All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Tony Braithwaite and Jennifer Childs have and provide such fun, all critical faculties can be suspended as I enjoy a smart, amiable, yet pointed ride.
I’d say “critical faculties” aren’t needed or welcome on this trip. Tony and Jen are doing nothing I have the slightest urge or cause to cavil about, and the pair display so many of their individual and mutual talents, it’s a constant joy to behold such a panoply before one’s very eyes. I don’t think there was a minute during “On the Road Again” that I didn’t smile broadly in appreciation of the slick, assured work on stage. Heck, I even enjoyed the audience participation segment, a high compliment considering how much I bitterly loathe a performance involving anyone who hasn’t been to rehearsal and is asked to play the foil for the lucky ducks who were.
Braithwaite and Childs have done a series of shows. This is the first in which nothing seems labored.
Not everything has to do with travel, the bruited theme of the show. A Bob Newhart sketch Braithwaite goes way off the mark, dealing as it does with the training of commuter bus drivers who are scored on how long they can keep elderly passengers off-balance in the aisle via a choreographed set of starts and stops.
Two things the Newhart bit has in common with much of “One the Road Again” is how well done and thoroughly amusing it is, thematically kosher or not, and its tone of cynicism.
Braithwaite and Childs are not only doing a snappy revue, they are showing the funny, often unpleasantly funny side of travel and keeping their tongues planted in their cheeks while doing it.
They set the tone for their cabaret turn by relying on The Master himself, Noel Coward, and launching into a hilarious version of “Why Do the Wrong People Travel (While the Right People Stay Back Home)?” from “Sail Away” while interspersing comic bits about the most rude, obtuse, and unappreciative tourists being Coward’s verses. One of their characters complains the Grand Canyon is “so brown” but magnificent as advertised. Others are more concerned with selfies and other photos than they are about the wonders of the world they’re visiting. Braithwaite has an excellent line in which he tells someone taking his and Jen’s picture not to worry if they don’t get the famous site, let’s say the Taj Mahal, is the shot as long as they get the couple grinning egregiously in a “Look at the good time I’m having” pose.
(Personal story: I have for some time been a summer Canadian because of the superior work done at the Shaw and Stratford Festivals and a genuine affection for our Northern neighbors. For economy sake, I tend to stay in Niagara Falls, and even though I’ve seen that wonder 200 or so times, I never tire of its majesty. I do tire of the crowds that, for good reason, preclude a brisk walk near the Falls or a view all to oneself. One morning, I decided to get up at 6:30 — a.m., so you won’t be confused with my usual schedule — and have the Falls to myself. The minute I saw my choices of parking spaces and that they needed no coins until 8, I knew my scheme to see the Falls solo was on a good footing. I was more encouraged as I walked through the beautiful park to the Niagara and saw virtually no one, maybe an authentic Niagaran walking a dog or an ambitious horticulturist getting an early start to her day. My heart leapt with excitement as I anticipated my solitude. Niagara was Nirvana as I neared the Falls and saw I was right. No one but those dog walkers were there. Except…. Except for seven buses of Japanese tourists who were not only taken with the Falls but insisted, to a person, I pose for a picture so they can show folks at home a “real Canadian.” Protesting I was no such thing, though pleased at the thought, did no good. I and the occasional dog walker were fodder for photographic entertainment back in Yokohama, and there was no refusing. The ending is happy. The Japanese left to move their onslaught to the Floral Clock, and I had my Zen moment with the Falls and the views a few miles in either direction of it. It was worth being attacked like Pearl Harbor for the privilege of it.)
Tony and Jen begin their show in vaudevillian fashion. They do a rendition/parody of “The Road to Morocco,” even mentioning Bob and Bing. The song is upbeat and makes a zippy opening. Jen gets the joke going by mentioning how much she loves experiencing the exotic before Tony informs her the budget doesn’t permit that much distance or adventure. Jen then asks what road they might be on, ending her inquiries with other places that end in “o,” including her native Ohio, and dejectedly guessing neighboring Hatboro before Tony tells her they’re staying in Ambler and pretending to visit faraway places with strange sounding names. (The variations on “va-” and “stay-cation” that follow get a little thick, but one can see how comics can get carried away with such a bit.)
