Elise Pearlman


A Riveting ‘Memphis’ Opens at Northport’s Engeman Theater

Carson Higgins (Huey) and Breanna Bartley (Felicia) heat up the stage in the John W. Engeman Theater’s enthralling  musical, ‘Memphis.’ (Photo by Michael DeCristofaro)

The multiple award-winning musical, ‘Memphis,’ which opened last week at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater, is the rare musical that showcases spectacular singing and dancing while boasting a storyline and characters so engaging that they stir your innermost sensibilities. I was riveted to the stage from the onset.

The winner of four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Memphis features the book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, of  ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’ fame, with music and lyrics  by David Bryan, a founding member of Bon Jovi.

Set in Memphis, Tenn., the musical draws the audience into the black underground dance clubs of the1950s. The story is loosely based on the real-life escapades of Dewey Phillips, a pioneering white DJ who was one of the first to see the allure of black music and boldly play it on Memphis radio.

Huey Calhoun (played by Carson Higgins) is a high school drop-out who has trouble holding down even a menial job. He finds his field of dreams when an intoxicating medley of rock n’ roll, rhythm and blues draws him into a world that he has never known. Although he is the only white person in the underground joint beneath Beale Street and the black clubbers are not thrilled with his intrusion, Huey cannot help, but declare (in song, of course) that this is the “Music of My Soul.”

It is there that his path serendipitously crosses with Felicia Farrell (Breanna Bartley), an astoundingly talented singer whose career is constrained by intolerant times.  Huey, clearly smitten with Felicia, is determined to take this music mainstream and get her voice heard—not an easy task as this genre of music is referred to as “race” or “colored” music, and not viewed as appropriate for God-fearing white Christians. But Huey, who dreams big, is not about to be derailed and soon commandeers a radio station when the disc jockey takes a break. The station’s owner’s fury is soon diminished by the deluge of phone calls asking for more. In short order the station is voted No. 1.

Songs like “Scratch My Itch” and “Everyone Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night” will have your toes tapping. Yet other songs resonate with a poignancy that tugs on your heartstrings. In “Colored Woman,” Felicia recalls her mother’s warning that her success will be limited in a light-skinned world. Yet the feisty singer summons up her courage  to defy the status quo. While Felicia, her brother/club owner Delray (C. Mingo Long) and their crew explore electrifying artistic freedom within the sheltered confines of the club, outside they have reason to be afraid. They are continuously kept in line and belittled by racist remarks and harbor horrifying memories. Gator (Jarred Bedgood), the bartender, has not spoken since he saw his father lynched as child; Delray bears a mark on his neck which he sustained as a thirsty 14-year-old who dared to drink from a whites-only water fountain.

If the effort to break the racist glass ceiling of the Southern music industry is not enough, Felicia and Huey have fallen for each other. Can this unorthodox love affair survive and what impact will it have on their careers?

There are so many wonderful songs that I am hard-pressed to pick my favorites. In Act II. I particularly liked “Tear Down the House” and “Memphis Lives in Me,” both sung by Huey and Company.  I was dazzled by the finale “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll. Sung by Huey, Felicia and Company, its message is about never losing sight of your personal vision.  It had the audience on its feet and clapping. What a grand finale indeed!

Higgins, who plays the extraordinarily likeable colorblind idealist whose enthusiasm for music is contagious, has made an astounding debut at the Engeman Theater where he sings and dances with the best of them. Featured on Season 10 of American Idol, he says that Huey Calhoun is his favorite role, and one he has played before at Connecticut’s Ivoryton Playhouse.

The chemistry between Bartley and Higgins rings true and  makes for a believable love story.  An extremely gifted vocalist with a powerhouse of a voice whose credits include ‘Dreamgirls,’ Bartley has the versatility to render both high energy, upbeat songs and more tender ballads to perfection.

C. Mingo Long excels as Felicia’s rightfully protective brother and makes his point with his deliciously deep voice in “She’s My Sister.”

Some of my other favorite characters include Gator (Jarred Bedgood), Gladys (Calhoun’s mother played by Kathryn Markey), and Bobby (Arthur L. Ross), all of whom will take the spotlight and undergo startling transformations that will lift your spirit.

