Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:43 pm
by Jason Zinoman, New York Times
They say theater is the most ephemeral art, and yet it’s not just the landmark buildings on Broadway that remind us of ghosts of show business past.
Just look at our current nostalgic moment: obsolete artistic forms from the Victorian era are making a comeback. One year after a minstrel show was staged on Broadway in “The Scottsboro Boys,” the British music hall returns in “One Man, Two Guvnors.” And now here comes old-time vaudeville in “Poor Baby Bree in I Am Going to Run Away.”
In a meticulous, charming performance that will appeal most to those with an interest in New York history, Bree Benton, whose alter ego is Poor Baby Bree, speaks in a precise New York accent that doesn’t exist anymore. She performs obscure songs a century old and commits to a maudlin Bowery waif character whose mix of pluck and innocence belongs to another time.
There’s no contextualizing or winking in David Schweizer’s straight-faced, simple production. It’s as if one of Fanny Brice’s co-stars entered a time machine and emerged at the Club at La MaMa. Wearing tattered rags, Ms. Benton plays a runaway, a figure vaudevillians romanticized, according to Trav S. D.’s fascinating history “No Applause — Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.” Baby Bree, who moves with a floppy-limbed childishness, yearns for a life in the circus. A melancholy emerges in songs like “Laugh, Clown, Laugh,” articulating the dark side of the big top and undercutting the hope of her dreams.
Accompanied by Franklin Bruno on piano, Ms. Benton does a little bit of everything: sing, dance, become a puppeteer. As in vaudeville the plot is thin, but her character does develop, becoming more hard boiled and sexual, which Ms. Benton handles with less conviction. The disreputable, slightly desperate show-business gusto of the old vaudeville is missing here.
Brazenly selling a song is not really in Ms. Benton’s repertory. Partly that’s a character choice. After all, she’s Poor Baby Bree. At the end she appears deflated, walks offstage, past the audience and out the door. Vaudeville dies yet again.