Vaudeville gets a life preserver

Showboat Players revive century-old play “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway”

Matt Graham

Although he doesn’t show up very often anymore, he’s a character we all know. “Step this way, right this way!” he barks in a sleazy sales pitch. “You oughtta be in pictures, kid! I’m gonna make you a star!”

But the University Centennial Showboat Players are doing their best to resurrect this classic piece of Americana.

The players are performing a revival of George M. Cohan’s “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” a vaudeville show that premiered 100 years ago. Cohan was Broadway’s biggest name prior to World War I and is considered one of the founders of American musical comedy.

Fittingly, “Forty-Five Minutes” is chock-full of sing-alongs and familiar old-timey characters, with the plot almost secondary to on-stage high jinks.

The story centers on the inheritance of Mr. Castleton, a small-town millionaire who died without leaving a will. His nephew Thomas Bennett (Galen Murphy-Hoffman) soon arrives in New Rochelle to take charge of the estate, with his best friend, Kid Harrigan (John Skelley), in tow.

Bennett is engaged to Ms. Flora Dora Dean (Valeri Mudek), a Broadway starlet with less-than-impressive intellect who is commanded in her every action by an overbearing mother, Mrs. David Dean (Kristin Kenning). Harrigan suspects the Deans are after his friend for his cash, a problem which is further complicated when he finds Castleton’s will in the pocket of a suit, a will that bequeaths Castleton’s estate to his maid, Mary Jane Jenkins (Courtney Roche), with whom Harrigan has fallen in love.

Lurking over the whole affair is Daniel Cronin (Christopher Kehoe), a tall, menacing character with a cane who will stop at nothing to get Castleton’s money. The whole town gets involved with the inheritance over the course of the play, leading to one chaotic scene after another before everybody finally gets their just desserts.

But “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” is more about engaging the audience in a song and dance spectacle than anything else, a fact that the actors, all University students, said makes this play a fun one to perform.

The whole purpose of the show is to get the audience excited, singing along and responding (either positively or negatively) to the action on the stage. “It makes the performance so different every night,” Skelley said.

Roche echoed his sentiments, noting that in other plays, “nobody in the audience boos, or yells ‘Get under the train, Mary!’ “

That kind of audience feedback is rewarding for the actors, and they receive a visible lift on stage when the audience does get involved, which is helpful for them, as vaudevillian performance is a challenge.

“It’s a style of acting and singing that’s no longer taught,” said Vern Sutton, the retired University music professor who directs the play.

Aside from the increased emphasis on audience interaction, vaudevillian acting requires the performers to project their faces and voices, and dance and sing in a manner different from modern plays.

It took the theater students more than a month of rehearsal to prepare for the performance, but Sutton said the style

should be at least somewhat familiar to anyone who has seen the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges.

The actors said working in this old style will help them when they do more modern work. “It teaches you a lot about how to play with an audience and have a relationship with them rather than pretend they’re not there,” Skelley said.

“It’s a different muscle to stretch,” Roche said. “It’s a lesson in comedic timing.”

The actors said audience members should prepare to be loud, not think too much and – assuming they are of age – to get a nice, healthy buzz.

“I think a lot of people think when you go to the theater you have to sit and be bored,” Mudek said. “This is all about the audience really.”