Kudos to Wojcik/Seay casting for assembling this stellar cast. The award-winning Igor Goldin, who has directed some of Engeman’s finest productions, is once again at the helm and his work is impeccable. Major kudos to Antoinette DiPietropolo who has choreographed the musical to perfection. These dancers do not miss a beat and dance and fight captains, Ivory McKay and Carson Higgens, are also to be complimented. Musical Director James Olmstead has once again outdone himself. DT Willis is to be complimented on his set which undergoes some amazing metamorphoses during the course of the production.  Tristan Raines’ costumes are pure eye candy.

Memphis runs through May 8, but buy tickets early as show might very well sell out.  Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 261-2900 or visiting engemantheater.com

Comedy of Manners: God of Carnage Debuts at Northport’s Engeman Theater

Left to right: The performances of Nancy Lemenager, Mickey Solis, Alet Taylor, and Chris Kipiniak make for uproarious pandemonium in the Engeman Theater's production of God of Carnage (Photo by Michael DeCristofaro).

The internationally acclaimed God of Carnage is possibly the most unique theatrical offering that I have seen at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater. The dark farcical comedy makes for uproarious pandemonium and laughter, and the audience (myself included) simply loved it. It is so good that you might want to see it more than once.

French playwright Yasmina Reza hones in on one of the universal fears of parenthood—that your child will be hurt by, or might hurt, another child. The play, originally written in Reza’s native tongue and translated into English by Christopher Hampton, has captured the imagination of theatergoers around the world.

After its debut performance in 2006, God of Carnage made its way to London where it received the Olivier Award for Best New Play of the Year. Its 2009 stint on Broadway boasting a stellar cast, including James Gandolfini, garnered three Tony Awards. Since then, it has graced stages in Spain, Ireland, Serbia and Croatia, to name a few.

The play is set in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. After another boy breaks two of their 11-year-old son’s teeth during a playground brawl, Veronica and Michael go where angels fear by inviting the parents of aggressor to their home to discuss the incident. Although we never meet the boys, Henry and Benjamin, whose antics ignite the fuse, it is the parents who entertain us with their unexpected emotional explosions.

This unlikely rendezvous is the brainchild of Veronica, an art aficionado with a forthcoming book on the Darfur. Her husband, Michael, is a wholesale distributor of household goods. The other set of parents are Alan, a well-to-do lawyer with international clientele and Annette, who simply says that she is into wealth management.

It all starts out with polite, amicable conversation in Veronica and Michael’s posh living room. In the name of peaceful coexistence, mouthwatering clafouti, a fruity French dessert, is served and expensive yellow tulips adorn vases.

Yet these niceties cannot mask the fact that the couples are understandably very wary of each other and looking for holes in each others’ polished façades. The best laid plans go horribly astray as the meeting progresses and at a delightfully dizzying pace.

It seems that no clafouti, no matter how delicious, can pacify the god of carnage, whom Alan explains has reigned supreme since the dawn of time and unleashes our basest and most primitive instincts.

Alan turns out to be right. In short order, the thin veil of civility is pierced, and the couples are at each other’s throats. Reza’s script is replete with clever, hilarious surprises and shifting marital allegiances that animate the set, especially after a bottle of primo rum is uncorked. Kudos to Richard Dolce for his impeccable directing of this talented cast whose performances requires split second comedic timing. This is ensemble work at its best.

Which is the funniest scenario? I’ll hint at them. Who had done a hamster wrong? What happens after Annette—understandably a bundle of nerves—upchucks on a collection of  Veronica’s treasured coffee table books displayed like window dressing in the living room? How do the characters change after imbibing that primo rum?

Nancy Lemenager is ideal as the highbrow art lover who has unrealistic expectations about human nature and does not recognize a highly combustible situation when she sees one. Mickey Solis is hilarious as Michael, Veronica’s polar opposite, a man who proudly announces that he is “not a member of polite society,” but rather a Neanderthal.

will I be approved for a business loan

Alan (Chris Kipiniak) skillfully fits the bill as the prototypical lawyer who is welded to his cell phone and more concerned with advising a pharmaceutical company on their defense against charges of a dangerous drug than dealing with his son’s conduct. His wife, Annette (Alet Taylor), who first appears to be the most restrained of the foursome, is emboldened and comes out fighting after some of that rum enters her system. It made for some very funny and feel-good moments.

