Monday, Feb. 14, 2011

Vintage Valentine's Eve

Radio WHT, The MUTES and the Bootless Betties at Swig

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The second floor of Swig was buzzing relatively early. Tickets for a one-evening multi-performance group cabaret had sold slowly until the last couple of days before the show. By the day of the show, the Very Vintage Valentine’s Day had completely sold-out. 

 

A set of reasonably comfortable chairs were arrayed in a wide arc around a performance space completely with a bit of scenery, music stands and a table of odd items. In character as old-timey radio actor Jack Farwell, the charming Randall T. Anderson mingled with people in the audience. As Farwell, Anderson emceed a very fluid variety show that managed to maintain a pleasantly quick pace from start to finish. This in and of itself was a huge accomplishment when one considered the three different acts in the show had quite a bit of equipment with them. As crowded, cozy and intimate as things were, it all moved along quite well, with Anderson as host.

 

The Bootless Betties—are a musical group I hadn’t heard of prior to the show. The three-part harmony also featured a woman on cello and a guy on guitar. The music sounded very early ‘40’s to me, but much of what they performed last night is solidly ‘30’s. They performed a number of songs popularized by a ‘30’s three-part diva team known as the Boswell Sisters. The Betties’ Shuffle Off to Buffalo was beautifully melodic. Their Charlie Two-Step was charming enough to find the audience echoing the call of “yowza!” throughout much of the rest of the night. A little bit of between-the sets comedy between one of the Betties and the host was cutely accentuated by a performance of Ballin’ the Jack. The single most romantic part of the show had to be their rendition of I Love My Baby (My Baby Loves Me) which fit the Valentine’s day theme quite well.


 The M.U.T.E.S.-- 

The Marvelous Un-speaking Troup of Entertaining Scoundrels do a silent-era film-inspired sketch comedy. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them perform. Having had a great deal of performance experience, their work has become much more fluid than it had been previously. For the most part, the comedy is a spot-on adaptation of old black and white silent films, right down to the style of slapstick that was popular back then.

With a bit more going on than their shorter pieces, the group’s longer story (I believe it was called Love and Money) was a bit difficult to follow in places, but most of the comic shorts worked exceedingly well. The group has been toying with bits of anachronism, particularly with regards to the music that’s playing in the background as they perform. Some newer tunes draw-in an audience prior to establishing the standard style of music associated with the era. Some of the newer songs work better than others, but aside from that and title cards that were sometimes presented too quickly for everyone in the audience to catch, this was a remarkably enjoyable performance. Their best bit had to be The Clockwork Boy, which was a Metropolis­-esque bit about a robot boy trying to express his love for a girl. The plot twist at the end was a silent film-era application of an old sci-fi concept popularized by the work of Philip K. Dick. A charming love story featuring a robot.

The group was working with the thrust stage-style seating arrangement in a way that felt a bit surreal to those of us sitting in the front row. With three different entry points and action that would often move around the space from many different angles, the M.U.T.E.S. punched through into three-dimensions. I really love the effect. Faithfully re-creating the style of old silent film comedy is interesting enough just to see live and performed onstage . . . when the performance also rushes though aisles in the audience, the effect of a live 3-D silent movie is pleasantly surreal. With no solidly established home venue, the MUTES have evidently been able to make an art out of adapting to the spaces they perform in. 

 

Wisconsin Hybrid Theatre--

The classic old-timey comedy from the golden age of radio is always a lot of fun. Charles Sommers’ scripts flit through the comedy of weird juxtaposition peppered with clever wordplay. Sommers took the stage in this performance in the role of sound effects guy Chris Knapp. It’s interesting watching him during a live performance. There are subtle reactions on his face as he seems to be gauging the effectiveness of various gags and jokes throughout the script.

 

The story for the evening’s performance was Hansel and Gretel and the Candy Planet—a retelling of the classic fairy tale as a kid’s sci-fi serial from the golden age of radio à la Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Tom Corbett or others. The period style of the spoof is spot-on with the usual little bits of comedy that Sommers tosses into the script. This time around, there was a reference to 2001: A Space Odessy that never seems to get old for me.

That line, which involved a trail of breadcrumb-like light in space, was delivered by Beth Lewinski in the role of actress Debra Burnham as Gretel. With staggeringly fluent comic instincts, Lewinski continues to be a really good addition to the cast. The evening’s ensemble also included the easily-angered Ira Hampton as played with ample comic charm by longtime WHT talent Jim Owczarski. Sarah Laak Hughes rounded out the cast as actress Allis Chase in the roles of a wicked step-superior on the ship and a ravenous giant ant (or aunt) on a candy planet with a marzipan(ium) center. Delightfully inspired silliness.

 

 

As a whole, the three acts work really well together. With this kind of success, it’d be nice to see these three groups get together for another show. While I’d never seen a full concert by the Betties, I know that the other two groups can have the room to do a little more on their own, giving them more depth individually. That being said, there’s an audience out there for each of these groups that wouldn’t necessarily want to see any one of them performing on their own. There’s a synergistic effect of having all three of them together that has a very classy vintage feel to it. It’s like being immersed in a contemporary mutation/celebration of an early 20th century only remembered by most of us in old recordings in various corners of the internet.  

(For more information on any of these groups, checkout the links above.) 

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