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Monday, Feb. 21, 2011

Born Entertainers

Danceworks Performance Company premieres Vaudeville!

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One of the things that make Kelly Anderson’s sweet, wry new dance-theatre work Vaudeville! so successful is her choice of music, a knowledgeable selection of stellar performances spanning the century from Bix Beiderbecke and Judy Garland to Jessica Molasky and the Dresden Dolls.  Anderson works with and against the tunes’ lyrics, using them to accompany the fanciful acts of a contemporary vaudeville show. On the surface, the music’s references to classic vaudeville—“Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn” for a pair of conjoined twin sisters or Eartha Kitt’s “I Want To Be Evil” for a female impersonator—are unflaggingly entertaining; but the show, like its score, has a pungent subtext. The goddess-like twins, so brilliant at unison dancing, are cursed.  The tough drag artist won’t be beaten by life, it seems, but therein lays the knowledge of the opposite.

Populist, family-oriented Vaudeville with its collection of eccentric entertainers is a pretty good metaphor for the Danceworks Performance Company, and Anderson capitalizes on each her colleague’s strengths. Mustached and tuxedoed, tall Simon Eichinger is a deadpan master of ceremonies, an austere authority figure in this emotional world of vulnerable people who aim to please. Melissa Anderson is at her funniest as a child star who wants Eichinger to love her, and her dejected solo when he leaves her to her own devices is wonderful in conception and execution. Holly Keskey finds a painfully perfect mate in Steven Zarzecki’s “Coin-Operated Boy” although he keeps going dead on her.

Ben Follensbee’s “Girl Who Posed for Ivory Soap” is a fragile Valkyrie.   Liz Hildebrandt Tesch is also in drag as an all-knowing male magician, but Kim Johnson-Rockafellow as his sly female assistant knows at least as much. In a high style period duet with an adoring Eichinger, flapper girl Christal Wagner is delightfully in charge, but melancholy solos for each character bookend this romance. Karly Biertzer, Tesch and especially Dani Kuepper prove accomplished gymnasts! Beirtzer, Wagner and Melissa Anderson do battle to the Boswell Sisters impeccable close-harmony singing in a display of highly disciplined self-indulgence. There is also a funny and shocking dance in swim suits to “Global Warming” by Vermilion Lies which includes an audience sing-along (“It’s hot!  That’s not cool!), and ends with lookalike dolls of the dancers fried in a microwave.

Unlike vaudeville, Vaudeville! is a unified art work. Guest choreographer Ed Burgess created a conceptually brilliant final number for its choreographer. As the “I Don’t Care Girl,” Anderson dances to a collage of cuts of Judy Garland talking feverishly and then singing that she “doesn’t care what anyone thinks about me.” Anderson gives it the same mercifully light touch she brings to the rest of the show.

Jan Kellogg’s beautiful lighting casts a spell that supports both mystery and comedy.  Sara Caron’s becoming backdrop, an emblematic swagged gold curtain, and the well-conceived costumes by Kara Mulrooney, Ashley Coffey and Dani Groom, are all you could want.

Vaudeville! runs through Feb. 27 at the Danceworks Studio Theatre, 1661 N. Water St.  Call (414) 277-8480, ext. 6025

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