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Review - My Vaudeville Man! & American Buffalo

Early in the second act of My Vaudeville Man!, the captivating new musical at The York Theatre, Shonn Wiley, portraying eccentric dancer Jack Donahue, challenges four fellow vaudevillians to what's known as a tap drunk. Eventually, Buchanan will be a star on Broadway and a popular favorite at the Palace, but now he's a struggling 19-year-old kid who has taken to the bottle and is in need of quick cash. Each man throws five dollars into the pot, starts taking swigs from a bottle of rye and, most importantly, keeps dancing until only one is left standing. Wiley is the only one on stage, but he vividly paints the contest before our eyes, as Jack battles the endurance of his colleagues and his own inebriation until the competition turns violent. The piece is an extraordinary bit of dance drama, mixing humor, danger, grit and desperation, with Wiley's performance containing some of the best acting through dance we're apt to see this season.

And while that scene is the high point of Jeff Hochhauser (book and lyrics) and Bob Johnson's (music and lyrics) two-person tuner, there is a heck of a lot more to savor. Based on Buchanan's collection of correspondence published as Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma, the story begins in 1910 with the lad writing his "Mud" that he's left their Charleston, Massachusetts home (and the security of a steady job in the ship yard) for his first gig as a professional dancer, touring the small vaudeville houses of New England. Though convinced his "Fifteen minutes of dynamite" will make him famous, his old world Irish mother is fearful of having her son exposed to immoral show people. ("When St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland they all swam across the ocean and went into vaudeville.")

With the two characters conversing from afar through their letters, the book is admittedly a bit short on plot, spending much of the first act describing Jack's life on the road in pursuit of girls and a better spot on the bill, along with his unsuccessful attempts to save up enough money to send home. It's not until shortly before intermission, when we start realizing the amount of abuse Mud has been taking from her alcoholic husband as she expresses her concern that Jack has been drinking himself, that the dramatic potential of My Vaudeville Man! starts to take hold.

Even so, the material is still highly entertaining, as is director/choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett's warm and nostalgic production. Jack's descriptions of the types of acts he would perform with, including humorous references to some legendary names to be, are engaging history lessons while Mud's good natured ethnic humor ("(The Jews) may have murdered our savior but they're good to their mothers.") is perfectly in period.

But it's when Wiley and Karen Murphy (as Mud) sink their chops into the rich period score that My Vaudeville Man! really flies. Wiley, who co-choreographed, sings with showmanship and taps with crisp clarity and firm technique (the great Broadway hoofer Bob Fitch is credited as "Eccentric Dance Consultant") through routines like a charming shadow dance number and a comic French Apache dance. Murphy's Mud is full of sweet old world charm, showed best during a running routine where she sings to a priest her confessions that she's been lying to her friends about what her son does for a living. But her toughness comes through with invigorating power in a song where she tells her husband she's no longer taking his abuse.

My Vaudeville Man! may have its rough edges, but its terrific entertainment featuring two knock-out performances.

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That profanely sweet music blaring out of the Belasco Theatre these days is the sound of David Mamet at his ear-tickling best ricocheting off the walls in director Robert Falls' high octane revival of American Buffalo. The trio of John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment deliver some of the finest ensemble acting in town in a production that sizzles from start to finish.

Mamet's 1977 Broadway debut, an Off-Broadway transfer, is the play that popularized his reputation for taut, explicative-drenched dialogue that sings poetically when properly played. Taking place in a dingy Chicago second hand store, it's a bit of a back-alley opera (emphasized by Santo Loquasto's stage-filling, brick-a-brack saturated set which would be eye-popping from even the back rows of The Met) mixed with satirical commentary about the low-down corruption of free enterprise.

Shop owner Donny (Entertainer) suspects he got ripped off by a customer who purchased a buffalo nickel from him for far less than its worth so he plots a break-in of the man's home to steal what he assumes to be a valuable coin collection. Joining him is the dangerously high-strung Walter, a/k/a Teach (Leguizamo) and an unseen accomplice named Fletcher. The young, slow-witted, drug addicted Bobby (Osment), who hangs around the shop and runs errands for Donny is also involved, but Teach questions his loyalty and dependability. While they play isn't exactly a comedy, there is a lot of laughter generated by Mamet's heightened reality as these two-bit crooks see themselves as simply carrying out a business transaction as good American capitalists. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht might have called it, The Nickel Opera.

Though Leguizamo is a Tony-nominated actor known to Broadway audiences for his self-written solo pieces, Freak and Sexaholix... a Love Story, this is his first stage appearance playing a character in another author's play. His cast mates are both making their professional stage acting debuts. And yet Falls has them bubbling with combustible chemistry. Leguizamo's hyper-kinetic performance spits out Mamet's more colorful vulgarities with the tone and rhythm of a seasoned jazzman. Cedric the Entertainer is the sturdy rock of the evening and generates genuine pathos with his strict concern for the well being of Osment's fragile and pitiable Bobby; a concern that is severely tested when it comes to money.

And to top it off, they've got the best "turn off your cell phone" announcement in town.


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