday show that hits the people who grew up with that movie, as opposed to It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, which were a while ago.”

 

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The Observer Review

Newsies is a smash at the Engeman Theater

July 26, 2018
By David Ambro

For years people have been telling me to raise the price of The Observer from 75 cents to a dollar, and as I sat watching Newsies at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport on press night Saturday, July 21, it made me think twice.

When Jack Kelly and Katherine Plumjber rallied the child labor of New York City to a strike that brought management to its knees though, I walked out knowing 75 cents it will be.

When I go to the John W. Engeman Theater to review a show, it is always with an eye toward finding the things I like and highlighting that. There is nothing I didn’t like about Newsies. It was terrific.

The Engeman Theater is running a streak of consecutive shows that have had to be extended due to popular demand. Well, this should be the fourth in a row. If you haven’t purchased a ticket yet, hurry to the box office because this is the Engeman at its best.

Dan Tracy as Jack Kelly, Whitney Winfield as Katherine Plumber, Nick Martinez, a veteran on the Engeman stage, as Crutchie, Allyson Kaye Daniel as Medda Larkin, Tom Lucca as Joseph Pulitzer, Mike Cefalo as Davey and young Zachary Podair as his 10-year-old brother Les bring a deep cast of wonderful singing talent to this Broadway classic. Add to that the acrobatic and athletic Newsies dancers and this is among the best shows the Engeman has ever staged.

Mr. Tracy as Jack Kelly and Ms. Winfield as Ms. Plumber are shining stars, while Ms. Daniel as Ms. Larkin in her one solo song “That’s Rich,” is a hit, and Mr. Martinez, as Crutchie is wonderful. And, when they all join voices with a chorus that numbers more than 25 people at times, this is an Engeman show that lives up to that more than decade long mantra of bringing Broadway to Main Street.

What is also tremendous about this show is that it delivers a spirited happy ending to a dramatization of a real-life event with a powerful social message – the strength and importance of unionized labor. Based on the Disney Film written by Bob Tzudliker and Noni White originally produced on Broadway by Disney Theatrical Productions, Newsies is based on the true story about the newsboy strike of July 20, 1899.

When newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst raise the price newsies have to pay for the papers they sell – from 50 to 60 cents per 100 in the show – the newsboys organize and strike, led by Louis Ballatt, the inspiration for Jack Kelly, and David Simons, the inspiration for Davey. When Pulitzer and Hearst refuse to concede to the newsies’ demands, a rally is held by child workers at historic Irving Hall, a 130-year-old theater built in 1888 at 15th Street and Irving Place near Union Square in Manhattan. More than 2,000 young workers fill the theater and 3,000 more gather outside, which compels Pulitzer and Hearst to relent.

There were some special moments of this show for me, ones that added to the enchantment. After my daughter, Sophie, saw Newsies on Broadway with a few of her friends when they were kids, she would walk around singing the lyrics to “Seize the Day.” It does that to you: “Open the gate and seize the day. Don’t be afraid and don’t delay. Nothing can break us. No one can make us give our rights away. Arise and seize the day.”

So when the cast of the Engeman, led by Tracy, Cefalo and the Newsies chorus, broke into Seize the Day in Act I and again in the reprise in Act II, it sent a chill down my spine, flashbacks to Sophie at the kitchen table as a little kid belting it out. I loved that. So did the audience at the Engeman, who responded with uproarious applause.

“King of New York” featuring Cefalo, Podair, Winfield and the Newsies chorus and Martinez as Crutchie in “Letter from the Refuge” were also among my favorites, Broadway-quality performances on the Northport stage. In the Engeman production of In the Heights, Martinez was Sonny. He is an endearing character in Newsies, offering a voice of social commentary.

Mr. Lucca, who is an especially good Pulitzer when he is interacting with Jack Kelly, is also an Engeman veteran, having performed as Utterson in Jekyll & Hyde and John Hancock in 1776. Ms. Winfield makes her debut at the Engeman in Newsies but she is a veteran to the show, having performed Katherine last year at Tuacahn in Utah, where she also played Fiona in Shrek.

While his older brother Davey is key to the story, and Cefalo is a star of the show, Zachary Podair as 10-year-old Les is another endearing Newsies character, in one of the deepest and most abundant collections of talent ever assembled on the Engeman stage. This is Zach’s Engeman debut and it is the highlight of his acting resume, but a role that he performs on par with the talent of the stars around him.

 

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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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