I fancy myself a theater critic today.
That's because I went to a play.
I sat in the seat and I watched the show and I have an opinion on it.
It was great.
I wish I could drag people in off the street to watch it. Any kind of people. Every kind of people.
I would sit them down and have them watch it and then delight in the looks of surprise and joy that would unavoidably spread across their faces.
The play was “Irving Berlin's White Christmas.” It was performed by a traveling company brought in by the Rochester Broadway Theater League. It closes in Rochester on Sunday and then finishes its season in Schenectady next week.
Last week I interviewed two cast members – Pamela Myers and Conrad John Schuck. They were brought round the radio station to plug the show, and the obligatory five minutes turned into a very pleasant 45. I enjoyed them both, as much as I've enjoyed any entertainers, because they both seemed real and decent.
Sure, she'd been on Broadway and he'd kissed Elizabeth Taylor. I'd lusted after her when she was on “Sha Na Na” and he'd been my grandmother's favorite in “McMillan & Wife.” But in that room it was just two people, two professionals, who made me feel wonderfully comfortable.
At one point he said that the best entertainers had a “gift from God” that was developed and refined through hard work and experience, but which was essentially innate.
Then we shook hands and posted a picture and they were gone.
But a couple of hours later a lady from the promoter wrote to say that Pamela Myers wanted to invite me – and some others she had met at the radio stations – to a show.
That had never happened before. Not exactly that way. Sure, you interview these folks who come through town and they say something nice about how you should see a performance but it's really just a perfunctory courtesy, not a genuine invitation.
But this was a genuine invitation.
And I had enjoyed talking to her and Mr. Schuck just enough to actually take it personally.
So I wrote back that I'd love to come, and I'd like to bring my daughter.
My 8-year-old daughter.
And so it was that Saturday afternoon, dressed in our nice clothes, we settled into our seats in the Auditorium Theater, awestruck, as always, by the grandeur and size of that wonderful old hall.
Then the play began.
It was like stepping into a world where everything is bright and pure. That wasn't just a function of story line, it was a reality of the cast. For a couple of hours we sat there and art did what art is supposed to do – lift and inspire the human soul. I was entertained and engulfed by a wonderful story, and impressed again with the might and simplicity of Irving Berlin's music.
But a play's just something on paper until singers and dancers put some life into it. Until an actor gives voice to the words and life to the part, it's a half-painted portrait, a dream interrupted. But there was nothing halfway about this production of this play. It was a complementary array of talents, an orchestra of geniuses, a setting in which every piece and every part sparkled with perfection.
At first I was taken by the wonderful voices of the leads – Sean Montgomery and Kerry Conte, and Jeremy Benton and Kelly Sheehan. Two war buddies meet two sisters and they fall in love with them and so do you.
And then there's a lot of singing and dancing.
And that's where the rest of the cast comes in. There seemed to be an army of performers with stunning abilities to sing and dance.
And stunning is the right word.
If there's one reaction to this play, it is “Wow!”
Maybe too many years of watching so-called talent shows on TV has deadened the American palate to genuine ability. For two hours I watched a stageful of people who sing better than the people on the singing shows and dance better than the people on the dancing shows.
As I mentioned, the leads were astounding. Kerry Conte should be on the radio and the silver screen. Ditto for Sean Montgomery. The duets of Conte, Montgomery, Benton and Sheehan were always golden, with the only qualitative differences between them being height and nuances of voice.
But you're not surprised when stars are stars.
It's when all those nameless people in the background who keep changing roles and costumes are just as perfect that you sit up and take notice. And that's how it is with this play. Every step, every note, every smile – every performer – is perfect.
The invisible orchestra was masterful, the lighting people were dead on, and every arm-swinging, leg-kicking player looked ready for the big time. Repeatedly, when big scenes mobilized the entire cast, I hoped that the parents and loved ones of these troupers got to see a performance. All that move-to-New-York-to-be-an-actor dreaming made a lot more sense in the light of these performances.
I was also struck with the bold, beautiful talent of human beings. From the composer and writers, to the musicians, set designers and actors. The big actors and the small actors, the young ones and the old ones. Each brought a piece, and they made a hell of a whole. This play reminded me of what humans can accomplish when they put their minds to it.
Finally, I felt grateful. I was honored these people had put this play on in my town. I sense that acting is some species of bipolar affect, in which art is mined from the peaks and valleys, and I don't think it is easy. Not just in the memorization and rehearsal and doing, but in the experiencing and coping. I don't think it is easy, and I suspect it comes at a price, and I felt this play was an act of service by a bunch of people who Sunday night late will cram into a bus for the haul to Schenectady.
I loved it. My little girl loved it. And I take it from the standing ovation at the end that everybody else loved it, too.
I don't know much about plays. But I do know a little bit about life.
And for two hours my life was better.
So I think that makes this a hell of a play.