Entertainment Local

Show runs until Aug. 29 at Opera House

MARILYN DE LANG, Special to the Packet & Times

The Vaudevillians is on now at the Orillia Opera House.

SUBMITTED PHOTO The Vaudevillians is on now at the Orillia Opera House.

Vaudeville was no easy life -- on the road most of the year, often performing in dingy theatres that were freezing in the winter and stifling in the summer. A bad act was greeted with jeers, and the managers were equally tough. But this "endearing merry-go-round," as director Alfred Lunt put it, was special.

"(Vaudevillians) were marvellous people," said actor James Cagney. "Ninety per cent of them had no schooling, but they had a vivid something-or-other that absolutely riveted an audience's attention."

The first bill of vaudeville was staged in New York in 1881. A decade later, there were circuits all across North America. Variety was the name of the game: acrobats, animals, comedy skits, jugglers, novelty numbers and song and dance. Modern perceptions may find some of the acts bizarre: mind readers, escape artists, plate spinners, contortionists, ventriloquists. And they ranged from the sublime (Helen Keller and her famous teacher Annie Sullivan hit the circuit) to the absurd (a fellow named Gus Visser found a measure of fame singing Ma, She's Making Eyes at Me while holding a duck that quacked "Ma" on cue).

With the advent of cinema, particularly with the introduction of the "talkies" in 1926, vaudeville lost its appeal. But it left a lasting legacy -- through the variety shows of radio and TV, in its vocabulary ("a flop," "break a leg," and "the red-carpet treatment" are all vaudevillian lingo) -- and to the careers that it launched (Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, to name just a few).

This is the world depicted in The Vaudevillians, now playing at the Orillia Opera House. At the end of their careers and still yearning for the limelight, three vaudevillians -- Harry, Phil, and Estelle -- relive their heyday. Their performances take the audience into the gaudy, crazy era of vaudeville, from its roots to its demise. The songs include old classics and original music; and the comedy echoes the genius of the great vaudevillians. The spirit of Abbott and Costello is awakened through their famous patter act Who's On First? and the spirited rendition of The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life evokes the joy of a simpler age.

The talented, young actors bring heartfelt enthusiasm to their characters.

"I'm living my dream," said Stephanie Wilson, "and I relate strongly to Estelle." Jeremy Lapalme (Harry) commented on the pace of vaudeville shows: "The physical energy captivated the audience," he said, "and kids love the comedy and slapstick in this production."

Chris Mayo (Phil) appreciates vaudeville's role in the history of show business.

"It was the birthplace of musical theatre," he said, "and it was a magical time."

Directed by Rob Woodcock -- with musical direction by Rosalind Mills and choreography by Dora-nominated MJ Shaw -- these performers truly communicate the triumphs and tragedies of the vaudevillians. With exaggerated swagger and hilarious facial expressions, they keep the audience laughing out loud. Then, just as quickly, they inspire poignant nostalgia with a sensitive ballad or story. Pianist Mark Peterson provides accompaniment that is both energetic and sensitive. The intimacy of the studio theatre is the perfect setting for the interactive rapport that the old-time vaudevillians had with their audience.

So, with a tip of the hat to the jargon of those glorious old entertainers -- don't miss the hoofers, muggers, belters and patter in Orillia's The Vaudevillians. It's a boffo performance that is sure to knock 'em dead!

The Vaudevillians runs until Aug. 29. For tickets or information, visit orilliaoperahouse.ca or call the box office at 705-326-8011 or 888-ORILLIA. 

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