There's a brand new theater company in town with a unique mission. WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley says it's called Starring Buffalo and blends Broadway star power with education.
"I think we're providing something a little bit different then what is here. There's no one doing exactly this kind of collaboration between New York and Buffalo,” said Drew Fornarola.
Fornarola is a Buffalo native and artistic director of Starring Buffalo. He's working professionally in New York City as a playwright, producer and composer of original songs. If you’re wondering what Fornarola has been involved with professionally, it's a very impressive list.
“I’ve been fortunate in the past ten years or so to make my living mostly as a writer of musical and plays. I’ve gotten to work in New York and L.A. In L.A., I worked on the Shrek and VeggieTales franchises for DreamWorks, so that was my money job for a while. I was very lucky to be able to do that. My most recent thing in New York was a play called Straight, which was ‘Off-Broadway’ in 2016 and is now sort of moving around the world in productions. I’m about to go see it in German in Vienna, Austria. I just got back from Mexico City where I saw it in Spanish, so it’s been a fun journey," Fornarola said.
Fornarola created this new, local group with other theater professionals from New York City.
“This is a new organization this year, formed with my collaborators Laura Brodie and Steven Tartick. We are all now New York City based. Steven and I are theater professionals. Laura runs a business. We are folks who grew up in Buffalo and moved to New York City and are now excited to start a new organization back in Buffalo, and the idea is we are that we are doing concerts of musicals with mixed Broadway and professional Buffalo casts,” remarked Fornarola.
Starring Buffalo is about to premiere its very first production, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with shows Friday and Saturday evening and Saturday afternoon show at Buffalo State's Rockwell Hall.
Fornarola tells us the mission of Starring Buffalo is to build an artist bridge between Buffalo and Broadway. The Hunchback will feature a blend of national and local performers.
“It’s just really exciting to be working with everybody and to have the opportunity to be on stage with people from Broadway and collaborate with them,” remarked Leah Berst.
Berst is a Buffalo actress, who graduated last year from UB. She’s in The Hunchback ensemble for this show.
“Is this a difficult production?” asked Buckley.
“It’s definitely a challenge. Musically – it’s very intense and the music definitely carries the piece. It’s a challenge, but we are all very excited to live up to this challenge and we’re working really, really hard to make it as beautiful as it is,” replied Berst.
Among the national cast members, Berst and Fornarola tells us are Dan’yelle Williamson will be playing Esmeralda. Ben Frankauser will play Quasimodo.
“We have a great cast of Buffalo actors. Charmagne Chi, Arianne Davidow, Matthew Iwanski-Jackson, Dudney Joseph, Ben Michael Moran, Katy Miner, and Raphael Santos and Keith Ersing, who is actually the choral director at West Seneca West, is going to play Frollo, which is one of the big leads in the show,” explained Fornarola.
Starring Buffalo draws in other local talent from local colleges and high schools. The Hunchback will feature choruses from several area high schools, including Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, Tonawanda High School, Williamsville East and Starpoint High School. Starpoint recently posted a rehearsal on YouTube.
The high school choruses will rotating their performances in The Hunchback.
“And those four choirs are spread over the three performances. Williamsville is Friday night. Starpoint and Tonawanda are collaborating Saturday afternoon and Performing Arts is Saturday night. They get to perform with the ‘Broadway on Buffalo’ professionals and work under the baton of our conductor Dr. Daniel Bassin, who is a Buffalo guy,” Fornarola replied. “Part of what I was thinking about as we were creating this project, is what would I have loved in school that maybe we didn’t quite get. I had incredible opportunities, but this is one I really would have loved as well. I think when the kids see these actors from New York, they’ll see that they’re people that work a lot like they do and maybe it will demystify a little bit the process – maybe make them feel like they could go on to a career doing this.”
Blending Buffalo and Broadway, Starring Buffalo is now on stage to entertain and educate.