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Daring concept Joni Mitchell songs, dancers tell story without dialogue

Aside from Loraine O'Donnell's voice and the percussive noises of dancers' feet, hands and bodies, there are very few human sounds in "Familiar Strangers," a production premiering at MusicalFare that is conceived, directed and choreographed by Michael J. Walline.

It's a daring and unique concept, and O'Donnell, simply referred to as "The Voice," takes on a remarkable challenge. Channeling an at-times ethereal soprano, she sings 28 songs "as recorded" by Joni Mitchell. To this gorgeousness, Walline adds a loose story, told with no dialogue and eight unnamed characters.

While it would have been a welcome change to hear a different voice or two contribute to the vocal interpretations, O'Donnell's voice is rich, pliant and powerful. The show, at 2 1/2 hours, is also slightly too long for the concept.

The songs -- mostly Mitchell's confessional, generation-defining compositions -- are beautifully reproduced by musical director Michael G. Hake, on keyboards, plus additional musicians Allan Paglia, Mark Partyka and Jeff Cooke.

Walline's choreography is accessible; a general audience coming to a "pop musical" will see a variety of human shapes, sizes, age ranges and abilities wordlessly expressing strong emotions.

Dancer Terrie George is the "Woman in the Window." From an apartment on a city street, she watches the other characters. The set, by Chris Schenk, with lighting and sound by Chris Cavanagh, adds greatly to the atmosphere.

George also meets her challenge; she is constantly on stage. The woman seems unable to leave her house via her door -- she can only venture out the window, and then perhaps, only in fantasy.

A homeless man (Christopher M. Howard) evokes her affection. Elfin newcomer Howard, strong and expressive, imbues his character with sweet humor. Two "Girls in Love" (delicate Nicole Marrale Cimato and earthier "tough girl" Kristy E. Schupp), reveal a playful, demonstrative relationship.

George's character emotes to and with a photograph -- we presume it is the "Husband," a less-present character played by Doug Weyand. It's suggested that he may have abused her and that he may have committed suicide. So this woman is mourning the loss of a possibly unhappy relationship, paralyzed by fear of facing the world nonetheless. This comment of Walline's rings true; we all face conflict.

The other characters are a couple -- "Artist" (Robert J. Cooke) and "Woman on the Corner" (Kelly Cammarata), whose on-again-off-again relationship evokes "Woman in the Window's" strongest interest. As the artist, Cooke's sturdy body serves him well. Cammarata's performance is brittle and sexy; sometimes, like the music, it is both.

Marc Sacco is the last character, a priest. He always has either a cigarette or a drink in his hand, and he wears a dejected look. He highlights the idea that goodness is not a given.

The few vocalized sounds come from George. As delivered chronologically, her scream, then her gasping, crying, laughing and panic-attack-related panting provide virtual narration.

She finally emerges to meet the artist, who has quietly yet firmly wooed her. Spoken words come as a shock -- and they are the culmination of the battles we must all fight.


Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

WHAT: "Familiar Strangers"

WHEN: Through Feb. 11

WHERE: MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst

TICKETS: $28 to $32

INFO: 839-8540 or

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