Playing A Legend

Officially autumn doesn’t begin until tomorrow, but culturally, our rich autumn of the arts is already in full bloom.

During the coming week, there will be two more remarkable artistic events in Chautauqua County. Next Saturday, at 8 p.m., Jamestown Community College will present a performance by Chautauqua County native and JCC alumnus Tim Newell, who will present his famed one-man tribute to comic and television personality Jack Benny, on the stage of the Robert L. Scharmann Theater. We journeyed to Buffalo, recently, to discuss his career and to gather an idea of what we can expect next week, at JCC.

Also, Oct. 4, at 7:30 p.m., the 1891 Fredonia Opera House will host a return of a talented friend. Singer and song stylist Michael Civisca is known throughout New York state and far beyond, for his upbeat and enjoyable live performances, and from his many professional recordings, specializing in works from what is commonly called “The Great American Songbook.”

Civisca has recently taken a break from performing, which has lasted nearly five years, in order to take an active part in the raising of his two children. But his Fredonia concert will be his first return to the stage and to performing the music which he loves so much.

This week, we want to share with you what we’ve learned about these two talented men, and to let you know two more of the many possibilities which are available, right here in our neighborhood.

TIM NEWELL

Actor Tim Newell was born in Westfield, and grew up in a family which knew and valued the performing arts. He is a first cousin of the three famous LaChiusa brothers, including Michael John LaChiusa, who has composed and written show after show for the Broadway and Off-Broadway stages.

In 1984, Newell enrolled in JCC, where he majored in vocal music and performed in a number of productions under the direction of Skip Broska, who was then the director of theatrical matters at the community college.

Among the productions in which he performed were ”West Side Story,” and ”The 1940s Radio Hour.”

As often happens with those who love theater, he wasn’t able to confine his passion for performing to the JCC stage, and found his way into a number of productions at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown, where he worked on productions of ”Peter Pan,” ”L’il Abner,” and Neil Simon’s ”God’s Favorite.”

”People were telling me that as passionate as I was about the theater and as talented as they thought I was, I should head off immediately to New York City,” he said recently. ”So in 1986, I packed up and headed off to Manhattan. I got some work in staged readings, which are part of the process by which plays are shaped to be ready for professional productions, and I got some parts in summer stock, in professional companies outside the city. But, I was 20 years old and was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of young people with talents and experience similar to mine, or even better.”

The hopeful actor paid the rent by working in a Tower Records store, and began to find artistic relief in creating paintings. ”I found Abstract Expressionism,” he said. ”I began to show my work around New York City, and I began to find galleries elsewhere which wanted to exhibit it. I was invited to show my work in Puerto Rico, and I did shows at Patterson Library, in Westfield, and in the gallery at the James Prendergast Public Library, in Jamestown. There was a period of 10 years in which I never set foot on a live stage.”

In the early 1990s, Newell became ill, and returned to his family home in Westfield to recover. As his health improved, he began to read about artistic opportunities in Buffalo. He has recently celebrated his 20th anniversary of living and working in the Queen City. ”Buffalo is big enough that it’s perfectly possible to earn a living as an artist, yet it isn’t a situation like in New York, where every audition brings dozens, if not hundreds of people who are capable of doing each part very well,” he said.

Work in the theater tends to come in fits and starts. There are periods when one director is trying to pull you away from something you’re doing, so you can start in his production, while your other director is trying to keep you involved in his production. There are also gaps, when the landlord and the grocery store and all the other costs of living continue, while your pay does not.

”I’ve supplemented my living by teaching, and doing occasional odd jobs, such as cleaning houses, but there are enough opportunities in theatrical work to make my living,” Newell said.

In the late 1990s, Newell found himself working more and more at Buffalo’s Ujima Theater Company, which performs on Elmwood Ave., in Buffalo, and which specializes in theatrical work about African American people and about people from Third World locations.

Most of the companies in Buffalo today choose a play to perform, hold auditions, and choose their performing companies from the actors who audition. Ujima is one of the few which works as a repertory company. They have a number of actors who are members of their company, and they use them regularly, supplementing with temporary actors when there isn’t a member who is appropriate for a particular role. Newell began as a ”jobber,” or an actor who comes into an established company for one or more single assignments.

Gradually he was welcomed into membership in the company, and performed with them for a number of years. From there he has gone on to perform all throughout the region, including receiving lavish praise for his performances with Shakespeare in Delaware Park, having mastered roles such as Richard III, Iago, Hamlet’s stepfather Claudius, Dogberry, and many more.

