All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Pre-talkies and way before the advent of television, New York had more than a hundred vaudeville houses that ranged in rank from the Palace to break-in joints in Canarsie and featured a variety of acts it takes an entire TV schedule to duplicate today. The Palace was the goal. That was the nonpareil of theaters. Playing the Palace meant you were no longer a duffer, no longer destined to wander the country on small-time stages. If you played the Palace or B.F. Keith’s Theatre (later the Randolph) on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, you were vaudeville gold. You hit the big time.
Jennifer Childs is a great student of comedy and styles of show business presentation. She doesn’t confine her scholarship to Bergson or Meredith or high-tone theorists on yuks and guffaws. Childs goes to more primary sources, the entertainers who found ways through song, dance, mime, circus, patter, and pratfalls to keep audiences laughing, often with the attitude, “Critics be damned. The public loves us.”
Childs knows her stuff from Mae West to Tina Fey and all the Wheelers, Fieldses, Marxes, Burnses, Allens, Jessels, Berles, and Rogerses in between. She looks at the elements of their comedy and employs them in her own pieces for 1812 Productions where she is the artistic director.
More than a decade ago, Childs decided to re-create vaudeville sketches for a production called “The Big Time.” This year, she has gone several leaps farther. She, with the help of some tried and true henchmen, imagined original acts and wrote original material for them. She named this brand new vaudeville show “The Big Time: A New Vaudeville for the Holidays,” and like show biz careers, the production has ups and downs, but its ups dominate, and throughout you can see creativity, inspiration, homage, and the sharp sensibility of the genuine comic mind.
No bit is without its delights, and Childs, Scott Greer, Dave Jadico, and Greg Nix sparkle as they play a panoply of characters and show their individual and collective versatility as they move from conversational patter and good old song-and-dance to full-blown sketch comedy and umpteen styles of dance.
‘The Big Time” shows off its nimble cast while rekindling memories of acts as far apart as Weber and Fields, with their eye poking, and Burns and Allen with their combination of talk that turns funny and leads into a song. Everyone gets to show his or her ability as an entertainer while proving he or she could have competed in the big time during vaudeville’s heyday. Scott Greer can go from being the pop-eyed, loudmouth, foul-tempered heavy to displaying a a delicate side doing Jackie Gleason’s graceful dance moves that defy body type to reveal a light step across the floor, at times accompanied by a stomach roll. The Marx Brother’s mirror trick makes an appearance, and a deft one with Jadico and Nix as the foils, and the famous hat maneuver finds its way on stage too. Childs has perfected her tight-faced, tight-lipped deadpan but can slip from that into a chatty housewife or a teasing soubrette. Jadico, a master of mime and movement, has a great bit as a tennis player, a ploy to give Jadico a juggling act. Nix takes a Will Rogers approach to his role as narrator and quasi-emcee (which is nothing like Quasimodo, so get that joke out of your head). He is direct, personable, and folksy while getting in a barb or two, providing tidbits about vaudeville history and conventions, and angling to get into the show as more than a stagehand or interlocutor.
As always with Childs, and this particular crew with which she surrounds herself, the ideas are smart and rooted in the finest and most time-tested of variety show traditions. The woman knows “funny.” She also knows “funny” is not limited to one period or one style. Someone holding a 2-by-4 beam, in the case of “The Big Time” a sign for an Italian bakery, and turning so that someone else has to duck to avoid being clobbered (or be taken unaware and getting clobbered), always rates a laugh. The mirror is surefire entertainment. Mistaken identities, bull-in-china-shop personalities, and clever, accessible mime tend to hit their mark. “The Big Time” makes use of all of these chestnuts, and because vaudeville is more nostalgic than common today, the bloom of freshness returns to the rose. That’s because like starting to sing with do-re-mi, the vocabulary of comedy begins with fundamentals and gags Aristophanes probably filched from ancient Greece’s Milton Berle. Childs uses what she knows wisely and well, as a writer, director, and performer. It’s why I often say she has the best theater mind in Philadelphia. “The Big Time” shows she can assimilate all of her studies, then put aside all of the intellect and analysis that go into a careful look at comedy, and put on stage material that more often than not entertains in a way that makes eyes gleam and smiles emerge on both sides of the fourth wall.
