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World Premiere of Mob Play "Boardwalk Blues" at Dog Story Theater

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Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1978. This is the final, crumbling remnant of the American Mafia, as it once was. The code of silence still preserved, in a rapidly changing climate. Inspired by true events.
Cast of Boardwalk Blues during Dress Rehearsal

Cast of Boardwalk Blues during Dress Rehearsal /Tim Motley

Rated R

Boardwalk Blues contains adult language, drug use, violence, and sexuality and may not be appropriate for all audiences. 


Chris Kotcher during Dress Rehearsal

Chris Kotcher during Dress Rehearsal /Tim Motley

Cast during Dress Rehearsal

Cast during Dress Rehearsal /Tim Motley

The University Wits are a Grand Rapids theatre company in their fourth season and are recognized for excellence in theatrical design. They are best known for creating original works as well as producing published classics. Their upcoming production “Boardwalk Blues” was inspired by true events and written by Siena Heights University alum Emily Parr-Fortenbacher and Grand Valley State University alum, Charles Fortenbacher.

Performances will be one weekend only; June 3, 4 at 8 p.m. and June 4, 5 at 3 p.m. at Dog Story Theater on 7 Jefferson Ave. 

Past productions from the University Wits include original collections of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Marilyn's Kennedy,” “In a Single Bound,” “The Sixth Guest,” and “Shadows at the Sanford,” and published works such as “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Lucky Stiff,” “Barefoot in the Park,” and most recently “Noises Off.”

Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1978. This is the final, crumbling remnant of the American Mafia, as it once was. The code of silence still preserved, in a rapidly changing climate. Gambling, prostitution and drug use pervade every class of society, while greed and ambition descend upon this forgotten vacation destination.

With gambling recently legalized, Steven Harker (actor, Chris Kotcher) goes toe to toe with Mob Boss Nicky Bruno (actor, Kyle Westmaas) and the whole Philly Mob for ownership of The Resorts Casino and Hotel, the first legitimate gambling operation on the East coast. The stakes are high, and the tensions even higher as Steven falls head first into a tangled web of mistrust, betrayal, lust and pride.

Director, actor, and co-writer, Emily Parr-Fortenbacher, graduated from Siena Heights University with a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre. She has had two one-acts performed, and "Boardwalk Blues" marks her fourth full-length play that has reached production, third with the University Wits.

"I was really inspired to write "Boardwalk Blues" by the song Atlantic City, by Bruce Springsteen," says Parr-Fortenbacher. The song piqued her curiosity and when she looked into it she discovered that it was heavily connected to the Mafia violence in Atlantic City and Philadelphia in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Most of the characters are based on real people. The inspiration of the Nicky Bruno's (actor, Kyle Westmaas) character comes from the story of Nicky Scarfo, which became Mob Boss after the death of Philip Testa "The Chicken Man." "He was every bit as volatile and violent as he appears in the show," says Parr-Fortenbacher.

The character of Tony Bruno (actor, Ross Johnson) was based on Philip Leonetti, author of The Mafia Prince. Leonetti gave some of the most significant testimony which led to the convictions of high ranking East coast mobsters including John Gotti. Parr-Fortenbacher mentions that many of the other characters were loosely inspired by historical people, then renamed and placed in the story where they best fit the narrative.

“The show is by no means a mirror of history, but does reflect it, in some aspects,” Parr-Fortenbacher. 

Parr-Fortenbacher has compared “Boardwalk Blues” to the film “Goodfellas” by Martin Scorsese and mentions that the most important distinction is that this is not an anti-hero story, like so many crime films are. The hero is an outsider, a man who stands up to the power of the Mafia, not it's leader, or one of it's members. It is told through a lens that the audience can relate to, on some level.

“I think that adds a human element that I feel is missing from many of these stories,” Parr-Fortenbacher.

