Stage

Something for Everyone

Stage critic James MacKillop previews a season filled with new surprises and cherished favorites

Among the wide-open slate of local theater attractions, the holiday run of Peter Pan looms as the biggest box-office magnet, but now you can see the adult prequel Peter and the Starcatcher as a chaser. Usually we don’t see any Greek drama, but this year we’ll have Agamemnon, Medea and Eurydice, the latter two in modern dress. There will be three never-seen-before musicals, including Matilda, Big Fish and Triassic Parq, and an original opera, Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, about the longest-held American prisoner in the Vietnam War. And one Syracuse Stage play comes with a title that will be published in the Syracuse New Times but probably nowhere else.

Top of the Heap

Producing artistic director Timothy Bond’s abrupt resignation from Syracuse Stage (820 E. Genesee St.; 433-3275) last spring came after this season’s titles had been announced. So the Bond vision will continue over the next year, favoring off-Broadway and regional theater hits over more commercial fare from the Great White Way. Bond will fufill his pledge to direct two productions in February and March.

Wild and crazy guy Steve Martin adapted his farce The Underpants (Oct. 21-Nov. 8) from a 1910 German original. Bill Fennelly (Hairspray) directs 90 minutes of fast-paced action, about the stuffy bourgeois reaction to a woman’s losing her drawers at a parade for the king. The big holiday collaboration between Syracuse Stage and the Syracuse University Drama Department reprises the Morris Charlap-Jule Styne adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (Nov. 28-Jan. 3) that launched this series in 1999. Paul Barnes (The Miracle Worker) comes in from out of town to direct. Also at the holidays is a reprise of David Sedaris’ Santaland Dairies (Dec. 9-Jan. 3) in the Storch Theater. Wendy Knox directs this mordant take on consumerism and the sour underbelly of false holiday cheer.

The cursed avian in Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird (Jan. 20-Feb. 7) is none other than Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. A huge hit at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Bird restages the themes and characters from the Russian pinnacle of theatrical modernism. Recent events have revealed that Southern lawyer Atticus Finch was not the saint we thought he was, but Christopher Sergel’s loving adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (Feb. 24-March 26) was completed long before the dirt came to light. Tim Bond directs.

The most controversial production of the year might be Lucas Hnath’s (pronounced “nayth”) The Christians (April 6-24), set in a mega-church with a baptismal font the size of a swimming pool. It was a huge hit at last year’s Humana Festival of new plays in Louisville. Finally, Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (May 11-29) features five actors playing all roles, including the hounds. Based on one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s few novels, Baskerville is packed with twists and turns. Peter Amster (A Christmas Carol, 2013) directs.

Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company (417 W. State St.; (607) 272-0403) is about an hour’s drive from Clinton Square, yet the always innovative troupe continues to draw Central New Yorkers to see its cutting-edge shows, even during snow time. All productions are area premieres, except for the reprise of artistic director Rachel Lampert’s greatest hit.

Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer and Cellar (Sept. 6-27) offers a hilarious one-man performance about a hapless mall manager ordered to liquidate the holdings in Barbra Streisand’s basement. Quite a different famous American is celebrated in Katori Hall’s award-winning The Mountaintop (October 11-25), a portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth. Lauren Gunderson’s I and You (Nov. 8-22) examines what happens when chronically ill Caroline works on an English project with Anthony. Together they delve into Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, unlocking a deeper mystery that has brought them together.

Rachel Lampert brings back her one-woman autobiographical show The Soup Comes Last (Nov. 29-Dec. 13), about being the choreographer for the first-ever native production of West Side Story in the People’s Republic of China in 1997. Soup has done turn-away business during every Kitchen revival, and has also wowed audiences and critics in Manhattan during a run there.

