Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Vaudeville Man!


Book by Jeff Hochhauser. Music by Bob Johnston, lyrics by Hochhauser & Johnston. Dir./chor. Lynne Taylor-Corbett. York Theatre Company at St. Peter’s Church. (CLOSED)

"Always leave them wanting more" may be a venerable showbiz adage, but in the case of this two-person musical about legendary vaudeville hoofer Jack Donahue, based on his posthumously published Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma, critics were lefting wanting more substance—or at least more cast members. Only WSJ's Terry Teachout really thought that the writing team of Jeff Hochhauser and Bob Johnston pulled this hat trick off, though all the critics praised the hard-working cast, Shonn Wiley and Karen Murphy. NOTE: Yes, we did notice that Andy Propst seems to have reviewed the show twice, for both Time Out and Backstage; we duly counted both reviews.

Wall Street Journal B+
(Terry Teachout) Musicals are supposed to make a lot of noise, right? Yet there's no reason why they have to, and the York Theatre Company's production of My Vaudeville Man! serves as a welcome reminder that size doesn't always matter...An uncomplicated crowd-pleaser that gets the job done with plenty of room to spare. Shonn Wiley plays Donahue, Karen Murphy his mother, and both are wondrously fine. Mr. Wiley is, in fact, something of a find, a fresh-faced song-and-dance man who tears into his routines with the utmost gusto...No small part of the credit for the effectiveness of "My Vaudeville Man!" goes to Lynne Taylor-Corbett.

The New York Times B
(Claudia La Rocco) The pleasures of the vaudeville stage are distinct, and distinctly colorful. They’re also wrapped up in many thorny issues of race, gender and culture. This is rich stuff: always vibrant, sometimes upsetting, deeply American. But “My Vaudeville Man!” is neither upsetting nor particularly rich. It aims, instead, to please and amuse. The lows of Jack’s alcoholism and Mud’s loneliness never sink too low. But neither do the highs go that high. Mr. Wiley is no Bojangles, but he has some chops, and he’s a silky mover...Ms. Murphy looks to be having more fun as a bawdy songstress than as a long-suffering Roman Catholic nag. And who can blame her? Even sanitized, vaudeville’s charms are undeniable.

CurtainUp B
(Simon Saltzman) A modestly scaled, simply conceived terp and tell musical that has evidently been gussied up for a holiday time run...Notwithstanding its moderately disarming qualities, the musical serves primarily as a showcase for the talented, personable young hoofer and singer Shonn Wiley, who as Donahue is given ample opportunity to endear himself in a series of musical skits and short dramatic scenes that skim over the vaudevillian's career...He has winning support from the excellent Karen Murphy...For vaudeville and musical theater buffs, this gutsy little musical with a big heart pays a welcome and overdue homage to an entertainer who is now virtually forgotten. For others, it may prove somewhat of a drag.

Time Out NY B
(Andy Propst) Charming and slight...We’re treated to teary and cutesy confessions from Jack’s stereotyped old-world Irish mom (Murphy) to the local priest: She’s so chagrined that Jack (a charismatic Wiley) has run away from home for a career in show business that she’s been telling lies to her—gasp—Jewish neighbors...On the plus side, he gets to demonstrate some truly snazzy choreography...Although Bob Johnston’s music is a pleasant combination of period and modern melodies, and Lynne Taylor-Corbett supports her performers with solid staging, you can’t help but wish the musical had leapt out of the vest pocket and into some larger, showier threads.

Backstage B
(Andy Propst) Charming but thin...Wiley is completely winning as Jack and demonstrates that he's a terrific hoofer throughout, performing often-ingenious choreography that he created with director Lynne Taylor-Corbett. But as good as their work is—for instance, the tap contest that Wiley performs solo—I couldn't help wishing to see more than just one dancer on stage...My Vaudeville Man! is a valiant and tuneful first step in telling his story. Now it's time to bring in the chorus.

Theatermania B-
(Brian Scott Lipton) Rather slight entertainment...One wishes the authors had given the book more heft and humor...Still, director and co-choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett keeps the proceedings relatively lively and gives her actors plenty of stage business...More importantly, slightness is not what we get from the show's two stars, who bring total conviction—and gobs of talents—to their roles.

Variety B-
(Steven Suskin) The two-character musical has plenty of charm, personable acting and great tapping from Shonn Wiley, but overall the effect is more pleasantly enjoyable than rousing. Composer Bob Johnston and librettist Jeff Hochhauser...have come up with some impressive and well-devised songs. Sticking to their source material, however, leaves them hamstrung.

Talkin' Broadway B-
(Matthew Murray) Though librettist-lyricist Hochhauser and composer-lyricist Johnston’s show...possesses no original laughs and no real insights into the eternally complicated subject of mother-son relations, Murphy and Wiley shine as personality-rich stars of the kind you might have once seen headlining a bill filled out by the likes of Fink’s Mules...Lynne Taylor-Corbett does little to help matters with her blindly efficient direction that adds no dimensions to this flat tale; even James Morgan’s set is the old-hat broken-proscenium-and-curtain combo.

The New Yorker C+
[Hochhauser and Johnston's] attempt to add depth to the hoary jokes by getting maudlin over the Irish proclivity for alcoholism merely piles musical-theatre clich├ęs on top of vaudeville ones. As the put-upon mother, Karen Murphy does her best to wring some feeling and humor out of the pedestrian score, while Shonn Wiley, as Donahue, is believably juvenile. Yet he provides no sense of why the real Donahue broke out of the small time. This show stays there.

Wall Street Journal B+ 11; The New York Times B 10; CurtainUp B 10; Time Out NY B 10; Backstage B 10; Theatermania B- 9; Variety B- 9; Talkin' Broadway B- 9; The New Yorker C+ 8; TOTAL: 86/9=9.56 (B)

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