YOUTUBE VIDEO OF THE SHOW BELOW
Reviewed by Evan Meena
The M Center for the Arts culminates each season with an annual “recital” but somehow the recitals get bigger and bigger each year. Having attended a healthy share of them, this writer saw the growth of the studio and its students.
Mary Elizabeth Micari, the founder of the establishment and of the P.A.T.H. method (Performing Arts Training Holistically) brings together her finest students in their finest moments for a one night – in this case – one afternoon presentation.
The school initially had recitals in churches and other local Brooklyn centers, and then the season finale moved to The Producers Club in Manhattan as well as the original Musical Theater Works across from the Public. Now the 2016 season project added its name to the litany of shows that were part of the 13th Street Repertory. But that wasn’t all that made it the best yet. This year, the tiny few lines bringing together the students song work became a full-scale three act script written by Jay Michaels. And we’re not finished. One of those acts was picked up by John Chatterton’s Midtown International Theatre Festival and opened just a week ago. Way to go M Center.
The story this year was a soaring one. GENERATIONS follows three generations of artists. The first group was a gaggle of little girls awaiting an unknown audition but for all their cat-on-Facebook cuteness, were tough cookies. Leading the pack of marshmallows with crunchy centers was Alinna Gonzalez, whose comic timing for someone her young age is stunning. Somehow, she and newcomer Ella Paturno managed to pull off comedy routines with precision, eliciting belly laughs form the crowd. Bringing up the rear in this first segment was Agapi Bakopoulou, a trained film performer; here Agapi showed that she had stage chops as well. All there found a moment to sing cleverly woven-in tunes with excellence. Alinna shifting gears from the brassy to the sensitive with a lovely pop piece before Ella proceeded to blow the speakers out of the theatre with This Girl is On Fire and Agapi showing comic versatility with Get this Party Started. And what a surprise… they end with Naughty from Matilda. These three were beyond cute and really talented. Alinna then surprised the crowd by sitting down at the piano and playing a song she composed. I was speechless.
Act Two found a group of teenagers attempting to break a writer’s block and finish a new song. All the usual players were present: the sassy “popular” kids and the shy soul with so much inside. Isabella Sirota and Ashley Chico – dressed identically in fashionable “artist” grays – played the popular kids with aplomb, fast talking and excited. Ashley handed in two power-packed numbers while Isabella saved her winner for the 11:00 number of the act; a song she wrote. There seemed to be a thru line even behind the scenes.
It then turned out that Ashley’s best of the two numbers was also written by Sirota. The M’s students were surprising all the way around.
But the star of that movement was – of course – the shy girl, Brigid Elizabeth Drake. She created a realistic lonely little girl just wanting her chance. Her song At Seventeen was so moving that even she was brought to tears. Why should she be any different than anyone else in the theatre at that moment? Her natural acting ability and lovely countenance will take her far in this industry.
Act III took us some 30-40 years in the future… in terms of performers’ age. M Center has a division dedicated to the more senior artist and for that act; some really wonderful moments were presented. Two favorites of the school and one relative newcomer played office workers on the eve of their termination due to reorganization lament about their days in showbiz.
Emmy Pai, an Asian dynamo returns to the M Center stage as an accountant who dreams of being a showgirl. She presented a sultry FEVER and uproarious Come On-a My House. Christine Conway, a familiar M face for much of the studio’s life, played a woman obsessed by horror movies. Conway gave us lots of laughs with “Boyfriend” from Young Frankenstein and “Khandarian Demon” from Evil Dead the musical. Towering above them is relative newcomer Dave Richards. A former stand-up comic Dave shared his obvious well-timed humor and competent voice in a group of tunes which seemed designed to exemplify the mood of the show. Two wistful ditties about what he should have done and how he landed there, grounded the fun in stern reality. Their piece, maybe because of the identifiable subject matter, maybe their convincing performances, was the most realistic and engaging. It’s no wonder it went on to a legit off-off Broadway bow.
Two other cast members were more-than evident in the production as their roles seemed to weave in and out of all three stories. Andrew Gonzalez played a street smart kid who wanted to be an actor. He, through outlandish means, infiltrates the little girls audition and supplies the scene with some strong laughs and a rousing number from Disney’s Aladdin. He reappeared in the teen segment and displays some really compelling acting chops with Pippin’s perennial “Corner of the Sky” and some really touching moments with that cast. His final showing was in the epilogue of the final segment and gave the audience a laugh that was joyous, cathartic and inspiring. Gonzalez displayed unusually high talent as an actor in these three segments, so much so that the energy considerably rose on stage and in the audience at each appearance. His singing voice is only starting its journey but already shows great promise. I’m sure we’ll see his growth meteorically happen at future M productions.
