BWW Review: A Meandering CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN at SHEA'S 710 THEATRE
Local boy does good. That has been the success story of Buffalo born playwright Tom Dudzick. His play OVER THE TAVERN that premiered at the old Studio Arena Theatre in 2006 has become a hot commodity, being produced by multiple theatres across the United States. It went on to become a trilogy and has been a favorite amongst Buffalo audiences ever since. Alas, his latest venture, the musical CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN does not appear to be destined for a similar destiny.
Dudzick's semi autobiographical TAVERN plays are set in the 1950's of Buffalo, NY. The lives of the Pazinski family of Seneca Street deal with a typical working class Polish Catholic family and their interactions with the strictest Catholic nun of all, Sister Clarissa. The father, Chet, runs his tavern below the family home. Three boys and a girl make up the large family, with the mom anchoring the home. Dad is perpetually miserable at Christmas, mom wants to keep everyone happy, and young Rudy is a budding comedian who wants to bring his one man act to the school Christmas pageant.
While Dudzick has firmly established time and place is his period musical comedy, much of the premise seems contrived and predictable. His best comedic writing comes when he puts young Rudy, played by the affable and talented Joel Fesmire, front and center. This young lad has personality that radiates on stage. He is already a master of impressions and comic delivery. And by the way, all of the boys are played by real brothers, Samuel Fesmire as Eddie and Isaac Fesmire as Georgie.
Mr. Dudzick has penned the book, music and lyrics, but his talents are not honed enough to present a cohesive score. The songs often are meandering and too long, without a thematic center. Some feel shoe-horned in and others ramble. And while a score does not necessarily need to be melodic to succeed, it's songs should add purpose. The "Why Can't It Be like TV" was entertaining, and gave a 50's perspective to the Pazinski household. Otherwise most numbers were unmemorable.
A clever device of having Santa and Jesus appear to Rudy in dream sequences lent some good humor to the evening. Peter Horn as Chet is given the unhappy role of being miserable for near the entire play, which makes him mostly unlikable. He suffered from intonation problems in his "If I Hear One More Christmas Song." He succeeded moreso in playing the dream Santa and Jesus. Wendy Hall does her level best to be the June Cleaver mother type as Ellen. Isaac Fesmire is Georgie, the special needs child of the family, and he does a fine job conveying many emotions with his limited vocabulary. His protective older brother and sister, played by Caroline Schettler and Samuel Fesmire, are endearing in their desire to shield Georgie from any unneeded sadness.
When a neighbor gets divorce, this Roman Catholic neighborhood is knocked for a loop-- could this be where the Pazinski's marriage is headed? Quite possibly this musical would have benefited from less angst and more Christmas shenanigans for the entire family. All good theatre has some sort of conflict at it's core, but this family has become beloved, and is Christmas really the place to make dad such a perpetual Debbie downer with divorce lingering in the background?
Pamela Rose Mangus is given the plucky role of Sister Clarissa, wielding her ruler and cane, she is a miserable force to be reckoned with. The audience ate up all of her predictable mannerisms that sent years of Catholic school students cowering with memories. But it's not until the second act when she gets to let loose and behave a little naughty herself, is Sister truly funny.
Director Randall Kramer, who staged this production for his MUSICALFARE company last year, repeats his staging for Shea's 710 Theatre. He keeps the movements brisk, aided by some jaunty choreography by John Fredo, but the evening runs long by the time the plot is all resolved in "Laugh It Up Boogie." Costume Designer Kari Drozd has fashioned costumes evocative to the era, most notably for the ladies. Dylan Burlingame has designed a realistic set with a Buffalo skyline in the background.
The OVER THE TAVERN series seems to have run it's course. In this case, too much a of a good thing may not be so good.
CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN, produced by MusicalFare Theatre runs through December 22,2109 at Shea's 701 Theatre. Contact sheas.org for more information