• Anthony Chase

So what’s the deal with Shea’s 710 Main Theatre?


The "Starring Buffalo" cast of Little Shop with producer/director Drew Fornarola. Left to Right: Dan Morris who played Mr. Mushnik; Drew Fornarola; Dudney Joseph who played Audrey II; Lindsay Eole Chambers who played Audrey; Brandon Espinoza who played the Dentist; and Matt Doyle who played Seymour. Photo swiped from Drew Fornarola's Facebook page entirely without permission.

So what’s the deal with Shea’s 710 Main Theatre?


By ANTHONY CHASE


With the closure of Studio Arena, eleven years ago, Buffalo lost its status as a theater town with any pretention of national significance. It would be very difficult for a Buffalo playwright to attract other productions, much less a New York City production, based on the success of a run at any of our local theaters.


Okay, it could possibly happen, as when Ujima launched “From the Mississippi Delta” from Buffalo back in the 1980s, but that is kind of the exception that proves the rule. Studio Arena was many times the starting place for New York bound productions.


As a member of the League of Regional Theatres (LORT), Studio Arena was connected to the national theater dialogue. Of course, in its final years, the once mighty theater, a founding member of LORT, ranked in the lame second or third string of that consortium.


By the time Shea’s finally took over operation of 710 Main, the once formidable Studio Arena subscription audience was entirely dissipated. Shea’s was starting from scratch and without any clear vision.


At first it was a veritable free for all with performances of vastly different quality. Now a kind of season has emerged, a combination of locally produced shows and national bookings such as the recent Erma Bombeck show.


Various small professional theaters in the region have used the space. MusicalFare and Road Less Traveled have done some very nice work there. Shows like Superior Donuts (RLTP) and Fun Home (MusicalFare) have looked great in the space. 710 Main has been a godsend to the Artie Awards, finally allowing us to hold the event in a venue where the bar is not inside the auditorium.


Without any vision, energy, or administrative structure behind the idea, the possibility that a LORT theater might return to 710 Main is the impractical stuff of fantasy. A total non-starter.

710 Main is a beautiful theater. The facility would seem to hold all sorts of potential to enrich Buffalo theater landscape. But what can be done with it?


While I have loved individual productions at 710 Main, as shows drift in and out of the venue, I have not really seen anything that could be said to advance the Buffalo theater scene in a significant way. No one has radically changed the rules of the game or moved the needle. They’ve just rented the hall. I’ve seen nothing that could not have played at another venue. I have not seen the audience expand into any new demographic.


Performing at 710 Main has undoubtedly benefitted the producing theaters, expanding the size of their audiences, giving them downtown prominence, etc., and that is good. It is likely, for example, that Fun Home played more comfortably downtown than it might have at MusicalFare’s home theater in Snyder.


With its American masters program, which brings in national prominent theater personalities, including Edward Albee (his first return to Buffalo since he came to see the debut of his play Box-Mao-Box at Studio Arena in 1968), Road Less Traveled seems to be signaling, from time to time, that it aspires to have a national profile, and 710 Main allows them to showcase themselves on a grander canvas. Still, if RLTP is ever to make a leap into the national spotlight, why wouldn’t they do it from the beautiful theater they currently occupy?


At the root, little has changed for Buffalo theater audiences, which continue to be fairly homogenous. The same faces move about from theater to theater, and producers seem to try harder to poach from each other than to expand and diversify the audience itself. The audience is reshuffled, and goes from space to space, but it does not really grow.


Part of the challenge is, of course, financial. Older, whiter audiences seem to have a disproportionate share of money, time, and general comfort with theater going. Producers continue to zero in on that demographic, sometimes looking for older female whiter audiences; or older gay white audiences; or older Jewish white audiences; or older football-loving white audiences; and so forth.


At the same time, while theater cater to that demographic, theater experiences that cater to the same old groups tend to inspire and cultivate artists from those same old groups.


Years ago, Ujima Theater Company with its diverse audience and dedication to African American culture, would rent Shea’s itself for its annual Mother’s Day production of And Bid Him Sing, featuring the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. That company is only recently reestablishing itself after several years of financial struggle. They have not produced at 710 Main, and at the moment would probably have no compelling reason to do so. They are trying to teach a new audience the path to the door of their gorgeous new theater at 429 Plymouth Avenue.


