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Review: MOXIE: A HAPPENSTANCE VAUDEVILLE a Delightful Family Treat

It's summer and it's high time we had some family fun that was a little bit wacky, a little bit musical, a little winsome and romantic-you know, kinda like Vaudeville.

By sheer coincidence, Happenstance Theatre has come up with a perfect evening's entertainment: "Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville" gives your rambunctious youngster a few moments of gleeful anarchy, your friends a little of the old soft shoe, while mom & dad can "ooh" and "aah" over Sabrina Mandell's stunning period costumes and some truly beautiful tableaux. The company has collaborated to create a satisfying production with something for everyone - and I mean everyone.

Part nostalgia, part - well, OK, let's just say all nostalgia, Moxie gives us a glimpse of the old Vaudeville entertainment circuit that captivated audiences for generations. In an age when you can become world-famous for a single You-Tube video, we forget that even back in the day performers could find fame (and a modicum of income) if they perfected a single, singular act. It didn't even matter what it was-singing saws, dance, slapstick, declamation (yeah, folks went in for that), mime-you could find a place on the bill. And the best part was that even if your debut was a disaster, you could still sneak back onto the next week's bill with a new name, new promotional blurbs, and the same old act.

The brash exuberance, the canny self-promotion and cynical manipulation of the public taste for spectacle all met in Vaudeville, and Happenstance manages the feat of giving you a survey of the form, with a glimpse of its prime, its decline and its demise. We first meet the company as they disembark from a nearby train (in-house, natch) and they wander onto the stage one by one, checking the house and, with any luck, finding a changing room backstage-rooms of this sort being strictly optional on the road.

One of the many charms of Moxie is its musical selections: with Karen Hansen at the old upright piano, in tux and tie, the show runs through some of the most famous songs from tin-pan alley; we even get a taste of Barbershop-style harmonies for a couple numbers, which is a real treat. Anchoring the cast, however, is Mark Jaster, whose singing saw is a recurring act here. Both Jaster and Mandell-who plays the grand dame elocutionist to perfection-give us a glimpse of performers as they age and their talents begin to slip a bit. Mandell's rendition of a famous Shakespeare monologue is particularly affecting, as we see her in her haughty prime, all artifice, but then later in a faltering rendition of the same speech, faltering and yet far more moving and emotional than before.

Other highlights include Alex Vernon's turn as a hapless magician, desperately trying to remain calm as his act takes on a life of its own, and Gwen Grastorf and Sarah Olmstead Thomas' singing sister act, charming the house whether perched on a swing or miming the lyrics to their tunes. Vernon and Olmstead also have star turns in a pair of classic Pierrot scenarios which are touching in their dreamy ambition.

Happenstance specializes in a gentle brand of humor, and the company has devised a slice of Vaudeville without any of the historical baggage (blackface, etc.) that has rendered it a touchy subject in some circles. It's truly designed for one and all-a visual, musical and comedic delight.

Production Photo: Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville runs June 24-July 17 at the Roundhouse Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD.

Tickets can be ordered by calling 240-644-1100, logging into www.roundhousetheatre.org
or email: exchange@roundhousetheatre.org

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