Stephen Dobay’s set—decorated with the minimalist flair—makes it the perfect venue for maximal action. Showcased is a large-scale wooden sculpture created from found objects à la Louise Nevelson, one of the most influential and distinguished sculptors of the 20th century. Painted a monochromatic dark gray, the disparate pieces that compose the sculpture become unified textural content. Splashes of red, white and black further enliven the room’s décor.

It is pure eye candy. Bravo, Mr. Dobay!

God of Carnage runs through March 6. Tickets can be purchased at the theater’s box office, 250 Main St, Northport, by calling 261-2900 or by visiting engemantheater.com.  

Photo credit from left to right: The performances of Nancy Lemenager, Mickey Solis, Alet Taylor, and  Chris Kipiniak make for uproarious pandemonium in the Engeman Theater’s production of God of Carnage (Photo by Michael DeCristofaro).

Surviving the Season of Regifting

Christmas gifts (Photo by Kelvin Kay)

Regifting, the act of giving away an unwanted present, was brought to the forefront of American consciousness during the heyday of my favorite show, the sitcom, Seinfeld. In one episode, Elaine discovers, to her displeasure, that a label-maker that she had given to a dentist friend was “regifted” to Jerry Seinfeld.

Over the years, regifting has evolved into an all-American pastime. In fact, the third Thursday in December has been officially designated “National Regifting Day” due to the preponderance of office party gifts (an estimated 40 percent) that are given away to others. But regifting can take place at any time of the year.

Should we regift or not, and if so, what are the ground rules?

Many consider this somewhat hush-hush practice a form of recycling, but I think we need to distinguish between different forms of regifting that are perfectly acceptable and others that should be considered offenses punishable by law.

It is perfectly wonderful and acceptable to pass on a cherished possession, if it is presented as such. I see nothing wrong with giving someone the copy of The Nutcracker, which was read to you as a child, because you are passing something on that has brought pleasure. The bad kind of regifting is akin to forwarding that chain letter email that no one wanted to read in the first place.

The little girl who is told by her mother to run into her bedroom and pick up one of her stuffed animals, which is summarily plopped in a gift bag and passed off as birthday present, is engaging in unpremeditated regifting, yet she may be on the road to becoming a serious offender. Those people who have dedicated space in their bedroom, with tiers of value not unlike that of the food pyramid, are guilty without an explanation.

I would need the acumen and foresight embodied by all three wise men to figure out how to get these unwanted gifts and that legendary fruitcake out of orbit. Some should be thrown out; others, if worthy, could be donated to charity, where perhaps these orphans can be matched with the right person.

But before you decide to recirculate that slightly mangy pseudo-suede address book in a preposterous color that saw better days a decade ago or that tie clip forged from an exotic alloy of metal bordering on plastic, grab that gift horse by the tail, look it squarely in the mouth, and consider what the recipient will be beholding.

If the item is new, and shows no signs of being toyed with by your dog or the vagaries of time, and it is something that you think that the person might truly enjoy, then by all means, pass it on. Every present doesn’t have to be a big one, and in these tough economic times, a holiday card with heartfelt sentiments can be enough. On any celebratory occasion, what you set in motion should at least put a smile on someone’s face, and to do that, the selection must come from the heart.

Here are some tale-tell signs that you’ve been regifted, all of which my family and I  have personally experienced:

1) You unwrap the gift and cannot figure out what it is. Chances are the former recipient couldn’t tell either and decided to pass it on. My husband received a small, but unidentifiable heavy metal thingamajig last Christmas. Was it a paperweight? Objet d’art? I say, white elephant!

2) You received an article of clothing which, although NWT (new with price tags), is not your size, and it is a color that that the giver is well aware is not flattering on you. To boot, it’s more provocative or avant-garde than is customarily your style. You’re immediately informed where it was purchased “in case you need to return it.” A dead give-away: the giver recently celebrated her birthday.

3) Your friends’ reaction suggests that they were taken off guard by the generosity of your gift, and they excuse themselves and return from their bedroom with a generic basket of cheer, saying that they forgot to give you this. Oh, well!

4) The gift looks more than vaguely familiar. A relative who will remain nameless was astounded to receive a necklace that she had lovingly chosen for a friend.

5) There’s a gift card, and it’s not made out to you.

6) You find a piece of old wrapping paper still attached to the box.

7) It’s hard to see the glass as more than half full when the bottle of wine you received as a gift is several glasses short.

