I thought I knew you, Izzy. We were supposed to meet at the New Phoenix, where "Izzy," the musical revue of your heretofore-unknown life as a Buffalo songwriter, entertainingly played, told through your discovered trunk songs. Your vaudeville-barroom standards, funny and sentimental in one breath, encapsulated around the idea that you should have been Buffalo’s Cole Porter. What could have been for you, poor Izzy.
It’s a charming tale, if a rocky setup. We meet a troupe of performers who are rehearsing a revue of Izzy Freel’s work. They’re sketchbook blue-collar Buffalonians: a Tops-like grocery store butcher, a priest on piano, and other prototypes. They’re ambassadors for Izzy’s rags-to-almost-riches journey from the Russian shtetl to New York City to Hollywood to Buffalo.
They work hard to sell it. This is a tired but understandable concept for a musical revue, the least creative performing art in show business.
But “Izzy,” written by local broadcasting legend Jim Santella and theater writer (and film historian and radio commentator, among other cultural roles) Grant Golden, turns out to be neither innocent nor daring. I found it to be scattered and confusing.
The outer framework of the show – this performing troupe preparing a revue – is a Main Street of potholes. Santella’s book spends a disproportionate amount of time and energy acclimating us to the performers as it does to Izzy, with neither avenue getting us closer to a real person. It’s shtick upon shtick of diversionary comedy, layer upon layer of odorous onion. So much energy is spent on bits and not the humanity beside, or behind, or adjacent to those bits. There’s no context and therefore little reason to invest.
There are other misleading facts that drop out of the sky at times, presented as though we should have understood or expected them but which only confuse and derail wherever we thought this was going. But ultimately I felt most duped by the biggest missing elephant in the room – spoiler alert, apparently? – that Izzy isn’t real. What?
This should be way more obvious than it is. But it feels withheld, or at least not as clearly articulated as the authors might have assumed. Those strategic breadcrumbs that should have led us to this apparently obvious point, which should have been explained with clarity and honesty the reason for this ruse, are simply not in place.
I’m left to wonder why Santella and Golden chose to lead us along when they had all the creative freedom available to them to create a more redemptive story about struggle, determination and hope. This could have been a masterful twist, a big get in the eleventh hour that revealed truths about our own ambitions. The idea that we are all Izzy, perhaps. Instead, we get cynicism wrapped in betrayal. No one was Izzy.
It’s a shame because Izzy’s – I mean Golden’s – songs are truly fantastic. They’re catchy and clever and smart and perfectly evocative of a bygone era. Color me fooled.
I haven’t said much about the performers here, only because they are doing their job and most of the time doing it well; in service of what, I don’t know.
Renee Landrigan is the standout star here, fully capable of selling anything she needs. Chuck Basil, who is usually behind the piano and not dancing in front of one, is very funny and mimes his way through Jenny Marie McCabe’s choreography well enough. Nathan Miller has a sweet voice and works hard to land his character’s lame jokes. Brett Klaczyk is out of his depth vocally and choreographically, but he, too, puts up a good front. Music director Donald Jenczka bangs out a nonstop score with ease and verve.
They're working as hard as Izzy did. I wish they had a better story to tell. One that could finally have made his hard work worth all the struggle. I wish that for you too, Izzy, wherever you are.
2 stars (out of four)
Through Oct. 19 at New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park. Performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Tickets are $30-20; pay-what-you-can on Thursdays. (box office, 853-1334).