Laurie Beechman Theatre – through November 19
Starting as a one-night-only event, the two-character revue/theatre piece The Vaudevillians has gone on to play to sold-out houses at the Laurie Beechman Theatre for several months now, and a sixth and final extension, to November 19, was recently announced. Quite an accomplishment.
The show’s two stars, Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales, play Kitty Witless and Dr. Dan Von Dandy, a husband-and-wife vaudeville team who were buried and frozen in an avalanche in the 1920s and only recently thawed out. Now they’re treading the boards again. They tell us that they woke up to discover that many of the songs they originated back in their heyday have been picked up and covered by modern-day popular artists; this conceit frees Kitty and Dan to present a program made up almost exclusively of the hits of more contemporary pop stars, such as Janis Joplin, Madonna, ABBA, Cindy Lauper, and DJ Kool. The night I attended, the SRO audience responded to the proceedings with lavish laughter and applause.
How I wish I could share the public’s enthusiasm.
My reservations are not aimed at the performing prowess of Monsoon and Scales; indeed, their talent rates very high marks. Jinkx Monsoon, who reportedly has scored on RuPaul’s Drag Race, has a ten-year background in music and theatre in the Pacific Northwest (under his birth name, Jerick Hoffer), and his acting and singing chops are solid: his line readings are nimble and sharp, his facial expressions are funny, facile, and eloquent, and his female singing voice is powerful and utterly convincing. I’d love to be able to tell you Major Scales’s real name—either birth or stage. (I don’t for a minute believe that he’s Mrs. Scales’s bouncing baby boy, Major.) However, I wasn’t able to pry that information from the press rep. Pity, because I would like to sing his praises: I think he’s super—as a pianist, as a golden-throated singer (sorry for the cliché), and as an all-around musical performer. In one solo number, which he performs on stage and through the audience, he moves with a fluid grace that is a pleasure to watch and he performs with a degree of showmanship that put me in mind of Cab Calloway and Al Jolson; I’d bet he’d be a marvelous music hall artiste.
The problems rest with the piece, itself. The show’s premise is more of a hook or device than it is a concept. Contrary to what one might have expected, the musical numbers are not performed as they would have been in the 1920s—which might very well have proved too limited and confining a concept—but neither is each song given a considered point of view that guides its interpretation. For example, Kitty performs Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song”—which, perversely, is essentially the only song in the program that dates from the 1920s—in an assortment of styles and voices. What was the motivation for this choice? Oddness, alone, won’t suffice as justification.
Indeed, a fair amount of the intended humor seems to be based on mere quirkiness. In delivering a few lines of dialogue, Kitty drops to a deep masculine voice, repeatedly, on the word “original.” Why? On the Britney Spears hit “Toxic,” she grrrowls out the line “Do you feel me?” Why? On Gloria Gaynor’s anthem “I Will Survive,” she alternates between a very deep voice and a very high voice, arbitrarily and pointlessly. Nonetheless, the audience responded to each instance of peculiarity or outrageousness with uncritical glee. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, few in the audience laughed at the creatively silly announcement at the top of the show, or at some of the other clever/witty bits; however, the majority of the spectators guffawed appreciatively at the (too many) references to being/getting high. Do people really still think that getting stoned is funny? (Not that it ever was, mind you.)
The show was written and directed by Monsoon and Scales, and therein lies at least part of the problem: one or more co-developers might have eliminated some of the deficiencies. For example, after we’re told that Dan had been commissioned to write a musical sequel to Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” with Kitty slated to play Nora, we’re subjected to a protracted and labored scene from that enterprise; a director could have helped trim (or cut) this segment—and shape and tighten the entire show, which runs a too-long 90+ minutes. Over the course of the evening we see that the relationship between Dan and Kitty is several measures this side of bliss, but other performing-duo shows have portrayed marital and professional conflict to greater comic effect (e.g., Max and Maxine: Together…AGAIN! and Pete ‘n’ Keely). A co-writer might have been able to sharpen the humor. Much of Kitty’s dancing consists of manic and formless cavorting, with many of the moves repetitious—albeit often punctuated with nice little touches. A choreographer’s services could have been invaluable.
Kitty’s surname may be “Witless”; however, as we can see in some of her dialogue and in many of her funny, spontaneous responses delivered as she goes through the house asking questions of the audience, Kitty/Monsoon/Hoffer is one smart cookie. And many moments and bits of shtick do land successfully. Is there a (show) doctor in the house?
About the Author
Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.