(from top to bottom) R.J. Lewis, Christina Racek,and Wilson in Stage Struck
(from top to bottom) R.J. Lewis, Christina Racek,
and Wilson in Stage Struck
The recipe for the phenomenal success of vaudeville in the late 1890s to mid-1930s was simple: a full evening of diverse entertainment for the entire family at a cheap price. In R. J. Lewis' Stage Struck, the prices may have gone up, but the rest is vintage vaudeville.

More an ode to the old form than an example of the innovative style popularized by Bill Irwin and others, Stage Struck is a backstage tour, led by Lewis, of the once grand Genesis Theater. Portraying a bored security guard named Simon (who is referred to by his disembodied supervisor as number 21528), he begins to investigate the many trunks strewn about the dusty stage. From one of the old steamers springs Wilson, a wooden know-it-all, who, after some contentious banter with Simon, encourages him to explore the remainder of the luggage. Each contains the costumes and props from an old vaudeville act, a discovery that not only gives Lewis the opportunity to display his versatility as a performer, but also allows Simon to rediscover his love for the stage.

Taking on the guise of an Irish stilt-walker, robust Italian baritone, elegant dancer, melodramatic actor, juggler, ventriloquist and magician, Simon recreates the final evening's entertainment at the theater. The fact that Lewis is less proficient at some of the acts than others (the dancing in particular features more deception than talent) becomes a minor point in this almost ridiculously good-natured show. So persuasive is Simon's renewed belief in the magic of theater, that we too are soon enchanted, which makes us willing to forgive the show's considerable hokum -- a good thing, considering the endless barrage of bad jokes and occasionally less than impressive magic tricks.

Most of the time, however, Lewis shows himself to be remarkably proficient in the varied disciplines, especially when it comes to the show's vocal chores. A pleasant singer, Lewis' disarming style is a perfect fit for Ralph Carbone's catchy and surprisingly eloquent score that accompanies each of the various acts. The taped musical accompaniment is a bit annoying, but that minor obstacle is soon forgotten in a whirl of flying knives and spinning plates (the juggling is truly remarkable) and the elegant ballet of a dancing ghost (Christina Racek, in a brief but memorable appearance).

Even with its shortcomings, Stage Struck will strike a chord with anyone who believes in the magic of theater. "Do what you were born to do," Lewis tells us, and watching the passionate abandon with which he performs, it's abundantly clear that this talented performer has taken his own advice.