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THE BASICS:  The New Phoenix Theatre has at last kicked off its 2017 -18 season, with this largely forgotten holiday story from 1953, written by Samuel and Bella Spewack (authors of KISS ME KATE).  Tom Makar directs a cast of nine, including the Phoenix’s Artistic Director, Richard Lambert.  MY THREE ANGELS plays weekends at the company’s cozy, historic home at 95 Johnson Park, through December 15th.  This “old chestnut” has two intermissions, which jacks up the running time to about 2 ½ hours.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  The action takes place at Christmastime in 1911, at the home of Felix Ducotel, a shopkeeper in a little French town just off of Devil’s Island.  The nearby convicts provide a source of cheap labor here.  Three of them, while working together on Monsieur Felix’s roof, overhear the serious problems facing their employer, and also his pretty daughter, Marie Louise.  Despite being murderers (two out of three), these convicts have big hearts, and throw themselves wholeheartedly into the business of fixing things up for the family.  Did I mention that one of them keeps a (very) poisonous snake as a pet?

THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION:  The operative word for this philosophical comedy with a streak of darkness (a la ARSENIC AND OLD LACE) would be “quaint”.  It’s well written but long-winded, and sags in the middle.  My companion had a hard time staying awake.  A surreptitious cutting would have helped, and the direction could well have been tighter. The cast has been well chosen, with all the actors having a good feel for their various characters.  Unfortunately, a couple are taking a rather broad, comic approach, while others are giving more low-key “natural” performances.  This is noticeable, and detracts somewhat from the production as a whole.

As Joseph, the convicts’ ringleader and schemer-in-chief, Richard Lambert is warm and sweet—a veritable harbinger of holiday cheer.  The same holds true for Elliott Fox’s more philosophical Jules.  My issue is that what makes this play tickle our fancies is the difference between how these men look and sound (and the societal assumptions we make about them) and the sweethearts they are at the core.  Both Lambert and Fox need to give us more “edge”—at least a sprinkling of possible danger/menace.  It would also help a lot if the convicts looked tougher, more unsavory.  The film version features Bogart in the Joseph role…

My issue is that what makes this play tickle our fancies is the difference between how these men look and sound (and the societal assumptions we make about them) and the sweethearts they are at the core.

[NB:  Somebody should dig up a play version of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET and sign Elliott Fox–of the bushy beard, wan smile and twinkly eyes–to the lead, right now, for the next holiday season.  Would that kill, or what?!]

Rounding out the convict trio is Brett Klaczyk as Alfred, who brings a nice, laid back, muscular quality to the least talkative of the “angels”.  Julie Kittsley, back on stage after quite a hiatus, gives a very pleasing, well judged performance as Emile, Felix’s rather long-suffering but loyal and loving mate.  And another shout out to Jack Agugliaro, just perfect as the imperious, cold-as-ice heavy, Henri Trochard.

The living room set by Primo Thomas is larger and more involved than what we usually get at the New Phoenix, and evokes the period nicely.  I would have liked more in the way of incidental music, but of course Mr. Makar had his hands full just directing.  The lighting, costumes, etc, are all up to snuff.

IN SUM:  Looking for a little holiday cheer that isn’t THE NUTCRACKER, THE CHRISTMAS CAROL or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE?  Look no further.  The New Phoenix has you covered! Perfect this production isn’t (see above), but its inherent warmth and gentle humor will likely win you over by the end.

Images courtesy The New Phoenix Theatre

*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 Grant Golden

Grant Golden

GRANT GOLDEN wears a number of hats. He has been practicing radiology in Buffalo since 1981, for the past 15 years, with Seton Imaging. Dr Laszlo Tabar, internationally famous mammographer, has been his special friend and mentor.

Grant began The Old Chestnut Film Society, Buffalo’s only film society, in 1983. Now in its 35th consecutive season, the OCFS does monthly screenings of Hollywood classics in 16mm.

He has written the scores (and some of the books) for a number of locally produced musicals, including the old WONDERMAKERS shows, THE OTHER ISLAND, NOBODY’S INN (Alleyway Theatre), IZZY! (Musicalfare), and ME II (Western Door Playhouse). He reviewed local plays on the radio for 20 years--on WBEN and WBFO—before making the switch to BuffaloRising.

Grant and his lovely wife Deborah live in Central Park with their dog Ginger, and cats Ella and Felix. They have three adult children, and now, happily, two grandchildren!

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