Rick Elice’s 2012 Tony Award winner Peter and the Starcatcher (Jan. 31-Feb. 21) is one of the season’s most-anticipated productions. A dozen actors play more than 100 unforgettable characters in this grown-up prequel to Peter Pan. Among other things, it explains how Peter came to Neverland and why he never left. Peter was also a hit at this summer’s Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Mark St. Germain’s Dancing Lessons (March 20-April 3) gives a touching portrayal of the difficulty in connecting. Sanga is sidelined from a career as a Broadway dancer and is asked to give lessons to a neighbor, a brilliant scientist. She’s agreeable, even when it is revealed that he has Asperger’s syndrome and a no-touch policy. The final production is also about making connections over differences. Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse (May 1-22) begins with Sister Shelly, who runs a soup kitchen in the Bronx, but is struggling with her faith. A rainbow-haired reckless dropout named Emma shakes things up in ways Shelly could not have predicted.

Generations of Central New Yorkers have been introduced to Broadway glamour from the late Murray Bernthal’s Famous Artists/NAC Enterprises (424-8210), founded after World War II. Three productions of reliable favorites will appear at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Crouse-Hinds Concert Theater, 411 Montgomery St.: Mel Brooks’ The Producers (Oct. 27-29), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Feb. 9-11) and Harry Warren’s 42nd Street (May 17-19). Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera (April 6-17) will take place at the Landmark Theatre, 362 S. Salina St.

Also at the Landmark will be Famous Artists’ only premiere: Matilda: The Musical (Dec. 1-6), a modest hit in New York City that should please many families here. Australian musician-comedian Tim Minchin adapted Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, a dark comedy about a bright little girl mistreated by her cretinous family and harpy-like teachers. The snappy choreographer employs more youthful hoofers than any show since Billy Elliott.

Separate from its Broadway series, Famous Artists will present the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas (Dec. 8) at the Landmark Theater, and a production of Charles Strouse’s Annie (March 1-3) at the Crouse-Hinds.

After completing its 40th season with three well-received productions, Syracuse Opera (476-7372) is sailing in uneasy waters. Previous producing artistic director Douglas Kinney Frost, on the job since 2013, resigned in June. His replacement is Lawrence Loh, who also takes over this fall as music director of Symphoria. There is a certain logic to such a move. Four decades ago, before the construction of the Mulroy Civic Center, the former Syracuse Symphony Orchestra produced operas under its own aegis and shared staff between the two enterprises.

For the 41st season, a completely unknown work will precede two of the most familiar. Tom Cipullo‘s Glory Denied (Nov. 6 and 8) is based on the life of American prisoner Jim Thompson, held by the Viet Cong from 1964 to 1973. The libretto is based on Tom Philpott’s retelling of Thompson’s plight in the biography Glory Denied. We see portrayals of the younger and older Thompson, his wife Alyce, as well as the difficulties that followed his return. Giacomo Puccini‘s La Bohème (Feb. 5 and 7) concerns struggling artists and their friends in the garrets of 1840s Paris, while Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (April 8 and 10) features forbidden love amid Manhattan gang rumbles. All performances take place at the Crouse-Hinds Theater.

There are also a few shows left in the pipeline from Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse (Emerson Park, 6877 East Lake Road (Route 38A); 255-1785, (800) 457-8897). The season continues with Sweeney Todd (through Sept. 5), the antics of The Calamari Sisters’ Big Fat Italian Wedding (Sept. 9-30) and the yuletide musical review Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings (Dec. 9-23).

The Calamari Sisters in Merry-Go-Round's upcoming Big Fat Italian Wedding.

The Calamari Sisters in Merry-Go-Round’s upcoming Big Fat Italian Wedding.

Show Stoppers

Big changes are still forthcoming at the Redhouse Arts Center (201 S. West St.; 425-0405), but we won’t see what’s coming for a while yet. The company has purchased a portion of the 1970s-era Sibley’s department store building on South Salina Street. Details of the sale were completed in August, and construction will begin in October. When the move is complete, the company will be known as Redhouse@City Center. Meanwhile, live theater still means the intimate space in the remodeled Erie Canal-era hotel at the corner of West and Fayette streets.

