Second Generation’s ‘Secret Garden: Spring Version’ is artfully staged, superbly acted
The Secret Garden: Spring Version” is full of mysteries, locked away: a garden, a boy, a heart. The 1991 musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel from 1911. The Second Generation Theatre production is a jewel: elegant, charming, exquisitely designed and expertly performed.
This is a 90-minute retelling of the story of Mary Lennox, a young English girl who is shipped off to an uncle she doesn’t know when her parents die in India. Uncle Archibald’s home in England is grand, but not happy. He is in mourning for his beloved wife, Lily, who died giving birth to their son, Colin. The boy is an invalid, confined to his room and forbidden to receive visitors. To make matters worse, Mary’s uncle can’t bear to look at her, because of her uncanny resemblance to her late Aunt Lily.
The secret garden of the title was Lily’s. In his grief, Archibald had it locked and abandoned when she died, but of course, nothing fascinates children more than something that is locked away, and the uncontainable desires of children propel the plot of this timeless story.
Since its inception, Second Generation Theatre has paid homage to the succeeding generations of Buffalo theater folk, so it is especially endearing that Mary Lennox is played by Ella Hinklin, the daughter of Buffalo theater veteran, Jenn Stafford, who also appears in the show, as a Scottish schoolmistress and in the ensemble. Young Ella clearly has inherited her mother’s formidable talent, as the teenager commands the stage with confidence and hits all the emotional notes of her character convincingly.
Directed and choreographed by Michael Oliver-Walline, with musical direction by Allan Paglia, the production is lovingly staged. An excellent cast sings strongly and performs Walline’s sophisticated choreography with grace.
Chris Cavanagh has undertaken light, sound, and scenery for the show. His clever design features a line of door panels that serve as screens for projections, or, when lit from behind, to facilitate shadow play. The circular playing area has levels and pivots around a fountain, allowing for marvelous fluidity in the staging.
Beautiful costumes designed by Jenna Damberger and built by her own “Houndstooth Costume Collective” are more meticulous than a production at this level should have any right to expect.
Among the young generation performers, Clark Garvey distinguished himself as Mary’s invalid cousin, bad-tempered Colin Craven. The role is endearingly comical, and his triumph over the adults in his world, not all of whom are exactly well-intentioned, is very satisfying.
The leaven in the dough of the play is Martha, the chambermaid from Yorkshire who encourages the children to explore their world and to be happy. Amy Jakiel is marvelous, playing the role with affable exuberance.
Joe Russi plays Martha’s brother Dickon, a youthful presence, but not a child. Having previously seen Russi as Emcee in “Cabaret” and as “Angel” in “Rent,” I checked the program to be sure I was seeing the same actor. He is convincingly transformed and entirely charismatic in the role of Mary’s playful co-conspirator.
Louis Colaiacovo is excellent as sad and conflicted Uncle Archibald, a man who is encouraged in his impulse to deny his better instincts. John Panepinto is similarly good as his brother, Dr. Neville Craven, a man of dubious motivation. Their rendition of “Lily’s Eyes” is a highlight.
Anne DeFazio as Mrs. Medlock, and John Kreuzer as the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, give wonderfully enjoyable performances. She is the spooky ill-tempered housekeeper of many a gothic novel. He is the humble and world-weary but wise gardener who sees right past her forbidding exterior.
Kelly Copps is perfection as the ghost of Lily, a comforting maternal presence who sings angelically and moves ethereally.
Jenn Stafford, as always, milks every comic nuance from her character as Mrs. Winthrop, a school mistress who proves to be less clever than a fifth-grader.
The first-rate ensemble, includes Bob Mazierski and Leah Burst as the ghosts of Mary’s ill-fated parents, along with Anthony Lazzaro, Jenny Marie McCabe, Charles McGregor, Collin McKee and Maria Pedro.
Reductive newspaper star ratings of plays might have discouraged many from reading this review to the end, but for anyone still reading, understand that four stars, in this instance, means superb performances in a fully realized and artfully staged production of a lovely and moving play.
