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IZZY opens New Phoenix Theatre’s 25th Anniversary with a throwback

THE BASICS: IZZY, a musical revue revival with songs by Grant Golden, book by Jim Santella, music realization by Don Jenczka, directed by Richard Lambert, starring Chuck Basil, Brett Klaczik, Nathan Miller, and Renee Landrigran, runs through October 19, Thursdays (pay what you can) through Saturdays at 8:00 at the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park (853-1334). Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission (soda, beer, wine).

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Izzy Freel (“Is he for real” – get it?) a fictional Tin-Pan Alley songwriter, born in a shtetel, working in New York and Hollywood, the invention of Buffalo writers Grant Golden and Jim Santella (yes, the Buffalo radio legend), is a star-crossed, hapless fellow whose bad timing, luck, and judgement never quite got him to Irving Berlin status. As the show opens, an amateur theatrical group, “The Golden Tones,” arrives at a rented VFW hall in downtown Buffalo, in 1985, to rehearse various numbers by “Izzy.” The second act is more of the same, only this time, instead of a “behind the scenes” rehearsal, it’s full costumes tuxes and gowns showtime with a series of musical numbers connected by commentary about Izzy’s life. A little like the musical GYPSY, it’s what’s called a “book musical” only here the book (story) is completely made up.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The spirit of this musical goes back to the last century when Buffalo was the butt of national jokes, long before Buffalo’s current “revival,” and whose writers, Golden and Santella, were seemingly informed by the spirit expressed in artist Michael Morgulis’ 1977 Tee-Shirt “Buffalo: City of No Illusions” or two sports-themed tee-shirts (still as popular and as relevant as Morgulis’) showing either the Superbowl ring or Stanley Cup with the slogan “Just One Before I Die.”

So, who was or what is Izzy, the man? A shmendrik, a shlimeel, a shlimazel? Those words don’t quite fit. He’s not a sorry loser, in fact he’s continuously upbeat. He’s never defeated even though he’s made some big mistakes.  Here’s an example: We learn that Izzy’s (remember, fictitious) Broadway show “Tokyo Tootsies” opened (and obviously closed) on the same day – December 7, 1941. Bad timing and not his fault? Yes, but Izzy was equally adept at shooting himself in the foot. His love song “Fuzzy Moon” wasn’t quite the hit that, say, (real-life) Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, and Billy Rose’s “Paper Moon” was. When advised to write an upbeat song for the holidays (in the grand tradition of great Christmas songs written by Jews such as “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” or “Let It Snow”) instead of composing a career-saving hit, Izzy came up with a song about why he didn’t commit suicide on Christmas Eve.

Golden’s lyrics are funny and the tunes are good with a satisfying range of musical styles. However, if you’re expecting the dramatic rags to riches arc of recent movie biopics such as “Rocketman” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” where Elton John or Freddie Mercury overcome their issues, or even the good old spirit of “42ndStreet” Santella hasn’t written that kind of book.  Izzy never seems to overcome anything.

The on-stage talent, Chuck Basil, Brett Klaczyk, Nathan Miller, all high energy, had that most difficult of tasks, playing, on stage, bumbling amateurs putting on a show. Only the very best can play the fool. For example, the fool in “I Love Lucy” was a comic genius, Lucille Ball. Still, that set-up is a time-honored trope, whether it’s the older NOISES OFF or THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG currently running off-Broadway to mixed reviews. On opening night of IZZY, the audience reaction was equally mixed. About half of the audience was doubled over in laughter. The other half endured the evening.

Every scene has shtick or visual gags. Director Richard Lambert (and by the way, the New Phoenix Theatre is celebrating its 25th Anniversary) made good use of the smallish stage (Set Design Matthew Myers). And Don Jenczka is one helluva piano man, playing in every style, improvising all night long, and creating enough sound so that the evening never felt thin in that department. This is his third time around in the Musical Director’s seat for a production of IZZY and that long experience with the material was evident all evening.

Mary Kate cosmetics display at New Phoenix | Photo by Peter Hall

And, speaking of experience, if you don’t as a rule get out to MusicalFare in Snyder, then perhaps you’ve been missing actress Renee Landrigan. So, here’s a good opportunity to see what you’ve missed. For example, back in 2015, reviewing SISTERS OF SWING presented out in the suburbs, I wrote: “But, as good as everyone else is, and they are good, the real reason to make an effort … is Renee Landrigan.” I was equally impressed by her “Molly” in PETER AND THE STARCATCHER and her role of “Girl” in ONCE. And, she’s done straight theater at Irish Classical and Road Less Traveled. She’s a master at playing feisty but vulnerable; she can sing and she’s funny. I got a huge kick out of her trying to get the “audience” to buy cosmetic products from her as an authorized “Mary Kate” distributor. I adore double puns, and this combination of Mary Kay cosmetics with the name of adored Buffalo musical star Mary Kate O’Connell was delicious.

This was my Curtain Up! Show and, all in all, if you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

UP NEXT: Ed Graczyk’s play COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN in which an all-female fan club of “bad boy” actor James Dean meet in a Woolworths and share memories. It will run from November 22 through December 21, 2019.

*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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