The Vaudevillian, Spirit of the American Dream at Southern Theater

The Vaudevillian - Photo by Marc Norberg Photography

Attending an event at the Southern Theater feels like taking a step back in time. Layers of remodeling and redecorating, one imagines – along with its history – have been stripped down to the bare and imperfect brick walls and proscenium façade. In celebration of its 100th anniversary, the performance, too, takes us all the way back to where it began. The Vaudevillian is not an attempt to recreate an exact replica of the first show, but rather to capture the spirit of this kind of performance, as well as to glimpse a more personal drama, played out in silhouette behind a backlit scrim.

The first act was pure delight. Pairing Theater of Fools duo, Lloyd Brant and Rosie Cole, with solo artist, Arsene Dupin, was a stroke of genius. Dupin’s glum-faced clown with an attitude was the perfect foil for Brant’s cheery “Otto.” Cole, in this case, represented the only woman in the original show, Rose Monroe, to whom the performance is dedicated. The triumvirate set up the inevitable competition for the lady’s hand, and ample opportunities for variations on courting sketches.

This was clowning at its finest – wordless and realized with subtlety. The best of this type of performance art elicits a response with no more than the raising of an eyebrow, but that kind of success demands flawless timing. Every bit of silliness must be finessed, and it was.

But they were just half the show. The Medicine Show Band, a trio of banjo (Billy Mooers), bass (Bob Andrews) and drums (Scott Crosbie) provided a top-notch, period-authentic musical accompaniment, leading off the show with an absolutely dazzling tap number by Crosbie. And if you’ve never seen a real, old-time, one-man band, this is your chance. Crosbie is a master of the silliest instrument ever devised. Mooers and Andrews are every bit as accomplished on their more conventional instruments.

Where the show gets a little thin is the story – perhaps because Vaudeville is not really about “story.” An interesting enough plot is set up in Act I, and even though we are offered a resolution in Act II, we have the sense that the show hasn’t really gone anywhere. The exquisite timing within the sketches was not carried through between them.

Kevin Kling’s interjections as the voice of the theater barely teased our curiosity. I really wished those walls had talked a lot more, providing an even stronger link with the space’s history, and setting up more of a dialogue with the wordless performers. There would have been ample time to explore this by eliminating the balancing sketch in Act II, which just went on a little too long.

All in all, though, it’s a delightful evening out. Kling’s voice ends the show, remarking on the building’s “flaws” at last, and bringing the show’s journey back around full circle. “They see my marks and see beauty,” he says, “as if I were a living thing.” In this case, it was.

The Vaudevillian runs through March 21.

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