Fascinatin' Rhythms

VaVa Veronica blows a mean saxophone. But not with her mouth. As one of a handful of ragged "disappointment players," Veronica, a would-be strip woman played by voluptuous Lydia Mackay, bumps and grinds and warms up her mouthpiece behind the stage door of an old Dallas vaudeville palace, waiting to go on if a marquee act falls out. She's one of eight characters who do anything but disappoint in the stunningly original new period musical The Last One-Nighter on the Death Trail.

On a back alley set by scenic artist John Hobbie that's so detail-rich you forget it's wedged into the corner of a musty second-floor rehearsal hall at the Dallas Theater Center, this production comes on like gangbusters. It's the work of the wunderkinder known as Our Endeavors Theater Collective. They only do a show every now and then, but each time this company takes a stage, it's with something so fresh and so completely realized that they can be forgiven for the slow pace of their labors.

The Last One-Nighter is a product of six months of research and writing by Our Endeavors ensemble member Christine Vela (who also directs). She collected stories about the final throes of vaudeville, that form of family-oriented theatrical variety that dominated American popular culture for more than a half-century until being overtaken by radio and talkies in the 1930s. Vela wrote the libretto for this show with David Goodwin and collaborated with eight cast members and others (including musical director George Gagliardi) on music and lyrics for 15 songs.

If you didn't know they were new tunes written just for this show, you'd swear the score was packed with authentic Tin Pan Alley standards. The rousing opener, "Crazy Rhythm," is as lively a showstopper as anything in a Busby Berkeley film. "The Baby Medley" is a ball of corn similar to the bouncy "Triplets" from The Band Wagon. "I Got to Get Me Some of That" syncopates with sexy pauses.

The pastiche quality of the music pays witty tribute to the old stuff but also comments on it with a distinctly modern edge. When the company's abusive comic, "Pudge" Goodman (Patrick Johnson), a bitter Fatty Arbuckle in waiting, launches into his insistent theme, "Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!" (music and lyrics by Johnson himself), his buck-and-wings soon bring on heavy sweating and a spell of sputters and gasps. "I gotta cut down...," Pudge wheezes, dropping to all fours, "on a whole lotta shit."

At times The Last One-Nighter plays as dark as Cabaret. The frustrated impresario Moe (Frank Mendez), strutting with squinty intensity, could double as the Emcee in Kander and Ebb's Kit Kat Club. In other vignettes, One-Nighter becomes an update on Gypsy, making light of the travails of colorful backstage Depression-era hangers-on who dream of Hollywood contracts but most likely will end up working second banana in the bowels of burlesque (showbiz purgatory after vaudeville died).

We get to know each player. There's the "Countess" DelaCroix (the always lovable Lulu Ward), a faded classical diva who "once shared a stage with Bernhardt." She's now reduced to emoting under a moth-eaten Cleopatra wig, feeding lines to a half-wit former silent picture star named Wally Fairfax (Josh Hepola). The Kid (Vikas Adam) is a gangly stagehand hoping to be the next Astaire. Pudge's girlfriend, the trembling Skeeter McGee (Erin McGrew), dons dog ears to sing "Her Master's Voice," which says it all about her lost-pup lot in life. Into this mix of rude mechanicals, all "broke and beyond repair," stumbles Trixie (Lainie Simonton), a skinny minnie with blood on her hands from who knows where (we find out at the end).

The songs are boisterous, the jokes are slap-your-knee hokum. "She's been known to scintillate," Moe says of VaVa Veronica. "She's been known to sin till 9." And every now and then comes a zinger traveling from 1936 right into the bull's-eye of today's favorite political target: the media. "Maybe we'd all be a little better off," somebody says in Act 2, "if we looked to Hollywood for moral guidance."

We'd all be a lot better off if more theater companies took their jobs as seriously as Our Endeavors. The Last One-Nighter is a doozy of a musical. They're such wizards with details that it's surprising how little emphasis the company put on the singing. Not one of the talented kids in this cast has much of a throat for it, but their acting carries them over the rough patches. With real voices, this show could become an off-Broadway bonanza.

The best singers in 10 counties have been rounded up for the enormous cast of Ragtime: The Musical, now playing at Irving's Lyric Stage. Such singing! And so loud, too!

Ragtime is one of those gigundo Broadway musicals that announces its importance from the very first note. And it just keeps telling you over and over again how BIG and IMPORTANT it is in nearly every one of the score's 30 big, important, overly dramatic songs. Songs with names like "Wheels of a Dream" and "Back to Before."

Based, rather loosely, on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime was adapted for the stage in the late 1990s by playwright Terrence McNally (Master Class, Kiss of the Spider Woman), lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (the duo also responsible for Once on This Island and Seussical the Musical). The music is pleasantly Scott Joplin-y, but Ahrens and Flaherty have a habit of ending every booming anthem--and they're all anthems--with a vowel stretched out like saltwater taffy until the audience is forced to applaud not the song but the vocal cords of the person blaring it.

The show tells three stories of American history as seen through three different views of American life at the turn of the 20th century. There are the starchy, well-off WASPs from New Rochelle: Mother (Mary Gilbreath), Father (Bob Hess), Grandfather (Richard Rollin), Younger Brother (James Wesley) and Little Boy (Cayman Mitchell). As the notes of the opening title song expand to ear-splitting dimensions, we're also introduced to the razzle-dazzle "people of Harlem" led by black revolutionary Coalhouse Walker (Wendell L. Holden Jr.) and the statesmanlike Booker T. Washington (Paul Doucet). Then off the gangplank onto Ellis Island stride the immigrants, following Tevye-esque Tateh (Brian Gonzales) and his little daughter (Alex Hebert) toward the American dream.

In that first song and throughout the three hours to come, the groups collide uneasily, notably Coalhouse and some Boston Irish toughs who befoul his Model T (rolled onstage in gleaming red glory), and Coalhouse and his girlfriend Sarah (Kia Dawn Fulton) with the New Rochelle clan.

With its detached narratives--the characters speak of themselves in the third person--Ragtime turns musical theater into glorified civics lesson (all that vigorous flag-waving doesn't lessen the impression). But Lyric's production is blessed with several singer-actors who bring three-dimensional feelings and real nobility to some of the cookie-cutter roles. Gonzales, a frequent face in musicals at WaterTower and Theatre Three, sings and acts Tateh with impressive restraint. Fulton, who ended a run as the lead in Disney's Aida in Austin just a week before Ragtime's opening, makes a beautiful, heartbreaking Sarah. Her Act 2 duet with Holden's Coalhouse, "Sarah Brown Eyes," is pure magic.

Speaking of which, Houdini (David Lee Staggers) pops out of a straitjacket in Ragtime, appearing along with other iconic figures, including Emma Goldman (Lois Sonnier Hart), Evelyn Nesbit (Christine Cunningham), Admiral Peary (James Williams), J.P. Morgan (Ryan Roach) and Henry Ford (Randy Dobbs). They march in and out between the big notes, adding little to the plot except their gravitas as names underlined in history books.

Directed and choreographed by Antoinette DiPietropolo, Ragtime is all sweeping gestures and panoramic visual statements. Lyric's production is first-rate, with some moments that are as close to thrilling as in any musical we've seen recently (certainly putting DTC's anemic My Fair Lady to shame). But it does go on and on and on to the point that it starts to feel like a show that keeps repeating history instead of making it.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner