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A night to remember (or forget)

During the last several years, I've spent many a Monday night at a little bar called Q on Allen Street. It's a place where much of the theater community congregates to drink and gossip and generally blow off steam. On Mondays, Q hosts an evening that's come to be known as "Hakeoke," where local music director Michael Hake hauls his keyboard and extensive library of musical scores into the bar and various luminaries of the Buffalo theater scene take turns singing their favorite songs. It's always a charming time, and a chance to hear some of the city's best voices let loose in a quasi-cabaret sort of setting. It's also free, and expertly bartended by Buffalo actor Eric Rawski, making it the perfect diversion to soften the blow of the coming work week.

So when I was challenged by my editor to participate in a story where the News' critics would be criticized for doing what they normally write about, it seemed like the natural venue. I critique musical theater actors all the time, and this would be an opportunity to step into their shoes for a minute to get a tiny taste of the gargantuan task they're faced with on a nightly basis. Reviewing me would be Lisa Ludwig, an accomplished local actress whom I respected and often critique.

After exactly 1 minute and 30 seconds in the searing spotlight, let me tell you: It ain't easy. Not that I expected it to be. I'm deathly afraid of performing, public speaking or really any activity where I'm expected to hold the attention of a live crowd. Still, I thought, I could manage to belt out a quick song and then get on with my life. I picked, for whatever dim-witted reason (but mostly because it was short), "On the Street Where You Live" from "My Fair Lady," which I'd heard performed recently on a British television show and thought -- when taken down an octave from the original -- was comfortably in my range. Ha.

I was informed afterward that I hit one or two of the notes. But when the camera bulbs started popping and the pressure was undeniably on, the lyrics to the song just fled, running and screaming, away from my mind. I stuttered and stammered my way through the song, and when it was over, I was so embarrassed that I wanted to shrivel into a little ball and hibernate. Pianist Michael Hake (who had just recently accompanied Bernadette Peters at Kleinhans: how's that for pressure?) and ad-hoc page-turner Louis Colaiacovo did their best to help me along when I stumbled, but it was no use in the face of my incurable stage fright.

Some lessons learned: practice makes perfect, or at least tolerable. No matter how many times I sang the words in the shower, a little actual rehearsal would have done me good. My respect for the hardworking actors and performers in this town only got deeper with this experience, one that demonstrated the effects that pressure can have on one's confidence and, ultimately, on the fragile psyche of any person -- performer or not.

Of course, as a critic, I have to be prepared to take it just as I dish it out. And Lisa's review, let's just say, isn't all smiles and sunshine. But in any case, this whole Upside-down Christmas story was a challenge well-conceived (if maybe not well executed), that I think benefited everyone involved. A Merry Upside-down Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

--Colin Dabkowski

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