And so, 710 seems to be a handsome theater where you can see a mixed bag of programming. It augments possibilities for a small slice of the theater producing community. At the same time nothing has happened there to augment what was lost when Studio Arena closed or to serve a wider audience.


Then, last week, I saw something decidedly different.


“Starring Buffalo,” the brainchild of playwright/producer Drew Fornarola, exists to bring Broadway actors to Buffalo to perform alongside professional Buffalo actors and Western New York high school students.


The not-for-profit company meets those goals capably. In a number of important ways, however, the project exceeds those aspirations.


Last week, Starring Buffalo presented Little Shop of Horrors. I attended their Saturday matinee when a predominantly or entirely white chorus of Fredonia High School students sang the choral parts.


The production was engaging and inventive with excellent performances throughout. The Broadway actors, we were told, had collectively performed in 13 Broadway shows.

As promised, Starring Buffalo’s charming rendition of this beloved show was delightfully memorable, at the same time, it was impressively economical without sacrificing anything in the way of theatrical magic.


Matt Doyle, whose Broadway credits include The Book of Mormon, Spring Awakening, and Warhorse (and will soon include the new gender-switching revival of Company with Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone) was endearingly hilarious as Seymour, a nerdy guy who nearly finds fortune, fame, and love by cultivating a strange and unusual plant that turns out to have tendencies toward serial murder and world domination.


Lindsay Nicole Chambers played Audrey, the girl of Seymour’s dreams who is already involved with a sadistic dentist who routinely bruises her – a running gag that seemed much funnier back in the 1980s. A veteran of such Broadway shows as Hairspray, Legally Blonde, and Kinky Boots, Chambers possesses a soaring voice that navigates the score like a trumpet. Her duet with Doyle on the love ballad, “Suddenly Seymour,” raised the roof.

Brandon Espinoza, whose Broadway credits date back to his childhood, threw himself into the role of the dentist with energy and invention, and invested that same dedication into a litany of other characters.


I felt Buffalo pride brimming up within me as Dudney Joseph Jr. played the role of the Audrey II, the murderous plant. It was thrilling to see a local hold his own with talent equal to his Broadway colleagues. Yes, Washington, D.C. has actors as good as Broadway. So does Chicago. And let it be known, so has Buffalo.


Joseph did not merely provide the voice of Audrey II, a role usually played by a puppet and voiced from backstage via microphone. There was no puppet at Starring Buffalo. Dudney Joseph played the plant. As Audrey II gains in power, his wardrobe became more fabulous. Eventually two dancers (Melanie Kaisen and Katie Tomney from the Zodiaque Dance Company) were attached to him, like new shoots of growth. This was an inspired choice.


Dan Morris (a gifted comic character actor who gamely leapt into a musical) reprised his role from the O’Connell & Company production of Little Shop as Mister Mushnik. Dominique Kempf, Alex McArthur, and Cecelia Monica-Lyn played the “Urchins,” and I could see the imaginations of the high school students ignite as they watched these women throw themselves into Jeanne Fornarola’s sensational choreography, and imagined themselves in those roles.


In addition to achieving the mission of “Starring Buffalo,” Little Shop, ended its two-day run modestly in the black. But in reality, the production achieved far more than the organization’s stated, or even its planned goals.


To begin, seeing high school kids from rural communities where there is little diversity working and interacting with racially diverse professionals from Buffalo and Broadway was inspiring. No lecture. No history lesson. Just a chance for these kids to come into the city and enjoy the company of people who look different from most people in their town while putting on a show.


Last year, I observed a rehearsal for “Starring Buffalo"s Hunchback of Notre Dame and was intrigued to see a Broadway music director coaching and encouraging high school kids – and complimenting and encouraging their high school choral directors. I thought that was an amazing opportunity.


I also was also thrilled to see the Broadway folks get a look at performers like Dudney and Dominique. And the folks in the show were not the only New Yorkers to attend. There were seven Broadway performers at the gala party, here to support their Broadway colleagues – including the current touring King George III from Hamilton. They will go back to New York City and bear witness to the strength of the Buffalo theater community.


The logistics are formidable, but the idea is remarkably simple. Nonetheless, coming up with a simple idea often requires the inspiration of genius. There is plenty of room to expand the benefits of Starring Buffalo.


I suggest that as strategizing for 710 Main goes forward, someone should talk to Drew Fornarola. He's got ideas.

©2019 by Theater Talk ... and I'm Anthony Chase

Buffalo, NY, USA