Even without the building program, Redhouse artistic director Stephen Svoboda would be the busiest man in Central New York theater. He is going to have two sets of dual productions in repertory, sharing casts and sets and inviting audiences to see the echoes between the two. He will also deliver four large-scale musicals, including the area debut of Big Fish (Sept. 17-Oct. 2), Andrew Lippa’s adaptation of director Tim Burton’s 2003 movie. A son learns that his traveling salesman father might have talked a lot, but it wasn’t all blather. Euripides’ Medea (Oct. 29-Nov. 7), about the thwarted vengeful wife and mother, has long been thought one of the greatest female roles. This version resets the action in Ozzie and Harriet’s America. Whooping it up for the holiday season is Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s Dreamgirls (Dec. 3-12), a rhythm’n’blues tale of success and betrayal, with characters bearing a close relationship to the Supremes, James Brown and Berry Gordy.

The first of Svoboda’s repertory pairings yokes Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (Jan. 20-Feb. 13) alongside William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Jan. 21-Feb. 13), both set in fairy land. This Dream promises realistic, Adirondack flourishes; Oberon, king of the fairies, dresses like a lumberjack. The second pairing features hot American playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose works (The Clean House, The Vibrator Play) have been well-received here. Ruhl’s Passion Play (March 31-April 9) concerns three backstage views of attempts to dramatize the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ at different times and places: Elizabethan England, Hitler’s Germany and Ronald Reagan’s America. The other work is Ruhl’s take on Eurydice (April 7-17), about Orpheus’ curious lover left behind on his trip to the Underworld. This tells the story from her point of view in modern America, and will be staged in the upstairs Lab Space.

Finally comes Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Ragtime (May 5-24), which Terence McNally adapted from the late E. L Doctorow’s much-admired novel. WASP, Jewish and black families find their fates intertwined in the first decades of the 20th century.

Dustin Czarny’s Central New York Playhouse (Shoppingtown Mall; 885-8960) has a 4,500-square-foot theater with plenty of room for huge stomping chorus lines or flesh-eating plants. Those dancing feet are dainty in Dolly Parton’s musical adaptation of 9 to 5 (Sept. 11-26), based on the 1980 film about women rebelling against a domineering male boss. Parton’s score proves she’s on top of many more musical idioms than country. Stephfond Brunson directs, with music by Abel Searor. Czarny himself will direct the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken Little Shop of Horrors (Oct. 16-31), one of the supreme satires of consumerism.

Not on the principal schedule is a “special production,” smaller in scale, of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (Nov. 13-21), led by Josh Taylor. Then for the holidays, Dan Rowlands directs Jean Sheppard’s A Christmas Story (Dec. 4-19). There’s hardly an American alive who does not know all the elements– the leg lamp, the tongue on the metal pole, the BB gun — but like Scrooge and Tiny Tim they glow with retelling. Tentatively slated for 2016 will be a British farce in January, a revival of the musical 1776 (Czarny’s biggest hit before founding his company), and a version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Artistic director Dan Tursi’s Rarely Done Productions (performances at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St.; 546-3224) again features a schedule of always adventuresome offerings, and in keeping with tradition as the company runs into its 11th year, the majority are area premieres. The season opens with Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo’s Triassic Parq: The Musical (Oct. 9-24), a top hit from the 2010 New York Fringe Festival. Amid dinosaurs, show tunes and sex changes, a herd of prehistoric beasties is thrown into discord when one of them spontaneously changes genders in the middle of the action. Terrible suffering merges with dark humor in Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey’s Bill W. and Dr. Bob (Nov. 6-21), the story of the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous and their wives. It won the 2007 Performance Arts Award from the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence.

Rarely Done also has its “Edge Series,” which features even more offbeat treats: Milk Milk Lemonade (Sept. 18-26), about a boy and his chicken, presented in association with the Q Center; a revival of Star Wars: The Musical (Dec. 4-13); Bob Brown directs the tribute Unforgettable: The Music of Nat King Cole (Feb. 12-20); and Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays (May 6-14), featuring works by Paul Rudnick, Neil LaBute and others.