The Color Purple is an unforgettable and moving musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. With a book by Marsha Norman, and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, The Color Purple is a portrait of Black women in rural Georgia during the first half of the 20th century, fighting to survive and to thrive in the face of ever-present cruelties. This is a story of resilience and hope, a tale women around the world are relating to today as much as they were 40 years ago. The Color Purple marks the first collaboration between Second Generation Theatre, Ujima Theatre Company, and Shea’s 710 Theatre. Each company’s theatre professionals bring a variety of skills, qualifications, culture, and values that come together as one with the mission to create an inclusive and collaborative experience while telling this important story to our existing and new audiences.
Second Generation Theatrehas taken on one of the greats of the American musical theater and nailed it. Under the masterful direction of Kristin Bentley, this production of “Cabaret,” the 1966 musical adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s “I am a Camera,” by playwright Joe Masteroff with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, is swift, economical and pointedly focused. “Cabaret” tells the disturbing tale of how fascism destroys the lives of some innocent and well-meaning people.
No. “Cabaret” is not a show for those who need their musicals to be mindless or comforting. Set in Weimar-era Berlin, the play centers on the residents of a rooming house operated by Fraulein Schneider, a widow, during the rise of the Nazis and violent antisemitism. Seeing this show the night after the first hearing on the events of Jan. 6 was a sobering experience, and that’s the point of “Cabaret.” This is a cautionary tale. In that Brechtian way, we are intended to watch these characters from long ago, and think about ourselves. The scenery for the original Broadway production featured a giant mirror in which the audience could see its own reflection.
The characters who inhabit Fraulein Schneider’s house include Clifford Bradshaw, an aspiring novelist from America; Fraulein Kost, who pays the rent through prostitution; and Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit seller who is in love with the landlady. Finally, an English cabaret singer, Sally Bowles, moves in with Clifford when she loses her job.
The charismatic Steve Jakiel and Pamela Rose Mangus are the emotional center of “Cabaret” at Second Generation Theatre.
The sleazy Berlin cabaret where Sally works serves as counterpoint and mirror to the world of the play. The proceedings are overseen by a master of ceremonies played by Joe Russi who performs a succession of musical numbers, each of which makes an incisive comment on the lives of the other characters.
Cabaret has undergone three revisions since 1966. New material was written for the 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli, and in 1998, songs from the film were incorporated into this version, while other songs were nixed, and a number cut before Broadway was restored. This script also explores Clifford’s ambiguous sexuality, an element that was absent in 1966.
The contribution of Bentley’s production lies in the calibration of traditional musical theater elements among the secondary characters, and more expressionistic elements, which are brought front and center. The Emcee, an equal player with Sally in many productions, emerges in this staging as the central narrator of the story, and Sally, famed for her triviality, is revealed to be a deeply troubled person.
Russi is fabulous as the mischievous and decadent Emcee. The frivolity usually assigned to Sally is relegated entirely to him in this production, and his performance swings wildly from frolicsome to the searing. He makes this show his own in a commanding yet playful fashion.
Cassie Cameron, who plays Sally, is a first-rate actress. In the musical milieu, as Sally’s situation becomes more desperate, she pushes her cabaret numbers to startling extremes. Not everyone shares my fascination with the deployment of ugly theatrical gestures, but I was drawn to Cameron’s harsh and nearly frantic interpretations of such songs as “Mein Herr” and the titular “Cabaret.” The actress makes us understand that Sally’s air of carefree superficiality is clearly a disguise, hiding her anguish and terror. This is a stunning and original performance.
The emotional center of the production lies squarely in the charismatic hands of Pamela Rose Mangus and Steve Jakiel who are perfection as Schneider and Schultz. The garish world of the cabaret finds its opposite in the fruit merchant’s latter life wooing of his no-nonsense landlady. They are adorable and handle their old-style musical numbers masterfully.
I greatly admired the clarity and intensity of Dan Urtz’s performance as Clifford, a man with his head squarely on his shoulders’ but who is an emotional wreck, unable to conquer his inner confusion and vulnerability. Urtz handsomely gives us a classic leading man who has all the fragility and emotional ambiguity of a film noir hero.
