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CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN in larger Shea’s 710 space is real “56er” for better or for worse

THE BASICS: CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN, a musical by Tom Dudzick based on his famous play, directed by Randall Kramer, presented by MusicalFare at Shea’s 710 Theatre, runs through December 22, Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 2. (847-1410) www.sheas.org/710-theatre Coatcheck, Snack bar, Full-service bar in beautiful lounge Runtime: 2 hours 5 minutes

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This is a remount of last year’s December run which quickly and completely sold-out at MusicalFare’s smaller 137 seat home in Amherst  (just as the really enjoyable musical ELF is doing now). CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN has been tweaked in the meantime by the playwright and director to good effect and the four times bigger, 625 seat, Shea’s 710 Theatre is allowing many more to enjoy this trip down memory lane (cliché used here deliberately). Portions of this current 2019 review are quoted directly from my 2018 review including this summary: This musical brings back the Pazinski family, growing up in Polonia, Buffalo’s East Side, during the Eisenhower era, a family first introduced in one of this city’s most beloved plays, OVER THE TAVERN. Now it’s Christmas time, and we have Chet, father of four, owner of a tavern, who suffers the quiet desperation of a man whose dreams were never realized. It’s taking a toll on Chet, but even more on his devoted wife Ellen, and their four children, including the wise-cracking 12-year-old Rudy who reimagines the Nativity in terms of popular 1950s television shows, with Ed Sullivan introducing the Holy family surrounded by “The Three Stooges” as the shepherds. Rudy’s teacher, Sister Clarissa (who was also Chet’s teacher) is not amused.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: With a pitch-perfect 1950s kitchen and an exposed back wall depicting the Buffalo skyline, once again Dyan Burlingame has worked closely with lighting designer Chris Cavanagh to produce another impressive set, taking advantage of the larger Shea’s 710 stage. And, yes, we get yet another candidate for “Best Depiction of a Buffalo Bar.” The costumes and hair, etc. by sisters Kari and Susan Drozd depicted the 1950s well.

Replacing last year’s Chet played by Jacob Albarella we have Peter Horn. One of my problems last year was that Chet came across as a little deranged. Perhaps Albarella was trying too hard to break free of his funny-man persona, or perhaps the direction was off, but either way I found Horn’s portrayal a little less scary, and I’m led to believe that was by design in this remount.

Wendy Hall (the mom) and Pamela Rose Mangus (the nun) once again delivered their usual professional product. With this 2019 remount, Joel Fesmire is Rudy, who, although sometimes hard to understand (just as Michael Scime was, at times, last year) was beyond cute appearing along with his real-life brothers, Isaac Fesmire and Samuel Fesmire. Rounding out the stage family was Caroline Schettler as Annie, the sister.

After the show I spoke with a teacher of Latin who (in real life) instructs the Fesmire boys and she told me that they are just so smart, just so nice, and are a joy to teach and to know. That comes across during the play. Their charm doesn’t seem forced or “stagey.”

Unfortunately, we don’t get any great songs. Mr. Dudzick (Book, Music, and Lyrics) might have called in a collaborator on this one.  Now, some songs were heartfelt and made sense in context. The song “Why Can’t It Be Like On TV?” hit home with everyone who grew up wondering why their all-too-real family wasn’t as perfect in every way as television families and the similar “What Happened?” was for everyone whose plans in life didn’t work out quite as expected.

Other songs I found as disappointingly dopey as many songs from the 1950s. It’s true, playwright Dudzick does have an ear for that decade and the advice from Sister Clarissa to Chet (the dad) to simply “Get Happy” and from Rudy to his father to “Laugh It Up” were perfect time capsules of mid-century inanity. Danny Kaye could have pulled it off, I suppose, but that was then. And, this is now.

It all comes down to how “nostalgia” is presented. For me, Mr. Dudzick doesn’t alter reality as much as I would have liked. Snappier lyrics and more melodic, catchy songs might have won me over. So, as you can see, I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater and judging from the laughter, applause, and general buzz of the opening night audience filing out, you, as they were, will probably be pleased.

UP NEXT: Back at the Mainstage in Amherst, MusicalFare continues its 30th Anniversary programming with COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY, February 5 through March 8, 2020 celebrating the life of blues singer Albert Hunter with such songs as “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy Anymore,” the latter being an example of the double entendre for which Ms. Hunter was beloved. Victoria Perez directs and pianist George Caldwell (AIN’T MISBEHAVIN, SOPHISTICATED LADIES) leads an onstage musical quartet in the first WNY production of this show since its 2002 sold-out run at the Old Studio Arena Theatre.

Also note that there are a number of cabaret events (small seating, small ensemble, small stage, full-service bar) in the “Premier Center Cabaret.” Check the website www.musicalfare.com for details.

CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN  Rating: Three Buffalos

*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 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, 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?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

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 has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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