Jen has some marvelous takes on car trips. One is her analysis of songs she used to sing during excursions through the Midwest with her mother and grandmother. Certain words in magazines get evasive answers from the Childs elders, who aren’t quite prepared to be Auntie Mame, but more interesting is Jen’s budding discovery of the hidden meanings of Doris Day tunes. She calculates the time passengers would be on a slow boat to China and begins to suspect Miss Day’s fabled goody-goody ways when instead of being en route to Shanghai, she’s “right around the corner in a phone booth.”
Then there’s the trips one takes by oneself, made easier in the 21st century by the advent of the GPS. Jen and Tony make this gadget entertaining as Jen, to get some variation from the mechanical tone of the directions, opts to have celebrities guide her. This plays right into Braithwaite’s knack for cunning and accurate imitations. His stint as Bill Clinton is priceless, especially when it ends with an invitation to join him in the back seat.
Childs repeats this “solo journey” bit three times, and it never gets old. Her facial expressions and reactions provide visual comedy while Braithwaite’s takeoffs on the famous, including finding material in their peccadilloes, is priceless.
In several of their shows, Jen and Tony play married, or once-married, partners in a lounge act that gets booked everywhere from airport waiting rooms to Las Vegas. In “On the Road Again,” the cheesy pair are on a cruise ship. Per form, they tell the story of their marriage via popular songs of the ’70s and ’80s. Tony and Jen are uncanny in picking songs you can like on one level and are worthy of the most caustic lampooning on the other. They get extra mileage by imitating some of the signature sounds of performers. For instance, when they do “Love Will Keep Us Together,” Jen says “to-guh-thuh” in a deep, unarticulated way that reminds of both Toni Tennille and Cher. Lots of tunes get skewered, two of the most hilarious examples being Tony’s dead-on overemoting of Nilsson doing Randy Newman’s “Without You” and an oozingly sappy take on Billy Joel’s “Honesty.”
Given their experience acting with each other and sharing their equally honed senses of humor to create material, it’s no wonder Braithwaite and Childs seem so at ease and perform so symbiotically. “On the Road Again” is their most advanced show. It avoids bits that seem overextended or that seem cleverer in conception than they work in execution. The humor here is brittle and sharp. Tony and Jen are being congenial, but they are not being nice. They’re making smart fun of travel and travelers, and it’s good to see and share the edge they give their material.
The audience participation segment of “On the Road Again” benefitted from having “guests:” who could be funny — without trying to steal the show — and lead Tony and Jen to arch responses to much of what they said, especially Tony who has a game/talk show host’s speed at making quips based on what others say. (He did almost get one guest in trouble by using the word “all” when he should have interpreted what she said as “none.”)
The gambit was also well-developed. Tony and Jen use a “Newlywed Game” format to test two married couples on their partner’s traveling habits. You learn that honeymoons for second marriages are a lot more relaxed than first official nights for young couples. The contestants had no points until the end of the show, but Tony and Jen were adept at keeping the game and conversation going, and the audience was truly interested in the participants and their answers. (That Chuck Barris knew his onions, and Jen and Tony are equally as good as Sherri Shepherd.)
As with the “The Road to Morocco” opening, which includes a funny line about Tony, since he became the “boss” at Act II, giving himself a role in every show — next is Boolie opposite Carla Belver and Brian Anthony Wilson in “Driving Miss Daisy” — “On the Road Again” has a snappy, clever close that kept me humming all the way to my car (when Pompeii’s molten lava became my leitmotif).
I always find it great watching smart people be smart. It’s even better when the people are as naturally likeable as Tony Braithwaite and Jennifer Childs, pioneers and staples of the Philadelphia theater community and practitioners of every phase of theater. There’s a reason why Tony and Jen remain favorites, and it goes beyond both of them being two of the best line delivers in the business. These two know how to craft an entertainment and how to entertain. Mary Carpenter is almost invisible as a director, which is a good thing. All looks so natural and spontaneous, you don’t see a disciplining hand.
They are well abetted on this occasion by pianist Owen Robbins, who wittily noodles the same song when he’s vamping, Burt Bacharach’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” especially jen is about to embark on one of her GPS-guided rides. (Thanks, Tony Braithwaite, for reminding me.)
“On the Road Again” runs through Sunday, January 31, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $36 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or by visiting www.act2.org.