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Lazer Vaudeville

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

As the old saying goes, the hard part is making it look easy. The three stars of Lazer Vaudeville, which just opened at the John Houseman, aren't working hard enough.

Throughout the show, which is intended as a confluence of modern (or at least semi-modern) technology with ancient show-biz know-how, you're acutely aware of the difficulty of what they're doing. After all, not everyone can juggle five bowling pins, swing and pound neon bolas in precise rhythmic patterns, or corral large plastic rings into a makeshift cage just by rolling them a certain way. These skills, like so many in the world of entertainment, require years of training and disciplined practice to perfect.

But the true joy of witnessing any astounding feat comes not from the act itself, but from the performer convincing us that it's the easiest thing in the world, even if we innately know we could never replicate it ourselves. That's what's missing from Lazer Vaudeville: With everyone visibly concentrating with all of his or her might on just getting through the tricks, you can't suspend disbelief long enough for wonderment to set in.

Cindy Marvell, an internationally renowned juggler and the show's choreographer, is saddled with many of the show's most demanding tasks, and handles them admirably: She juggles ever-increasing numbers of scarves, rubber balls, and rolling pins with appreciable aplomb. Yet she always wears a plastic smile and a look of detachment so intense that it borders on constipated. Whenever she completes a routine, she doesn't look smug - there's no air of "I can do this and you can't" - but rather relieved. This isn't particularly conducive to enjoyment.

If her co-stars Carter Brown (who also directed) and Nicholas Flair are better, they still look like they're straining too much to be convincingly at play. Occasionally it's understandable: Flair's major showcase, a Mondrian-inspired juggling specialty with three colorful cigar boxes, is so dizzyingly complex and acrobatic that you allow him to appear feverishly absorbed in his work; in this case, it really is that impressive. Yet Brown looks dangerously uncomfortable when juggling two bowling pins and a chainsaw; when you fear for a performer's safety, he's doing something wrong.

Much of this might be forgivable if the rest of Lazer Vaudeville were of arresting quality, but too often the show has the quality of the type that tours elementary schools. This is notable not only in Jennifer Johanos's unflattering costumes, which look like Barnum-and-Bailey rejects, but also the run-of-the-mill, modern-meets-traditional incidental music by Jesse Manno, and the production's lights. (Their designer chose to go uncredited, presumably because use of this much black light is seldom an effective resume enhancer.)

The Playbill does, however, credit a laser designer, Cory Simpson, and much of his work is impressive, though it's limited to a sedate and superfluous light show (complete with disco balls) near the end of the evening and an animated vaudeville history lesson. Though this "film," which charts vaudeville-style performance from ancient times to the present, stops the action of the performance dead, it's a charming and genuinely amusing way to set the mood.

It might be too effective, as it reminds you that real vaudeville shows didn't limit themselves to countless variations on juggling tricks, but also included a range of comedy and music acts that showed off the astonishing versatility of their eras' stars. Brown, Marvell, and Flair are world-class jugglers, but aren't capable of carrying a show simply with their personalities. A better director might be able to sharpen up the transitions - the show moves numbingly from number to number - or inject more laughs in the proceedings (vaudeville couldn't have been this serious). But the central problem will always remain: These people just aren't charismatic stage performers.

So when they drop an item they're juggling - and, during the performance I attended, that happened to each of them at least once - it makes it harder, not easier, to forgive their just being human; they don't (or can't) go that extra mile to convince you that their art is an effortless one. After their mistakes, you shouldn't be left asking yourself, "But I saw them concentrating so hard... How could this happen?", but at Lazer Vaudeville it's hard to wonder much of anything else.

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Lazer Vaudeville
Through May 14
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
John Houseman Theatre, 450 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge