THE BASICS: THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF FATHER NOL, a musical comedy with a book and lyrics by Bert Bernardi and music by Justin Rugg based on a children’s book “read aloud” by the creator of “Oz” L. Frank Baum, presented by O’Connell & Company, runs through December 19 with two more shows, Saturday at 8:00 a.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. on the main stage at Ken-Ton Elmwood Commons, 3200 Elmwood Avenue, Tonawanda, NY 14217 (oconnellandcompany .com) (716-848-0800) Mandatory vaccinations and masks. Raffles, concessions, fresh popcorn! Duration: 90 minutes with an intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: As the promotion says, it’s about Santa Claus, “How the Boy Became a Man. How the Man Became a Legend. In Burzee Forest, Wood Nymph Necile (Kelleigh Murray) discovers a baby abandoned and courtesy of the “immortals” Queen of the Forest Zurline (Anne DeFazio) and Grand Lumberjack Ak (Michael J. Galante) she raises the boy until it is time for him to leave with his sidekick Calon , the elf (Michael Starzynski), to experience the world both good and bad. As Claus (Nick Lama) he sees poverty and disease and even though he is potentially thwarted by the evil Awgwa sisters ( Sara Jo Kukulka and Sára Kovácsi Rizzo), he succeeds in bringing happiness to children through the annual Christmas Eve ritual of walking down chimneys to deliver toys.
THE PLAYERS, THE GAME AND THE PRODUCTION: The plot of this musical follows several standard tropes, the first being “The Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell, taken reluctantly, always with a sidekick, and in the face of adversity, ultimately bringing a gift to mankind. (Think the Lord of the Rings). But it is also what is called an “etiological myth”, that is, an explanation of the way things are (think Rudyard Kipling Just stories). When dealing with large cosmological issues, they are sometimes referred to as “origin myths” (for example The Book of Genesis). In modern popular culture, they are known as “origin stories”. Think Marvel Comics ‘Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider to become “Spider Man” and DC Comics’ Bruce Wayne vowing revenge after criminals murdered his parents to become “Batman.”
So you get the idea. Baum takes what we (and most people in 1902) would already have associated with Christmas through Scandinavian, German, and Victorian English culture, as well as a famous poem published some eighty years earlier and elaborating a ‘history of ‘origin’.
This poem A visit from Saint Nicholas, more commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” from its first line, was first published in 1823 and later attributed to Clement C. Moore. The salient lines of the poem Baum wanted to explain seem to be as follows:
‘Twas the night before Christmas
the the stockings were hanging by the fireplace with care
In the hope that Saint Nicolas would be here soon …
But a miniature sled, and lowercase eight reindeer…
With the sleigh full of Toys, and Saint-Nicolas too …
Down the chimney Saint-Nicolas came with a leap….
He was chubby and plump, a good old elf…
And putting his finger next to his nose,
And nodding his head, in the fireplace he stood up;
But what a hodge-podge becomes this musical. It looked like a college production. Certainly the main ones (Kelleigh Murray, Anne DeFazio, Michael J. Galante, Michael Starzynski, Nick Lama, Sara Jo Kukulka and Sára Kovácsi Rizzo) have good voices, in particular Murray, and especially in his interpretation of “Child of the Forest – Part 3. “The woodland ladies costumes designed by Kukulka were mind blowing on a budget. And the scene and song by the raven-headed Awgwa sisters” Like the Awgwa Do “that ends Act I is quite funny, just like many moments with eminently bankable and reliable Michael Starzynski in comedic roles. Nick Lama has a good baritone who (casting directors please note) should be used a lot more. So everywhere on the stage, there were those isolated moments that were enjoyable, but the whole was much less than the sum of its many parts.
I appreciate what Mary Kate O’Connell, founder of the company, is doing to get the actors out of Zoom and get them on stage. And with the recent major cast of A CHORUS LINE and Now, she’s certainly doing her part to revive the theater in western New York. But in the end, there were just too many moving parts. And a huge issue for me is the inclusion of eight children. I don’t have fun with kids on stage, whether in MATILDA or FINDING NEVERLAND or even ANNIE. So factor that into my One Buffalo note however you want.
* BUFFALO HERD (Notes on rating system)
A BUFFALO: It means trouble. A terrible play, a very imperfect production, or both. Unless you have a really compelling reason to attend (that is, you are the parent of someone who is attending), give this show a big place.
TWO BULBS: Fair, but no big bumps. Either the production is quite far from the base, or the part itself is problematic. Unless you’re the type of person who just enjoys going to the theater, you might be looking for something else.
THREE buffaloes: I still have my problems, but it’s a hell of a good night at the theater. If you don’t come in with huge expectations, you will probably be satisfied.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre / content is right for you, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb, a rare rating. Comedies that make you laugh, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided this is the kind of show you love, you would be crazy to miss it!