Onstage in December
New holiday offerings abound this month
O'Connell and Company presents The Betsy Carmichael Special
Carmichael photo by Mary Kate O’Connell
Some make a tradition out of hitting a holiday theater classic each year, and, if it’s The Santaland Diaries, It’s A Wonderful Life, or A Christmas Carol you’re seeking, you’re sure to find it. But if you tend to skip December at the theater because you’ve seen it all, this season, you’re being gifted. Road Less Traveled, O’Connell and Company, and New Phoenix are all presenting world premieres of holiday plays this month—and Subversive is even offering a reading of a new holiday feature.
The Betsy Carmichael Christmas Special
By Joey Bucheker and Mary Kate O’Connell
Director: Mary Kate O’Connell
Cast: Betsy Carmichael, Adam Wall, Corey Bieber, Jerry Mosey, Sean Murphy, and rotating special guests, including Marc Sacco, Guy Tomassi, Bobby Cooke, Adam Hayes, and Michael Seitz.
In summer 2015, Betsy Carmichael went from podcast to stage in Betsy Carmichael’s Late Nite Bingo, an original production at O’Connell and Company. In the months following the premiere, authors Mary Kate O’Connell and Joey Bucheker continued to work the show, and took a retooled, revised, and renamed—Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace—show to the Chicago Fringe Festival, where it was voted “Most Anticipated Show” after an evening of three-minute previews.
It was O’Connell who first suggested Betsy have a Christmas show, and “I said absolutely not,” recalls Bucheker. “I was still reworking, because you don’t write a show and have it be a hit. You have to take that year and a half, and that’s the stage I was in. Undertaking a Christmas show seemed like too much too fast.” But the idea didn’t die, and Bucheker finally agreed to do it under one condition: it needed a new concept.
“[I didn’t want] the same Betsy but we add Christmas ornaments and give out Christmas prizes, the same show but all we do is put on red and green. Too many sequels do that,” he says. “Even though the original format works, it needed to be its own entity, because I don’t want to cheat the audience. If you do that, I can throw in some Easter eggs and do Betsy Carmichael Roll Back the Rock Bingo.”
In casting about for a new idea, Bucheker realized that he’d always been a sucker for the song-and-dance holiday special. The most famous, he says, is The Judy Garland Christmas Show, to which Betsy’s show will pay homage. “Betsy is very much a family woman, very much like Judy had her family with her, so Betsy invites everybody and does a song-and-dance Christmas special. There’s still bingo and bingo-related items and audience participation, but it’s a nice old-fashioned Christmas special where anything could happen. And if you ever watched Judy’s, there are some uncomfortable live moments!”
As in the original show, Betsy will talk about her own life, this time conjuring moments of Christmases past, present, and future—moments of herself as a child, meeting her husband, and him proposing on Christmas. “Christmas gives mixed messages,” says Bucheker. “It’s a festive time, but also one where, if you’ve had loss, it all comes flying back to you. But you also believe you want to go forward because that’s what the people would want you to do.
“When I write Betsy, I pull much from my own memories or the memories of family and friends, and it all comes to a very true place,” he continues. “The thing about Christmas is that everything is relatable, and this is meant to be a good, old-fashioned time. I’m excited about this now. At first, I was terrified.”
O’Connell & Company presents The Betsy Carmichael Christmas Special until December 18 (oconnellandcompany.com, 848-0800).
By Richard Lambert
Director: Richard Lambert
Cast: Todd Fuller, Mary Moebius, Betsy Bittar, Franklin LaVoie, Joani Russ, Leonard Ziolkowski, Suzanne Fitzery, Mark Bogumil
New Phoenix executive director Richard Lambert is back with another holiday story full of magic, puppets, original music, and an uplifting message for all ages. Buffalo Pinocchio, says Lambert, is inspired by the classic tale, and is a little bit about life, and the appreciation—or re-appreciation—of it.
“We idolize our grandparents, and when your grandfather takes out his war scrapbook when you’re eleven, you look and say, ‘Oh Grandpa you’re so young! That was before you got your tattoo!’ But at seventeen, it’s ‘Grandpa has his scrapbook out again,’” says Lambert. “I want to hone in on that first telling, when you hear the story for the first time, hit the refresh button so it’s active. Pinocchio is about life, how you go on in the face of adversity. Pinocchio wants to be a boy, but how does he know he wants to be a boy?”
The piece takes place sometime in Buffalo’s future, after war has raged and destroyed the physical world our characters have known. A group of them are like fearful nomads, roaming from place to place looking for shelter in this smoky and desolate place, amid a soundscape of weapons and mortar. “The next bomb could take you out,” says Lambert, “and they come upon this building, where if you squint just right, you can see how beautiful and full of life this building must have been.”
In that moment, the magic happens, and suddenly, a puppetmaker appears, a block of wood in his hand, a story of what once was at the ready. “And they settle in and indulge the old man’s scrapbook, and find themselves drawn into a story of life and how it began, how it was enjoyed, how too often it is cut short,” Lambert previews, lauding his designers for the musical, set, and puppet magic that ensues. “As the man tells the story, they become part of the action and help tell it themselves, becoming the cricket or the whale. All of the puppets are being coordinated by Michele Costa, because if you’re thinking puppet, you go to the best.”
Over the years, Costa has built many puppets for shows at New Phoenix, and they’ve subsequently gone on to be little more than decoration on the building’s upper floors. With this show, Lambert had the idea to make use of some of them and give them second life, which is thematically in step with the show. By the final scene, the troupe gets its own second life of sorts, when it realizes there is something to celebrate among themselves, and, says Lambert, cathartically with the audience.
Lambert is happy to have another show up, something he’s only able to do every three years or so, and even happier to be directing it himself. “Buffalo Moon was so personal that I wanted to stay out of it, so I turned it over to Drew McCabe and left design questions and answers to other people. But this is not that; this is me using the best designers in the city—Paul Bostaph on set, Chris Cavanagh on lighting, Tom Makar doing this brilliant soundscape—so why not sit down with them and detail with them and use them for what’s in my head? This time, I can say ‘fix that’ or even ‘I want to do that better.’ I’m really looking forward to working with all the talent that the Phoenix has had, but that I’ve not been able to manipulate, so why not give myself the gift of it?”
Buffalo Pinocchio runs through December 17 at New Phoenix (newphoenixtheatre.org, 853-1334).
By Michelle Denton
Director: David Granville
From emerging young Buffalo writer Michelle Denton, We Three features a polyamorous triad of college students who think they’ve got a good thing going... until an angry southern Baptist dad shows up unexpectedly on Christmas Eve. Gender-bending mayhem ensues as the three try frantically to pass for “normal.”
Subversive Theatre hosts a reading of the new We Three, for three days only December 21–23 (subversivetheatre.org, 408-0499).
ALSO PLAYING (in order of closing)
See Rhapsody through December 6 at Torn Space (tornspacetheater.com, 812-5733).
Theatre of Youth presents Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells Batman Smells from December 3-18 (theatreofyouth.org; 884-4400).
The Night Before Christmas returns to Lancaster Opera House December 16–18 (lancopera.org, 683-1776).
A Christmas Story: the Musical runs December 13–18 at Shea’s (sheas.org, 847-1410).
O’Connell & Company presents A Broadway Christmas Carol until December 18 (oconnellandcompany.com, 848-0800).
It Was a Wonderful Life returns to Forest Lawn Cemetery with dates through December 31 (forest-lawn.com [events by month]; 332-2233).