Rep’s ‘Avenue Q’ Unlike Anything Else on Local Stages

It isn’t always easy to find truly daring productions in community theater.

But Rochester Repertory Theatre has broken out of the box in a big way with “Avenue Q,” a wonderfully witty show that opened last Friday. This adults-only version of “Sesame Street”-related characters and lessons–complete with Muppet-style puppets-is not your standard fare.

“It took a lot of courage for us to do this,” one Rep board member said after Friday’s opening. The Rep was rewarded Friday with a sold-out house, raucous cheers and a standing ovation.

It’s fitting that this show is directed by Jeanne Skattum, who was a co-founder of the Rep 35 years ago, because “Avenue Q” hews closely to the Rep’s original and long-standing mission to stage works that challenge actors and audiences alike.

The obvious challenge for both in this show is the puppetry. For actors, the ability to create a character while simultaneously working a puppet, is paramount. For audiences, it takes a few scenes to get past the puppetry and realize it’s not just a gimmick.

In no time at all, though, we are caught up in the real-life challenges of these characters who are adjusting to young adulthood. They struggle to start careers, pay rent, find love.

The central characters are Princeton and Kate Monster, puppets in the capable hands and voices of Dylon Starr and Krista Monson. They are joined by Rod and Nicky (modeled on Bert and Ernie?) who are worked by Jace Gray and Eric Pahnisch. Trekkie Monster (who unlike Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster prefers internet porn to cookies) is handled by Rich Mansfield. Rae Ann Gotch handles the seductress Lucy, while Ethan Scot Savage and Eleanore Sutherland are the Bad Idea Bears.

Meanwhile, Casey Saunders, Alicia Frarck and Dominique Jones are non-puppeteers. Jones has a fun part as Gary Coleman, the former child TV actor.

Song titles such as “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada,” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” hint at the irreverent nature of this show. The music is directed by Jon Davis, with vocal direction by Catherine Davis.

The unusually colorful set is by Paul Skattum, with lights by Ben Hain.

“Avenue Q,” written by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty, is naughty, demented, clever, sweet, and once in a while a bit too cute. Its message of inclusion and empathy and helping others, though, can’t be repeated often enough.

Finally, “Avenue Q” is unlike anything else you’ll see on local stages. Luckily,  they Rep has the courage to present it.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   March 18, 2019

 

Rep Follows ‘Avenue Q’ Back to its Early Days

Cast of the Rochester Repertory Theatre production “Avenue Q.”

 

Jeanne Skattum feels a recent Tony Award winner can take Rochester Repertory Theatre back to its roots.

Skattum is directing the Rep’s production of “Avenue Q,” which won the Tony in 2004 for Best Musical. The play’s cast includes Muppet-like puppets as residents of a New York City apartment building.

“I think it’s part of the Rep’s role to introduce to the community the kind of theater being done everywhere else,” said Skattum, who was co-founder of the Rep 35 years ago. And to the kind of theater not being done elsewhere in Rochester, she might have added.

Skattum who directed dramas for years, and only recently turned to lighter fare, sounds reinvigorated by working on this play.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this much fun,” she said. “This has been a really unique show for us. I have a full crew of people I have not worked with before. It’s been terrific.”

“Avenue Q” is about a young man who graduates from college and heads to the big city to seek fame and fortune. He has no money, no job and few prospects. But he shares a community with his neighbors. “They are diverse,” Skattum said. “There are some monsters, some puppets, some humans.”

Auditions for the show attracted 25 people, Skattum said. “I was just amazed at the turnout,” she said. “They all knew the show, they knew the songs, and they were so enthusiastic. It was electrifying.”

That enthusiasm has carried over to ticket-buyers; the entire first weekend is sold out.

Meanwhile, Skattum’s cast is working around snow days to familiarize themselves with handling the puppets in the play. “Part of the the challenge is allowing how the characters feel to be transmitted through the puppets,” she said. “It’s challenging from an acting perspective, but also a physical challenge. Those puppets are big.”

