Theatre Review: ‘Memories and Martinis’ at O’Connell & Company

Anyone who grew up loving music and stories and plays will admit to the same truth: their bedroom was a theatre, their bed was a stage, stuffed toys and dolls were members of the audience, and heartfelt solos were sung into hairbrushes.  For Mary Kate O’Connell, these early days spent singing, dancing, and acting with her beloved sister Patti became the roots of her career and the foundation of ‘Memories and Martinis,’ her first cabaret show onstage at O’Connell & Company.

. . .a delight. . .

Yes, it’s her first cabaret (not counting the ensemble piece ‘ DIVA by DIVA: A Celebration of Women’ which she writes and produces  and is now in its 17th season) show that reflects on her life, both on stage and off. With her dear friend and musical director Chuck Basil and her dog Rosy sharing the stage, it’s all Mary Kate, her warmth, her wit, and her stories. Very fitting – and maybe a bit surprising – that she opens the show with a Beatles classic, “In My Life.”  It’s poignant and a perfect place to start a life ‘til now story.

She takes you back to her family’s North Buffalo home and her bedroom productions with Patti, and the bond they shared as the youngest (and only girls) in a house full of five older brothers. Patti, “my best birthday present ever,” Mary Kate says wistfully, recalling the day her parents put baby Patti into Mary Kate’s arms and she was allowed to stay home from school to meet her only sister.

She reflects on loving the movies and music of Doris Day, and meeting Rosemary Clooney, and her first trips to New York City with her parents and sister, having dropped the boys off at West Point along the way, and the rush of her first Broadway show and seeing Carol Channing on stage.  Fast forward to 1971 and her teen years, getting her first pair of blue jeans and listening to Carole King’s album ‘Tapestry.’ From there it was time to launch her professional career, doing theatre in downtown Buffalo, meeting Buffalo big band leader Irv Shire and songwriter son David Shire.

There are plenty of stories like that in this show, some universal reflections, and some that are deeply personal. You feel the love she has for the family she was born to and the families she creates within the context of her work. You see their faces, too, on the walls of the set Matt Myers designed.

She and Basil have great rapport on stage, and his accompaniment is a glorious constant, sometimes barely there as a cozy music bed. He is a tremendous talent and he lends his voice to some fine tunes, memorably the Donald O’Connor track to “You’re Just in Love” from ‘Call Me Madam.’

Rosy, Mary Kate’s miniature poodle and constant companion is at her side  – and sometimes in her arms – throughout the show. Dressed in sparkling canine couture, Rosy dozes and wiggles and whimpers at times and it’s hard not to love someone so darn cute. She has her own story, as a 2.6 lb rescue who came to Mary Kate needing nurturing and a home.

Each performance has a guest friend who joins Mary Kate on stage: Annie de Fazio, a cast member from ‘1776’ was there for night two to swap some stories. I would have loved to hear a song or a duet.

Myers’ set design is simple, almost like the walls of a family room, with plenty of photos of Mary Kate’s family and friends, a stunning baby grand piano, a couple of stools and a bar for the martini glasses (her first one was over lunch with Buffalo’s grande dame of theatre, Blossom Cohan, who said a dry martini with three olives on the side was like lunch, another tale from Mary Kate’s canon). There are framed quotes on the wall, too, an homage to her late mother the quote-a-holic and a reflection of her DIVA by DIVA scripts.

Also on stage – but never mentioned – was a collection of awards. Several Artie Awards (one from just this year, for O’Connell & Company’s all-female production of ‘1776’), Arts Council awards, and Mary Kate’s Athena  Award from a few years back. Because when you’re the real deal and you live your life as an exemplar, you don’t need to come out and talk about it.

‘Memories & Martinis’ is a delight of a show. With plenty of heart, lots of music and stories,lots of laughs, and just a few tears, it’s gentle and sweet with a whole lot of heart, like Mary Kate herself.

Running Time: 2 hours with a 10-minute intermission,

“Memories and Martinis runs through June 23, 2019 and is presented at O’Connell & Company. For more information, click here.