8) The gift has clearly been used or it is missing parts. One year we were less delighted with a set of crystal wine glasses once we noticed that they had already been put to service  and only perfunctorily washed.

9) You receive confectioneries such as a huge chocolate Christmas tree or Santa Claus not meant for someone who celebrates Chanukah. Even if it’s French chocolate, this is still in bad taste. We eventually succumbed to temptation and ate part of the Santa; someone took the chocolate tree off our hands.

Waxing Poetic: Northport Artist’s Paintings Are Like Looking Through Stained Glass Windows

Emily Eisen
Emily Eisen with her painting "Silent Night," which is on exhibit at The Firefly Artists' co-operative gallery in Northport (Photo by Alan Pearlman)

Batik, the ancient art of creating patterned cloth using wax that allows artisans to selectively dye certain areas of the material, is practiced in countries around the world, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Nigeria.

A year ago, longtime Northport resident Emily Eisen began to experiment with the age-old technique to create impressionistic paintings, often reminiscent of stained glass. Eisen, who lives near Crab Meadow Beach by Long Island Sound, is particularly enamored with water. She said that what she calls “batikage” lends itself particularly well to representing currents and waves as well as the ice that coats Northport Harbor each winter.

She begins by loosely using textile paints as she would watercolors on silk or cotton.

“I like to track the movement of the flowing colors, especially on the receptive, absorbent silk fabric,” said Eisen.

She starts with a light color palette, lets the fabric dry, and then strategically paints melted wax over the entire surface in different directions and textural patterns. Next, she waits until the wax-coated fabric solidifies, refrigerating it for a short time when the weather is warm.

Then Eisen taps or breaks the wax by placing her hand in different positions under the fabric to create the variety of “crackles” that imbue each piece with its unique character.

Darker textile colors are painted over the crackles so that they can seep into the fabric. Eisen then covers the cloth with newspaper, ironing over it to soak up the wax until the material is soft again.

What is so exciting for her is that every stage of the artistic process involves elements of surprise and experimentation. Eisen is as much the artist as she is the audience, she says.

Emily Eisen
Emily Eisen was inspired to use her technique of ‘batikage’ to create “Majestic Caribbean’ after a trip to the Virgin Islands (Photo by Alan Pearlman).

“I discover what it will look like when I iron the wax out,” Eisen said.

As she watches the paint  travel and the crackles in the wax emerge, she is entranced. It is all part of her visual journey, hence the name “batikage,” a mélange of batik and voyage.

She finishes by embellishing her paintings with watercolor pastels, which imbue the surface with facets, highlights and deeper defining color, thus enhancing the dimensionality of the images. Finally the fabric is permanently attached to a canvas.

“Silent Night” is an enchanting view of Northport Harbor and its dock cloaked in the solitary stillness wrought by winter. It showcases the pageantry of a glorious sunset whose jewel-like colors—fiery oranges and yellows, sapphire blues, and wisps of hot pink—are, in turn, reflected in the water. The eye is also drawn to the intriguing latticework of cracked ice, which adorns the harbor during the coldest months of the year.

Viewers often comment that Eisen’s “batikage” paintings look like stained glass because the high-contrast crackle networks take on the appearance of the lead solder that frames the colored windowpanes.

Eisen’s florals gravitate to the metaphoric and expressionistic. In her painting, “Hydrangea Burst,” one sees the suggestion of the delicate clusters of pastel petals that are the flower’s hallmark. Similarly, “The Butterflight Effect” and “Meadow Flowers,” are not realistic depictions, but rather playful and exuberantly flamboyant feasts of form and hue that elevate the spirit and cause one to marvel at the wonder of nature’s color wheel.

“Majestic Caribbean” was the artistic culmination of a week-long trip to the tropical paradise of St. John in the Virgin Islands. As she basked in the sea, Eisen observed the  ebb and flow of the mercurial turquoise water throughout the day. Networks of intersecting lines and bands of vibrant color, which hint at the sea and the sky, make this creation one of her most abstract pieces.

Eisen’s work has attracted an international audience. Although her originals are currently not available for sale, limited edition giclée prints can be seen and purchased at The Firefly Artists’ gallery, 180 Main St., Northport.

