THE BASICS: A musical about breast cancer patients (!), staged by O’Connell and Company and playing weekends at their Park School home through October 30th. Drew McCabe directs a cast of six. All but one of the actors play multiple roles. The show, with its single intermission, runs about one hour and forty minutes.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: We follow four newly diagnosed breast cancer patients—Wendy, Marsha, Pete and Chelsea–as they navigate the stormy seas of mastectomy and chemotherapy, finding courage and bonding with one another.
Q: This sounds really weird! Is it a musical comedy??
A: It’s a musical, and there’s been a real effort to inject comedy, although the various deliberate stabs at humor, especially in the music, often fall painfully flat.
Q: So where does that leave us?
A: With cancer patients being frightened, sad, angry, brave and thoughtful. And singing about it. The book by Lisa Hayes apparently uses actual conversations as its source material. Hayes does manage to stir up a little compassion by the end, as we get to know the various characters better.
Q: Any good songs?
A: There are a couple of moving ballads: “Normal” in Act I, “Time” in Act II. The bulk of the score, aiming for lighthearted and satirical, seems more strange than anything else. Like the sixty-ish Marsha swooning with delight over “My Oncologist”. Or the cancer doctors speaking apparent gibberish to newly diagnosed, shell-shocked patients (“Blah Blah”). Or the beleaguered Wendy’s almost vicious rant against the color “Pink”. Weirdest of the bunch: Mary Craig as a particularly nefarious cancer cell, Cellina, singing and dancing her way through one of young Chelsea’s more unpleasant dreams. This one really needs to be seen to be believed!
Q: You’re a physician, a mammographer in fact! How about the scientific elements?
A: Simplistic and antiquated, especially for a show that debuted in 2013! The more than twenty significantly different diseases that fall under the heading of Breast Cancer are treated as one monstrous monolith. Not surprisingly, then, playwright Hayes shows us a treatment plan that is “one size fits all”. Everyone gets mastectomies, everyone gets chemotherapy, everyone goes bald. The word “lumpectomy” is never even mentioned! I understand that this is a play, and that some condensation and shaping of medical material is clearly needed to bring home the drama. But a breast cancer play where early detection is essentially ignored, breast conservation options are treated as so much blather, and chemotherapy is so clearly front and center… makes me wonder. Roswell Park is listed in the program as the “proud educational partner of BREAST IN SHOW”. Maybe they should have looked a little closer at the script…
A FEW NOTES ON THE CAST AND PRODUCTION: Tammy Hayes McGovern, a veteran actress with serious comedic chops, does buoy things considerably, endowing her character Wendy (a high achieving lawyer on the verge of partnership) with humor, mainly through savvy inflections. Pretty Laurel Flynn is another standout as the stricken 29 year-old, Chelsea. It’s the most interior performance, and the most touching. Arlynn Knauff has a great set of pipes, but is simply way too young to be playing the part of Marsha.
The production is bare bones. The nifty instrumental ensemble discussed in promo material on the BREAST IN SHOW website has been pared down to a single piano. Debi Overton-Niles plays well, and doesn’t drown anyone out, but the ensemble numbers need to be tighter, more precise. Moreover, Drew McCabe, the director, doesn’t seem to have provided much in the way of dramatic focus.
IN SUM: Problematic play, problematic production. This may be one of those shows that looks a whole lot better on paper. BREAST OF SHOW not without its merits, however, and its heart is surely in the right place.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!