In 1998, Lorna C. Hill, who is the artistic director of Ujima, suggested to Newell that it was time he stretched his talent by performing a one-person show. ”Lorna spent a lot of time thinking about a real person or a fictional character who would interest an audience through an entire evening,” Newell said. ”She decided I bore a physical resemblance to Jack Benny, and she started to write a play. That eventually fell through, but there is a Buffalo-based playwright named Mark Humphrey, who had already written a one-man play about Nat Turner. He finally created a script, which was just titled ‘Mr. Benny,’ and I began performing it in the summer of the year 2000, directed by well-known Buffalo actor and director Phil Knoerzer.”

The original production was part of the Buffalo Experimental Theatre’s Playwrights Performance Series. Humphrey received the reward, given to the creator of the script viewed as the best by the series’ evaluators. The play was performed to sold-out houses, and received Artie nominations for Best Playwright, for Humphrey, and Best Actor, for Newell.

In 2003, the Irish Classical Theatre Company was doing a series of one-act plays which were performed at lunchtime. Vincent O’Neill, he company’s artistic director, asked Humphrey and Newell if they could trim the original two-act play to fit the series’ requirements. The one-act version was titled ”Lunch With Mr. Benny.”

The one-act version was a hit for ICTC, and in October of 2003, Newell performed it at the Players Club, in New York City, where it was greeted with ovations by a sold-out audience.

Since then, the play has remained dormant, until Newell recently decided that enough time had passed that it could be revived. He performed it, earlier this year, for the Jewish Repertory Theatre, in Buffalo, to universal acclaim. ”I’ve lived longer and had more experiences, since the original runs of the play,” Newell said. ”I’ve continued to watch films and Internet clips of Benny’s work, and to read whatever I could find about his life. Mark Humphrey has been very kind to accept suggestions of ways the script might be updated and made more moving.

”Jack Benny played a character who was notoriously stingy. He claimed to be 39 years old, right up to his death, at age 80. He often performed on a violin, usually not in tune, and usually only one song, his theme song, ‘Love in Bloom,'” Newell said. ”I’ve learned that he was actually a very accomplished violinist, whose parents were crushed when he gave up a budding career as a concert violinist to become a stand-up comic.” Those skills as a musician are often credited for the perfect timing which Benny brought to his act. A single word, especially an exasperated ”Well,” was often all it took to break up an audience.

Newell described a long list of kind and generous things which Benny did for many people, throughout his career, offering help with careers, paying for education and training, helping with medical expenses, and other generosity which proved the lie of his skinflint persona.

The first act of ”Mr. Benny” takes place in Jack’s dressing room, immediately before the comic’s first television show. He had been successful as a radio comic, and as a comic performer in live vaudeville shows, but television was a brand new medium, and many performers felt they were taking a risk by taking their art away from the audience’s imaginations which the radio required, and actually showing it to them, in their living rooms. Throughout the act, as he prepares to go before the camera, Jack is hopeful and nervous, and remembers things which have happened to him, involving friends and colleagues, including George Burns, the Marx Brothers, and many more such.

The second act returns us to Jack’s dressing room, but it takes place more than 10 years later. Benny is preparing to go before the cameras for the final performance of his television series. A new program on a competing network, ”Gomer Pyle,” has beaten him in the ratings, and the network has decided to end the show. Now, Jack’s memories are mostly about things which have happened on the program, he’s not as nervous and no longer hopeful.

The play sounds wonderful. The performance is next Saturday, in the Robert L. Scharmann Theater, on the Jamestown campus of Jamestown Community College. Tickets are $15, and may be purchased by phoning 338-1187, or at the door, if any are still available. Members of the JCC Faculty-Student Organization receive a $3 discount per ticket, if purchasing in person.

MICHAEL CIVISCA

A week after your enjoy Tim Newell’s examination of Jack Benny, another Western New York native, Michael Civisca, invites you to take a musical tour with him through some of the most beloved music of all time: The Great American Songbook.

While there is no magic definition for that term, essentially it consists of the popular music created in the United States between roughly 1920 and 1950. The names of composers and lyricists, the songs themselves, and singers who have specialized in singing them, or who still specialize in singing them, are a chapter of our nation’s history, all by themselves. Let’s look at some examples:

For composers, consider Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and many, many more.