‘Miracle on 34th Street’ Works Its Holiday Magic at Northport’s Engeman Theater

Caption: Kevin McGuire and Meaghan Marie McInnes in Engeman Theater's production of "Miracle on 34th Street"

It began to feel a lot like Christmas  when the musical version of one of the most heartwarming  holiday classics of all time,  Miracle on  34th Street, enlivened the stage at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater right before Thanksgiving.

A holiday show is a genre all its own. It must be family friendly, and evoke nostalgia and sentimentality while it tugs on our heartstrings, yet have music and glitz that fire up the imagination.

Directed by Richard Dolce, the theater’s producing artistic director, Miracle on 34th Street delivers this and so much more.

Valentine Davies’ sentimental tale, which pits the yearnings of our inner child against the dictates of reason, inspired the Academy Award-winning 1947 movie starring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood. The book, music and lyrics for the musical were penned by Meredith Willson of The Music Man fame. The extremely gifted composer, songwriter and playwright’s deep understanding of human nature shines throughout this production.

This show transports us back to Manhattan in the early ’60s. It’s Thanksgiving morning, and families are embracing the gaiety of the season and anticipating the big parade. Doris Walker, a single mother and Macy’s Department Store executive, has the challenge of orchestrating the festive procession down to the letter.

Soured by a failed marriage, Doris is all work and no play, a staunch pragmatist who has discouraged her young daughter Susan from believing in anything remotely imaginative, including Santa Claus.

Yet after Susan develops a relationship with  charismatic Fred Gailey, a retired marine captain who is about to embark on a career as an attorney, she cannot help but start to believe in the Jolly Old Elf and long for a father.

Meanwhile, back at Macy’s, a  major stumbling block is miraculously  averted when a rosy-faced gentleman bearing  an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus—and going  by the unlikely name of Kris Kringle—steps up replace  the shamefully drunken gentleman hired to greet the kids in the toy department.

Kringle, who genuinely loves children, more than fits the bill and accomplishes the inconceivable by promoting good will between Macy’s and its rival, Gimbel’s. Here, Kringle breaks the fourth wall by distributing candy canes to the audience, adding to the festivity.

When Kringle indicates that he really believes that he is Santa, he is subjected to a psychological brow-beating by Dr. Sawyer, an egotistical psychologist, and threatened with commitment to Bellevue Hospital.

Willson’s treatment of the romantic subplot adds new dimension to the story. Doris and Fred immediately get off on the wrong foot, and express their mutual disdain in the delightful duet, “Look, Little Girl.” There seems to be no common ground between Fred, a confirmed bachelor who refers to women as dames, and Doris, a smart cookie who has succeeded in breaking Macy’s glass ceiling. Yet, their body language says otherwise, especially when Fred unexpectedly kisses Doris, and she kisses him back. Can these opposites really attract?

The action really heats up in Act II. I particularly enjoyed “She Hadda Go Back,” a delicious slice of musical repartee between Fred and his card-playing buddies during which Fred parades his knowledge of female reasoning.

Fred must somehow defend Kringle’s sanity and his honor by proving that the man is really Santa. Will this mission impossible be Kris’s undoing? The shenanigans that animate the courtroom are  worth the price of admission.

Kevin McGuire, who plays Kringle, is a consummate professional who has appeared in Les Miserables,  Phantom of the Opera and The Secret Garden. He begins to cast his spell as soon as he steps on stage, and the result is pure magic.

It is through the eyes of little Susan Walker that we navigate what we know to be true and our heart’s desire. She is alternately played  by Meaghan Marie McInnes and Sophia  Eleni Kekllas. Meaghan, who performed the night that I attended, is incredibly endearing. She graces the stage with great poise and she has a beautiful singing voice. When she smiles, you can’t help but be smitten.

Many may remember Kim Carson, who plays the doubting Thomasina Doris Walker, from her starring roles in Engeman’s The Music Man, South Pacific, and Camelot. She delivers an astoundingly charismatic performance and her singing is outstanding.  Her Act II solo, “Love Come Take Me,” brought tears to my eyes.

The chemistry between Carson and Aaron Ramey, who plays Fred, her romantic sparring partner, rings true. Ramey, who has appeared on stage and on television, excels as a man who has unwittingly met his match.