The cast were all encouraged to watch a documentary on Netflix called “Inside the American Mob.” This allowed them to really dig into their own characters and understand the layout of how the Mafia worked. The biggest challenge of portraying such intense characters was “trying to find the human beings underneath such larger than life figures,” says Chris Kotcher.

Grand Valley State University Film & Video alum, Chris Kotcher, plays the lead role of Steven Harker in “Boardwalk Blues.” Kotcher has been seen on the Dog Story Theater stage in previous years as Austin in “True West,” Peter Lawford in “Marilyn's Kennedy,” Tupolski in “The Pillowman,” and Bobby in “American Buffalo,” at Spectrum Theater – along with numerous film credits.  

I was able to find Nicky fairly early on... His is a type that has appeared in pop culture numerous times: the power hungry psychopath who believes the world belongs to him,” says Kyle Westmaas in regards to his character Nicky Bruno. “In their minds, these types of people aren't bad guys, even if they do acknowledge that they may do bad things. As long as the bad things serve a purpose... they're entirely justifiable,” Westmaas.

These sort of characters view their actions as something anyone would do, to them it's not personal, it's business. 

Kyle Westmaas is an alum of Grand Valley State University and also earned his MFA in Acting at California Institute of the Arts. He worked out in California with a production company for three years, producing and helping with local theatre in the area, before moving back to Michigan to teach.

Westmaas is currently a professor at both Grand Valley and Aquinas, teaching all things theatre; including acting, voice and speech, audition technique, and history. Since coming back to Michigan Westmaas has directed “I Hate Hamlet” and “The Storm,” both at Aquinas. He's worked with Circle, Actors, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, and Heritage Theatre. 

This is Westmaas' first show with the University Wits.   

A Mafia story has rarely been seen on stage; let alone a small venue such as Dog Story Theater. Parr-Fortenbacher was initially intimidated by this story; it fascinated and haunted her for months. “It has rarely been done before, because the secrecy and violence of crime stories make them particularly challenging on stage, as opposed to film,” says Parr-Fortenbacher.

But in the intimate space of Dog Story Theater, they have been able to create a uniquely cinematic, deeply personal, and singularly enthralling performance. It combines the excitement of a crime film with the thrill of a live performance, and should be a unique experience for the audience. "Performing in a black box is a weird wild ride," says Kotcher. 

The director/co-writer looked at "Boardwalk Blues" as a chance to explore a darker side of humanity, and in that, a darker side of herself.

“While my tendency is to write dramas about human struggle, I had never approached a project with this level of violence and general depravity before.” Parr-Fortenbacher's general rule has been to stick closer to her own life experience's in her writing, “but I had to abandon that with this project, and delve into events and motivations for the characters that I had never before considered,” Parr-Fortenbacher.

The entire cast includes: Chris Kotcher as Steven Harker; Kyle Westmaas as Nicodemo “Nicky” Bruno; Ross Johnson as Anthony “Tony” Bruno; Morgan Springsteen as Rosa (Bella) Bruno; David Cobb as Marco Zizzi; Emily Parr as Verona (Panella) Bruno; Michael Pollock as Lawrence “Lenny” Donovan; Shane German as Gualtiero “Lucky” Luciano; Meagan Elizabeth Beitner as Francesca “Frankie” DiMeglio; Ian Andrew Mockerman as Joseph “Joe” Lazzaro; Matt Hartman as Dominic Celeno/Philip Bruno; Betz Lund as Campaign Manager/Micky/Various; and Peter L Johnson as City Planner/Hitman/Various. 

Parr-Fortenbacher thanks her family, Kelly Ford, Mark DiPietro, and Kerry Graves who have been her mentors and inspiration. 

Tickets are available at the door and online. Prices range between $12 (Students & Seniors) and $16 (General Admission). Additional ticket information available here.

Follow the University Wits on Facebook


"Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night

Now they blew up his house too

Down on the boardwalk they're gettin' ready

For a fight gonna see what them racket boys can do"


University Wits articles written by Mariea Macavei


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