Childs opens “The Big Time” with a dance routine, “Dos Caballeros,” that pays tribute to the grand Spanish dancers of the Orpheum circuit while putting a modern comic twist on the proceedings. The irony and contemporary touch work, not only because Childs and Jadico are so stalwart as rival hidalgos making their stolid macho steps across the tango floor, but because Childs, who tops out somewhere around 4’9″, uses her “vertical challenge” to comic effect against Jadico, who is no giant but looms over Childs, and because the senorita they are trying to impress is played with cunning insouciance by Scott Greer who dwarfs both his stagemates.
Greer, as he did a decade ago in welcoming foreign sailors to Kanagawa, relishes playing the flirtatious, but modest, drag. He flourishes his de rigueur fan and bats his eyes piquantly. He can exude maiden innocence or take advantage of his size to fill the stage. As in a lot of “The Big Times” eyes and other facial expressions tell the story, and Greer has a field day while Jadico and Childs play out the meat of the scene.
“Dos Caballeros” makes a good beginning because it harkens back to authentic vaudeville and the comedy that made it popular while showing even the mossiest of gambits can be updated and work to please.
The Spanish dance act is followed by Greer as a singing cowboy with a story to tell. The cowboy, looking much at home with three saguaro cacti set designer Lance Kniskern plants in the background, sings a simple unadorned ditty that asks a woman, Ain’t ya, ain’t ya, ain’t ya gonna come out tonight?’ that leads to the ranch hand talking about his love for ballet.
The juxtaposition is funny, Hearing Greer in his cowboys duds and quiet Western twang say he knows “Coppelia” is better but he has a special affection for “The Nutcracker” is a great surprise. It plays against our expectations and shows how much we may underestimate someone when taking the cover for the book. Greer then goes into a full recitation of “The Nutcracker’s” plot a la the late and magnificent Anna Russell, who elicited gales of laughter just by telling audiences the plots of operas and ballets.
Here the gambit backfires. The payoff doesn’t match the concept. In his song and talk about “The Nutcracker,” Greer remains low key. He shows almost no personality. The song is pleasantly done but tossed off as though the vaudevillian was rehearsing it or doing it for his own enjoyment instead of presenting to an audience. It works as a quiet change of pace but not as an act in itself. There’s a reason this cowboy would have been second on the bill. You can open and follow with rousers that allow a subtler, more gentle moment a place on the program.
For “The Nutcracker” sequence to work, the audience has to see the absurdity of the ballet’s plot. It needs to laugh at the craziness choreographers invented to create reasons for a series of dances. On stage, “The Nutcracker” makes sense because the audience suspends disbelief, as Greer’s cowboy notes. In telling about “The Nutcracker,” and perhaps to an audience that is not familiar with it, every appearance of a mouse who ends up fighting a toy soldier, every dancing Christmas tree, every Mother Hubbard reference that includes a good joke about some of the children under her skirt not being Mother Hubbard’s, has to seem far-fetched so the collective effect of the plot devices becomes increasingly ludicrous and more rollicking. On paper, I bet it does. I bet that if I read Childs’s script, I’d laugh a lot,
Greer, a great actor and an excellent comedian, can’t be content to let the material to its work. He has to point out the absurdity or look flabbergasted as he tell, in hushed or “get a load of this” tone tells what alleged nonsense happens next.
The simple cowboy who loves ballet, and who, I understand, does not want to make fun of it, is too dry and too matter-of-fact for the material to fulfill its comic intention. Somewhere a marriage has to be made between the easygoing approach and the need to cue the audience that this bit here is meant to be funny.
Throughout “The Big Time,” Childs and Jadico punctuate breaks between sketches by doing a mime act of a couple, a teenage girl and a teenage boy in their individual bathrooms, getting ready for a date in different periods. They also show the couple arriving and dancing at the club or party.
