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My Vaudeville Man!

Shonn Wiley and Karen Murphy bring their considerable talents to this slight entertainment about a young dancer and his worried mother.

By New York City
Karen Murphy and Shonn Wiley
in My Vaudeville Man!
(© Carol Rosegg)
Karen Murphy and Shonn Wiley
in My Vaudeville Man!
(© Carol Rosegg)
Life upon -- and behind -- the wicked stage has proved an irresistible subject for scores of musical theatre writers, and Jeff Hochauser and Bob Johnston have proved no exception with My Vaudeville Man!, which has arrived in a full production at the York Theatre Company after years of readings and a presentation last year at NYMF (under the title Mud Donahue and Son). But true fullness is what this underdeveloped two-character show really needs to add up to more than the rather slight entertainment now greeting audiences.

The show, told primarily in the form of letters, is based on the true story of Julia "Mud" Donahue (Karen Murphy), the long-suffering Irish wife and mother who disapproves of the dancing career in vaudeville chosen by eldest son Jack (Shonn Wiley). While she sits home and worries -- and waits for her drunk husband to return from an extremely long bender -- 19-year-old Jack faces the ups and downs of touring, his first sexual experience, his first love, and his first bouts of heavy drinking (which would eventually kill him two decades later after some success in show business).

One wishes the authors had given the book more heft and humor. While we may not really need to see Mud's world in any depth -- it's fine to simply hear about her Jewish clients, her friendly priest, and her younger sons -- Jack's world could use some fleshing out to come to life. (Wouldn't it be fun to see some child actress play the young Marilyn Miller or to have those peeing dancing seals on stage!)

Still, director and co-choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett keeps the proceedings relatively lively and gives her actors plenty of stage business -- like having Mud make an almond frappe or Jack wash his socks -- to try to mask the book's shortcomings.

More importantly, slightness is not what we get from the show's two stars, who bring total conviction -- and gobs of talents -- to their roles. The likable, fresh-faced Wiley is first and foremost a remarkable dancer, a feat especially evident in the show's standout number, "The Tap Drunk," which occurs early in the second act. Meanwhile, the long-underrated Murphy shows her versatility, even managing to wring a few tears from the overly sentimental "So The Old Dog Has Come Home." And she's not a half-bad hoofer either.

Perhaps with the ultimate mother-child stage conflict Gypsy running across town, there's little question My Vaudeville Man! would naturally seem a tad pale by comparison. But the fact of musical theater is that less rarely equals more.


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