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Theater review: 'The Last Night of Ballyhoo'

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In recent years, local theaters have made an effort to offer inclusive holiday shows, catering to more than Bing's "White Christmas" and Scrooge's second chance. And while those classics have their place, it's refreshing to see a new option on the season once in a while. "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," which runs through December 31 at Blackfriars Theatre, is one such offering.

The plot follows Adolph Freitag and family, upper middle class Jews -- yes, ballyhoo is not actually an Irish term -- living in Atlanta in 1939. As the play opens, niece Lala is excited to see the "Gone with the Wind" premiere downtown, Adolph's sister Boo and sister-in-law Reba are busy with holiday preparations (including a Christmas tree, which, according to Boo, "all Jews have now, they just don't have a star"), and niece Sunny is en route from Wellesley College for winter break.

It's a modern family of sorts, as Lala and Sunny's fathers passed away and their uncle Adolph takes care of all four women. When Adolph brings home a new employee, Brooklyn native and Eastern European Jewish descendant Joe Farkas, the family's perceptions of their heritage are shaken, and everything culminates during Ballyhoo, an annual cotillion dance held with much pomp at the local Jewish country club.

"The Last Night of Ballyhoo" is a fairly new play. It was commissioned and funded by the Olympic Arts Festival for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and is based on playwright Alfred Uhry's childhood memories (Uhry's best-known work is "Driving Miss Daisy"). The production moved to Broadway soon after, winning several Tony Awards -- including the 1997 Tony Award for Best New Play -- and was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Blackfriars production features a well-known, agile local cast which, guided by Fred Nuernberg (who last directed "The Glass Menagerie" at BFT), injects a glowing life into this lesser known play. Leading the ensemble as Adolph is Peter Doyle, a veritable treasure of Rochester theater. Doyle not only embraces the role of quirky uncle and well-to-do businessman; he becomes the role itself. Opposite him is another beloved local performer, Vicki Casarett (Reba), who was last seen as cranky Aunt March in last season's production of "Little Women." Here, she plays the kind mother of Sunny, expertly toeing the line between featherbrained and quietly witty.

In the role of Adoph's sister, Boo, is Pam Feicht, who has spent time touring nationally and is a BFT newcomer. She skillfully masters both Southern and Jewish mother stereotype, her character focused intently on making sure her daughter Lala makes a good match. As daughter Lala, Pittsford-Sutherland senior (and youngest cast member) Natalie LeClair flawlessly portrays a preening Southern Belle much older than she actually is, and her poise and stage presence are impressive.

As blossoming lovers Sunny and Joe, Emily Mahoney (another BFT newcomer) and Eric Schutt (last seen in "Hands on a Hardbody" in 2017) have a palpable chemistry that softens the show's two-and-a-half hour run. Mahoney's fire and Schutt's charm create a sweet subplot, while carrying some of the show's most important lessons.

Rounding out the cast is Edward Rubenacker (last seen as Brad in BFT's "Rocky Horror Picture Show") as redheaded Louisiana heir Peachy Weil. Rubenacker plays a character so convincingly hideous -- from his snort laugh to his "What. Do. You. Think?" line -- that audience members will simultaneously want to laugh and punch him.

"The Last Night of Ballyhoo" doesn't contain a single Christmas carol or Santa sighting, but it's an insightful look at the prejudices a community can hold against even its own members. And because the holidays are a lovely time for, well, love, there's also a bit of that for the hopeless romantics in the audience.