ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
My Vaudeville Man!
The York Theater Company has put a lot of faith in this ambitious 2-hander about the life of legendary vaudeville star and tap dancer Jack Donahue (1892— 1930). Renamed My Vaudeville Man!, it is a modestly scaled, simply conceived terp and tell musical that has evidently been gussied up for a holiday time run at the York's venue at Saint Peter's in Citigroup Center.
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. From his start as a cocky teenager performing on the small-time vaudeville circuit to the big-time at the Palace and eventually as a star in Broadway musicals, Donahue eventually would share the stage with some of the luminaries of the vaudeville world such as Marilyn Miller, W.C. Fields, and Fanny Brice.
Except for those who may have seen Wiley in No, No Nanette at Encores, he is a relatively new face. He puts a variety of faces as Donahue attains maturity, copes with fame and succumbs to alcoholism. Wiley's exuberant performance adds considerably to the show's fragile structure. He has winning support from the excellent Karen Murphy, who more than intermittently shares the stage as Mud, his disapproving but always loving Irish mother. Mud gets her chance to show her mettle as a spunky woman who enjoys confessing her sins to the local parish priest and resorts to taking in laundry while her husband goes on prolonged benders. There is no question that Wiley and Murphy are up to the task, through songs, dances, and banter, to make the most of even the most pedestrian material.
There is something endearing about this musical that chugs along like an old Warner Brothers bio-film musical but without the splashy numbers, leggy chorus girls and comical co-stars. It boasts an original score with music by Bob Johnston and lyrics by Johnson and Jeff Hochhauster (who also wrote the book) that resonates with the lilting musical echoes that quaintly define the era. In that they also serve to propel and support the plot is commendable. I wish I could say that the lyrics were as easy on the ears as is the music, but some literally make you wince: SHAKE, SHAKE, SHAKE, YOUR ICE CREAM SHAKER/ SHAKE, SHAKE, SHAKE, YOUR ICE CREAM SHAKER/ I HEAR NUTS GOIN' NUTS IN THE SHAKER/HONORED I WAS CHOSEN/FOR FRAPPE IS FRENCH FOR FROZEN
The book, based on Donahue's Letters Of A Hoofer To His Ma (published posthumously), resourcefully connects the dancer's relatively short but memorable career (he died at the age of 38) to the reactions of Mud, who tried in vain to keep her son at home ("Vaudeville is like Sodom and Gomorrah,") and persuade him to take a steady job in the local shipyard like his drunken father. Donahue's experiences, romantic adventures and encounters with other vaudevillians on the road are briefly touched upon in the dramatically and musically realized correspondence between Jack and Mud.
The stage design by James Morgan (also the York's producing artistic director) is simple and evocative enough: On one side of the stage is an easel, like the one used in vaudeville to display the name of the town or the act. A miniscule portion of the Donahue's kitchen is on the other side of the stage. The action builds upon the news contained in the letters confined to the vaudeville theatres on the New England circuit and in the Donahue home in Charlestown, Massachusetts during 1910.
Lynne Taylor-Corbett, who both directed and choreographed (Wiley is listed as co-choreographer) keeps the musical numbers rolling along. To his credit the energetic and exuberant Wiley doesn't seem at all overwhelmed by a role that is almost relentless in its demands. Two dance numbers stand out for providing the most compelling insights into Donahue's personality. In "The Shadow," a character-establishing song that becomes more haunting in a reprise: MY SHADOW WON'T LET ME STOP DANCING/ MY SHADOW LOVES TO DANCE/ MY SHADOW GETS ME OFF A THE SOFA/ MY SHADOW PUTS DANCE IN MY PANTS. In the show's most exciting song and dance episode "The Tap Drunk," Donahue gets into a feet and fisticuffs fight with four guys he has gotten drunk with after a performance. All are played by Wiley.
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. Donahue's eccentric dancing between 1920 and 1930 did, however, help pave the way for such future dance icons as Ray Bolger, Fred Astaire, and Bill Robinson.
There is excellent musical support from the four musicians. As usual, audiences are warmed up by James Morgan, the York's artistic director cum resident raconteur.