Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sometimes It Doesn't Take Much

And sometimes it takes a man tap dancing in drag

By Russ Bickerstaff
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It’s always difficult to tell what’s going to draw an audience into a performance. That complex dynamic between the audience, the performers and the material they are performing can be kind of difficult to bring into focus. The right kind of energy can be difficult to come by. The performance dynamic at the Rep's Stackner Cabaret last night was kind of interesting.

The St. Patrick’s Day crowd on water street lent an odd energy to the area around the Baker Theatre Complex. One might not have expected many people to show up for a cabaret show during a big mid-week drinking holiday, but the place was relatively packed. The cabaret show, which opened last week, was this year’s Roger Bean show—a return to Route 66, which debuted at the Stackner years ago. Bean has modified it since its debut, so the show returns to the Stackner with a new feel. It’s a musical revue in road trip format following the legendary strip of concrete from Chicago to California.

The show opens with the four guys singing a few songs costumed as vintage service station workers in Chicago. Right away, things got off to a bit of a slow start. The talented Justin Robertson was, evidently, having some difficulty with his mic. In a space as intimate as the Stackner, that wouldn’t normally be a problem, but the sound design is set-up with amplification in mind, so the music was running over his vocals like . . . well . . . it would be far too easy to use some kind of automotive reference here so I won’t. With Robertson’s vocals covered by the music and everyone else being perfectly in synch, the show had gotten off to kind of a slow start. With a technical problem like that, it can be kind of difficult for an audience to settle-in to the piece. Somewhere along the line, (I believe it was in St. Louis) the three guys come out for a song (possibly Six Days on the Road) with really sophisticated-looking big rig facades covering-up what are essentially three guys on wheeled barstools. The visual comic element of this is pretty simple and straightforward. And sometimes that’s all it takes. Charmed by the inspired silliness of it, my wife immediately started laughing. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

Of course, sometimes it takes more than that. By the time the musical road trip hit Texas, Robertson’s mic was fixed. There are a few songs that take place in a truck stop. Adam Estes appears in drag as the title character in Truck Stop Cutie. By this time, the audience seemed to be getting into the show. The big turnaround was Estes doing a tap dance in drag while the rest of the guys played rhythm with spoons. All four guys seemed to feel the energy coming from the audience. It was kind of a magical moment. Weird, but magical.

Later-on, somewhere after intermission . . .somewhere around Barstow, CA . . . Roberston does a casually catchy solo performance of King of the Road and the entire audience starts singing right along with him . . . there was a really nice connection there. It made me kind of wish I knew the lyrics to that song . . .

The Milwaukee Rep’s Route 66 runs through April 25th at the Stackner Cabaret. A review of the show runs in next week’s Shepherd-Express.    

 

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