Autumn arts in full bloom

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 Avenue, 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, the 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.