Familiar names in the cast include Dylon Starr, Alicia Frarck, Dominique Jones and Ethan Scot Savage. Choreography is by Missy Hagen, with Catherine and Jon Davis as music directors.

“I saw the show seven years ago,” Skattum said. “I always thought it was a show that should be done in Rochester. I submitted it and here we are. It’s totally out of my comfort zone.”

While it concerns youthful characters, the play can speak to all ages, Skattum said. “It deals with issues that young people deal with all the time,” she said. “If you’re not dealing with them now, you did at one time.”

The play, which runs March 15-31, is recommended for mature audiences only, due to language and content.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   March 7, 2019

Review: Rep’s ‘Three Hots and a Cot’ Deserves a Wide Audience

Almost right from the start, “Three Hots and a Cot” grabs you and won’t let go until it’s over.

This locally written prison drama/musical had its world premiere Friday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre and, as promised, it makes human beings out of what to most of us are too often simply nameless, faceless inmates.

The play, developed by Debbie Fuehrer and Theo St. Mane two decades ago at the Federal Medical Center prison in Rochester, focuses on four main characters as it portrays life behind bars–from mail call, to lousy food, to family visits to finally completing a sentence and getting released.

Jake Dreher, as inmate Artie, narrates much of the story, while Dylon Starr is a balladeer whose songs connect and describe the scenes.

Sean Lundberg is nicely cast as a hot-headed career criminal who is also a jailhouse lawyer. The scene in which he’s waiting for a visit from his girlfriend is especially heart-tugging.

Alexandro Rox gives an absolutely brave performance as a transgender inmate, while Mitch Gibson is an inmate with mental health issues. At the end of the first act, the voices in his head come to life in the form of surreal tap-dancing inmates.

Also in the cast are Luke Langseth, Theo St. Mane, Dominique Jones, Chuck St. Mane, and Raymond Feston, all inmates with hurts and hopes of their own.

Music is by Greg Hintermeister, who wrote the songs, on guitar, and Mark McGlinch on bass.

We follow these characters as they stand in line at the commissary window to buy snacks, and watch them in a particularly touching scene when they make phone calls to loved ones, and listen as they talk about the horrors of night time in a prison cell.

Despite that, the overall feel is not depressing. There is a good amount of wit and grace, and the entire script is more subtle than might be expected.

What is perhaps missing is a more forceful recognition that these guys didn’t end up in prison by accident. We get snippets of their versions of what put them behind bars, but victims advocates would likely say that’s not the complete, or even truthful, story.

The main attraction of this play is that it provides a window to a world most of us luckily never experience. While watching these characters navigate their “time,” we can’t help but put ourselves in their shoes.

What makes all of this especially haunting is that we know, since this play was developed in a prison, it is authentic.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   January 14, 2019

Rep’s ‘Three Hots’ Based on Stories of Federal Medical Center Inmates

Cast members from left Luke Langseth, Jake Dreher, Mitch Gibson, and Dominique Jones from the Rochester Repertory Theatre’s Production of “Three Hots and a Cot” Photo by Joe Ahlquist

 

A dusted-off, 20-year-old script is about to become a world premiere production at Rochester Repertory Theatre.

“Three Hots and a Cot,” developed two decades ago by Debbie Fuehrer and Theo St. Mane along with inmates at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, will debut Jan 11 at the Rep.

Fuehrer said she came across the script last year. “I called Theo and said, ‘Hey, remember when we were going to do that on the outside sometime?’” she said.

Yes, St. Mane did remember, and he was only too anxious to get to work on a public production of “Three Hots” outside the walls of the prison. The play has only previously been performed in a workshop version by inmates at the FMC.

Now, with a cast of local actors, some script refinements and new music written by Greg Hintermeister, “Three Hots and a Cot” is ready for an ‘outside’ audience.