A number of actors rein in the laughs with their own unique blend of comedy.  These include Matt Wolpe (as Marvin Shellhammer) and John Little (Dr. Sawyer). I particularly loved the humorous song, “That Man Over There,” as delivered by R.H. Macy (Bill Nolte) and the ensemble during Kringle’s commitment hearing at the New York Supreme Court.

Kathleen Doyle’s costumes—the  plaid dresses, the wonderful cloth coats—will have you nostalgic for this bygone era.

I believe that this is the ninth production that Antoinette DiPietropolo has choreographed for the Engeman Theater, and as always, her work is outstanding.

Miracle on 34th Street  runs through January 4. Tickets can be purchased at the theater’s box office, 250 Main St, Northport, or by calling 261-2900 or going to: www.engemantheater.com.  

(Photo credit: John W. Engeman Theater)

REVIEW: ‘West Side Story’ Is a Knockout Hit at Northport’s Engeman Theater

West Side Story at John W. Engeman Theater.

“West Side Story” had the audience on its feet applauding wildly and shouting bravos after its first Saturday night performance at the John W. Engeman Theater. The musical saga of star-crossed lovers whose Manhattan romance is doomed by cultural discord is not only simply sensational, but the perfect choice for the Northport theater’s 50th production.

The show itself has some stellar history too. “West Side Story” first graced Broadway in 1957. It brought together an extraordinarily talented creative team: composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, playwright Arthur Laurents, and director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. According to Larry Stempel’s Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, the production ushered in a new era by blurring the lines between musical theater and opera while adding social commentary to the mix.

Showcasing what many consider to be Bernstein’s finest work, the musical also gave these legendary artists the opportunity to stretch themselves as never before. It was the first time that Sondheim ever wrote lyrics for a Broadway production; for Laurents, it was his first Broadway libretto.

If the story line of forbidden love gone terribly awry sounds familiar, it should. “West Side Story” is based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which tells of the tragedy ensnaring the romantically linked offspring of two feuding noble families, the Montagues and Capulets. Fast-forward another four centuries to the 1950s, and “West Side Story” is the urban version.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of the intoxication and blind innocence of first love countered by senseless rivalry and the unceasing desire for revenge still rings true today. Under Igor Goldin’s masterful direction at the Engeman Theater, the cast brings this New Age Romeo and Juliet, this blend of light and dark, hope and heartache, comedy and despair, to glorious fruition.

Set in a blue-collar neighborhood in the Upper West Side in 1957, the venue is far from pretty, yet this forsaken piece of turf bound by brick walls and chain-link fences is the subject of intense rivalry between two street gangs, the Jets, the established white ethnics, and the Sharks, the Puerto Rican newcomers.

A dance at a local gymnasium brings the warring gangs together on what is supposedly neutral territory. As the Jets and Sharks assert their superiority by alternately usurping the dance floor, something magical happens. Amidst the whirlwind of frenetic movement, Tony, a Jet, and Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the Shark’s leader, spot each other from across the room and are drawn together like magnets. Both are immediately smitten, but Bernardo has brought Maria from Puerto Rico so she could marry his friend, Chico.

While his friends are riveted in the gritty here and now, Tony, played by Zach Trimmer, is dreaming of a better life. Carl Sagan once spoke of the optimistic human belief that there is something marvelous around the corner yet undiscovered, a vision that Tony brings to life when he sings “Something’s Coming.”

Later that night, Maria (Samantha Williams) stands on her tenement apartment’s fire escape with Tony below, and the chemistry is palpable. His serenade, “Tonight,” is a joyous prelude to the uncharted territory that is love. Young Williams’ mellifluous singing voice is astounding. Trimmer renders “Maria,” so tenderly that he makes it a fitting tribute to the transformative power of love.

Shakespeare liked to alternate between moods in his plays, and “West Side Story” follows his lead, with romance giving way to comedy–before the tragedy you know is coming.

In the sardonic song, “America,” Rosalia (Ashley Pérez Flanagan) extols the virtues of Puerto Rico, while the other Shark Girls–Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Karli Dinardo), Francisca (Victoria Casillo) and Marguerita (Ashley Marinelli) counter with wisecracks. The girls are dressed in gorgeous jewel-toned dresses made for swirling and flaunting. The song is incredibly amusing; the dancing spectacular. It’s pure eye candy that delights the heart and the soul. Kudos to Tristan Raines for the costume design.

