It’s common this time of year to visit our loved ones at the cemetery. There we plant flowers, mind hedges, leave stones and, perhaps, tell stories of life above ground.
But in an annual production at Forest Lawn, it’s Buffalo’s famous loved ones who do the visiting.
“It Was a Wonderful Life” is a unique piece of theater: part history lesson, part holiday concert, part Buffalo boosters meeting. At under 90 minutes and without an intermission, it’s a breeze, a contemplative afternoon in the gravest of locations. And yet, it’s not morose, thanks to its tongue-in-cheek candor and Christmas sheen. In its sixth year, with a few new characters and mostly new cast members, the show is growing more and more into a tradition. A recent Sunday afternoon performance packed the cemetery's chapel.
The show debuted in 2012 under the tutelage of writer Joseph Demerly, a fixture in Buffalo’s theater scene for years before moving away, and the late Michael Hake, a musical director with abundant prestige and personality. Their legacy (at least regarding this show) remains intact with fresh new interpretations and updated facts. Anyone who knows Demerly or remembers Hake will surely feel their presence in these hallowed halls.
Cast member Sheila McCarthy directs this year’s production, and is also credited with script adaptations. Her work in all three areas is sharp and nicely handled, but it’s her performance as Martha Williams, a founder of the Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, that stands out.
She has an exquisite grasp of this play’s loveliness, its decision to channel the cemetery’s residents as friendly ghosts visiting from a sort of buried heaven. During their visit with us, they question modernity (the way we sometimes do) and revel in their memories of living. The play’s title comes in handy many times.
McCarthy helps Williams feel as familiar as a great aunt or grandmother, a real-life presence in our midst whose occasional reference to her own death is a sad reminder of her fate. This is a standout performance that bridges the past and present with longing elegance. McCarthy’s segment is tarnished only by a curiously excessive number of references to the Oishei family and its foundation, which distracts with the suggestion of sponsorship.
Elsewhere, through mostly fine and entertaining performances, it’s easier to accept these characters as exhibits rather than spirits. McCarthy, though, sets a fantastic standard.
Robert Ernie Insana and Janice Mitchell made unconvincing cases for their personalities, cobbling together their lines with varying degrees of success. Mitchell’s bio notes that she is a seasoned jazz singer, with a serious C.V. of her own. Acting is not her strength in this appearance, however her (inexplicably polished) musical performance is worth the stumbling preamble. (Shirley Chisolm, the pioneering African-American politician, meanwhile, is quite the jazz act, it turns out.)
Insana’s occasional hiccups had more to do with readiness than anything else. He is a fine (if vanilla) host, as John Lay, Jr., the cemetery’s very first resident. Similarly, Christopher Standart’s turn as AM&A’s co-founder Robert Adam is effective but static.
The rest of the ensemble come with laughs up their sleeves. Kevin Kennedy, Mary Craig, Renee Landrigan, Guy Tomassi and Kerrykate Abel bring warm cheer and formidable skill to the table. Tomassi’s take on Frederick Cook, the explorer who purportedly discovered the North Pole, is especially fun. Craig’s engrossing depiction of civil rights advocate Mary Talbert is endearing and finely tuned. Abel is a bawdy thrill as early feminist Marian deForest, as is Renee Landrigan as Irving Berlin’s first wife, Dorothy Goetz Berlin. Great energy, care and thoughtfulness in everyone’s portrayals.
In all, this is a lovely visit in one of our city’s most beautiful landmarks, an encyclopedic garden of Buffalo’s past. Six years on, this show is still enlightening, and allows us to visit with nearby friends we never knew we had. Happy holidays, neighbors.
“It Was a Wonderful Life”
★ ★ ★ ½ (out of 4 stars)
Through Dec. 31 at Forest Lawn Chapel, 1411 Delaware Ave. Performances are at 11 a.m. and 2 p..m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 31 (no show on Dec. 24). Tickets are $25 (box office, forest-lawn.com/events). Call 288-5999.