The play came out of a counseling program Fuehrer ran at the prison for 12 years. But it wasn’t easy. “I had to convince the Bureau of Prisons why this would have therapeutic value,” she said.

Once approval was obtained, the script was built upon suggestions from inmates about their daily life.

“We took all these stories and experiences and put them together in the script,” St. Mane said. “Right from the start, these guys though it should be told more with humor than drama.”

It would have to be in order to be palatable to a general audience, one suspects.

“We want audiences to see these people, to see that we share humanity with them,” Fuehrer said. “To see what they go through. I can tell you I’m still haunted by what I saw there.”

The idea, St. Mane said, is that “People are people.”

The all-male cast consists of Jake Dreher, Sean Lundberg, Mitch Gibson and Alexandro Rox as four main inmates, backed by a chorus of Luke Langseth, Theo and Chuck St. Mane, Dominique Jones and Raymond Festen. Dylon Starr is an inmate balladeer.

Despite the subject matter, Theo St. Mane said, “People aren’t going to come out of this depressed.”

“We have enough humor in it,” Fuehrer said.

The staging of the play, so long after it was originally developed, has been rewarding, St. Mane said.

“I’ve been doing theater in this town for a long time, and this is one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved in,” he said. “This is a career highlight for me.”

The Rep is advising that this show is not appropriate for ages 16 and younger.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   January 7, 2019

Rep Tells ‘Every Christmas Story Ever’ with Infectious Humor

Some things are sacred, but Christmas isn’t one of them, at least not in the hands of the Rochester Repertory Theatre.

The Rep’s reprise of “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some!)” gleefully pokes fun at and satirizes everyone’s favorite Christmas productions, from the Grinch and Frosty to the granddaddy of them all, “A Christmas Carol.”

The play, which opened last Friday, is directed by Bill Schnell and features returning cast members Lisa Modry and Dave Derby alongside newcomer (to this show anyway) RJ Traff.

Derby clearly has issues, in the funniest sense of that phrase, and gets some of the craziest bits, as a classical ballerina in “The Nutcracker,” and a tipsy commentator at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Modry’s comedy is based in part on her ability to project an innocent, wide-eyed wonderment at everything the holiday season offers to us.

Traff, meanwhile, is the steady hand drawn into this maelstrom of dementedness against his wishes.

The setup is this: Traff is launching yet another holiday performance of “A Christmas Carol,” but Modry and Derby claim to be tired of that old chestnut, and want to act out other holiday favorites. Traff assents, so long as they eventually get to “A Christmas Carol.”

And they do eventually get to Dickens’ classic, but not before deconstructing and lampooning all the holiday stories we hold dear.

Modry, for example, wants to act out “A Child’s Christmas with Whales,” while Derby hosts a game show about fruitcake. A spoof of the Rudolph story goes a bit too long, but nearly everything else they try is witty and sharp. Listen closely or you’ll miss some of the dozens of pop culture references that litter the script.

When they finally get to “A Christmas Carol,” it’s a speeded-up version that somehow gets mixed up with “It’s a Wonderful Life”

After such a rambunctious take on the holiday season, Modry, Derby and Traff come back on stage to sing Christmas carols–and these favorites, too, are mashed together to create one entirely new song of the season.

If nothing else, this show proves that laughter is habit-forming. Once the jokes start picking up steam, the laughter of the audience gets rolling like a snowball going downhill. It’s infectious.

Granted, much of this show is just plain silly, but there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. Just sit back, laugh and enjoy.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   November 26, 2018

‘Every Christmas Story Ever Told’ is Back at Rep

Cast of “Every Christmas Story Ever Told” by the Rochester Repertory Theatre are, from left, Lisa Modry, R.J. Traff and Dave Derby.
Andrew Link / alink@postbulletin.com

 

Christmas is back by popular demand.

Well, there’s nothing unusual about that. After that ugly election season, we could all use a little Christmas.

But audiences at the Rochester Repertory Theatre will get more than a little Christmas this year. They’ll get “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some!)” – a reprise of last year’s holiday hit, which opens Nov. 23.

