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COMMENTARY

From 'Hairspray' to 'Catch-22,' Buffalo theater season has something for everyone

At the start of a television season (if such a thing still exists in this age of streaming) critics can preview shows and advise audiences on what they can expect to see. Not so with a theater season. The best I can do is gaze over a roster of announced titles, as if into a crystal ball, and guess.

As a live art, theater is unpredictable. Already, we’ve seen quiet cast changes in shows that are kicking off the 2019-2020 season. Everything – from the plays, to the actors, to the directors, to the dates – is subject to contingency. Complications can develop during rehearsals. An actor can fall ill or get a better offer. Problems can emerge over rights.

So in response to the question, “What looks exciting in the upcoming theater season?” the best I can do is to speak like a fortuneteller. I’ll tell you that the one you love may be closer than you think. In fact, a thrilling time may be in your near future.

That’s a safe bet every season.

Consider, for instance, the Curtain Up! lineup. Each theater strives to entice its audience with something to whet the dramatic appetite. A good experience in September can inspire return visits to the box office all year long. In the mix we see a beloved Golden Age musical and a popular Tony-winning musical from 2002. We see new plays and a harrowing Caroline tragedy. We see cross-dressing and star-crossed lovers. We see original material and adaptations from literature and film.

Here is a look at local plays opening the new season in September. Some already are on stage; other premiere on the night of the Curtain Up! festivities, Sept. 20.

Alleyway Theatre is making the transition from its founding artistic director, Neal Radice, to the new leadership of Chris J. Handley. The Alleyway season begins with “Navigators,” a play by longtime Radice collaborator Gordon Farrell, who co-authored last season’s Broadway play, “Lifespan of a Fact,” starring Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale. Radice will direct and Handley will star. Sept. 12 to Oct. 5, Alleyway Theatre (One Curtain Up Alley).

Brazen-Faced Varlets presents the world premiere of "Knock Knock, Jesus Calling," written and performed by Heather Fangsrud.

Brazen-Faced Varlets, a plucky feminist theater is offering the autobiographical “Knock Knock, Jesus Calling” in which actor Heather Fangsrud “recounts her childhood growing up gay in a strict, religious, Jehovah’s Witness household.” Sept. 20 to Oct. 6, Rust Belt Books (415 Grant St.).

James Cichocki stars in "Bright Colors and Bold Patterns" for Buffalo United Artists. (Photo by Cheryl Gorski)

Buffalo United Artists, Buffalo’s enduring LGBTQ theater offers the recent off-Broadway hit, “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns” by Drew Droege. It’s a one-man show about the eve of a same-sex wedding in Palm Springs that turns into “a drunken, drug-fueled scream riot,” as one of the guests becomes increasingly enraged by a stipulation on the wedding invitation: “Please refrain from wearing bright colors or bold patterns.” Sept. 13 to Oct. 5, Alleyway Cabaret (One Curtain Up Alley).

Like Alleyway, the Irish Classical Theatre Company also is engaged in a transition of leadership as Kate LoConti takes the helm from Vincent O’Neill. To mark his own final season as producing director, Fortunato Pezzimenti has chosen a script from his bucket list: John Ford’s 17th century tragedy with a title that can still raise eyebrows: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.” They’re calling it Jacobean, but it is the most celebrated of the decadent Caroline tragedies – the time period during the reign of Charles I, who went to the theater a lot, but generally bolloxed things up as king before the Puritans lopped off his head, and replaced him with Oliver Cromwell, who outlawed theater. This jolly romp of a play about incest, deception and revenge gives us insight into the Puritans’ motivation. Sept. 20 to Oct. 13, Andrews Theatre (625 Main St.).

The Kavinoky Theatre is doing the twist, jerk, pony and watusi to open the season with the joyful 2002 Broadway smash, “Hairspray,” in which plus-sized teenager Tracy Turnblad, supported by her devoted mother Edna, uses her dream to dance on the Corny Collins Show to defeat racism in 1962 Baltimore. Through Oct. 6 in the Kavinoky Theatre (D'Youville College, 320 Porter Ave.). Read Ben Siegel's review here.

