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IT WAS A WONDERFUL LIFE at Forest Lawn Chapel sells out their performances for another year.

BASICS/THUMBNAIL: IT WAS A WONDERFUL LIFE presented by Forest Lawn Cemetery in the historic Forest Lawn Chapel, 1411 Delaware Avenue, features nine well-known Buffalo actors who each portray an important “permanent resident” as they create musical, comical, and poignant glimpses of Christmases past when those persons “enjoyed life on this side of the lawn.” Through December 30, but most shows sold out. (288-5999) Runtime: about 90 minutes with no intermission.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: From the clear signage as you enter the main Delaware Avenue /  Delavan Avenue gates to Forest Lawn, to the easy parking along the interior roads, to the hot cider, and the ad hoc holiday gift shop (open before and after the performances) set up with tote bags, tchotchkes, paper products, jewelry, not to mention daily drawings and a grand drawing (to be held in April) … this “event” was superbly targeted to that important 55+ female theater demographic.  I went with three such ladies who were having a great time, and the play hadn’t even begun!

Once inside the chapel, our group quickly spread out to the extra seating because those chairs were padded (as opposed to the hard, wooden chapel pews). I swear our ancestors (or at least their derrieres) were made of sterner stuff.

Originally written several years ago by Joseph Demerly, adapted and directed by Sheila McCarthy (who is also on stage this year), the musical direction (and every character sings a song) was by Donald Jenczka, with costumes by Loraine O’Donnell, and lights and sound by Chris Cavanagh.

As the play begins, we first meet the narrator, John Lay, Jr. (the first person to take up residence in Forest Lawn in 1850) portrayed by Robert Ernie Insana.

As the play begins, we first meet the narrator, John Lay, Jr. (the first person to take up residence in Forest Lawn in 1850) portrayed by Robert Ernie Insana. And then each actor takes up, in his or her own turn, Martha Williams, one of the founders of Children’s Hospital (beautifully portrayed by Sheila McCarthy who right away had me fumbling around for a tissue). We meet two important black leaders, Shirley Chisolm (first woman from a major party to run for President) played by Janice Mitchell (who used to sing with Ray Charles as a “Raelette”!!!) and Mary Burnett Talbert, a guiding light for the fledgling NAACP, delightfully played by the Paul Robeson Theatre’s Mary Craig.

Comic relief comes from Kerrykate Abel, who portrays Marian de Forest, a founder of Zonta, as a force to be reckoned with, only to be rudely interrupted by the self-important Frederick A. Cook, M.D. who claimed to be the fist person to discover the North Pole (played with great zeal by Guy Tomassi). The whole cast gets a lot of mileage out of that interaction. And speaking of that, it’s a hallmark of good actors to stay in character and stay engaged even when it’s not their moment, and this band of nine professionals does that very convincingly. More comic relief comes from Kevin Kennedy’s portrayal of Al Boasberg (a comedy writer for the stars, who got his start by cracking wise backstage at Shea’s with George Burns, who hired him on the spot).

Renee Landrigan portrayed Dorothy Goetz Berlin, the first wife of famed composer Irving Berlin, who wrote the lyrics to ‘White Christmas.’

Renee Landrigan portrayed Dorothy Goetz Berlin, the first wife of famed composer Irving Berlin, who wrote the lyrics to “White Christmas.” That’s what Landrigan sang, but throughout the show, we heard, among other songs, “The Carol of the Bells,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Mary Did You Know?” “Silent Night,” “What Child Is This?” and an original song by the beloved, late, great Michael Hake, written for, and sung by Christopher Standardt, one of Buffalo’s finest and most versatile actors, who plays Robert Adam, a founder of AM&As.

These shows sell out year after year and one reason is word-of-mouth recommendations from the previous year’s audience. While you may still be able to score a ticket for a post-Christmas performance this year, one purpose of this review is to remind you to put it in your calendar for next fall, so that you can jump on tickets as soon as they are posted.

*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!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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