“When it finished last year, people were asking us about it,” said Bill Schnell, who directs the show. “People couldn’t get tickets because it sold every seat. So they asked if we’d be willing to do it again.”

The answer was yes, especially since this is a crazy show, and Schnell likes crazy. “It’s a fun show to do,” he said.

The play is about a small theater troupe that is faced with doing, yet again, “A Christmas Carol” for the holiday season. But the actors are tired of that old chestnut and start heading off in different directions, spoofing holiday favorites, trampling on traditions, and finally getting around to a hasty version of “Carol.”

This year’s production won’t be an exact copy of the 2017 version, Schnell said. For starters, R.J. Traff has joined the cast in place of Jeff Goihl, who had family commitments. “He’s the standard straight man,” Schnell said of Traff, and the role is supposed to be for a straight man.” In other words, Traff will try to maintain a calm equilibrium as the craziness goes on around him.

Returning from last year’s cast are Lisa Modry and David Derby.

In addition, Schnell has received permission from the playwrights to eliminate one scene and tweak some other aspects of the show. “We made some subtle, technical changes,” he said.

As an added treat for opening weekend, Maggie Hendrickson and Kasey Kuker will perform holiday music before the show Friday night, with more pre-show music by Melissa and Anastasia Goihl planned for Saturday night.

And about that opening: Black Friday would seem like a crowded day to open a play. However, it worked last year, and Schnell anticipates it will again.

“It was so successful,” he said. “Black Friday was wonderful. We said, ‘You’ve got family in town, come and be entertained.’”

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   November 15, 2018

Rep Puts New Shine on ‘Godspell’

Much recent criticism of the musical “Godspell” has complained that the 1971 hit has not aged well. The play doesn’t seem nearly as subversive as it once did, its pop-rock musical stylings are now heard in most Protestant churches, and aside from those songs, the well-known stories from scripture, as acted out by a bunch of outsiders, seem bland.

So there’s a need to breathe new life into the golden oldie, which the Rochester Repertory Theatre tries valiantly to do in a production that opened last Friday.

Director Samantha Gibson, who directed last season’s hit musical “The Spitfire Grill,” has set “Godspell” in modern times in a New York City subway station (the River Jordan Station). So much for the hippies and circus of the original. And, where traditional productions of “Godspell” have tended to feature young casts, Gibson has pulled in everything from teens to, well, RJ Traff, who was in the show the last time the Rep did it 30 years ago.

The show’s signature song, “Day by Day,” is touchingly performed by high school student Antoinette St. Godard. Among the Rep newcomers, Genie Theis solos on the lovely ballad “All Good Gifts.”

The strongest singing though, comes when the entire cast sings as a chorus, providing a swelling, full sound. “O Bless the Lord, My Soul” is one example; the reprise of “Day by Day” is another.

John Shaffer makes his Rep debut as Jesus, with Mitch Gibson in a strong performance as John the Baptist and Judas. Also in the cast are Alex Beerling, Jacob Dreher, Michele Nyman, Lisa Modry, Susanna Spencer, and, of course, Traff, who has made a welcome return to local stages in  recent seasons after a long layoff.

Dreher also designed the multi-level set, which is a convincing replica of a New York subway platform–minus the rats.

If anything, this cast might be over-rehearsed. Too many of the ad libs feel prepared in advance. At times, the mugging for laughs seems counter to the serious message of the parables being told by Jesus. Maybe that’s the point: Nobody’s really listening to him or taking him seriously.

There’s no doubt that this show requires an incredible amount of energy and stamina, and Gibson’s cast never appears to run out of steam, even in a warm theater on a humid opening night.

Give credit to Gibson for realizing the “Godspell,” with its timeless message of love for one another, needed to be refurbished and updated. Maybe the Rep won’t wait 30 years before doing it again.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   September 17, 2018

Rep Brings Back ‘Godspell’ 30 Years Later

The last time Rochester Repertory Theatre staged the musical “Godspell,” the Rep was only four years old, it was located on the second floor of a building on South Broadway, and RJ Traff was in the cast. That was 1988.