Amy Jakiel is excellent as pragmatic Fraulein Kost, as is Steve Brachmann as chillingly smug Ernst Ludwig.
The simplified set by Primo Thomas allows Bentley to effect impressively quick and seamless transitions. Chris Cavanagh’s stark lighting is hauntingly marvelous. Choreography by Kelly Copps evokes the tone and period, and advances the story while still being inventive and original as performed by an impressive lineup or Kit Kat girls and boys. Music direction by Allan Paglia, including a terrific band, is outstanding.
It is thrilling to see the greatest of the Kander and Ebb musicals endure. It began life at a time when Sally’s green fingernail polish was shocking and has successfully evolved and made the transition to a time when the actors specify their pronouns and even green hair isn’t shocking. Nonetheless, its cautionary tale is frighteningly contemporary and urgent. Second Generation is giving the show a superior outing, disturbing in all the right ways.
4 stars (out of 4)
Presented bySecond Generation Theatrethrough June 26 at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main St. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. No performances Nov. 4-7. Tickets are $30 general, $25 seniors and $15 students (847-0850 and online atSecond Generation Theatre).
When composer Jason Robert Brown debuted “Songs for a New World” in 1995, that title must have rung out like a battle cry for the courageously optimistic.
This collection of 19 compositions is thematically linked not by story, but by the shared tendrils of anticipation. Each song is decidedly set before a great decision or dramatic leap. And the work seems an apt metaphor for the author. “New World” was Brown’s first musical (though “song cycle” is a better descriptor). Taken as a whole, the show boils over with the excitement of an artist on the verge of success.
Second Generation Theatre’s decision to mount the 26-year-old work as a streaming production over the summer seemed one of logistical necessity. With a cast of four and virtually no set requirement, the piece lends itself to flexible staging. Though I can’t help but imagine the young company programming the show with a subversive wink. The “new world” Brown was heralding never quite came to be, and in the midst of a pandemic, that subtext reads loud and clear.
I didn’t see the filmed production, but from screenshots I can understand how the experience might have worked – by bringing quarantined audiences to locations around Buffalo and letting Brown’s compositions serve as a balm for the artistically starved. What’s wonderful about director Amy Jakiel’s in-person revival of “New World,” now onstage in Shea’s Smith Theatre, is how it maintains some of that cinematic flair and declares itself as defiantly theatrical in the face of continued uncertainty.
This is an intimate production – audience and performer are in close proximity – though by design it’s a journey through isolation. Each song prioritizes introspection as the characters face hurdles ranging from literal manifestation (a wide-eyed explorer on the deck of a ship bound for the Americas) to absurdist melodrama (Mrs. Claus gathering strength to leave her jolly husband). Jakiel doesn’t complicate things with the staging. There are little bits of choreography, but mostly the actors plant themselves and sing. Even so, she evokes the contours of a smoky bar, a Manhattan penthouse and a city street. (Televisions on set, displaying photographs from the filmed version’s various locations, help with this.)
As a composer, Brown seems to be both borrowing from the past masters, and reaching toward something new. I’m reminded of Sondheim, most specifically “Company,” with its balance of cynical patter and heartfelt balladry. But “New World” also anticipates a wave of pop-rock fare – including such titles as “Spring Awakening,” “Next to Normal” and Brown’s own “The Last Five Years” – that would dominate Broadway in the early 2000’s.
Though the songs aren’t connected by narrative, this cast’s four distinct singers become familiar characters, the unique quality of each voice serving to anchor the audience. Brian Brown is acrobatic, showstopping in his solos. Michele Marie Roberts turns her numbers into raucous comedy routines before belting out the final notes. Singing as a couple reuniting after a separation, Genevieve Ellis and Steve Copps reveal that their secret weapon as vocalists is heartbreaking sincerity.
