In time for the holiday season, the CenterStage Theatre has a lineup of new and returning entertainment shows.
“In a lot of ways, it feels like a return,” says Ralph Meranto, artistic director of CenterStage.
Although the theater at the Louis S. Wolk Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester did produce shows last year, in order to keep costs low and be diligent about health safety, they had to be scaled back. Meranto is happy this holiday season has larger capacity and is confident in audiences returning, with other shows seeing large crowd numbers already.
“For the artists, it feels like they’re coming home. They have these annual traditions with us, (and) we’re happy they’ve made CenterStage their home,” Meranto says.
The Calamari Sisters, for example, are a duo of comedic “beloved brassy sisters from Brooklyn” who are now based in New York City but began their act in Rochester, performing their first project at CenterStage in 2015. Their run of “Holiday Extravaganza” shows this year, will be back on stage starting Nov. 25.
Similarly, Big Wigs, a Las Vegas-style drag show featuring Mrs. Kasha Davis from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and Rochester performer Aggy Dune, will be featured for the 10th annual appearance at the CenterStage. In addition to their New Year’s Eve event, they will also be seen at the “Drag Me to Brunch” event alongside Darienne Lake and Ambrosia Salad.
One new show this holiday season includes the original creation, “Something Musical…Broadway in Concert,” featuring songs and mashups from “West Side Story,” “Anything Goes,” “Legally Blonde,” “The Greatest Showman,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and more.
In addition, singer/songwriter Kelly Izzo Shapiro will pay special tribute to a folk legend at “Both Sides Now, The Music of Joni Mitchell.” Shapiro previously performed at JCC’s “You’ve Got a Friend” in 2020, which celebrated the music of Mitchell, James Taylor and Carole King.
Meranto felt it was important to honor Mitchell with her own show as she made an unexpected return to the stage this year for the first time since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015.
“It was this epic event to see with everyone in the audience going bonkers and embracing (Mitchell) and her music,” says Meranto, who saw her perform at the Newport Folk Festival this summer. “Although Joni is recovering, she’s definitely not touring anytime soon, so this is something that will honor her and show an incredible local artist too.”
Meranto believes in the power of performance, giving an example of it when the theater staged “My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding” in 2010, one year before New York’s Marriage Equality Act was signed into law. An audience member with a lesbian granddaughter came up to speak with Meranto and the creative team afterward.
“She said, ‘Originally, I wasn’t going to go to my granddaughter’s wedding, but now I am.’ She’s crying, I’m crying, (the writers of the play) are crying. This is how transformative theater can be,” Meranto says.
“When you post on Facebook, someone can agree or disagree with it. But when you have to sit down with someone and see performers on stage for two hours, there’s so much more that comes out of that. Our work is a way of fighting against antisemitism, of hatred,” he continues.
“Ragtime,” a musical to be staged in 2023 at CenterStage, is a story in which the lives of a Jewish immigrant family, a Black family, and an upper-class family intersect and develop.
“How (the characters) end up supporting each other is something I wish was happening more nowadays,” says Meranto.
While they have tackled heavy themes in the past, this year’s holiday lineup was designed to be lighthearted.
“We all were not in the mood to be depressed at the theater, so we’re focusing on fun entertainment. We’ll get back to gritty theater later, don’t worry,” Meranto says with a laugh.
CenterStage is located at the JCC and highlights Jewish tradition and culture. For example, the play “Survivors” was developed based on the lives of 10 local Holocaust survivors and has been produced at theaters in Philadelphia, Vancouver, and Massachusetts.
However, Meranto stresses the theater examines all manner of cultural traditions as an ideal way to create those empathic emotions. He also says that CenterStage is meant to be for everyone.
“I think there’s a perception of the theater as a community theater. Like people imagine its members doing shows in the gym, but that’s not the case. We have great local professional actors with a 300-seat, state-of-the-art theater. We have some of the best children’s programming with TYKEs (Theater Young Kids Enjoy),” Meranto says. “You don’t need to be a JCC member, you don’t have to be Jewish, you just have to love watching great theater.”