Ladies leading: Spring brings female-centric shows to local stages

05:00 AM, May 05, 2013

From left, Claudia Zanolli-Stiles of Fairport, Trisha Zeller of Rochester, Brynn Lucas and Anastasia Pembrook of Rochester rehearse. (KRIS J. MURANTE/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)/

Written By Debbie Waltzer

If you go

Respect: A Musical Journey of Women
When: Through May 26.
Where: Downstairs Cabaret at Winton Place, 3450 Winton Place, Brighton.
Cost: $26 to $39.
For tickets: (585) 325-4370 or

If you go

Steel Magnolias
When: May 17 through June 2.
Where: Blackfriars Theatre, 795 E. Main St.
Cost: $28.50 to $36.50.
Tickets: (585) 454-1260 or

If you go

What: Funny Girl
When: Through May 19.
Where: Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester, 1200 Edgewood Drive, Brighton.
Cost: $26; $18 for students.
For tickets: (585) 461-2000 or

On a recent Sunday night, six women sit around a rectangular aluminum table.

By day, these ladies play a variety of roles — two as development officers for different non-profits, one as a waitress for a local country club, another as a high-school ESOL teacher, still another as a voice and acting coach and the last one as a branch manager for a credit union.

But on this evening, these women — Mary Tiballi, Alexa Scott-Flaherty, Kait Mcleski, Vicki Casarette, Cara D’Emanuele and Dawn Sargent — to bring strong female voices to the stage in Steel Magnolias. Their characters will weave a tale of a complicated mother/daughter relationship, the bravery of risk-taking, the power of female friendships and the endurance of love.

It’s their first read-through of the script together. By the end of the evening, these actors have formed a new family, strengthened by their gender. Director John Haldoupis is advised to distribute ample boxes of tissues throughout the 126-seat Blackfriars Theatre when the show opens May 17.

This theater season in Rochester has brought a lot of strong female characters to the stage, and this month is particularly notable. Out of Pocket Productions will produce Palmer Park, and while it is about the rise and fall of a Detroit neighborhood, and although not female-centric, certainly has strong roles. No Les Miserables production (at the Auditorium Theatre starting Tuesday) is as moving without a knock-out Fantine. Downstairs Cabaret Theatre has on stage right now Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, a revue which tells the journey of women’s relationships over the past several decades through selected songs. And then the more modern Venus in Fur will be produced at Geva Theatre Center’s Nextstage later in the month and 50 Shades! The Musical will have two shows at the Auditorium on May 16.

And Funny Girl cannot be produced if you don’t have a strong female lead.

The Jewish Community Center’s CenterStage production of Funny Girl was to open Saturday, with Brynn Lucas playing the great vaudevillian performer Fanny Brice.

At a rehearsal in April, you could hear chatter all around. Five minutes later, there was complete quiet while they were riveted with Lucas’ performance of “People.”

Playing such a strong character as Fanny Brice has been a joy for Lucas, a Pittsford native who has two national tours under her belt, including Jekyll and Hyde. She has watched numerous YouTube videos of Brice and shares Funny Girl director Ralph Meranto’s goal of conveying Brice’s story, not Barbra Streisand’s film interpretation of the role.

There is a piece of Fanny Brice in each of us,” says Lucas, who works by day as an office and accounts manager for a local event-planning firm, and is making preparations for her Oct. 26 wedding to her college sweetheart. “She was a tremendously hard worker, whose legacy continues to serve as a role model for female actors.”

Meranto wanted to produce Funny Girl as a tribute to Brice, whom he describes as “one of the most respected female performers of her time.”

He particularly admires Brice’s courage to withstand professional rejection and her strength in dealing with the loss of her husband, Nicky Arnstein, to a gambling addiction and subsequent imprisonment for embezzlement.

Fanny Brice taught us that we sometimes have to take a chance and fight for what we believe in,” Meranto says. “She knew in her heart that the life you live is better than the life that you’re afraid to live.”

Indeed, women’s strife, or their triumph over it, often bring the biggest reactions from audiences. One of the most powerful moments of City Lights, an original show about actors trying to make their way in in New York City that was produced earlier in the spring by Downstairs Cabaret, was Nicolette Hart’s solo rendition of “Sorry I Asked,” a little-known piece created for Liza Minelli by songwriters Kander and Ebb, which explores the pain of a wife devastated by her husband’s infidelity. Many in the crowd had to collect themselves before they broke out in applause.

From a director’s point of view, working with female actors is a “joy,” says Haldoupis, a 30-year Blackfriars veteran.

I love plays that explore relationships among women,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve had wonderful director/actor bonds with female actors.”

While a senior at Nazareth College, Mary Tiballi, a development manager for Geva Theatre Center, played the role of Truvy in a school production of Steel Magnolias. Today, seven years later — and three months away from her wedding day — Tiballi plays the tragic pivotal role of Shelby.

Shelby, if you’ve missed either the play or the popular movie version of Steel Magnolias, is someone who wants it all, even though her kidney disease holds her back. The friendship between her mother and a group of women at the beauty shop is the backbone of this story.

Steel Magnolias is an amazingly written play, and conveys how strongly women are affected by one another,” she says. “All of the characters feel safe in this little beauty shop that they call ‘home.’ The show provides a beautiful tribute to the relationships shared by mothers and daughters.”