nytheatre.com review by Trav S.D.
June 18, 2005
How is one to justly assess an affectionate tribute by artists who seem to have a shaky feel for the subject of their homage? In Big Times, co-authors and performers Mia Barron, Maggie Lacey and Danielle Skraastad resurrect that Hollywood standby of the '30s and '40s, the backstage musical. While the collaborators bring a lot of high energy to the enterprise, almost everything about it is, as one of the characters might say "applesauce."
While the characters (and the press materials) tell us the play is about three girls going to the big city to make it in vaudeville, the substance and the feel of the play is much, much closer to a low-rent burlesque sketch. Three main characters bulldoze their way through the 90 or so minutes of scenery chewing, spewing out the worst sort of fifth-rate jokes, some from the bad joke canon, the rest—unfortunately—original. Where vaudeville was the nation’s showcase for its best, wittiest, and most brilliant theatrical talent, here we are exposed only to the likes of an orphan who wants to be a comedian and so tells the worst of the wheezes (Barron), a burlesque dancer whom we never see dance or strip (Skraastad), and an unemployable airhead with NO talent (Lacey). Somehow or other (I’m not quite sure how) they are discovered by a vaudeville manager named J.P. Biggs and become headliners. (This despite the fact that the initials on the inter-scene title cards are "BFK," which stands for B.F. Keith, the biggest real-life vaudeville manager).
This is a show by three women who kind of love show business, but apparently not well enough to look into it very much. Note to producers of period pieces: always hire a dramaturg. We’re told that the show is about the "beginnings of vaudeville" which would place it in the 1880s, but the show is clearly set around the 1920s, except a sort of Depression Era feeling permeates the back story; the burlesque act Skrastaad’s character describes also belongs to a later period, and the house band the Moonlighters seems to have a kind of '40s thing going on. To add to the confusion, the beautifully designed set resembles a cabaret or Parisian café-concert more than a vaudeville house. This is a world in which five cents is the price of a vaudeville ticket… except no vaudeville ticket was ever that low, particularly in big time, where $1.50 or $2 was the norm. (To add to the economic chaos, a milkshake in this play costs 15 cents—three times the price of a theatre ticket!)
The name of the great circus and vaudeville trick rider Poodles Hanneford is appropriated and used to name a fictional female character… much to the chagrin, I would imagine, of Poodles’s illustrious family, who still live and perform throughout the world.
All of this lack of care and attention to detail would be forgivable of course if the damn play were funny, or if we were at least engaged by the characters and wrapped up in their story. But we are not. As directed by Leigh Silverman, the three women bounce around the space like a trio of pinballs. They’re running around so fast we don’t have time to realize that most of the singing and (all of the music) is being carried by the topnotch Moonlighters, who are positioned, appropriately, UPSTAGE of the show’s presumed stars.
Of the few songs sung by our principles, one is Harry Rose’s "Frankfurter Sandwiches," clearly lifted from the 1999 PBS documentary Vaudeville. Ya gotta sweat harder than that to make a decent show about show business.