Not until fireworks and fireflies, splash pads and swimming pools, Dilly Bars and saltwater taffy – and certainly, not until Buffalo United Artists Summer Camp spectacular hits the stage – has summer officially begun.
This is the milestone we wait for, the spoof of spoofs, the shock of all awe, the ridiculous, rambunctious, calamitous display that’s hard to take seriously and easy to revere. The company pulls out all the stops, with all-star casts and pop-culture references to last all night.
This year’s romp is a doozy: “Silence! The Musical,” based, of course, on Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Academy Award-winning “Silence of the Lambs.” Like the haunting movie, this musical pulls out all the stops to entertain.
Everything on paper makes sense. The cast, led by BUA regulars Maria Droz, Michael Seitz, Adam Hayes, Eric Michael Rawski and Michael “Bebe Bvlgari” Blasdell, and blessed by the more-or-less above-the-title Queen Mother of BUA, Jimmy Janowski – plus Charmagne Chi, who strangely, somehow, is only now making her BUA debut – is utterly perfect. BUA interns Jeremy Catania and Sam Crystal round out the ensemble with presence and personality.
Director Todd Warfield, a devout practitioner of camp, was born to lead these lambs across the finish line. Choreographer Carlos R.A. Jones and music director Chuck Basil add considerable style and reinforcement.
And yet, with all the stars seemingly aligned, it misses a few key steps.
Hunter Bell’s script is lopsided, with a weak first act that takes a few songs to rev up, and a much stronger, funnier second act. Some scenes could be edited to transition better, to move less cinematically for the stage; it feels asthmatic in places. Jones’s busy staging in one musical number, which uses moving set pieces to mimic a moving landscape, is smart enough, but messy. Elsewhere, strategic set pieces fall short of their potential and just get in the way.
You can see it in the ensemble’s cute costuming, too, which gives away a punchline too early and too often. All comedy works or not because of timing. Decisions like these deflate the setup and punchline.
There’s a figurative choreography at play in any stage production – the movement and pacing of people and their props, the transformation of a set, the cadence of a beat, the strength of a silent moment. Even in a fast-paced, sarcastic spoof like this, practice really does make perfect. This is not the well-oiled Summer Camp machine I’ve seen before.
Among the missteps, though, are beautifully precise moments of comedic timing. This cast really does know what they’re doing. Seitz’s Buffalo Bill is simultaneously sinister and silly; Chi’s turn as Catherine, Bill’s hostage-in-a-well (the one with the lotion), is spontaneous and eruptive; Blasdell transforms genders and species while maintaining his personal stamp. And a nod to lighting designer Carly Weiser, for illuminating a few key transitions with (appropriately) cinematic style.
But it’s our stars, Droz and Janowski, who are the real reason this thing works (when it does). There’s a strong comedy team between them, an unlikely duo that feels both old-fashioned and relevant. Each is a gifted comedian with impeccable timing, nuance and subtext. Janowski’s Hannibal Lecter is perhaps the straightest I’ve ever seen him on stage – both as a comedian and as a characterization. It’s as if he’s more than willing to step back – just a bit – to give Droz the spotlight as Clarice Starling, the Jodie Foster role that she both mimics and makes her own. It’s a beautifully detailed, still clownish portrayal that appears much easier than it looks. If this isn’t a star-making turn, I don’t know what is.
And Janowski, in his seething, simmering Lecter persona, a character without a face of makeup, without a wig or dress, is the most conservative one in the group. That, alone, is a spoof to embrace.
“Silence! The Musical”
★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
Presented by Buffalo United Artists in Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley. Performances are at 8 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays through July 20. Tickets are $15 to $25 general admission. Visit buffalobua.org or call 886-9239.