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Take advantage of Broadway’s music strike

The doors closing on Broadway musicals comes at an opportune time for Queens community theaters. Indeed, local theaters are enjoying an end-of-winter burst of great productions that would make any theater-lovers head spin. And perhaps with Broadway temporarily out of commission, many more theatre lovers with think about the local opportunities literally at our doorsteps.

For example, this past weekend I personally covered three splendid productions — “I Remember Mama” at the Heights Players in Brooklyn on its opening night, Friday March 7, “Dial M for Murder” on Saturday at Theatre Time Productions in Whitestone, and the Outrageous Fortune Company’s wonderful “The Cripple of Inishmaan” at Theatre in the Park. My two best friends and (usually) partners in theatre-going opted for three different productions — “The Wizard of Oz” at the Blackfriars at St. Adalbert’s in Elmhurst on Friday, the closing night of “Death Takes a Holiday” at Douglaston Community Theatre on Saturday (which I had previously seen and reviewed), and “Anything Goes” at the Marathon Little Theatre Group in Douglaston.

Apparently many people do take local theatre seriously since all six performances that we attended were quite packed — in fact, the closing night of “Death” at Douglaston Community Theatre apparently had to turn people away and my friends were sitting in a house packed to the concession stand. The moral to be learned: call for reservations and don’t expect an empty seat to be waiting for you.

How can I thank the Heights Players for mounting the 1944 classic “I Remember Mama?” Written and originally staged by John van Druten, also known for his “I Am a Camera” (which eventually transformed into the musical “Cabaret”), this play is known for its insurmountable production effects — requiring a revolving stage, a huge cast, and a live cat. It is also known as the play in which young Marlon Brando appeared on Broadway in the role of young Nels.

The Heights Players, who first attracted me with their February production of “Come Blow Your Horn,” overcame staging difficulties by focusing on the interactions of the characters in this timeless tale of the selfless Norwegian matriarch who raises her family on a shoestring in old San Francisco. The story is told via the writing talent of their beloved daughter Katrina, a talent nurtured with utmost sacrifice by Mama.

The play moves ever so gently toward the great moment when Katrina receives her first check for selling a story, a fortune of $500, and when Mama has Katrina read her story to the assembled family. There was not a dry eye in the house and the lump in my throat is re-forming as I recall it, a tribute to the talents of a sturdy cast — far too numerous to single out all the individuals — and the directorial efforts of Ted Thompson. Thank you all for such a tender and moving performance.

In the interests of Queens audiences, the Heights Players are located off the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, just four blocks from the Atlantic Avenue exit, at 26 Willow Place, just off Joralemon and State streets, in Brooklyn Heights. With productions of “Heaven Can Wait” and “My Fair Lady” (my absolute favorite musical) still to come this year, you may want to check them out. Call 718-237-2752.

“Dial M for Murder” is a quantum leap upward from Theatre Time Productions’ fall presentation of “Murder Takes the Stage.” “Dial M” is an intriguing character piece, not so much a mystery or thriller as a study into workings of a killer’s mind (or rather the mind of a sadistic misogynist). The character was originally conceived as a showcase for Britain’s famed Emrys Jones, was eventually played on Broadway by the equally renowned Maurice Evans and, in Hitchcock’s famous film, by Ray Milland (who claimed it changed his career roles overnight from quirky romantic leads to monsters).

Theatre Time assembled a solid cast to tackle this tricky piece. In the lead, Ray Palen as Tony Wendice, the husband of murderous intent, kept a consistent cavalier pose about him. A grin served as a focus point of a somewhat roguish characterization, rather than opting to let the demon from within ever show its face — no mean trick since Frederick Knott, the playwright, once wrote that Wendice was the blackest character he had ever conceived of — even more so than the murderer of his later “Wait Until Dark.”

As the would-be victim Margot Wendice, Dawn Marie Wood could almost, in my eyes, be said to outdo Grace Kelly with her richly projected turmoil — thanks largely to dramatic eyes, always expressive, always evocative. As a beautiful lady in distress, the audience felt not only her broken life with her husband, but her self-inflicted guilt in her romance with another man. The central scenes of her struggle with the killer and the harrowing final moments of waiting to see what Tony would do are both silent, and yet she expressed all she had to — her strength and will to survive.

Most impressive too was Michael Dendekker as the hapless Lesgate. His scene with Tony, luring him into committing the dastardly deed, was a marvel as one felt and watched him fall deeper and deeper into the trap. As with Miss Wood, he did so much with his eyes and heated expressions — in sharp contrast to the cool, attenuated mood of his tempter.

