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Brave, engaging musical tackles cancer

The show now onstage at O’Connell & Company takes theater into a place most people are afraid to go: It is about getting cancer.

It also is a musical — an entertaining and engaging musical.

Say what?

Credit the show’s creators — Lisa Hayes, Joan Cushing and Eileen Mitchard — with finding a way to bring breast cancer out of the closet and put it smack in the middle of theater’s communal living room. With a series of vignettes between spirited musical numbers, we follow three women and one man from their diagnoses through the arcs of their treatment and all the emotional punches that come with them.

None of the show’s characters invited this unwelcome guest, but since it isn’t leaving anytime soon, they realize it has to be faced. And face it they do, alone and together, with fear, determination and just the right dose of humor.

Just like when cancer shows up in real life.

The result is provocative and poignant, and the production in the Park School theater is a winner.

The one bad line in the show is its title, “Breast in Show.” Its play of the term “best in show” suggests we might be seeing some sort of naughty take-down of booby-based beauty pageants. In fact, the women and men here could not be further from that kind of superficial body worship.

Their bodies have betrayed them, and they don’t understand why: “I should have exercised more.” “I’m being punished.” “I’m only 29.” “I’m a man!” “I’ve always been so healthy! “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!”

Tammy Hayes McGovern is Wendy, the attorney hoping to make partner who is terrified her firm will learn she is sick. Arlynn Knauff has several roles, including Shirley, who falls for her oncologist. Nicholas Lama is the big guy with the cancer only women are supposed to get, the guy whose friends think he’s joking and whose daughter is teased about it at school.

Mary Craig is the nurse who has been there before, surviving her own cancer and inspiring the others. Bryan Patrick Stoyle is the supportive spouse who nevertheless gets worn down by the disease himself. And Laurel Flynn is Chelsea, the youngest in the chemo club, a single mom who has to worry about her children as much as she fears for herself.

There are no saints in this bunch. Their anger, pain and frustration are palpable, and the reactions will be completely familiar to anyone who has gone through their own battles with cancer, as patient or loved one.

Songs such as “Chemo Cafe” and “Freddy’s Prosthesis Emporium” may be cancer specific, but anyone who has been blind sided by a jargon-filled diagnosis in the doctor’s office will appreciate the number called “Blah Blah.” And those “Toxic People,” who always know just the wrong thing to say!

And then there is the wistful song called “Normal” — evoking the universal longing among all those whose lives have been turned upside down by illness or circumstance.

The power-punch comes with Hayes McGovern’s assault on “Pink” — the color of breast cancer and the color Wendy would like to never see again.

Well-acted, fast-moving and funny, “Breast in Show” is a brave musical that brings a scary subject out into the light. That’s always a good step when you want to get a good hit at the enemy.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com

Theater Review

“Breast in Show”

∆∆∆ (Out of four)

A not-for-women-only musical presented by O’Connell & Company at the Park School of Buffalo, 4625 Harlem Road, through Oct. 30. Tickets are $30; discounts for students and seniors. Info: oconnellandcompany.com.

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