The second thru line artist was Mario Claudio. Claudio brought down the house a few years ago in another M concert and here we now see the same level of strength in a more mature, focused entertainer. He got an opportunity that most actors would kill for. He played four separate characters. The humor was that they were all identical siblings. He began as a glad-handed stage manager for the unseen production of the children. All coos and smiles; he was the perfect counter to the streetwise brats. Then he was an affected music teacher, complete with light gait and bow tie. Here Claudio gave us the effete flicker of the stereotypical high school teacher of back-in-the-day. Finally, two for the price of one. A somewhat callous office manager and his bartender brother. The former, deadpan and hushed, Claudio gambled on glares and glints – which paid off well. As the latter tough-guy brother/barkeep, he gave us more mood than substance and while this might seem negative, considering the scene in which Dave’s character goes through a major turning point, it actually was more of a help. Mario’s name is in much of M Center and Genesis Repertory’s (the school’s sponsor) press, so one can fathom his star is on the rise.
[A call to our editor at press time implied he is now a member of the cast of the perennial LINE, whose run surpasses Cats, Phantom, and Fantasticks.]
One could forget this was a concert of students thanks to the script written by Jay Michaels. A few connecting quips to get from song to song in such a project is expected but instead the audience received a competent multi-act play with character and transition. This expert tome enhanced the actors own performances exponentially. Corralling this rag-tag group is musical director Mason Griffin. His control of the varied score and the performers elevated the production even higher.
Mary Elizabeth Micari’s bio shows an enviable level of expertise which she selflessly bestows on her students – and the caliber of talent displayed showed it. Ms. Micari and her P.A.T.H. method are an invaluable open-door to anyone looking for a career in the arts.
“You’re Gonna be Star”
The school boasts a platform that allows students to enter the “real world” while studying at the M. Lots of schools take credit for the student’s successes even though they had very little to do with it. Other schools have local showings that they call opportunities. M is different. Proof of that came with Act III of Generations, which one month later became “Grey is the New Black.”
The three hapless 9-to-5’ers took their act on the road. Actually, uptown about a mile at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, John Chatterton’s venerable array of new works and variety acts. There, a newer version of their musical angst fest about day-job hell was presented. Here the stakes were higher. Language was stronger and more music was added – and the three caballeros rose to the occasions quite well. The basic story was the same, three former show folk are now about to be let go from a job they never really wanted and what should they do at this more senior time in their lives without means of support.
Maybe without the festivity of the kids and concert and an audience filled with parents and friends, the story seemed deeper and darker. Dave, our former comic seemed like a man whose masculinity was taken when he opted out of job at Dangerfield’s decades prior. Dave Richards supplied with us with a subtle sense of pathos which resonated with the crowd beautifully. His stand-up chops were used as a new narrative supplying us with constant alleviation. His rueful songs banged in the ears of an audience of strangers whose only connection is a deep understanding of the words “dream” and “lay-off.”
Christine Conway provided a deft character study of someone who made a mistake and how that hinders everything else in your life. Her clunky presence and child-like horror heroine fantasies allowed the audience to laugh now – and cry later. Sadly, her film references were somewhat obscure so the real punch of hearing about Hammer Films and Peter Cushing was not there, but the author’s choice of film names allowed the message to still shine. Not much doubt about a movie called Frankenstein’s Monsters from Hell. Finally Emmy Pai gave us a live wire showing as an immigrant whose dreams were halted by unnecessary tradition. Pai’s rapid fire energy and delivery was a joy. Always funny, Emmy Pai was the comic relief of the comedy – go figure. Her delivery while funny was in some cases too fast and the humor of her speaking Chinese and some really clever one-liners were lost. While fast and loud is best, sometimes less is more.
Michaels and Micari returned as the production team handing in an expertly written and subtly staged work. While Jay Michaels is known for more elaborate works (his NYIT Award nominated Hamlet was running downtown and the same moment), the intimacy of the simple set and austere lighting hit the spot. Musically, Mary Micari along with longtime collaborator Dan Furman kept the music – old and new – smooth and enticing. Now the pair handed the three chums harmonies and even a few ensemble numbers. If the show has any level of autobiography in it, then it is assumed the three have left the arts and came back, which makes the intricate musical work that much more impressive.
Spoiler alert – there’s a happy ending
After visiting many of concerts and watching the growth in familiar faces, one can conclude that the M Center is not like other schools of its ilk. It doesn’t train its actors to be all they can be. It trains them to be better. And then they find a place to put them in the professional world. Many schools falsely use the word “star” purely colloquially.