"Pan-Ambitions," a lovely new musical at the Alleyway Theatre, is one of the delightful artistic products of Buffalo's renewed interest in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Neal Radice, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, also directs his cast of nine accomplished actors and singers.
"Pan-Ambitions" tells the story of the exposition by following four central characters: Mabel, a young woman from Buffalo who visits the fair more than 30 times; Joseph Cronin, a young fellow who walks to Buffalo from Nebraska in order to improve his health and see the fair; and two historical figures, Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley in the Expo's Temple of Music, and anarchist Emma Goldman.
Radice's intelligent approach, using both well-known and virtually anonymous figures to create a sense of the fair's scope and importance, lends his show an historical and social perspective. We get a feel for what the exposition meant to the nation's economy and politics, but also to the imaginations of ordinary men and women. The fact that this musical informs as well as entertains is one of "Pan-Ambitions" great strengths.
There's a stately, almost picturesque quality to the succession of 24 scenes, each a sort of tableau with a fine period feel. At times static, and with virtually no dance numbers, "Pan-Ambitions" nonetheless looks and feels right. A newspaper boy hawks the Courier now and then, and it's easy to imagine turn-of-the-century America, a world Mark Twain might recognize. The music is simple and elegant, though occasionally repetitive, with Radice perhaps relying too often on reprised tunes.
There are, nonetheless, some beautiful melodies. "Knights of the Road," sung by Philip Farugia, Michael Starzynski and Christian Riso playing three hobos, is a plaintive and lovely description of life as it looks to the disenfranchised, "invisible and silent." Goldman's powerful anthem, "The Money Machine," is a complex tune rendered with great feeling by Loraine O'Donnell Gray, a strong actor and singer.
There are moments where the harmony achieved by this uniformly strong and multitalented cast, singing with recorded music and occasionally a capella, creates a full and stirring sense of the era. The "Pan-Am Anthem," the show's opening number, and "Whatever Became of Buffalo," the last song, serve as haunting paean and dirge, bookends that lend "Pan-Ambitions" an emotional structure.
The book is well-conceived, and the lyrics and dialogue spare and graceful. Emma Goldman speaks of "the noble heart that acts with good intention"; Czolgosz, played with great strength of purpose by Keith Ersing, describes his task by saying, "Let me pull the bell rope"; and Cronin, the show's comedic figure, welcomes "the future right before me here today." Cronin, the peppy Nebraska boy, is played by David Kachermeyer with wonderful comic timing and assurance. With a face like Fredo's from "The Godfather" and a body that makes Don Knotts seem overweight, Kachermeyer lightens what would otherwise be a more bleak presentation.
The narrative is held together by Stephanie Bax Fontanella, who, as Mabel, uses her perfect diction, sprightly good looks and clear singing voice to give us a sense of the meaning of the exposition to Buffalo. Occasionally teamed with Jennifer Hollands, who plays her friend Rebecca, a lovely presence with a warm singing voice, Fontanella is the anchor that moors this professional ensemble.
The eight adult cast members all play several roles, as does child-actor Nicholas Needham, though the credit for this winning musical belongs in the first place to Radice. With a sure hand and eye as director, Radice forges a lovely ensemble that does justice to his inspiring evocation of a world long gone.
The pretty period costumes are by Joyce Stilson, and the functional set and intelligent lighting scheme are by Radice.
Rating: *** 1/2
World premiere of Neil Radice musical based on the Pan-American Exposition. Directed by Radice for Alleyway Theatre.
Starring Philip Farugia, Michael Starzynski, Christian Riso, Keith Ersing, David Kachermeyer, Stephanie Bax Fontanella, Jennifer Hollands, Lorraine O'Donnell Gray, Nicholas Needham
Performances continue 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 7 in Alleyway Theatre. Call 852-2600.