Sam Shepard’s little-seen The God of Hell (March 4-18) portrays the author’s dread while viewing American response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. First performed in 2004, God shows us the travails of a quiet Wisconsin dairy farmer abused by nefarious government officials. Comic Paul Rudnick (I Hate Hamlet) might seem almost mainstream, but when his Jeffrey (April 1-16) opened in 1993, he had a hard time finding a venue. Comedies about AIDS seemed to be pushing the limits then, and his wit still has plenty of bite.

Favorite Faces

Now entering its 22nd season, Appleseed Productions (performances at the Atonement Lutheran Church’s Fellowship Hall, 116 W. Glen Ave.; 492-9766) is led by artistic director C.J. Young, who still allows each director to carve an individual style, giving Appleseed its striking variety. Young himself will direct the area premiere of Mat Smart’s The Steadfast (Oct. 2-17), a lesson in American history. Inspired by Steve Alpert’s painting “Legacy,” The Steadfast gives an unflinching look at eight American soldiers from the Revolution through contemporary times.

The Christmas Radio Hour (Dec. 18) is a catch-all of vaudeville acts and an open-mic night centering on a rural radio station. Dan Tursi of Rarely Done Productions will direct a revival of Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias (Feb. 12-27), with laughter and tears in a Louisiana beauty parlor. The season concludes with the least-known item, Eric Lane’s Ride (May 6-21), with Gina Fortino directing the poignant depiction of three teenage girls on a life-changing road trip.

Baldwinsville Theatre Guild (performances at the Presbyterian Educational Center, 64 Oswego Road, Baldwinsville) is the area’s longest-running community theater, now in its 73rd year. The company has enjoyed a new burst of youthful talent in recent years. In January, Korrie Taylor will direct Stephen Sondheim’s cannibalism horror musical Sweeney Todd. Look for Ben Sills in the title role, Cathleen O’Brien Brown as Mrs. Lovett, and Ceara Windhausen and Liam Fitzpatrick in supporting parts.

Garrett Heater, Michael Penny and Susan Blumer’s Covey Theatre Company (420-3729) said farewell to new productions with the boffo Hair at the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard Room in July. (See the July 8 Syracuse New Times cover story.) As a coda to a fabulous five-year run, Covey will restage its strongest original production, Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (Oct. 15-17), at the Barnes Mansion (formerly the Corinthian Club), 930 James St.

Young at Heart

Academic programs exist to give students the widest possible experience under a professional level of guidance. At the Syracuse University Drama Department (820 E. Genesee St.; 443-3275), this season’s program includes a Greek tragedy, one of the most effervescent of all French farces, and three musicals in which plenty of students will be hoofing it in the choruses.

Broadway veteran David Lowenstein begins the season with Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (Oct. 2-20), the backstage comedy of two battling stars performing in The Taming of the Shrew. Andrea Leigh-Smith choreographs. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (Nov. 6-15) ranks as one the greatest of Greek masterpieces, but is performed less often. The top general comes home from the Trojan War, concubine in tow, and his wife chops him up with an ax. Her speech proclaiming how much she loved doing this will curl your hair. The aforementioned holiday collaboration revives Peter Pan (Nov. 28-Jan. 3), with faculty members Brian Cimmet handling the music and Anthony Salatino on hand once again for choreography.

Punk Rock (Feb. 19-28) by British playwright Simon Stephens is not a musical but a schoolroom drama evoking elements of Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. The ever-youthful Robert Moss, beloved former head of Syracuse Stage, directs. Department chair Ralph Zito takes charge of Spitfire Grill: A Musical (April 1-10), James Valcq’s adaptation of the 1996 Lee David Zlotoff film that has retained a cult following. A troubled young woman fresh out of prison settles in a small town with the biblical name of Gilead and learns many secrets. Finally, Georges Feydeau’s rollicking farce A Flea in Her Ear (May 6-14) features bourgeois pretension and propriety getting kicked to the curb.

