Curtain Up! is the lone night on our cultural calendar when all of downtown is focused on the theater. Every show will have a good audience, and the streets will be alive with enthusiastic revelers who dress to the nines and stay out late at the event, this year starting at 5:30 p.m. Friday with a gala dinner under the tent at Fountain Plaza.
This annual event began 37 years ago, when the Metro Rail was under construction. Downtown looked like a bomb site, and Buffalo’s theaters sought to remind everyone that they were still open for business, even if you had to navigate around construction fencing, empty storefronts and wobbly plank bridges to get to them.
Billed as the annual celebration of the opening of Buffalo’s professional theater season, presented by the Theatre District Association of Western New York and M&T Bank, this event is pure show business.
Today, downtown is thriving, rents and real estate prices are soaring and Buffalo’s theaters are still open for business. Over the years, theaters have learned to be quite strategic in planning the Curtain Up! slot of their seasons, leveraging this night for best advantage. A Curtain Up! show must attract a specific audience and fulfill a specific purpose.
The Curtain Up! audience is a combination of devoted theatergoers and people who go to the theater only on Curtain Up! night. The crowd can be unpredictable. It might be rowdy, or it might fall asleep after all that gourmet food and champagne. Small independent theaters are especially unlikely to open their seasons to that kind of audience.
In fact, for some theaters, Curtain Up! is a one-off, a single night to take the money and run, or to promote the existence of their group. In this category, count the following shows:
“Wonderland.” Birds Nest Productions, a group dedicated to circus arts, will retell favorite scenes from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” using aerialists, dancers and acrobats. 64 Fillmore Ave.
“Shifting Gears.” A cabaret performance by Buffalo’s first lady of Cabaret, Kerrykate Abel, with Chuck Basil on the keyboard. Buffalo United Artists (Main Street Cabaret at Alleyway Theatre).
Comedy Sportz. An evening of improvisational comedy played as sport, wherein two teams of comedians compete for laughs and points while a referee calls fouls and solicits suggestions from the audience. The Arena, 4476 Main St.
“Gentlemen Prefer Divas: Buffalo Legends.” A variation on O’Connell and Company’s “Diva” franchise, in which an ever-shifting cast of minimally rehearsed local amateurs, many of whom are public figures, join professional actors and singers to perform playful material about women, script in hand, to an audience heavy with friends and family. Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main St.
“Hamiltunes: An American Singalong.” Attendees will have the opportunity to perform their favorite songs from Broadway’s “Hamilton.” This event surely adds to the hype over the show’s November run at Shea’s and its nearly unobtainable tickets. Shea’s 710 Theatre.
Other theaters take the traditional Curtain Up! path with fully produced plays and musicals, devised to kick off subscription seasons with a roar:
“Philosophus.” Alleyway created the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition to encourage aspiring playwrights to submit their work. This also allows Alleyway to announce a new play as an “award winner.” Alleyway opens its season with an award-winning comedy about French philosopher, author and wit “Voltaire.” Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley.
“Purlie.” Last year, the Paul Robeson Theatre scored a huge success with a revival of the 1971 hit about African-American life, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.” Clearly it is hoping lightning will strike twice when it opens with “Purlie,” a big Broadway musical hit of the same vintage. 350 Masten Ave.
“Fahrenheit 451.” Ray Bradbury’s futuristic drama about a totalitarian America in which nobody thinks. Subversive Theatre Collective seems to be banking on the likelihood that the story will resonate with renewed power in today’s polarized political climate. Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Read Ben Siegel's review here.
“Pinkalicious.” A musical based on the popular “Pinkalicious” books, about a little girl who loves the color pink, has played at Theatre of Youth twice before. This year, it returns to amuse an entire new wave of children, ages 4 and older. 203 Allen St.
“Golden Boy.” Clifford Odets’ 1937 play about a young Italian-American who must decide between a life of artistic fulfillment as a violinist, or financial success as a boxer. An American classic from a Golden Age of Broadway signals that the Irish Classical Theatre wants to be seen as a serious theater with high artistic standards. The Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St.
“Sweeney Todd.” The grand musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler tells the tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. As the Kavinoky enters a new era under new artistic direction, musicals seem to be taking a more prominent role. 320 Porter Ave. Read Colin Dabkowski's review here.
“Pump Boys & Dinettes.” MusicalFare fluctuates between challenging and comforting musicals. This little revue is in the latter category, but comes with a distinguished Broadway pedigree. A melding of country and Broadway music, and an opportunity for expert ensemble performance. 4380 Main St., Amherst. Read Melinda Miller's review here.