I’ll never forget the day my brother and I were spurned by Wunda Wunda. The TV story lady of the Pacific Northwest was a tall, stately yet somehow dainty clown character. I was 8 and Brian was 6 when we had our encounter with Wunda at the Seattle World’s Fair. While she fawned over the preschoolers in attendance, WW ignored us entirely. Our parents suggested that perhaps we had outgrown the program—that we were too old to play “Wunda games,” as they were called in the show’s theme song. Still, we both felt we’d been given the bum’s rush, and we later spoke of Wunda only with disdain and ridicule.
We would never have had that sort of problem with Leslie Carrara-Rudolph. Known primarily for her puppeteering on Sesame Street (for which she earned an Emmy nomination in 2009), this entertainer clearly knows that no kid is too old to discard the idea of being enchanted. Her recent show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, What Just Happened?, was a children’s program expressly for adults (though I did see one youngster in attendance). Not unlike the long-running Sesame Street-parody musical Avenue Q, this show spoofed the conventions of children’s entertainment while simultaneously embracing them. The humor was racy at moments, but WJH was “adult” mostly because it was quick, complex, unashamedly pun-happy, and delightfully absurd.
The premise of the show was that Carrara-Rudolph needed to complete certain steps in order to successfully perform a cabaret act for grown-ups. For instance, she needed to wear a black dress, hold a hand microphone (she used a body mic for the bulk of the show), and sing a medley. Her best-laid plans went awry when kids-entertainer sensibilities got in the way. Sometimes the distractions or interruptions happened in the middle of a song—which was a shame because while she can be a squeaky, screechy zany at times when she speaks, she boasts an appealing singing voice: warm, clear and hearty. I found it a relief whenever she (and her fine pianist, Michael Hicks) made it through a musical number without being sidetracked by some silly shtick.
Silliness, however, prevailed through much of the evening, especially when special guests—notably, Lolly Lardpop and Granny Dot—showed up for their bits. Lolly clearly owes a lot to puppeteer Shari Lewis’s most famous creation, Lamb Chop. She is a child who can be free and willful, but also shy, clingy, and prone to melancholy. Lolly also has a Miss Piggy–like inclination toward self-dramatization. A combination sock puppet and rod puppet, she has arms that move about, making her especially expressive. Granny Dot, a larger puppet, is a salty yet hip 98-year-old who is proud of the fact that she’s done everything (attended Woodstock, for instance) and known everybody (she was especially fond of Eleanor Roosevelt).
By the way, Carrara-Rudolph made no claim to being a ventriloquist. Her lips moved when her cloth friends’ mouths spoke. Once you’ve understood that construct, you’ll buy into it. (And if you’ve seen Avenue Q, you’re already there.)
The best episodes of the show were mad flights of fancy, full of amusing nonsense. At one point, Carrara-Rudolph got the chance to sing her medley and, in doing so, proved that virtually anything can become a puppet (in this case a pair of dinner rolls). The medley turned out to have a “diet” theme featuring songs from West Side Story, including “There’s a Plate for Us” and “Tuna” (to the tune of “Tonight”). The most outrageous sequence in the show involved a haunted tutu, a Gypsy woman named Madame Velveeta (who reads feet instead of palms), significant portions of dialogue from The Wizard of Oz, and an audience member’s sock that was transformed into (among other things) a “happy little bluebird” from Arlen and Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.” A certain amount of improvisation was built into the show, especially in a Q&A session with Granny Dot. (Asked, “What’s your favorite state?” Granny replied with perfect timing, “Mellow.”) As for ribald content, the show was actually pretty mild. Aside from a bit about Eric Idle and a phallic fish puppet, the only major blue streak involved a colossal Janet Jackson–style wardrobe malfunction during Granny’s song about gravity.
Toward the close of the show, things settled down, and even grew openly wistful, as Lolly faced a bit of an emotional crisis about whether she actually exists. It was wise of Carrara-Rudolph to back off from the farcical at this point. My sense is that people (even big people) love Lolly—as they loved Lamb Chop—at least in part because they see themselves in her. Her vulnerability and her need to be reassured hit close to home. And, despite all her wackiness and irreverence, Carrara-Rudolph proved to be an expert dispenser of reassurance. Nowhere was this more evident than in the last moments of the show, when she performed Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh’s “Young at Heart”—a song she sang through (and sang beautifully) without interruption.
What Just Happened?
Laurie Beechman Theatre – September 30
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.