As with that duet, the songs that tell a full story are the most compelling. Your enjoyment will depend on how much singing you can stomach, since there’s virtually no dialogue. But regardless of taste, anyone can marvel at this technically flawless production, backed by a five-piece band that does great justice to a modern classic. When all four performers share the stage with one another, blending voices, this new world is exactly what Brown imagined it could be: harmonious.
“Songs for a New World”
4 stars (out of 4)
Presented by Second Generation Theatre through Nov. 14 at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main St. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. No performances Nov. 4-7. Tickets are $30 general, $25 seniors and $15 students (847-0850 and online at Second Generation Theatre).
We took a few minutes to check in with the cast to hear their thoughts on revisiting this beautiful song cycle and finally returning to LIVE performances! Michele Marie Roberts returns as WOMAN 2 on October 22.
SGT: Have you ever seen SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD MMR: Yes! I’ve seen a few versions and it’s refreshing every single time.
SGT: When was the first time you heard this show? MMR: Niagara University, probably Sophomore year. Fell in love instantly and we are still going strong.
SGT: Do you have a favorite song from this show?
MMR: I’m all about the ensemble pieces and it’s a solid tie between Flying Home and The River Won’t Flow.
SGT: If you could sing any song that is NOT yours from the show, what would it be?
MMR: I’m Not Afraid of Anything is a stunning song.
SGT: What song are you most looking forward to performing LIVE every night ?
MMR: Interacting with each other and the audience will be so exciting during The Steam Train. It’s almost impossible not to move to the music. And Hear My Song will be our anthem to Buffalo’s triumphant theatrical return. “We’ll be fine.”
Melinda Miller, The Buffalo News: When theater people find a good idea, they don’t let it go to waste. It could be big, like turning a fairy tale that was made into a hit movie into a splashy Broadway musical, or it could be personal, like taking those pre-pandemic plans that you had for the stage and making a virtual video celebration of your city.
That’s what the women of Second Generation Theatre did when they moved “Songs for a New World” online during the pandemic, and they are hanging onto that thought to open their back-in-the-theater 2021-22 season when they bring the show back to where it started, the stage at Shea’s Smith Theatre, on Oct. 22.
In “Songs for a New World,” composer Jason Robert Brown tells stories about people making choices and the new worlds they see or want for themselves. It is designed to be performed on a very spare set. However, when Second Generation had to go virtual, director Amy Jakiel took the singers to iconic locations around the city – no “extras” for the set, but the locations and the architecture alone added impact.
They want to hang onto some of that.
“When we were choosing the season to come back with in person, we wanted to build on the things we learned when we were closed down,” artistic director Kelly Copps explained. “We’ll tie in some of the elements from the film in the use of projections, combining the experience and spark of live theater and acknowledging the last year and a half. It would seem like a waste not to share those images again, and share them with more people.”
SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD is streaming now! Hear from one of Buffalo’s leading ladies, Michele Marie Roberts and then grab your ticket today!
What’s your favorite song from this show to sing?
MMR: I’ve been singing Just One Step since college and when this opportunity came up I knew that was the track I wanted. To be able to add Patrick’s Rooftop Bar to that song and ambiance helped it all come full circle.
Do you have a favorite song from the show to listen to?
MMR: I cannot pick one. Impossible. Brian – Flying Home. Cecilia – I’m Not Afraid. Steve – The World Was Dancing.
What was your favorite location for filming?
MMR: I loved every location, but I’m going to say Smith Theatre. The cast, band, crew were all together and it felt magical. It was overwhelming to sing with the band that first time. You couldn’t help feel emotional.
Any funny stories from filming?
MMR: During Surabaya Santa at the Roycroft Campus, I just finished my last note, Chris cut, and seconds later the fire alarm went off. We had no idea why it happened but the manager and fire department showed up. Oops. Hi-Ho the glorious life.
(*Editor’s Note, there is an outtake at the end of the film from The Roycroft…)
Cast one of your cast mates in a role you’d love to see them play!
MMR: I will cast them all! Cecilia– Bakers Wife, Into The Woods, Brian – Sebastian, The Little Mermaid, and Steve– Monsieur Thénardier, Les Miserables!