It’s been proven: We, quite literally, can’t get enough of the holidays. We wrap framed artwork in patterned paper, we gorge on buffets of hams and birds, we even domesticate wild trees. Early-morning shopping stampedes aside, the holidays can’t be beat.
There are cynics out there, too, tucked away in the dimly lit corner of their joyless neighborhood taverns. And they make a good point: it’s a lot of a lot. But, when done right, a nice little bundle of sentiment can go a long way.
Two current holiday-themed productions attempt to tap into this seasonality, with all the bells and whistles that Christmas and the theatrical stage warrant. Each has its hits and misses, but both serve their purpose.
A musical ‘Carol’
O’Connell and Company brings, unsurprisingly, the most expected of the holiday revue genre. The holiday theme notwithstanding, it is a familiar offering from Mary Kate O’Connell’s group, which mixes cabaret, sendup, song cycles and legit musical theater on a regular basis. Kathy Feininger’s two-act comedy borrows from some of these modes, namely Broadway parody and Charles Dickens tribute.
David Butler is our Scrooge, and O’Connell and Michael Starzynski are his accessory everypeople. The three – with the ample, thankful talents of music director and pianist Chuck Basil – steamroll through Dickens’s tale, turning big and little moments into musical fodder. Songs are built on a memorable repertoire of show tunes, including classics from Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Lowe, to newer standards by Stephen Sondheim and Kander & Ebb.
Lyrics have been rewritten to fit this story; some cleverly (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” when a reformed Scrooge pays off a debt), some oddly (a self-effacing, torchy reinterpretation of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”), and some just wrongly (church solicitation-via-dance hall solicitation with “Big Spender”). At least Feininger is going for something entirely unexpected.
O’Connell brings her trademark yuk-yuk to the table, ensuring that neither Christmas nor Broadway are sentimental enough on her stage. A wink, nod and poke throw it all over the top, like a stocking stuffed with candy and games.
Butler and Basil have their own straightforward, sometimes droll, styles, which help even things out. Starzynski is self-aware enough to play subtlety alongside hammy schlock. The four work well together, even if one of them is annoying you at any given moment.
The mostly fun, easily harmless show makes mistakes in its production, led by director Jeffrey Coyle. Even though this is a trunk show built around an old-fashioned piano party, in which Basil knows every song, and nobody minds a few improvised rewrites, there’s still too much stuff. A little elegance wouldn’t be too much to ask, even with these gags.
O’Connell’s production style has long promoted a cute, literal, unoffensive tone. But here’s a chance to make old theatrical magic; the “Let’s put on a show! And by the way, all we have are our friends and a piano!” approach might have elevated this from kitsch to craft, as unlikely as that sounds.
Coyle is stuck at times, when his material drags on a gag into eternity. No one needs another “Phantom of the Opera” suite, parody or not.
But to make things worse, this second-act tribute is festooned with props and costume gags so amateurish, you’re reminded of the past lives of this grade school auditorium on the ECC North campus. Bits like this end up diluting what is an already garishly decorated, supremely orchestrated, and divinely collective sentiment of togetherness, tenderness and humility.
What: “A Broadway Christmas Carol”
When: Through Dec. 16
Where: Presented by O’Connell & Company at Gleasner Hall, Erie Community College North Campus, 6205 Main St., Williamville
Joseph Demerly, managing director of Kavinoky Theatre, has written his own version of a holiday revue, and, in addition to directing, producing and starring in it, has also partnered with the folks at the Forest Lawn Cemetery Heritage Foundation.
His show is similarly in homage to a holiday favorite, and is dubbed “It WAS a Wonderful Life.”
The one-hour-plus presentation is less revue and more monologue cycle. It is built on the premise that the long-term residents of the famous Buffalo cemetery have come to share their holiday memories.
What sounds like a morose, potentially morbid display of friendly ghosts and black-and-white nostalgia, is actually a delightfully salient little piece.
His cast of 10, including himself as John Lay Jr., the first person buried there, in 1850, is well tuned to the objectives in this production. It is a show about the past, but given the legacies involved, it’s as relevant to us today as it was to them then.
Leann Trautman is delightful as Martha Williams, a founder of Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. She speaks of the first site for the hospital, near the current (and soon to be vacated) Bryant Street location. Christopher Standart is Robert B. Adam, a founder of the Adam, Meldrum & Anderson (AM&A’s) department store, now in various stages of residential and commercial remodeling.
Mary Ryan’s exquisite turn as Dorothy Goetz Berlin, the first wife of composer Irving Berlin, is exceptionally in its place. Ryan’s brief appearance is a joy.
Gerry Maher turns on his charm as Dr. Frederick A. Cook, the lovably questionable local man who claimed to have discovered the North Pole. His comedic relief is joined by Timothy Finnegan’s Al Boasberg, a Jewish comedian who wrote for Jack Benny and George Burns, among others. Their teasing volleys add lightness to what could have been a weird wake.
The show works precisely because of measured moments like this. Demerly understands the underbelly of sentiment, which is actual warmth, rich musical harmony (aided by music director and pianist Michael Hake), and truthful, authentic grasps at what is both a delightful and mindful time of year.
Three and one half stars (Out of four)
What: “It WAS a Wonderful Life”
When: Through Jan. 5 (2 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday)
Where: Forest Lawn Cemetery Chapel, 1411 Delaware Ave.