Saturday, March 22, 2008

THEATRE REVIEW, Victory: The Father Baker Story

$$$$$ Excellent
$$$$ Good
$$$ Fair
$$ Not Recommended
$ Poor

March 21, 2008

Victory: The Father Baker Story

There would seem to be a wealth of history to examine in a musical biography of the famed Western New York religious legend, Father Nelson Henry Baker. A rosary of his would measure a passive and adventurous priesthood, his campaign to comfort the poor, the Catholic Church's investigation into his possible candidacy for sainthood, and his long time standing, to many Buffalo baby-boomers, as the threatening last word angrily shouted by generations of parents, to behave or risk being hauled off to Father Baker's Orphanage For ( bad ) Boys. I can still envision a priest-troll living under the girders of steel industry remnants, waiting to pounce on any unsuspecting lad that would happen along.

Try as it might to be spirited, Musicalfare's world premier production of "Victory: The Father Baker Story", is not a thoughtful study of the psychological and spiritual forces that drove the man to devote his life to helping the less fortunate, especially children. It is more a googled bio, with dry and earnest facts regarding the Buffalo area saint-in waiting, set to dreary music that seems lifted from variations on "Jesus Christ Superstar's, 'Gethsemane", that monumental show-downer in which a tormented Jesus nearly brings the sky down in anguish over his humanity. Father Baker has those moments of agony too, but he is after all, only human, and with a more limited budget, and always ready to siphon a catchier melody out of the flat score, smile broadly into the audience, dust himself off, and shuffle right back to Buffalo. Louis Colaiacovo, as Father Baker, fresh off the heels of his "Batboy" role at Studio Arena, ( now THERE was a ridiculous musical), is faultless in having little to offer as a humble priest saving the day from the dullard powers that be.

There are Latin Catholic masses that are more adventurous than Victory's blessed and obedient book. It includes all the attributes of complete sanctity, but somehow omits all the human heart that goes with it. Father Baker's character here is bland, and the play would have served the audience well by simply hanging a halo over his head, rather than labor through the sweet and simple piety of his godly ways. The play offers, not characters but themes; devotion, belief, doubt, etc., in a mish-mash of a time frame that is about as enlightening as a Jehovah's Witness' pamphlet.

Yet there is Ellen Horst, as a nun, whose position in the church is unspecified as she seems to be a spokesperson for Father Baker, and gives tours of his sacred grounds as if she's trying to sell the place. She remains lovely throughout the torrid production. Even her few flubbed lines gave the play the imprecise and impromptu spirit the production needs. Her singing is soul stirring, with just a hint of contemporary edginess, like a devout nun experiencing a very human emotion. She plays multiple roles, as does Marc Sacco, mostly playing a generic all-purpose priest, and Norman Sham, as a Vatican investigator who is so secular in his determination of Father Baker's saintlihood, you'd think he'd coil and spin his head around his neck at the sight of a wooden cross.

In a more perfect world, this musical would entertain as well as celebrate the life of Father Baker, the spirit of his charity, and the mystique of his name. It would have orphans flocking the stage, maybe singing a Lackawanna choirboy version of Oliver Twist devouring a bologna sandwich on Good Friday. The lonely sounding taped music accompanying the singing actors would be played by a small ensemble of real live musicians. The 34 smacks it cost me to see "Victory", would be cut by half.

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