Eclectic Improv Electrifies Opening Night Crowd

“When you’ve been together as long as we have, you learn to trust each other,” said Don Gervasi, when he was asked about his ten plus years of working with the members of the Eclectic Improv Company. Todd Benzin, who has known Gervasi since college said that they have to be ready to do anything. “It helps that we share the same pop culture references.”

The Eclectic Improv Company opened their season Saturday night to a packed house at Shea’s Smith Theatre. The troupe started the show with an improvised sermon by Peter Cumbo. They said they begin the show with the sermon to promote audience interaction and drive up the energy that is crucial to a good perfomance.

After sequestering Cumbo offstage, Don Gervasi and Todd Benzin asked the audience for a multi-syllable noun, verb and adjective. When Cumbo returned, he discerned, with help from Gervasi and Benzin, that he was to perform a sermon about an organic, filibustering parallelepiped (a geometric shape not covered in fourth grade class).

The structure of the show is short-form, game-based improvisation, according to Cumbo. They can’t prepare jokes, but Gervasi writes down a list of the gimmicks or games on a white board prior to the show. “It’s like a set list you would see musicians with at a concert,” Gervasi explained.

Basic principle of improv is “yes, and?”, meaning that you have to accept whatever premise you are given (in this case by the audience) and build on it. You can’t say no or the scene dies.

Cumbo noted that you can never just relax back stage like you might in a conventional stage show. “In a regular ongoing stage show, you might see people backstage reading, but in improv you have to always be aware of what is going on onstage, even if you won’t be in that scene.”

The audience laughed their way through a song about eggplant, accompanied by pianist Mike Hake and a Spanish version of Goldilocks. The group also performed a musical about foot augmentation in which Todd Benzin spontaneously created a character named “Mr. Galumpers” a funny/creepy clown who taught Peter Cumbo that his tiny feet made him special.

The Eclectic Improv Company will be performing at Shea’s Smith Theatre the last Saturday of every month through June. See www.eclecticimprov.comfor tickets or additional information.

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MusicalFare Sondheim Production a Success

Sunday in the Park with George, written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is a fictionalized account of the life of French Pointillist Painter George Seurat based on his painting “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

The MusicalFare production is the second Sondheim musical featured at the theatre on the campus of Daemen College in Amherst.

Directed by Randall Kramer, the story centers on Seurat’s obsession with “design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony” to the exclusion of genuine human relationships.

George Seurat, played by Paschal Frisina III, meets the love of his life, Dot (Jenn Stafford), but their relationship is hampered by his inability to see past the tip of his paintbrush. While his art was best viewed by stepping back and looking at the whole, Seurat lacked the perspective to do so with the rest of his life.

Act One begins with a petulant Dot modeling for George and longing for his attention. Jules (Doug Crane), a rival painter, stops by frequently as do Jules household staff, Franz, (Louis Colaiacovo) and Frieda (Leah Russo), who provide much-needed comic relief along Jules’ bratty daughter, Louise, played by Anne Roaldi.

There is a marked difference between the first and second acts, the former set in the 1890s and the latter in the 1980s. “It was initially written as only the first act,” said Director Kramer, “Sondheim and Lapine tried to write act two quickly. The second act was drubbed by critics, while the first act was considered brilliant. But the whole show is what won the Pulitzer.”

While Seurat is known to have painted from life, the back stories are fiction. “The People that he sketched were actual people in the park, most of them lower class,” said Debbie Pappas, who played Jules’ wife, Yvonne. “Dot is the only real thing in his life. The others need the painting to exist,” added Frisina.

Chris Schenk’s set design is minimalist, but evocative of Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon.” He employs a painting-sized scrim that allows the artist to work while facing the audience. Costumes, by Loraine O’Donnell and Olivia Ebsary, are remarkably true to the painting.

The show continues through April 5. See or call the box office at 716-839-8540 for tickets or information.

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