Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Vaudeville Man!

I love shows that bring to life performers of another time. My Vaudeville Man!, a York Theatre Company musical, puts legendary tap star Jack Donahue back on the boards, with Shonn Wiley giving a smashing performance in the title role.        

The story unfolds largely through letters between Jack and his long-suffering mother, Mud (Karen Murphy), and are drawn from Donahue’s book, Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma. His was the classic show business story in so many ways, a young man with dreams of stardom who refuses to follow in his father’s footstep by working in the shipyard.  At 19, in 1910, he slips away to join the Vaudeville circuit, playing small theatres up and down New England.

Wiley, fresh faced and wholesome looking, brings abundant energy and enthusiasm to the role. Like Jack, he seems born to tap. He fills the tiny stage of The Theatre at St. Peter’s Church with spirit. He also ably handles the singing side, giving his all to the songs by Bob Johnston and Jeff Hochhauser (who also wrote the book).

Similarly, Murphy gives depth to a character that is all too common --the struggling Irish immigrant mother, with the stereotypical brogue, whose husband drinks too much and who puts her hopes on her oldest son, whom she does not want to go into “the show business.”

But Jack cannot be contained. He saw his first Vaudeville show when he was 5 and “that’s when I came alive,” he sings. “Vaudeville was the only dream I ever dreamed from that day on.”

His mother sees things differently, believing that “when St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland they went into Vaudeville.”   Still, she keeps her son’s performance schedule in the kitchen so she can write to him at each stop. He writes back, sharing his triumphs and frustrations, always promising to send money, money he actually uses for fancy new shoes and nice hotels.

The two do have their loving moments together. I especially like “Picnic in the Kitchen,” a song and dance number in which Jack remembers a time when their furniture had been taken by a collection agency and he and his mother had a picnic in the floor. “Why not pitch in, no sense bitchin’,” they sing.   

Mud’s concern for her son deepens, though, as she suspects he’s “drinking like your father and your granddad do,” sung poignantly in “My Son, I Know.” She’s all too familiar with this heartache. In ”So the Old Dog Has Come Home,” she sings of loving her husband in spite of his drinking. Murphy is powerful in this number.

And Mud does come around to accepting her son’s career, prompted by an unlikely source. In the final number, she sings of being his biggest fan and he pledges to be her “Vaudeville Man.”

Just before that rousing ending, Wiley and Murphy inform the audience about the rest of Jack’s life, earning a gasp of sadness when they recount that his life ended in 1930 when Jack died from his drinking at the age of 38. But he had achieved much of his dream, working his way up the Vaudeville ranks to play in Broadway musicals, and Ray Bolger would later play him on film

My Vaudeville Man! is directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, with Wiley serving as co-choreographer. James Morgan designed the simple sets, David Toser the period costumes, and Mary Jo Dondlinger the lighting. The three-piece band is directed by Douglas Oberhamer.  

This engagement marks the musical’s Off-Broadway premiere. It had its world premiere at last year’s NY Musical Theatre Festival under the title Mud Donahue and Son.

The York Theatre Company is located at Saint Peter's in Citigroup Center on Lexington Avenue just east of 54th Street. Tickets are available by calling 212-935-5820. For more information, check out www.yorktheatre.org . For Group Sales, contact MATCH-TIX at 212/354-2220.

No comments: