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On with the shows Times are tough and Studio Arena is gone, but this year's Curtain Up! finds a flourishing theater scene in Buffalo and a record number of productions.

In times of stress and struggle, Americans have always sought refuge in the theater.

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that in the past year, at a time when public funding for the arts has never been more thinly spread, Buffalo's theater community has grown stronger and more productive than at any point in its history.

The recent closure of Studio Arena Theatre, Buffalo's flagship company, was a devastating cultural blow from which the region will take years to recover. But the migration of Studio subscribers to other companies, along with an increasingly healthy appetite for the theater, has encouraged the city's 20 or so companies to churn out shows in unprecedented numbers.

"Personally, I was terrified that the demise of Studio Arena would have a negative impact," said Vincent O'Neill, artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company and president of the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo. "But I think it's just made the other theater companies more adamant about trying to survive."

To Neal Radice, whose Alleyway Theatre is about to launch its 30th season, the number of theaters and shows on the slate looks more robust than at any point in his memory. "It's probably fair to declare this the busiest theater season yet," he said. "We should all pat ourselves on our back for being able to be where we are and hope that there are the resources to hang on."

Of course, as Radice hints, it's not all smiles and sunshine on the Buffalo theater scene. Several companies continue to struggle with funding problems, less-than-full houses and a future that's never certain. But gazing out on the sheer volume and variety of the coming season's offerings, the outlook is far brighter than anyone could have predicted.

Three theater companies, Buffalo United Artists, O'Connell and Company and Kaleidoscope Theatre Productions, have found new homes to call their own.

Other theaters that recently looked to be on the verge of extinction, like Ujima Company, have pulled together robust seasons. The subscriber bases at three of Buffalo's most solid companies, the Irish Classical Theatre Company, Road Less Traveled Productions and MusicalFare Theatre, have all seen record increases in the past year. Meanwhile, the Kavinoky Theatre, in good shape itself, prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary. And to top it all off, Shea's Performing Arts Center is on track for what promises to be one of its most successful seasons of Broadway touring shows ever.

Constance McEwen Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo, attributed the sunny prognosis partly to increased collaboration among the region's companies.

"I think it borders on miraculous that we exist in this town given the fact that we don't get the funding that other markets enjoy," Caldwell said. "I like to think that it's the result of the theaters coming together and really looking out after themselves."

>Curtain Up!

After a summer filled with more than its share of theatrical offerings large and small, from Artpark's crowd-pleasing production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" to the monstrous Buffalo Infringement Festival, there's only a brief window to catch your breath before it all starts up again.

Starting on Wednesday and reaching full blast during Friday's annual Curtain Up! celebration, Buffalo will embark on what is plainly its most diverse and prolific theater season yet. Here's a brief look at the shows that will usher in Western New York's 2009-10 theater season:

*"2 Pianos 4 Hands" at MusicalFare Theatre (4380 Main St., Amherst), Wednesday through Oct. 11. 839-8540 or www.musicalfare.com

After breaking box office records with its extended production of "Badda Bing! Badda Boom!" last season, MusicalFare Theatre kicks off the 2009-10 roster with a production inclined toward fans and students of classical music. The show stars MusicalFare Artistic and Executive Director Randall Kramer and Jeffrey Rockwell as two classical pianists who share tales of their lives in music.

*"24 With Maggie" at Main Street Cabaret (672 Main St.) in a production by TheatrePlus, Thursday through Oct. 3. 852-2600 or alleyway.com.

In this offering from TheatrePlus, a subsidiary of Alleyway Theatre which focuses on plays for and by women, local playwright Beth Geyer gives us a semi-autobiographical glimpse into a day in the life of the fictional Maggie Bauer. Spread across 24 hours and separated into six one-act plays, Geyer's work takes its inspiration tongue-in-cheekly from "24," the intense television drama starring Kiefer Sutherland.

*"Freud and the Sandman" at New Phoenix Theatre (95 Johnson Park), Friday through Oct. 3. 853-1334 or www.newphoenixtheatre.org.

Over the last decade or so, the New Phoenix Theatre has been gradually honing a stylized brand of theater that marries puppetry, a unique ensemble approach and a certain darkly whimsical energy. The play, said director Robert Waterhouse, "represents, at last, the kind of 'fusion' of disciplines -- designers' minds, composer, and ensemble and puppetry -- to which the New Phoenix aspires. And the piece itself, about Freud's attempt to crack the story of the sandman who steals the eyes of naughty children, is we hope creepily captivating in a PG kind of way."

*"The Careful Glover" at Alleyway Theatre (1 Curtain Up Alley), Thursday through Oct. 3. 852-2600 or alleyway.com.

The age old-struggle of the stifled artist sits at the heart of this new play by Jim Baines, the winner of Alleyway's annual Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition. Starring Saul Elkin as William Shakespeare, the piece takes a look at the Bard of Avon's final day on earth.