For song titles, consider these: ”Some Enchanted Evening,” ”I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” ”Stardust,” ”April in Paris,” ”Singing in the Rain,” ”White Christmas,” ”Over the Rainbow,” ”My Blue Heaven,” ”Satin Doll,” ”Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” ”The Way You Look Tonight,” ”My Funny Valentine,” and many more. For every reader who thinks I’ve named too many, there are five readers who are angry that their favorite hasn’t been named.

Singers, past and present?: How about Nat King Cole, Barry Manilow, Jane Monheit, Michael Feinstein, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Michael Buble, Harry Connick, Jr., Linda Ronstadt, and Michael Civisca.

In 1995, Civisca was urged to consider a career as a singer. He found a few performing opportunities in Western New York locations, and within 18 months, had been signed to a recording contract. His career grew and grew, as he was invited to travel more and more, singing in larger and more prestigious venues.

Meanwhile, he had become the father of two children, and by 2008, he found that he was rarely home, and he played little role in his children’s lives. He decided to stop performing, and to become a major part of their young lives, until they were older and able to live more independently. Six months ago, he decided the time had come to get together with some musicians, put together an act, and gradually start introducing himself to performing.

His performance in Fredonia, at the 1891 Opera House will be his first public performance of his re-awakening career.

”I’ve decided to start by performing with a trio, instead of a full orchestra, which gives me a lot more versatility of places I can perform and numbers which I can do in my act,” he told us recently, in a phone call from his home in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst. ”My trio will be Mike Jones, who is both my pianist and my music director, plus Dan Ziemann, from Rochester, on bass and John Bacon Jr., from the SUNY Fredonia faculty, on drums and percussion. Mike often performed with me, and was with me on all my recordings, before I took the time off, so it will be really great to be working with him, again. He’s my go-to guy. I’ve never performed with a trio before, so this will be a bit of an experiment.”

The singer reports that he hasn’t chosen one single song as a theme song, as some singers like to do. ”I try to include some time in my performances in which I talk about the songs and where I first heard them, and what they mean to me, and the audiences have always seemed to enjoy getting to know me a little bit,” he said.

Michael Civisca reported that he was drawn to the kind of music in the Great American Songbook all of his life, and that he has been singing almost nothing else since his mid-teens. ”Different styles of music and ways of performing come and go,” he said. ”But the ideas which are expressed in these songs are everyone’s story, in every time. I performed at the 1891 Opera House, in Fredonia, a number of times, and there was always a large and very involved audience who just loved the kind of things which I do. I’m expecting that in October, we’ll be happy to be back together again.”

Tickets to hear Civisca’s performance cost $24. Members of the Opera House are entitled to a $2 discount. You can purchase tickets in person at the Opera House, which is located inside the Fredonia City Hall, on Barker Common in the village’s center. Box office hours are Tuesday through Friday, from 1-5 p.m. You can purchase them by phone at 679-1891 during those same hours, or you can purchase them on your computer by going to the website at www.fredopera.org, and clicking on ”box office,” and then ”buy tickets.”

Winks

A paragraph from last week’s Critical Eye went astray.

The missing information concerned ”The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which is being performed at the Willow Bay Theatre in Jamestown, tonight and next Friday and Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. Performers are part of the Winged Ox Players of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, in Jamestown.

It said that tickets cost $10, and $5 for children age 12 or younger, and that they can be purchased at the door, or by phone, by calling St. Luke’s office at 483-6405 or Donna Phillippi at 386-3136. Proceeds from the performance will benefit the Chautauqua County Humane Society. The Audubon Society, and New Leash on Life. Excellent causes, all.

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The seventh annual Buffalo Film Festival will take place Oct. 3-6, mostly at The Screening Room, 3131 Sheridan Dr., in Amherst. The entrance to the theater is from Bailey Avenue and it is behind the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. Among the films which will be shown are works from around the world, including a number of world and New York state premieres.

A number of films made in Western New York are among the programmed works.

For additional information about the festival, phone 347-687-6564 or send an email to BuffaloFilmFest@gmail.com.

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The lovely ladies of the singing group Serendipity will perform a benefit concert for the James Prendergast Public Library, Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m., at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 410 N. Main St., in downtown Jamestown.

Tickets are $15 per person, and may be purchased at either the library or the church. For additional information about the performance, phone the library at 484-7135 or visit their website at www.prendergastlibrary.org.