Performances from Le Moyne College’s Boot and Buskin Drama Club (1419 Salt Springs Road; 445-4523) take place at the state-of-the-art facility of the W. Carroll Coyne Center for the Performing Arts, as professor Matt Chiorini consistently wows audiences with offbeat selections, finding gold where others have not looked. Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Oct. 23-31), one of the Bard’s least-performed works, has nothing to do with the Athenian statesman of the same name. Instead, it is a fantastical tale of the search for adventure, wealth and love in exotic places, and encounters with villains, pirates, goddesses and kings.

David Ives, one of the prime playwrights of the day (All in the Timing), has revised the rare farce The Liar (Feb. 19-27) by master French tragedian Pierre Corneille. Then it’s a move to Britain for the Alan Shearman-Derek Cunningham satire Bullshot Crummond (April 1-9), spoofing the pulp detective hero Bulldog Drummond. Premiering in 1974, Bullshot has long been popular in the United Kingdom for its send-up of supposedly superior crime-fighting technology. It’s also the basis of the 1983 British film Bullshot, but the humor needs the timing of live performance. Matt Chiorini directs.

Life’s a Niche

TheaterFirst Productions (performances at the Empire Theater, New York State Fairgrounds; 203-2001), the company founded by award-winning costumer Eugene Taddeo, was silent last year. Yet the troupe comes roaring back to life with the ribald musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Sept. 25-Oct. 11), starring Josh Mele and community theater treasure Frank Fiumano.

At the Syracuse Shakespeare Festival (476-1835), company founder and longtime head Ronnie Bell appointed Sara Caliva as producing artistic director. One of her fall assignments is to organize the first Syracuse Shakesprov Weekend (Nov. 13-15), which will feature food, drink, a trivia contest and an improvisational contest between three local companies. Judith Harris will begin the evening with a staging of Kevin Finn’s short The Shakespeare Mystery at the Community Foundation Ballroom, 431 E. Fayette St. Back at the Empire Theater of the State Fairgrounds, Dan Stevens will stage James Goldman’s medieval family drama The Lion in Winter (Feb. 12-21), dealing with King Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three recalcitrant sons. Then it’s back to the familiar venue of the Cantor Warehouse Theater, 350 W. Fayette St., for Caliva’s own staging of the fast-paced farce The Complt Wrks of Shakspre (Abridged) (April 9-17), a company favorite.

Now in its 56th year, Jack Skillman’s dinner theater company Onondaga Hillplayers (673-2255) continues to thrive at the Marcellus Golf Club (formerly the Links at Sunset Ridge), 2814 W. Seneca Turnpike, Marcellus. This year’s production offers Neil Simon’s female version of The Odd Couple (Oct. 30-Nov. 8). Olive and Florence (not Oscar and Felix) lead the girls in competitive Trivial Pursuit as cutthroat as poker. Judy Kishtok and Karen Alexander star.

ACME Mystery Theater (at Spaghetti Warehouse, 689 N. Clinton St.; reservations, 475-1807), guided by the stealthy, prize-winning Bob Greene, continues to spread its sinister shadow across the land, bringing a special blend of interactive comedy in a mystery format to venues throughout New York. This fall’s dinner-theater entry is A Tomb With a View (Thursdays only, Sept. 17-Nov. 12), a zombie spoof.

Also appearing at the Spaghetti Warehouse, but on Saturdays at 12:30 p.m., is Magic Circle Children’s Theatre (449-3823). Now in its 19th year, the company run by the mother-daughter team of Hope and Meredith Mancini specializes in interactive retellings of classic fairy tales that invite participation — and photo-ops — from youthful audiences. Featured this fall is a version of Aladdin in which Princess Jade resists a forced marriage, capped with a dance party.

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