by Buffalo Moon
Buffalo Moon is a deeply personal new musical by Richard Lambert with music by Steven Borowski. The show tells four independent stories with shared themes and geography. Each is about yearning and loss. Each is primarily set in Buffalo.
What is most immediately notable about Buffalo Moon is its ambitious scope, from its multifaceted narrative lines to its manipulation of reality. The show has been directed by Drew McCabe with set design by Michael Lodick and fabulous original puppets by Michele Costa and Franklin LaVoie.
It is difficult to say what the starting point of these stories is. In his program note, Lambert asserts that the idea began with a photograph of a deer standing guard by a Canada goose sitting on an egg in Forest Lawn cemetery. (For Buffalo Moon, Lambert has made the goose a gosling, and has moved the location to the grounds of the Richardson complex.) The photo is the basis of a story told with Disneyesque energy and scoring with remarkably lifelike puppets.
This story of the bond between a bird and a buck may give the show its unifying motif, but Lambert seems to pull more powerfully from his own autobiography. Specifically, he gravitates to a tale he has mined before, about his romance with Canadian actor/author Maxim Mazumdar, his relationship with his nightclub-singing mother, and Mazumdar’s AIDS-related death in the 1980s.
Fascinatingly, Lambert and Borowski are working in the thick of contemporary theatrical issues. If/Then, the new Broadway musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, creators of Next to Normal, similarly involves multiple interwoven plots lines. Terrence McNally’s new play, Mothers and Sons, similarly looks backward at the AIDS crisis after the passage of 25 years.
The originality of Lambert’s story is his ingenious connections between unrelated people, and his obsession with Buffalo as a landscape upon which ordinary people can inscribe their own stories. Buffalo is to Richard Lambert what a country estate by a lake was to Anton Chekhov—here, we are obliged to become the heroes or victims of our own lives. He has used Buffalo to like effect before in shows like Fillmore and Sweet Street.
As Buffalo produces more and more playwrights, I see these themes emerging as a Buffalo voice. If “muscular” is the adjective most frequently applied to Chicago playwrights, the Chekhovian ideas of yearning and loss seem to return to Buffalo writers as diverse as Lambert, Donna Hoke, Neil Wechsler, Gary Earl Ross, Lisa Vitrano, Ibn Shabazz, Tom Dudzick, and A. R. Gurney, over and over again. In these plays, we often see individuals who triumph over alienation and disaffection to achieve contentment, often through unconventional means, within the confines of the life they can control.
Borowski’s alternately haunting and urgent musical score successful heightens this drama.
While actors are in some instances obviously cast against type, the performers are all abundantly talented, and once again Wendy Hall is a standout in the double role Lambert’s mother and the mother of a man unjustly accused of a crime he did not commit. Buffalo Moon gives Hall an opportunity to strut an impressive range of her talent, from nightclub singer in her prime to aging chanteuse, to devout Catholic mother in turmoil.
Michele Costa and Franklin Lavoie give wonderfully engaging and endearing performances as the gosling and buck, offering an entirely charming lesson in master puppetry as a melding of acting and dance.
While neither embodies the physicality or personality of Maxim and Richard, Todd Fuller and Nicholas Lama successfully evoke the dynamic between them and compellingly conjure their story. Lambert’s message of yearning and loss is most intriguingly asserted in a scene that reverses the two men, placing Richard on his deathbed as Maxim desperately wishes to take his place—life’s wish becoming, for a moment, stage reality.
Tom Makar, in addition to designing the sound for this ambitious production, plays a man completing his community service after his conviction for a tragic hunting accident. He gives the character, a modest and uneducated man, equal doses of sadness and dignity.
Eric Mowery is a steady and believable presence as the least developed and most enigmatic of the characters, Anthony, the wrongly convicted man.
The production could be faulted for overreaching. This, however, would also seem to be its greatest virtue. While Buffalo has the accessibility and theatrical vitality to become a center for original work, we do not yet have the infrastructure to nurture and sustain it on a wide scale. This has not intimidated or inhibited Lambert and Borowski. Buffalo Moon arrives roughly hewn and as is. Audiences will find the experience—while imperfect—enjoyable, entertaining, and thought-provoking.
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