Lights up on Vaudeville, A Play with Music, by Laurence Carr. The time: late September 1919. The setting: Kit Turner’s Theatrical boarding house in Philadelphia. The action: hoofers, crooners and comics are meandering into the parlor after coming off stage from the afternoon show at the theater across the street, also owned by Kit. Her daughter Kitty is practicing on the piano, a melody she plans to play in church.
The acts, living and working together while traveling on “the circuit,” are in Philly for a week. All are jockeying for position on the bill, each hoping to catch the eye of agents for the New York theater owners seated in the audience for that night’s show. Every one of them dreams of “going legit” and making it to the Broadway stage.
Ken Campbell, director of Advent Theatre at , who himself acted the role of “Paul” 19 years ago in a staging of Vaudeville by the Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina, sets up the action in the show’s program:
…we’re in Philadelphia, “The Cradle of Vaudeville,” known for its many theaters and performers. The world is trying to bounce back from the horrors of World War I and the lives of thousands of entertainers are controlled by a handful of unscrupulous producers…who run New York’s Palace and 400 theaters across the country.
Campbell compares the struggle of vaudevillians to stay relevant in an era when moving pictures threatened to take over the theaters to the quest of Advent Theatre to revitalize its mission during this, its 30th anniversary year. I couldn’t wait to see it after covering auditions for the production back in .
I wasn’t allowed to record the show due to copyright restrictions but the company supplied me with some great production stills. I did film interviews with Campbell and the Reverend Louise-Sloan Goben, as well as a post-show Q and A that took place on the set, so don’t miss the video.
The boarding house parlor, designed by Rob Warner was spare but evocative, down to the replicas of a couple of period showbiz newspapers. The extravagantly carved piano used as a prop will be raffled off to one lucky audience member.
Kim Wilkinson did a great job on costume design, down to ankle high shoes on most of the male players and old-fashioned oxfords on the women. I don’t think any of them were buttoned, though.
The show’s cast of characters reflects not only the diversity of the church’s membership and the east valley community, but the range of acts that coexisted on the Vaudeville stage. Dialog was peppered with jokes invoking ethnic and national stereotypes meant to reflect the good natured, and sometimes not-so-good natured, joshing amongst the performers, as they compete for the coveted attention of those with the power to pluck them from obscurity and make their dreams come true.
Not surprisingly, I got a big kick out of the expert use of Yiddish expressions by Irish-American actor Michael “Tuba” Heatherton, in the role of Ben Cohen. I nearly missed my favorite line, about expecting to land on Easy Street but instead ending up on Bubkes Boulevard, which is tossed off early in the show. He also flawlessly manages the gutteral phrase, “ the whole mishpucha,” which usually defeats the Gentile throat. Nice work, Tuba!
Glenda Morgan Brown and Barbara Campbell, Advent board members and producers of the show, stand out in their respective roles as a mature Madamoiselle Yvette (aka Estelle) and Kit Turner, landlady and den mother to the players. Brown’s risqué duet of I Don’t Care with 16-year old Madison Kirkpatrick in the role of Kitty knocked me out.
David Haworth, First Christian’s music director, and Lauren Lewis delivered a delightful soft shoe routine to Shine on Harvest Moon, in Act II. And Deondray Randolph belts ‘em out as the controversial Jackson Washington, the rare black performer on the mainstream vaudeville circuit.
The players in this very accessible community theater production serve up a show that’s both poignant and silly, spiced with song and dance numbers delivered with panache. All profits benefit the , which operates out of the church, as well it should. Advent Theatre, the food pantry and the church’s were all co-founded by the same activists who first brought the original cast production of Godspell to the church 30 years ago.
Performances of Vaudeville continue through Oct. 9 on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30 p.m.