All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Theatrical fame, Tony Braithwaite and Jennifer Childs point out in their vaudeville pastiche, “Lets Pretend We’re Famous,” could once be achieved, at least locally, by procuring a barn, hanging a table cloth as a curtain, and putting on show.
This process worked over and over again for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, as Braithwaite and Childs also note.
Braithwaite and Childs are in lucky positions to continue this time-honored show biz tradition. Jen is the founder and artistic director of 1812 Productions. Tony is the artistic director for Act II Playhouse. “Let’s Pretend We’re Famous” began on Jen’s stage. It is now appearing, with the same zest in which Garland and Rooney endowed their shows, at Act II Playhouse, where it remains in residence through January 26.
Speaking of theater traditions, odds are good that at least one origin of theater, of any kind, begin with the words, “Let’s pretend.” And Tony Braithwaite and Jennifer Childs certainly qualify as odd. (Bah-rump-bump; a little vaudeville humor there. Braithwaite isn’t the only one who can channel George Burns.)
In “Let’s Pretend We’re Famous,” they don’t mince around the stage acting as if they’re waving to people as they pass them standing in line, or insisting on table in full restaurant because they are, after all, celebrities the rules for whom are different from rules for others. Braithwaite and Childs are more interested in looking at various kinds of fame from various angles. In keeping with Jen Childs’s scholarly way of examining a subject, they quote what people have said about fame, their own and others. They spoof fame that occurs more in one’s mind than it does in wide, wide world. They take advantage of fame to give themselves superb featured numbers that both talk about fame and demonstrate why Tony and Jen have both attained it in Philadelphia-area theater. They also explore Andy Warhol’s famous, though long-bearded and grizzled, statement about everyone in the future, i.e. now, being famous for 15 minutes.
Ah, yes folks, that means audience participation, the bringing of some unsuspecting person who has not been to rehearsal and does not know the bits or blocking to the stage for a moment in the spotlight that can range from triumph to mere humiliation to utter disaster.
On the evening I saw “Let’s Pretend We’re Famous,” everyone was lucky beyond expectation. Tony isn’t an artistic director for nothing. His keen eye for natural talent focused on Doug Smithman, an engineer with no show business experience, although I heard while leaving Act II that he had been tapped for an audience participation gambit in New York. Smithman was brilliant. He was not only cooperative. He was entertaining and showed genuine acting ability, comic and otherwise. He was a perfect choice who enhanced a segment that could go another way with a less ready and able person. Smithman did what we was asked. He never tried to top or take over from Braithwaite or Childs, both of whom has been to rehearsal, and he followed direction beautifully, The sequence was quite entertaining, Tony and Jen both being adept at improvising and knowing when to go back to the script they had carefully prepared to insure they could last 15 minutes with an amateur who did not know what was coming next.
The “Warhol” segment is a sort of “This is Your Life,” the 50’s television program with Ralph Edwards in which a celebrity is surprised — He or she, a celebrity, has been invited to a television studio to see a show called “This is Your Life” and is surprised — at being brought to the stage and confronted with people from all periods and conditions of his or her existence. It was a precursor of Facebook from before the time when Al Gore invented the Internet.
Braithwaite and Childs don’t use the “This is Your Life” format as much as the idea and taking a famous person, Smithman in this case, from a fictional rise to Hollywood heights to a shameful downfall that is bound to lead to “Dancing With the Stars.” Their preparation is excellent, and the bit, bless Doug Smithman, worked.
The best parts of “Let’s Pretend We’re Famous” occur after Braithwaite and Childs set up the aspect of fame they intend to illustrate and perform.
It is in their individual and dual performances that they not only demonstrate but prove the value of vaudeville and their own versatility as entertainers of high caliber. Comedy bits are followed by musical numbers, including presentational pieces by Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim that show Tony and Jen’s ability to hold an audience and give them something fine to appreciate. The send-up of career-long lounge performers doing a gig as headliners on a cruise fizzes with dead-on accuracy while, borrowing from Coward on my own, and paraphrasing him, proving the potency of cheap entertainment.
Everything Tony and Jen do is predicated on some level or vestige of fame. The most stunning segment of the show, stunning in the sense that it turned the Act II auditorium into the only place you’d want to be in the world during those minutes was Jennifer’s singing of “Ordinary People,” an expansion of “Heigh Ho, the Glamorous Life” Sondheim wrote for the 1977 movie version of “A Little Night Music.”
The purpose of the song is for a young girl, just entering adolescence, to tell what it’s like to be the daughter of one of Sweden’s most famous actresses. She compares her famous, allegedly glamorous mother, to the mothers of her friends, mothers who are domestic and omnipresent but not famous. Ordinary.
Childs rivets the room with her rendition. Using the girlish soprano key in which the song is written, she makes the audience see the admiration a daughter has for a woman she rarely sees and who everyone knows that happens to be her mother. Love and regard inform Jen’s always true phrasing. She keeps up with the fast tempo Sondheim plots while eking out all of the meaning and keen-eyed but warm sentiment of the lyric. The song relates the practical life of a professional and well-known woman in the form of a love song from her daughter. It is filled with comedy and life, yet I was tearing as Childs sang it. Luckily, modern productions of “A Little Night Music” find a way to include it — the Menier’s 2008 script being a fine clue. The song is rarely done outside of Sondheim’s show, and it was a special treat to hear Childs do it so wittily and movingly.
Braithwaite captures attention with a bright, pointed version of Noel Coward’s admonition to a woman who is ambition to get her daughter into the theater, “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington,” which The Master allegedly wrote in response to a flood of correspondence from women who wanted him to include their daughters in his next theater production.
