Theatre Review: ‘Kalamazoo’ at New Phoenix Theatre

Marc-Jon Filippone as Irv and Betsy Bittar as Peg in ‘Kalamazoo’ onstage at The New Phoenix Theatre.

“Love is lovelier the second time around,” according to lyricist Sammy Cahn. I was humming this timeless Jimmy Van Heusen tune in my head and thinking about Cahn’s words while watching The New Phoenix Theatre’s final production, – “Kalamazoo” – to close its 21st season.

” ‘Kalamazoo’ will win your heart with its uplifting message and poignant reminder that we’re never too old to fall in love, start over, and be engaged in the life you didn’t expect.”

Finding love in our golden years is the basis of this sweet and funny two-hander starring Betsy Bittar as Peg and Marc-Jon Filippone, two unlikely matches who meet through a video dating service. Peg admits straight up that she loves birds, and twitters on (in the old fashioned way) about her delight in birdwatching.  She dreams of visiting a bird sanctuary in Kalamazoo (“doesn’t it sound like a magical place?” she wonders).  She’s widowed, mother of five girls, and a practicing Catholic, down to volunteering at Bingo night. Irving lost his beloved wife Rosie to cancer and – at the urging of his son David and his husband Robert – is looking to get out there again.  He says he’d like to meet a shiksa. Peg doesn’t want to meet a Jew.  Her sentences are sprinkled with malaprops. He’s pretty direct. Somehow the service connects them, and there they are, in a Mexican restaurant sipping from a giant margarita glass. They banter, they share, they almost flirt before they bicker a bit. Irv is blunt: sex perhaps?, as good girl Peg is adament with all the passion her Baltimore Catechism upbringing taught her. Yet the next scene finds them waking up together in a Holiday Inn. In the same bed. With vague memories of dancing, sharing the worm from the tequila bottle (“it’s like Lady and the Tramp with tequila,” swooned Peg) and other more permanent reminders of a wild-for-the-middle-aged-night. Oy. But something isn’t right. Maybe they aren’t ready to move forward after all?

Or are they? Their next date is a day at the beach with amateur metal detectors, cruising for lost coins and bits o’metal.  A found ring leads to a hurried proposal of sorts, and wedding plans that just seem too….planned.  Just when you think the story is about to go all cliché, there’s the break out scene, where Peg and Irv show their fears at starting over, and perhaps losing that special connection to their beloved first spouses. It takes courage to be that vulnerable again, and Filippone and Bittar have a good time letting us know that it’s OK to hate the process of aging and still love life’s journey, too.

Director Sheila McCarthy lets the strength of her actors and the simplicity of the script shine. The minimalist set is the perfect backdrop for Sam Crystal’s array of props and Kelli Bocock-Natale’s versatile costume choices. I mean, who wouldn’t wear a sombrero on a first date to a Mexican restaurant? That tiny detail is a great glimpse into Peg’s character:  a little out there and earnest to the core, just as Irv’s sweater vest is practical and classic.

‘Kalamazoo’ will win your heart with its uplifting message and poignant reminder that we’re never too old to fall in love, start over, and be engaged in the life you didn’t expect. Or as Irv said, “life is abundant, and you’re never too old to be young again.”

Running Time: 90 Minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

“Kalamazoo” runs until May 27, 2017 and is presented at New Phoenix Theatre in Buffalo. For more information, click here.