Well, now it’s 2018, and the Rep is presenting “Godspell” once again. The Rep is now celebrating its 35th season, and has been located on Seventh Street Northeast for over a decade. And RJ Traff is once again in the cast.

“RJ is back,” said Samantha Gibson, who is directing “Godspell” for the Rep. The play opens Sept. 7.

There’s something else familiar from that 1988 production. That year, “Godspell” was so popular with audiences that the run of the show was extended. This year, an extra date has already been added to the run, even though “Godspell” hasn’t even opened yet. The demand for tickets is ahead of normal expectations, Gibson said.

All of which could make the director and cast feel some extra pressure about opening a milestone season in front of an expectant audience.

However, Gibson, who directed last spring’s hit “The Spitfire Grill,” doesn’t see it that way.

“This is such a well-loved show,” she said. “I feel like it’s going to be a show everybody will enjoy. You’re going to walk out feeling good about yourself.”

“Godspell,” which had its New York debut in 1971, is a musical retelling of the Gospel according to Matthew. In some ways, the play is a product of an era when everything, including the Bible, was up for re-examination. Even those who never saw a production of the show were fans of the original score recording, which included the hit “Day by Day.”

“The music is easily my favorite part,” Gibson said.

For this production, Gibson is setting “Godspell” on a subway platform in modern-day New York City.

“I was thinking of ways to modernize it,” she said. “They had a junkyard scene in the original, and I was thinking of a place where all these people would come together.”

In New York that would be a subway platform, where commuters from all walks of life find themselves in the same place at the same time.

Although “Godspell” is based on the Bible, it is not preachy, Gibson said.

“They make it a lot more relatable for everybody,” she said. “I think this show can really reach out to everyone. It’s really about community, about finding a family.”

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   September 6, 2018

‘Eurydice’ is Rep Theatre’s Summer Offering

Jessica Schuler, playing “Eurydice,” and Scott Regener, playing “Father,” during a rehearsal for Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of “Eurydice” Sunday, June 17, 2018, in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com

 

In recent seasons, Rochester Repertory Theatre has presented light-hearted comedies and farces during the summer. This year, the summer offering is “Eurydice,” based on the myth of Orpheus, where – spoiler alert – the title character dies on her wedding day and journeys to the underworld.

“When I tell people about the play, I usually follow up with, ‘It’s a comedy,’” said Kami Sim, who is directing the show. “It’s a dramatic comedy. A lot of the bittersweet moments are followed up with comedy.”

In “Eurydice,” “dying does happen,” Sim said. “But it’s not a sad thing. It’s more joyous because she’s reuniting with her father.” Jessica Schuler, playing “Eurydice,” and Scott Regener, playing “Father,” during a rehearsal for Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of “Eurydice” Sunday, June 17, 2018, in Rochester.’ 

Comedy, drama, sad, joyous, whatever, “Eurydice,” by Sarah Ruhl, is a play Sim has wanted to tackle for some time. “It’s a show I worked on in college and I’ve always wanted to do it,” she said. “This is my first chance.”

She was attracted to the story because “It features a strong female lead, something not a lot of shows have,” Sim said. “I’m adamant about doing shows with female actors, female directors, and by female playwrights.”

Sim has cast Jessica Schuler as Eurydice. Also in the cast are Sean Lundberg, Jake Sprafka, Scott Regener, James Denzer, Kara Haack, and Jackson Davidson. “I was looking for a sense of humor (and) for comedic timing,” Sim said of her cast. 

While the play takes place in a mythic time, Sim said audience will see today’s world reflected on stage. 

“It’s about relationships and listening to each other,” she said. “It’s like when you’re with someone and you’re not truly present with them, you’re on your phone.”

By Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   June 24, 2018