As usual, the bit shows a lot of knowledge. It gets better each time it’s done because you can compare a scene from the ’80s to one from the ’40s. Childs and Jadico are both adept at showing what they’re doing, and you get a kick from seeing how Childs is fixing her hair (in mime), in one scene ratting it, in another smoothing it into a ponytail, or how Jadico shaves, in one scene using a strop and a straight razor, in another a fast pass with an electric doohickey, and in another a look in the mirror and a shrug. It’s funny, if delicate stuff. The comedy continues when the pair reach the dance, the best sequence being the ’80s bit where a fast “Footloose-style” dance ends and a slow one begins, and Childs and Jadico look at each other confused before just going back into the fast step. I also loved it when Jadico and Childs flew into a lively Charleston.
Before Ben Dibble or Rob McClure, Dave Jadico was the man who could achieve amazing things with balance and physical humor. In “The Big Time,” he goes into various kinds of juggling, at times employing a gadget that allegedly propels thing over a tennis net (but is most likely Nix throwing objects from the wings). The sequence, which opens the second act, is engaging. Jadico keeps you absorbed as he works with magic with tennis balls and tennis racquets, but the real “ahhhhh” moment comes when he works with a dozen of boxes of Club crackers. There is mastery at work. Jadico and Greer also have fun in a sketch about two different types of men who meet on a bench while waiting for a bus. Clowning, seriousness, and physical adroitness figure in this scene as well, So do sound effects, footsteps, with different rhythms for the different men, whistles, bells, and various gurgles, the last voiced by Nix who is the whiz making magic at the prop table.
The grand sketch of “The Big Time,” one that employs a couple dozen time-honored schticks and plays loving tribute to the great physical and screwball comedians of the vaudeville/early movie era, involves a bakery that is modernizing by replacing its wooden sign and solid front wall with a the bakery’s name painted on a window. Greer, as an Italian baker that is simultaneously jolly and intimidating, says those famous words to Nix, his shy diminutive assistant who nonetheless has Harpo-like mischief in his eyes, “Don’t let anything happen to my bakery while I’m out. If anything happens to ma bakery, I’m a-gonna a-kill you.”
True to vaudeville form, all mayhem lets loose. Childs outdoes herself in thinking up myriad characters and myriad bits to keep the sketch running and never wearing out its welcome. All of the staples — the inept assistant, the jealous husband, the workers moving machinery (and walking through with a can marked TNT), the oblivious customer, the blind person — and the closet, in this case a kitchen that seems capable of containing an army regiment, are all there. Each performer plays a number of characters, and they are distinct and hilarious as they appear. Greer, that wonder of an actor who can make so much happen with one change in his eyes, is particularly wonderful.
This is vaudeville at its most elemental and complex. Childs stages the scene with aplomb, and Kniskern and costumer Alisa Sickora Kleckner abet with marvelous set pieces and period and/or character clothing.
Childs and Greer excel in a sequence in which they play a husband-and-wife comedy/song-and-dance team, Burns and Allen meet the Bickersons and Marge and Gower Champion. The funniest part is when Greer, the straight man of the team, decides he want to be the comic even though the straight man makes more money (Abbbboottttt!). The pair not only eke comedy from the situation but from their timing and expressions.
One thing you expect from a vaudeville show is a rousing finish. Childs chose instead to end “The Big Time” with a barbershop quartet rendition of “I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do,” a tribute to her grandfather, Jim Childs, Sr., a radio personality in mid-Ohio and the one who taught Jen the old-time show biz gambits.
The quiet number, which gives Nix, who had been part of several scenes, his invitation to leave his stagehand duties behind and join the troopers, is done in a lovely style.
I wonder, though, if Childs should have put sentiment aside and gone for something bigger for the finish. I enjoyed the barbershop number, but I was surprised to find the show was over. An encore, perhaps of a more upbeat tune, might be more satisfying.
Greg Nix is far from idle while waiting for his “break.” Fresh faced and agile, he is adorable and charming as the host of “The Big Time.” His patter is engaging, and the constant glint in his eye and congenial smile make the show all the more of a delight.
From December 18 on, another of the area’s top comics, Tony Braithwaite, joins the company. He said he will most likely do a bit with Scott Greer.
‘The Big Time” is produced by 1812 Productions and runs through Tuesday, December 31 at the Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Monday, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec, 31, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday and Saturday, Dec, 28. No shows are scheduled for Christmas Eve or Christmas. Tickets range from $40 to $30 and can be ordered by calling 215-592-9560 or going online to www.1812productions.org.