Braithwaite does this number early in “Let’s Pretend We’re Famous.” On the evening I saw the show, the light board malfunctioned, and there was a 25-minute delay. “Mrs. Worthington” came soon after power and “Pretend” were restored, and I think the delay was a handicap.
Not because Braithwaite didn’t sing the number with all of the comic venom it secretes or as effectively as Childs sang “Ordinary People,” but because the flow of “Pretend” was interrupted, and the number seemed to arrive suddenly without a paced build-up or a feeling of natural progression.
The conditions did not stop Braithwaite from making the number a success. He rightfully deserves credit for launching into it in less that ideal, or usual, circumstances.
“Mrs, Worthington” builds from a gentle suggestion that young Miss Worthington may not be suited to a small part let alone a career on the stage in spite of her “nice hands” to an exasperated rage at the temerity of Mrs. Worthington to persist in promoting her squinting, wide-seated girl after “Coward” has so diplomatically tried to say ‘no.’ Braithwaite handles that progression with his usual aplomb and talent for precise diction and comic meaning. The build was particularly important on the night when the lights misbehaved. It gave Tony a chance to establish the number and bring the crowd to him soon after it settled down from the pause in “Pretend.” In doing Coward’s song, Braithwaite also restored the flow of the show.
Braithwaite and Childs both love comedy and are known for their sharp line readings and comic portrayals. In “Let’s Pretend We’re Famous,” they not only show their mettle in sketch comedy but also to pay affectionate tribute to some wonderful comedians. A George Burns-Gracie Allen routine is a highlight of the show, with both performers getting their characters right in terms of tone and timing. Each will show his/her mimicking ability again as Childs catches every inflection of Joan Rivers while interviewing Smithman on the red carpet, and Braithwaite does a magnificent Louis Armstrong.
Song and dance numbers abound whether Braithwaite and Childs are punctuating something they say with a fist pump and the phrase, “Fame, I’m going to live forever,” from the 1980 movie musical, “Fame” or doing an actual Judy Garland number, one she did with Fred Astaire in “Easter Parade,” the clever and always entertaining “We’re a Couple of Swells.” Using a soft-shoe approach, Jen and Tony once again show the vibrancy and wit of tried-and-true vaudeville fare.
Their skill at satire and parody comes through in “Pretend’s” finale, a scene in which a famous singing couple, T.B. and Jen — Were you named after a disease? — appear on the Lido deck of a Caribbean-bound cruise ship.
The setting could not be more apt. Braithwaite and Childs show the talent and musical versatility of a Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, who were fine entertainers in spite of being a symbol of a slick, Vegasy nightclub act, while exuding the delusional essence of small-timers who believe they’re the pajamas while they are, and to the knowledge of many, hardly qualified to be a long V-necked T-shirt, off-brand.
Tony and Jen go into a medley of schmaltzy cliched songs, performed parodically in an overdone, overemphasized manner while also showing the pair’s ability to handle all kinds of music and all levels of performance. The patter between the songs is melodramatic and equally overbearing. Within all of the spoofing, they retain the idea that T.B. and Jen are talented and well-known enough to mean something to the passengers on the ship. Lines between fatuousness and genuine entertainment savvy are deftly crossed and give the T.B. and Jen bit texture that takes it beyond a simple sketch.
The T.B. and Jen show is a shrewd sequence that lets you know Braithwaite and Childs realize the difference between good and bad and can present questionable renditions of dismissible songs with the same reverence their alter egos would while remaining firmly comic in intent and approach. It’s is the perfect ending for a satisfying show.
Braithwaite and Childs are smart. Their chops as entertainers could not be more finely honed. “Let’s Pretend We’re Famous” is bright fun because Tony and Jen are so assured in their talent and so welcoming to an audience they never take advantage of their show’s title to high hat. They also have a lot to offer in all fields of performance. Both start with acting. Line reading and characterization, even when they are appearing presentationally as themselves, provide a solid basis to their work. You see the Tony Braithwaite or Jennifer Childs brand through all of their routines but delight in how easily they can slide into a persona while retaining their individual qualities. As a singer, Childs has a tendency to use the key in which a song is written and shows off all facets and ranges of her voice. As actors, both Braithwaite and Childs move quickly into character and have you involved before almost before you’ve had time to notive they’ve made a transition. This pair deserves to be famous. In a fairer world, one that pays attention to the brightest performers on the local stage, they would be known as well as LeShawn McCoy, Chase Utley, who is cited in “Pretend,” or Jim Gardner. They are that important to the cultural fabric of the city, assets that should be lauded and recognized on a wide scale. Great theater minds who can take their concepts and realize them in a show like “Pretend” are rare. Add writing and direction to the list of their skills. Add being aware of the world to the factors that sharpen and inform their comedy. Stage presence often hides the effort needed to achieve a show like “Pretend.” Tony Braithwaite and Jennifer Childs are stage presence personified. They are seasoned professionals who have proven their talent in a range of shows, and it is a treat to see them use their combined skills and accumulated experience to see them entertain so grandly.
Owen Robbins is excellent as musical director and accompanist for the show. Costume are, fittingly, and well-fittedly, a tux for Tony and a classic black dress for Jen. (I was going to write “little black dress,” but given Jen’s height — and my own — I decided on a different adjective,) The set is immaterial. Tony and Jen play on an empty stage surrounded by scenery from “Murray the Elf,” which Tony acknowledges.
“Let’s Pretend We’re Famous” runs through Sunday, January 26 at the Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. 2 p.m. matinees are also scheduled for Wednesday, January 15 and Saturday, January 25. Tickets range from $34 to $27 and can be ordered by calling 215-654-0200 or going online to www.act2.org.