‘Christmas Over the Tavern’ brings comedy to Catholicism
Local playwright, Tom Dudzick, regionally premieres Buffalo musical at Shea’s 710
Most locals think of the Pearl Street Brewery as Seneca Street’s preferred bar, but celebrated playwright Tom Dudzick prefers the memory of his father’s tavern.
Big Joe Dudzick’s Tavern, located at 770 Seneca Street, was the inspiration for Dudzick’s hit musical, “Christmas Over the Tavern.”
Premiering in 2018, the sold-out MusicalFare Theatre performance brought its heartwarming Christmas story to the Shea’s 710 Theatre. The story follows along the dysfunctional Pazinski family as they prepare for their 1959 Christmas. The production is jam-packed with powerful vocal moments and referential humor.
The production will run from Dec. 5-22 and relies on a variety of comedic techniques like impressions and one-liners, but the plot delves into the hardships and expectations of a Catholic, blue-collar family in 1959 Buffalo.
“Christmas Over the Tavern” follows the Pazinski family, focusing on patriarch Chet Pazinski and his youngest son, Rudy. Chet is struggling to balance his relationship with his family and running his bar, which only gets worse after discovering that the I-90 will be built through their neighborhood. Meanwhile, Rudy is having trouble getting the people around him to take his comedy seriously. The family must learn how to rekindle its bond to save Christmas.
Dudzick, originally from Buffalo, gained critical success through performances based on his own biographical accounts. “Christmas Over the Tavern,” which is based on his own life, is his first musical.
The show features over 20 songs, varying in vocal ability, and a variety of comedic numbers like, “Hey, Jesus!” and “Rudy’s Brain,” which use visual gags and impressions of ‘50s celebrities.
But the production also includes musical numbers that showcase the vocal range of the stronger performers. Annie, played by Caroline Schettler, had the strongest vocal performance. She was able to carry solo performances, like “How Embarrassing,” and stand out in group numbers. Chet, played by Peter Horn, was another strong vocalist. He had multiple numbers, including “Just Do What She Says,” and “If I Hear One More Christmas Song,” but his solo numbers lacked a certain vocal edge. Although he is able to belt certain notes, they are not as strong as the abilities of other, secondary characters.
John Radecki, a Buffalo resident, lived down the street from Dudzick’s tavern.
“It’s my third time seeing this show,” Radecki said. “I can’t believe I’m seeing something [about] my own town. It makes me want to go out and see more shows.”
Although the production had a universal, heartwarming message, its reliance on referential humor and cultural context prevent it from drawing in a younger audience. The crowd was primarily older, and the show drew big laughs from references to people like the Three Stooges and Ed Sullivan.
Certain cultural experiences throughout the performance didn’t make sense or seem appropriate to a younger, more culturally peceptive audience. These include the portrayal of Georgie, a mute child, who performs a song about how he wants to talk for Christmas. It also touched on the common practices of Catholic schooling, including being hit with rulers by nuns.
But the production counteracted certain social issues with ingrained life lessons and mirrored the family's struggle with the intimacy of the Shea’s 710 studio arena. The seating was incredibly close to the stage, bringing audience right into the performance space. This only furthered the emotional perforation as the family tries to reconnect throughout the show. The production features four minimalist rolling sets situated across the stage. These included the Pazinski’s kitchen, bar, the nuns’ chamber and a single brick wall.
The sets are minimally decorated, yet evoke the aesthetic of the era through muted, industrial colors and texture. The set transitions were smooth and the stage spacing was balanced.
Many audience members enjoyed being able to revisit the memories of their adolescence.
Jody Russo, a Buffalo resident, was “obsessed” with Rudy’s character, played by Joel Fesmire.
“The cast did a fabulous job, and the dialogue was very witty,” Russo said. “The best part was the kid doing Sullivan, I couldn’t believe it.”
Samantha Vargas is the senior features editor and can be reached at Samantha.Vargas@UBSpectrum.com