As soon as Cheryl Weaver (as Beverly Nowak) bursts upon the stage in her traffic-cone orange bowling shirt, the broad humor in Miracle on South Division Street, New Theatre Restaurant's current production, is taken up a notch. Beverly is a force to be reckoned with in the blue-collar, staunchly Catholic, Nowak family, and Weaver makes sure we see that. When Craig Benton (playing her brother, Jimmy, a trash collector) disparagingly calls her a "ketchup bottler," Weaver interrupts to correct him, "Salad dressing!" and her spunkiness elicits hearty laughs from the audience. Weaver's body language is spot-on, as she slouches around in the kitchen, inhabiting her boisterous character from the inside out. Her tantrum when thwarted from going to the bowling alley is show-stoppingly funny.
Benton, as always, is a delight, his professionalism making us truly believe that he's a genial sanitation engineer trying to keep peace among the three combative, histrionic females in his family, while quietly harboring a secret of his own. Not only is his comedic timing superb, but he engenders empathy for long-suffering Jimmy, whose mother not only forbids him to spend any more time with a Jewish girl that he hopes to marry, but also forces him (along with his sisters) to wear a goofy Christmas headband. Poor guy.
The legendary Connie Stevens is the guest star who anchors this production, playing the matriarch, Clara, as a ditzy, matronly Polish-American woman who firmly believes, not only in the Catholic church, but also in a miracle that allegedly occurred to her father. (Stevens' real-life daughter, Tricia Leigh Fisher, has a meaty supporting role as Clara's other daughter, Ruth, who has come across information that puts that "miracle" into question and throws the whole family into a tizzy.) Fisher handles her part with aplomb.
The first several minutes of this production start out slowly, with very few laughs, but mercifully, once the miracle of "Grandpa seeing the Blessed Virgin in his barbershop" begins to unravel, the jokes fall fast and furiously. This is the turning point of the play, where Clara's exaggerated reactions to Ruth's revelations are so over-the-top hilarious that audience members are guffawing practically nonstop. Stevens, still a beauty in her frumpy apron, masterfully takes charge of the scene. (I, for one, was practically gasping for breath.)
The "Restaurant" portion of your New Theatre Restaurant evening will do way more than fortify you for the performance. As always, the food on the buffet line is impeccably presented and flavorful. Taking advantage of available seasonal fare, the chefs offer fresh spring asparagus, as well as baby carrots, a roasted vegetable medley, pasta primavera (in a delectable basil cream sauce), and polenta. The loaded mashed potatoes will leave you singing their praises, then going back for more. (The potatoes are half-smashed, then loaded with cheddar cheese and sour cream, and topped with scallions.)
Main courses include pork carnitas, fried basa, paprika chicken, and roasted beef shoulder tenderloins, as well as boneless "buffalo" chicken thighs. (The mild buffalo sauce may be a nod to the setting of the play--a working-class neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.)
It may seem a bit unsettling at first to hear Christmas music in the theater in springtime before the show opens, but once the production begins, spending a Christmas with the Nowak family turns out to be "the season to be jolly," kooky headbands and all.
The Fine Print You can catch Miracle on South Division Street through June 15, 2014 at the New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park, Kansas. Call 913-649-7469 or go to newtheatre.com.