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My Vaudeville Man!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Shonn Wiley and Karen Murphy.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Why does vaudeville continue to fascinate so many decades after its dissolution? The nomadic lifestyle it engendered in those who made it a career? The wealth of material to emerge from it that remains a vital part of our entertainment consciousness? The performers who, facing multiple shows daily in front of hard-to-please audiences, had to develop skills and personas that could triumph over any adversity?

My vote is for the last, at least based on Karen Murphy and Shonn Wiley's charming and committed work in Jeff Hochhauser and Bob Johnston's light-footed void of a musical, My Vaudeville Man! Though librettist-lyricist Hochhauser and composer-lyricist Johnston's show, which the York Theatre Company has just opened in its theater at St. Peter's Church, 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.

True, their characters - like the rest of the show - are not high on originality. Jack Donahue (Wiley) is 19 years old and dreams of escaping the dockworking drudgery his drink-drenched father has endured for decades, preferably by becoming a first-rate vaudeville hoofer. His God-fearing mother Mud (Murphy) sees life upon the stage as not only wickedness, but the surest way for Jack to end up like his good-for-nothing father. Surrounded by free-flowing booze and the loosest of women, what good boy could possibly escape with his virtue intact?

Obviously not Jack, or the show itself would scarcely be longer than a curtain-raiser. So for two hours Jack battles the bottle and anonymity on the New England circuit as he and his mother exchange letters and disagreements about the direction of Jack's life. Interspersed, you see glimpses of his talent - on the way up and, after he develops a fondness for rye, on the way down - but it's Jack's love affair with Mud more than with his art that is really at the center of the action. As it is, that's a mighty inert middle. Hochhauser has based the show on the real Jack Donahue's epistolary memoir Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma, but has not taken away from it any real sense of who these people actually were.

This problem was troubling when the show premiered at last year's New York Musical Theatre Festival under the title Mud Donahue & Son, but seems even more severe now: Yes, we understand that Jack has to dance and Mud has to stop him. But aside from Mud's Irish brogue and frequent visits to confession, she's ultimately just the parent who has to stand in the way of her son's dreams. (There's one in the new Broadway musical Billy Elliot, too.) And Jack's passion for performing is so all-consumingly general, it makes his diversions into women and alcohol even flimsier. 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.

If not for Wiley and Murphy, this would all be too preciously formulaic to swallow on an empty stomach. But the bone-deep optimism Wiley brings to Jack counters the clichés in which the character is drenched, making him not a man who's transformed into a drunk the instant his lips touch a bottle, but one who even at his weakest is reluctant to allow the outer demons in. If Murphy's performance errs on the side of the accusatory, her Mud doesn't lose hold of her thread of good humor, letting this woman be the one-in-a-million nag who is as willing to mockingly doubt herself as others.

Beneath his sunny façade, Wiley is always shadowed by disapproval, as though Jack's every attempt to escape his mother's clutches has forced him to perform first and foremost for her. And beneath Mud's icy stoniness, Murphy lets through the tiniest moments of pride. So intimately and so completely have the actors connected, Jack and Mud truly seem like family. This gives their interactions a poignancy and a power that Hochhauser's script otherwise doesn't demand - it's content with lame period ethnic humor and being an equally stereotypical backstager; it's Wiley and Murphy who make it human.

They have a tough time doing it through the songs, which while generically lively (mostly thanks to Doug Oberhamer's bouncing "pit" band) are seldom memorable and more rarely dramatic. Mud's solos, usually of the complaining variety but digressing occasionally into self-actualization, are especially overwrought, though Murphy brings them down to Earth as much as she's able. The duets (particularly the fantasy "Mud Donahue & Son" and its realistic finale equivalent, "Vaudeville Man") fare a bit better, but even they feel like little more than extractable specialties.

Wiley's tap solos, though, elevate the show above its own pretensions. Jack's good-natured act "The Shadow" and bad-livered one-man barroom brawl "The Tap Drunk," which charts Jack's initial descent into oblivion, are the only times the show breaks free of its self-imposed strictures to seek real theatrical entertainment without trying much too hard. While these routines (which Wiley co-choreographed with Taylor-Corbett) are undoubtedly difficult, Wiley sails through the toughest sections with bravura enough to make you believe everything is new and anything is possible. The rest of My Vaudeville Man!, though, is content with being anything you've seen and heard before.

My Vaudeville Man!
The York Theatre Company, The Theatre at Saint Peter's, 54th Street just east of Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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