As the faithful, but probably adulterous, boyfriend Max, Kevin Vincent was most sympathetic, all self-righteous and supportive. As with Mr. Palen’s characterization, he too opted for a simply presented, consistent pose, uncluttered with inner turmoil. On the other hand, Amand Catenaro’s Inspector Hubbard was quite introspective, probing so deeply into the crime that one could almost feel his quest to save Margot, like an aging knight in shining amour fighting for his unrequited love. In his few lines as Thompson, Abe Ber filled out the cast quite nicely.

Director Tom Williams steered clear of scratching-below-the surface nuances and told the story as clearly as possible, keeping the audience focused on the tricky events that surrounded the crime and its resolution -- a good decision that kept the audience riveted in the final moment of truth. Will he or won’t Tony go for the key? It was indeed a tense moment.

Please do give yourself a treat and see any of the remaining performances this weekend, Friday and Saturday, March 14 and 15 at 8 p.m., and Sunday March 16 at 4:30 p.m. Theatre Time is located at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, 15-43 149th Street, Whitestone. Call 718-391-8697 for reservation.

On Sunday I sat in awe through a most powerful, beautiful performance of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” by Ronald Hellman’s Outrageous Fortune Company. From the onset, the place seemed in a festive mood, as Mr. Hellman announced a number of local theater celebrities in the audience, most of whom — I am sorry to say — I did not know. But when he noted that Richard Weyhausen was in the house — I certainly did look up to notice that he was sitting just two seats in front of me.

Suddenly Martin McDonagh did not seem to be as oppressive as, I must admit, I had preconceived. The famed young Irish playwright focuses on the darkly tragic core of Irish humor. Laugh you must, because the characters are so real and their apparent universe is so vividly presented, so replete with petty idiosyncrasies.

Indeed, I found myself questioning my own laughter at the brutal infliction of painful jokes and imprecations. The characters are all caught helplessly in their own twisted world, buried under layer upon layer of lies and distorted, grotesque events, so that they cannot recognize friend from foe or malice from remorse.

Young Jonathan Desley was triumphant as the physically (and, of course, emotionally) twisted Cripple Billy. His face was so expressive — filled with pain, but also with fleeting moments of joy. His fatalistic monologue was gripping, especially with real tears flooding from his eyes. His final plea to be sweethearts with the apparently vicious Helen was poignant, and his final realization that his trick had become a reality — as he coughed up blood and turned off the light — was overwhelming.

Equally impressive was James Doherty as the loudmouthed Johnnypattenmike. His endless, audacious news-telling was almost Shakespearean in tone and manner. His irreverent treatment of his mother was murderously funny — especially given the immensely professional portrait of the liquor-slugging mum by Pauline Walsh. Doherty convinced the audience completely of his obnoxiousness, only for the final revelation — his real, deep bond to Billy -- to be most moving.

Therese Plaehn’s Helen was remarkable, in her audacity and physicality. Gutter-talk spilled out of her lovely lips as readily as she inflicted the men around her with her pecking, punching and pinching. Of course, she too had a most moving final revelation — that a tender, frightened soul was hiding beneath the surface.

The cast was rounded out with the gritty Babbybobby of Ryan Etzel, a brutal demon hiding behind an apparently compassionate baby face; the brainless, sweet-toothed Bartley of Damon Noland; the hopelessly intertwined spinster sisters played by Adriane Noroian and Adrienne Makowski; and a solid Doctor McSharry played by the director John Fitzgerald Emro.

As the director, Emro must take credit for molding this fine ensemble and still allowing each character to have his precious moment in the spotlight. He also allowed his characters to take all the time they needed to spin their tales and gossip as convincingly as only time allows.

Moreover, he must have insisted that all the cast take Irish language coaching — or else he insisted on casting people who had good brogues — because the accents were lyrical and gorgeous, an absolute must in presenting a play of this kind.

I whole-heartedly recommend this fine production. Further performances are this weekend, Friday and Saturday, March 14 and 15 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 16 at 3 p.m. The Outrageous Fortune Company is located at the Studio Theatre at Queens Theatre in the Park, Flushing Meadows, right off the Grand Central near Shea Stadium.

As for the shows I missed this past weekend but my friends saw, I am told that “Anything Goes” at the Marathon Little Theatre Group is worth the trip, even if just for Cole Porter’s immortal tunes. I have the program in front of me and am told that Amanda Salerno and Terrence McDonnell are a picture perfect Hope and Billy and that Cathy Chimenti’s was a well-sung, well-performed Reno Sweeney. Of course, this is not my own review — but I feel compelled to mention this production now rather than to wait until I catch it, which will mean a review would come out rather late in its run.

Additional performances are Saturdays, March 15 and 22, at 8 p.m., and Sundays, March 16 and 23, at 3 p.m. The Marathon Little Theatre Group is located at the Marathon Jewish Center, 245-37 60th Avenue, Douglaston.

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