- Kalliope's joyful melange of musical memories chases the blues away.
Spend a few afternoon hours with Comedy Central, and you'll notice that plenty of the comedians freely traffic in f-bombs and scatological references. This is what they call "working blue," a phrase that originated around the turn of the 20th century, when vaudeville was in its prime. B.F. Keith and Edward F. Albee (yep, the grandfather of the famous playwright) ran their entertainment circuit like a slave ship. During final rehearsals, the bosses would hand out little blue envelopes to the performers with orders to cut from their acts such salacious content as "slob" or "son of a gun." Performers who let loose a "blue" line onstage were looking for work the next day.
Even so, singers and comics managed to maintain plenty of irreverence in their acts, making such presentations the predominant entertainment for their audiences, which happened to include many newcomers to these shores. These dynamics all coalesce in the Kalliope Stage's world premiere of Coming to America, an energetic tribute to the immigrant spirit presented in the context of a vaudeville show. Perhaps it's overlong, with a few of the period songs exuding more mildew than magic, but director Paul F. Gurgol and his five-person cast create plenty of laughs and more than enough entrancing musical moments.
After an opening sequence that sketches the quintet of core characters who are journeying to New York City to find the rumored "streets paved with gold," the script focuses on each new arrival in turn. Conceived and created by James Hindman and Ray Roderick, the show explores these lives by stitching a fragile and sometimes strained personal biography to songs of the time. Though the composer credits read like a Who's Who of American music -- Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin -- many of the tunes are C- or D-list selections. For every well-known ditty, there are six or seven obscure sheet-music reclamations such as "Ephraham Played the Piano" or "Thomas A. Edison, Miracle Man."
But much of this material works, thanks to Gurgol's sharp, precisely timed staging. Minimal set pieces are thrown on and off as the songs tumble out; if one melody doesn't strike your fancy, there are a few more right behind it. Adding some eye candy to the mix are Russ Borski's black-and-white costumes, which are nothing close to bland, with pinstripes, shimmering patterns, and one drop-dead feather boa.
The most effective comedy is pure slapstick, such as when Kaitlin (played with a truckload of pizzazz by Kimberly Koljat) remembers her ex-boyfriend back in Ireland, the one with breath that could drop a mule at 10 paces. Her expressions are priceless, and she milks many more guffaws from the material than it would ordinarily merit. Koljat is also hilarious in perhaps the funniest song, Hoagy Carmichael's "Huggin' and Chalkin'," in which a man sings a love anthem to his hefty wife by noting how he has to make a chalk mark on one side of her to determine where he began his romantic attentions, so massive is the mound of flesh in question.
Also excellent is Jason Winfield, who exudes enormous stage presence and easily manages the transitions from wacky physical humor to a quiet and heartfelt moment of reflection on his hometown and new life in America. Playing the stout opera singer and a Swedish maid with dreams of Hollywood stardom, Beth Kirkpatrick hits all the tough notes with power, though she tends to overwhelm the other voices in the ensemble songs. And as Yankel, the piano player from Eastern Europe, Jaron Vesely holds his own with the others, even though his characters aren't quite as expressive.
As Ambrose, the immigrant Italian, Christopher Sena looks like a young Roberto Benigni and assembles the most interesting story line, tracing his evolution from humble street vendor to owner of the biggest Italian restaurant in Buffalo. This success is built on some unusual circumstances, including the apparent death of the wife of a rival restaurant owner -- and then her awakening from a deep coma at her funeral. These tortured plot devices are all established to set up certain songs, but it's done with such giddy joy that you just go with the flow.
It would have been preferable if the creators had cut some of the 70 (!) songs, dropping the obvious clunkers and perhaps shortening the show by a half-hour to a more palatable 90 minutes. Since there is no character development to speak of, eventually the litany of mediocre music can't be entirely redeemed, even by this personable group.
Still, Kalliope has mounted a memorable show, due in large part to yeoman service from musical director Anthony Ruggiero. (Did we mention there are 70 songs?) It all makes for a dandy coming-out party for Coming to America.