What a cast! Dinardo excels as Anita, the worldly, “older” sister to Maria, who has just come to America and is inexperienced when it comes to the opposite sex. Their close relationship makes their final duet, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” all the more bittersweet.

Riff (Sam Wolf) and Bernardo (Nikko Kimzin) are both effectively commanding and conflicted in their roles as respective leaders of the Jets and Sharks who must decide the terms of the rumble that will settle the turf dispute once and for all.

The action slowly builds momentum, with anticipation reaching its apex towards the end of Act I, when the whole company gathers to sing “Tonight.” Absolutely breathtaking, it is musical theater at its best.

This show demands great choreography, and Jeffry Denman, assisted by Lauren Cannon, and assistant director/fight choreographer, Trey Compton, deliver it big time. Some of the finest dancing is showcased in “Somewhere,” a dreamy, wishful sequence in which Maria and Tony watch dancers dressed in white move blithely across the stage with joyous grace despite the rumble’s tragic ending. As Trimmer, Williams and company sing, Ashley Pérez Flanagan gives an outstanding solo that further lights up this poignant scene.

Also worthy of mention is the hilarious song, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” featuring the well-choregraphed antics of Action (Scott Shedenhelm) and the rest of the Jets. In Act II, it offers needed comic relief as the world that these young adults know starts to spiral out of control.

As always, the band at the Engeman, led by musical director James Olmstead on keyboard, is topnotch and does full justice to Bernstein’s musical genius. The music and lyrics linger on long after you leave the theater.

“West Side Story” runs through November 8, but the popular show will likely sell out soon. The John W. Engeman Theater is located at 250 Main St., Northport. For more information, call (631) 261-2900 or by visit www.engemantheater.com.

‘Orphans’ at Conklin Barn: A Deeply Moving, Dark Drama

Orphans will be at Conlkin Barn Aug. 20-Sept. 5. From left to right: Sean King, Jay William Thomas and Aaron Dalla Villa (Photo by Alan Pearlman)

Playwright Lyle Kessler’s dark drama, “Orphans,” which has broken box office records around the world, opened at Huntington’s Conklin Barn to a sold-out house on Aug. 20.

Directed with finesse by Jim Bonney, the play explores the primal fear of abandonment and its power over our behavior. Two brothers, Treat (Aaron Dalla Villa) and Phillip (Jay William Thomas), have been dealt a cruel blow by fate. Orphaned as young children by their father’s desertion and the death of their mother, they live hand-to-mouth in a rundown North Philly row house.

Older brother Treat, interpreting the role of a father, supports the pair through petty thievery. To ward off any further abandonment, Treat has instilled Phillip with an intense fear of going outside and limits his access to any kind of knowledge that might empower him. A shut-in who spends most of his time watching The Price is Right, Phillip’s world has eclipsed into a few tiny rooms yet he harbors secrets that would make Treat angry. Hidden under the sofa are books and a painful remnant from the past—one of his mother’s shoes.

The dynamics unexpectedly shift when Treat brings home Harold (Sean King), an inebriated businessman. Although Treat ties Harold up when he goes out to gather information about his ‘kidnap’ victim, Harold easily eludes these restraints and begins to assume the upper hand, both physically and psychologically.

It turns out that Harold himself grew up in a Chicago orphanage. A man with a shady past whose enemies have followed him to Philly, the idea of hiding out while taking these two young men under his wing appeals to him. Harold wants to give these new age “dead end kids” the father figure he never had. Despite his best intentions, will it be easy to usurp the paternal role from Treat?

Harold patiently encourages Phillip to slowly abandon his timeworn routines, delight in new discoveries and venture out into the world. At the same time, he is training Treat to be his emissary in a world in which he no longer feels safe. Treat has never known trust and does not do well when it comes to following rules and handling responsibility. When he feels that this interloper is trespassing on his relationship with his brother, a power struggle ensues.

Audiences will find that the role of Harold, who has unexpectedly found his calling, provides King with the perfect vehicle for doing what he does best: turning the tables to his advantage and waxing nostalgic. His touching soliloquy about his days as an orphan paperboy in Chicago paints an eloquent picture which brings the audience to that windy night that cost his friend his life. It’s a stand-out.

Dalla Villa shines as Treat, the older brother who has been jaded by life, having borne the weight of protector and breadwinner for far too long. Beneath the easy charm and cocky confidence of a streetwise con artist is a seething anger that threatens to boil over at any minute. And erupt it does. Dalla Villa deftly juggles these disparate emotions while maintaining the intensity that the role calls for throughout his performance.

