Step aside, Mr. Hamilton. There's another hot show playing in Buffalo this month, and those lucky enough to have their tickets better hang on to them. The world premiere of Tom Dudzick's "Christmas Over the Tavern" sold out its entire monthlong run at MusicalFare before the show even opened.
For advance ticket buyers, it was a good bet, but not a sure one. Dudzick, Buffalo-born and raised, is among the country's most popular living playwrights, with his success rooted in his pointedly down-to-earth semi-autobiographical stories based on his East Side childhood. He already had one Christmas play, "Greetings," under his belt, and his "Over the Tavern" plays covered three decades, so he decided to try something a little different: a holiday musical.
Please note the this would be his first musical. Which, after the last song drew to a close on opening night, left the audience with only one question: Is there NOTHING this guy can't do?
OK, "Christmas Over the Tavern" isn't perfect. But what in Buffalo (besides a Lake Erie sunset and the acoustics in Kleinhans) is? Our imperfections are part of the city's charm, and no one recognizes that with more affection than Tom Dudzick.
It is the spirit that he celebrates in his work. In 2018, the Pazinski family of "Over the Tavern" fame might be described as dysfunctional. Chet Pazinski would call that a bunch of bunk. In 1959, when this "Christmas" takes place, Chet is the gruff head of a medium-sized Catholic family, and that's that. The problems they deal with aren't existential. They are simply the facts of life in their thriving blue collar neighborhood.
Chet (Jacob Albarella) copes by yelling a lot. His wife, Ellen (Wendy Hall), responds by trying not to provoke the yelling. Their kids -- three boys and a girl -- try to stay out of the way, coming into their own when they are safely out of range of parental supervision.
To set the holiday theme, Dudzick opens with the family in choir robes singing a medley of traditional carols, all the while interjecting their stream-of-consciousness concerns about such things as school, junk food, housework and, from Chet, the jarring question "How much would I get if I burned the tavern down?" Fa lalalala lalalala.
[From 2014: Colin Dabkowski interviews Dudzick about "Over the Tavern"]
Chet's heard that the New York State Thruway, now known as the I-190, will be built right through their neighborhood, very likely killing his business and those around him. He is not in a Christmas mood and refuses to take the family to the Clinton Bailey Market to get their Christmas tree.
The kids -- played with deadpan dexterity by Samuel Fesmire, Isaac Fesmire, Caroline Schettler and Michael Scime -- are as stunned as they are devastated. Still, they sing hopefully that "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Seneca Street" (because he likes the ratio of churches to bars), even though they recognize that their life bears little resemblance to Ozzie and Harriet in a mournful "Why Can't It Be Like on TV?"
Director Randall Kramer worked closely with Dudzick, who was in town for the rehearsals, and the short dance numbers choreographed by John Fredo have just the right "family follies" feel of nonprofessional fun.
The well-conceived set design by Dyan Burlingame is anchored by the Pazinski kitchen and augmented by a rotating smaller stage platform, giving a smooth fluidity to the multiple scene changes. We easily transition between Chet's bar and St. Casimer's Catholic School, wherein we enjoy the return of Sister Clarissa.
Pamela Rose Mangus is a force to be reckoned with as the ferocious nun who pulls no punches, Thy will to be done. Her opening number, "Is It Too Much to Ask?" is a lament that could be shared by any teacher, although the line about illegible handwriting -- "You put the curse in cursive" -- reminds us how many schools have simply given up on that.
She is a stern nemesis for young Rudy, the "Tavern" proxy for the young Dudzick, but Rudy has ideas of his own and will not be denied. Michael Scime, an eighth grader at Nardin Academy, does a remarkable job imitating celebrities such as Ed Sullivan and the Three Stooges, stars that only his grandparents would remember in their heyday.
[Related: 2014 review of Dudzick's "Over the Tavern"]
Remembering when Dudzick would bop through the Student Union at SUNY Fredonia in full Groucho Marx regalia makes watching Michael's Groucho impression even more fun. There's a backstory to why he's doing it, but then, there always is.
In the end, the Pazinkis and Sister Clarissa get the Christmas they deserve, and if it all seems to wrap up rather oddly, that's what world premieres are for. To paraphrase Groucho, "We have had a perfectly wonderful evening ...." But where Groucho added "this wasn't one of them," we would have to differ. It was a wonderfully Buffalo evening.
"Christmas Over the Tavern"
3.5 stars (out of four)
A musical return to 1950s Buffalo and theater's favorite bar-owing Polish family, the Pazinskis, in Tom Dudzick's first holiday musical. Playing through Dec. 16 at MusicalFare on the Daemen College campus, 4380 Main St., Amherst. Most shows are sold out; check at musicalfare.org for limited availability.
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