My Vaudeville Man!
nytheatre.com review by Nicole Bournas-Ney
November 16, 2008
Sometimes the whole is simply less than the sum of its parts. This is certainly the case with My Vaudeville Man! While the acting, set design, and costumes are first rate, the show suffers from the serious lack of a unifying vision. This musical, which premiered at last year's New York Musical Theatre Festival (as Mud Donahue and Son), is based on the book Letters from a Hoofer to His Ma, and the show consists entirely of correspondence from real-life vaudevillian Jack Donahue to his mother. The show traces Donahue's career from his leaving home against his mother's wishes for his first vaudeville tour to the brink of his Broadway success. On this journey, Donahue's family also struggles with poverty and alcoholism.
Jack Donahue is played with charm and light feet by Shonn Wiley, who is also the co-choreographer of the show. Wiley has earnestness to spare, and in his two big tap numbers, "The Shadow" and "The Tap Drunk," he executes some very fancy footwork, elucidating just why Jack Donahue was something of a vaudeville legend. Jack's classically Irish mother, whom he calls Mud, is portrayed by the very appealing Karen Murphy. Despite having to portray a character that leans considerably towards stereotype, Murphy connects easily with the audience and brings an endearing passion to her performance. The intimate performance space that Murphy and Wiley work in has the perfect feel of a classic, small vaudeville circuit theatre (where much of the action is supposed to be taking place), and David Toser's period costumes are simple but effective—single-handedly evoking the 1910s and 20s.
While the acting and other elements are effective, the script fails to adequately support them. Within this show, there are potentially two or three different, interesting stories that could have been told—an old-fashioned show biz fable about a Broadway dream; a story about a wife unwittingly enabling her husband's alcoholism and how that addiction rips a family apart; and maybe yet even a third story about a comedian/dancer who, in his private life, is sometimes a depressed alcoholic. Unfortunately, the librettist (Jeff Hochhauser) and lyricists (Bob Johnston and Hochhauser) do not really tell any of these stories. What they do is try to tell an upbeat George M! (or Jazz Singer) style show biz fable at the same time as a Eugene O'Neill-like tale about an Irish-American family torn apart by alcoholism. The show ends on the very mixed note of Donahue tapping off into the sunset to eventually drink himself to death at the age of 38. This could work as irony, but here it simply seems like the authors are trying to mitigate the impact of the depressing element at the last minute.
Simply put, two storytelling vocabularies that really don't go together collide in the musical, and as a result, the audience doesn't know what they are supposed to get out of the work. The audience members around me seemed to have come in expecting a small-scale 42nd Street kind of show and were confused by the darker plot elements, as well as the presence of only two tap numbers in a piece about a famous tap dancer. Unfortunately, despite its charm and the talent of its two leads, in the end, My Vaudeville Man! is a yarn that the audience just simply can't seem to untangle.