*"Area (Part 1)" at the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle (612 Fillmore Ave.) in a production by Torn Space Theater, Thursday through Sept. 27. 812.5733 or www.tornspacetheater.com.

From the enigmatic mind of Torn Space co-founder Dan Shanahan comes his remount of his boundary-pushing piece, first produced at the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle last October. The technology-heavy production, meant to ruminate on issues of identity in the digital age, tells the story of a crime and the vacillating state of mind of the accused. This year's version of the show, Shanahan said, will "strip down the story into a more cohesive and direct narrative."

*"The Pipes Are Calling: An Elegy to Dan Higgins Sr." at Buffalo United Artists Theatre (119 W. Chippewa St.), Friday through Sept. 19. 886-9239 or www.buffalobua.org. After an absence of more than three years, local playwright Matthew Crehan Higgins returns to the scene with this one-man show about his influential grandfather, who died last April. Higgins Sr. was, among other things, a bricklayer, a longtime Buffalo Common Council member and, finally, a tireless campaigner who worked to elect his son, Brian Higgins, to the U.S. Congress. Higgins' show deals in poignant terms with his grandfather's decline, and the lessons he and his family gleaned from their paterfamilias.

*"Bartenders" at the Allendale Theatre (203 Allen St.) in a production by Theatre of Youth, Friday and Saturday. 884-4400 or www.theatreofyouth.org.

Louis Mustillo brings his one-man homage to the art of bartending back to the Allendale Theatre for its farewell performance. The show is based on Mustillo's wheelings and dealings in watering holes in Buffalo and elsewhere. It chronicles six bartenders, "each with a story that demands respect for a profession that seems to get none," as News reviewer Jane Kwiatkowski wrote in 2003.

*"Revenge of a King" at Paul Robeson Theatre (African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave.), Friday through Oct. 4. 884-2013.

Described as "a multicultural hip-hop musical," this show takes Shakespeare's Hamlet and plunks him down in on the city streets of America. Paul Robeson's Artistic Director Paulette D. Harris directs.

*"Blood Brothers" at the Andrews Theatre (625 Main St.) in a production by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, Friday through Oct. 11. 853-4282 or www.irishclassicaltheatre.com.

The story of two twins separated at birth serves as the central dramatic fuel in this immensely popular musical by Willy Russell, which has been running on London's West End for more than 20 years. The Irish Classical Theatre production, directed by Fortunate Pezzimenti, stars Loraine O'Donnell, Brian Riggs, David Autovino, Steven Copps and Cassie Gorniewicz.

*"A Few Good Men" at Kavinoky Theatre (320 Porter Ave.), Friday through Oct. 11. 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com.

There's nothing like a good-old-fashioned courtroom drama. After last year's successful production of "12 Angry Men," the Kavinoky Theatre is again banking on the addictive dramatic form for its season opener with Aaron Sorkin's riveting tale of military conspiracy.

*"I Hate Hamlet" at Kaleidoscope Theatre (Medaille College, 18 Agassiz Circle, Buffalo), Friday through Sept. 26. 479-1587 or www.kaleidoscopetheatreproductions.com.

Challenged perhaps only by King Lear, the role of Hamlet is touted as the most arduous character for an actor to attempt. That difficulty sits at the center of this comedy by Paul Rudnick, in which an actor attempting to play the Danish prince is haunted by the ghost of the great Shakespearean actor John Barrymore.

*"Grenadine" at Road Less Traveled Productions (639 Main St.), Friday through Oct. 11. 745-3000 or www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org

Selected as the winner of the 2008 Yale Drama Award by Edward Albee ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), this play by local Neil Wechsler has off-Broadway written all over it. A comical piece about the storied journey of four friends through strange and unfamiliar territory, Wechsler's absurdist "Grenadine" takes its share of cues from Beckett and maybe a few from Chekov, too.

*"Over the Tavern" at Lancaster Opera House (21 Central Ave.), Friday though Sept. 20. 683-1776 or www.lancopera.org.

A fair amount of time has passed since the last local production of Tom Dudzick's nostalgic family comedy -- likely the most popular play Buffalo has ever produced. The Lancaster Regional Players will bring back the exploits of the Pazinskis, Dudzick's quirky but lovable Polish Catholic family whose familiar dynamic sets off triggers of memory among countless Western New Yorkers who grew up in the '50s.

*"Electra" at the ALT Theatre (255 Great Arrow Ave.), Thursday through Sept. 26. 868-6847 or www.alttheatre.com.

If you sacrifice one of your daughters to the gods and send the other off to live in peasant obscurity, there's bound to be hell to pay. That's the story behind Eurpides' tragedy "Electra," which will get a unique interpretation by director Drew McCabe at the ALT Theatre. The show stars Candice Kogut, Joy Scime and Diane Cammarata.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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