While at MusicalFare, the Sharks are rumbling with the Jets and Tony and Maria are falling in love to the tunes of Leonard Bernstein, lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and words of Arthur Laurents in the Golden Age classic, “West Side Story.” Presented in association with Raices Theatre Company. "MusicalFare presents an energetic 'West Side Story' that can spin you in a dance, slap you in the face and, ultimately, break your heart," Melinda Miller wrote in her 3-star review. Through Oct. 6 at Daemen College (4380 Main St., Amherst).

At the New Phoenix Theatre On The Park, we see a reworking of “Izzy,” a musical revue by local writers Jim Santella and Grant Golden about “one of Buffalo's most famous, glorious, but unheralded composers, Israel Freel!” A fictitious “almost musical superstar who almost changed the world.” Sept. 20 to Oct. 17 at New Phoenix Theatre on the Park (95 Johnson Park).

O’Connell & Company will celebrate Curtain Up! night in Shea’s Smith Theatre with “Gentlemen Prefer Divas: Broadway Legends,” an installment of its durable “Diva” franchise. The company is actually starting its season with a big musical in a new space. They will inaugurate their new theater at 3200 Elmwood Ave. in Tonawanda with Mel Brooks’ riotous “Young Frankenstein” from Oct. 3 to 27.

Paul Robeson Theatre offers “Ladies Swing The Blues A Jazz Opus Folklore in the Key of Swing” in which jazz icons Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald gather at Birdland in 1953 to celebrate the life of Charlie Parker and to discuss the mysterious circumstances surrounding his premature death. Sept. 20 to Oct. 13, African American Cultural Center (350 Masten Ave.).

At Road Less Traveled Productions, "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid" stars, from left, Daniel Greer, Dave Mitchell, Peter Palmisano and Patrick Cameron. (Photo by Gina Gandolfo)

Road Less Traveled Productions presents “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid” by Lee Blessing in which the man who based his life on being “the man who shot Billy the Kid” is confronted with the very much alive man himself. It’s time to reappraise his identity. Sept. 12 to Oct. 16, Road Less Traveled Theater (456 Main St.).

At Subversive Theatre Collective, it’s Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” based on his own anti-war novel. Through Sept. 28 in the Manny Fried Playhouse (255 Great Arrow Ave., Suite 302). Read Melinda Miller's review here.

And at Ujima Company we will see “Pipeline,” by the prolific and popular Dominique Morisseau, author of Broadway’s current “Ain’t Too Proud” and an increasingly impressive list of plays about life in Detroit. Here we follow one mother’s complicated effort to protect her son from the school to prison pipeline that plagues inner cities. Sept. 20 to Oct. 13 at Ujima (239 Plymouth St.).

With something to suit every taste, I see many happy nights of theater going in the coming season.

Other season premieres

Some local theater companies open their seasons in October.

Desiderio's Dinner Theatre: "Columbo (Prescription Murder)," Oct. 13 to Nov. 15 at Bobby J's (204 Como Park Boulevard).

Jewish Repertory Theatre: "Oh My God!," Oct. 24 to Nov. 17 Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, JCC Benderson Family Building (2640 North Forest Road, Amherst).

Second Generation Theatre: "The Toxic Avenger," Oct. 25 to Nov. 10, Shea's Smith Theatre (658 Main St.).

Theatre of Youth: "Pete the Cat," Oct. 12 to 27, Allendale Theatre (203 Allen St.).

Curtain Up!

The 38th annual celebration is Sept. 20.

Act I: Gala Dinner, 5 to 7:30 p.m. at 500 Pearl (500 Pearl St.). Tickets are $100 each. For reservations, call 847-0850.

Act II: Performances at 8 p.m. at various area theaters.

Act III: Free street party with music and dancing, starts at 10 p.m. in the 600 block of Main Street.

For info, visit tda-wny.com.

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