Theatre Review: ‘Gentlemen Prefer DIVAs: Buffalo Legends’ by O’Connell & Company at Shea’s Smith Theatre

“DIVA by DIVA: A Celebration of Women,” an O’Connell & Company production is already in the local history books as Western New York’s longest running theatrical production. This year for Curtain Up, its sister show paid tribute to local history, landmarks, and the legendary citizens who give our region its unique character.

. . .the audience loves it. It’s real. It’s authentic and accessible.

“Gentlemen Prefer DIVAs: Buffalo Legends “ was on stage one night only at the Shea’s Smith Theatre, as a salute to the people, places, and things that make Buffalo the special, awesome, fabulous place that it is. From its renowned arts and cultural scene, the innovations and inventions that changed the world, to the gracious and glorious architecture, artistic director Mary Kate O’Connell had plenty of inspiration in writing this script for this fast moving cabaret show.

If you’ve never seen any of the “DIVA by DIVA” variations, O’Connell custom-scripts each performance with a unique collection of quotes, stories, and songs. Cast members receive their scripts an hour-ish before the performance which gives each performance its unpredictable, organic flare. Yup, there are plenty of surprises, some sing-a-longs and lots of laughs along with a few poignant moments, too. This is what makes the “DIVA by DIVA” franchise so special: the mix of actors, singers, and just folks (like yours truly) who come together on stage and share the spotlight as one.

This all-star cast included former Buffalo Bill Lou Piccone, The Hon. Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello, the creator of the Ride for Roswell Mitch Flynn, and award winning actor Lisa Ludwig, among the 29 arts, education, business, and civic leaders in celebration of all things 716. Rapid fire lines all had a Buffalo twist, with plenty of quotes from Lucille Ball, political humorist Mark Russell, Mark Twain, the always quotable Mayor Jimmy Griffin and other regional luminaries. There were quick biographical sketches of theatre impresario Michael Shea and songwriter Harold Arlen interspersed with reflections on snow in the southtowns, and intrepid Buffalo gals.

All of the songs were written by Buffalo-born or Buffalo-identified composers, the likes of Harold Arlen, David Shire, Ray Henderson, and Harry Warren, giving the singers a rich repertoire. Kate Masiello’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was sweet and simple. Jon May’s cover of David Shire’s “One of the Good Guys” was touching (the male voice version of New Yorker Jason Robert Brown’s “Sun and the Moon,” perhaps). Matthew Mooney nailed another Shire composition “I Chose Right.” May took the verbal punch in another Shire tune, “You Wanna Be My Friend” in a duet with Therese Vita. Tom Owen’s big and bodacious baritone led the group in its closing number “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Mary Craig took us to church with the only tune not written by a Buffalonian in a tribute to the late Buffalo-gal-for a few years Aretha Franklin: her medley of “A Natural Woman” with a dash of “Respect”  was a powerful moment that brought some audience members to their feet. Yes, it’s that kind of show.

It’s the cast members that makes these shows so appealing, and they all have their own reasons for wanting ‘in’ on the biggest night in Buffalo’s theatre calendar. Hon. Lynn Marinelli, director of intergovernmental relations for Empire State Development said, “Mary Kate O’Connell, and her life’s devotion to Buffalo, culture, equality and friendship, has such a positive, gravitational pull, you want in! It’s so enjoyable to be among her troupe. And, whether you share the stage or the audience with her – you smile and shine!”

For advertising executive and Ride for Roswell creator Mitch Flynn, he participated to pay homage to the best of this place we call home. He said, “You can’t beat the cast and Mary Kate has put together a really fun show about all things Buffalo – ranging from shoveling snow to the Buffalo Bills to beef on weck.

Wealth advisor and singer Therese Vita is a long-time “DIVA by DIVA” cast member who signed on because, she said, “I love going to Curtain Up, but participating in a performance is even more exciting!  Being on stage with some local celebrities on the most exciting night of theater in Buffalo is a real thrill.” 

 Stanton Hudson, executive director of the national landmark TR Site, got back to his high school roots in the show.” I began “finding” myself when I joined the glee club and began participating in our annual musicals. I wasn’t a great singer but had opportunities to act and make people laugh. I never thought I’d ever have the chance to relive those happy days on stage, but I’m back there 50 years later and I’m simply delighted.”

While the theatre elite may criticize the entire DIVA by DIVA cabaret premise – mixing amateurs and professional actors in a staged reading that isn’t rehearsed – the audience loves it. It’s real. It’s authentic and accessible. And judging by the applause and the laughter, the audience likes this. The audience made a choice. In other words, to quote the inimitable Marv Levy, “where would you rather be than right here, right now?”

“Gentlemen Prefer DIVAs: Buffalo Legends” was a fun lead-off to O’Connell & Company’s season. Find details on the rest of the schedule here.