Thomas excels as the otherworldly Phillip, the wide-eyed innocent man-child who delights in Harold’s simple gift of a map of North Philadelphia and views the nightly illumination of the streetlamps as miraculous. He envisions beauty in simple things that Treat can no longer see. Phillip personifies hope.

The ending wields an unexpected blow. What audiences come away with is that none of us are so different from these orphans. Love or any form of emotional attachment is inevitably coupled with risk and the pain of loss. What makes Bonney and King’s production of ‘Orphans’ so extraordinarily moving is that it touches those vulnerable places in the heart that reside in all of us.

The Conklin Barn is located at 2 High Street off New York Ave. in Huntington. The show runs through Sept. 5. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com. On Sept. 4, theatergoers can meet the playwright, Lyle Kessler, who will engage in a Q&A session after the performance.

‘Orphans’ to Play Conklin Barn in Huntington

Orphans will be at Conlkin Barn Aug. 20-Sept. 5. From left to right: Sean King, Jay William Thomas and Aaron Dalla Villa (Photo by Alan Pearlman)

It will be theater in the ‘rough’ in more ways than one when Bonney/King Productions brings Lyle Kessler’s dark drama, “Orphans,” to Conklin Barn in Huntington for a two-week run opening Thursday.

Hosting the show is the circa 1830 Conklin Barn, one of the few surviving hand-built shelters from the early days of the Long Island settlers, which was moved from Laurel Hollow to its present location in 1990. The rugged structure provides an intimate venue suited to theater in the round and for this drama, which explores the vagaries of the human soul and longings of individuals who are rough around the edges.

“It is a diamond in the rough,” said Sean King of Smithtown, who co-produced and stars in the show as Harold, a complex father figure.

The story line follows two brothers, Treat and Philip, orphaned at an early age, who are living in an unconventional world of their own creation in a dilapidated North Philly row house. Treat supports the pair through petty thievery while Philip, instilled by his brother with fear of the outside world, is a virtual shut-in. The dynamics shift when Treat brings home Harold, an inebriated businessman who has reasons of his own for assuming the uneasy role of surrogate father to the two dysfunctional young men.

Treat, the volcanic brother, played by Aaron Dalla Villa, and the child-like, sensitive Philip, played by Jay William Thomas, were cast after 600 actors saw the ad in Backstage magazine, and turned out to audition in a Manhattan studio.

“Orphans” is the second summer theater production that King and Jim Bonney of Huntington have staged at the Conklin Barn. Bonney is at the helm again as director.

King and Bonney’s first production, “Prisoners and Criminals,” played to a sold-out house last summer. Based on an original script by Canadian playwright Jared Wright, “Prisoners and Criminals” garnered 2014 awards for Long Island’s Best Play, Actor and Director from Broadway World for Bonney and King.

Following this triumph, Bonney—electrified after he saw the Broadway revival of “Orphans” with Alec Baldwin and Ben Foster—was determined to bring it to Huntington audiences.

King, who has made a career of playing tormented souls, is equally excited about producing this show with Bonney.

“’Orphans’ premiered on stage in Los Angeles in 1983 with Joe Pantoliano of Sopranos’ fame and the late Lane Smith, who starred as Richard Nixon in ‘The Final Days,’” King said. “‘Orphans’ went on to be produced all over the world, including a very successful London run. It was nominated for a Tony for Best Revival of a Play.”

The story of lost boys who live on the outskirts of society, yet crave a normalcy, still resonates today, Bonney said of the drama with comic overtones.

The basis for the 1987 film starring Albert Finney and Matthew Modine, King said that this hard-hitting drama established Kessler as a playwright and showcases some of his finest writing. The playwright will be in attendance at the Sept. 4 performance, which will be followed by a question and answer period.

It is all part of King and Bonney’s vision to bring theater that takes audiences out of their comfort zones to Huntington.

“Audiences need to be exposed to all kinds of theater,” Bonney said. “We want to create a theater collective, a space where new playwrights can see their work come to life.”

The Conklin Barn is located at 2 High St. off New York Ave. in downtown Huntington. The show opens on Aug. 20 for a 12-performance run through Sept. 5. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com.