Review: ‘Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville’ at Round House Theatre

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Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville channels pre-radio\TV entertainment

America’s Got Talent, The X Factor, Benny Hill, The Gong Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show are nothing new. The variety show has been around for ages. With the spirited direction of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell, and music arranged and composed by Karen Hansen, Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville, is a theatrical, musical collage of a variety show that takes audiences back to the popular entertainment of approximately 100 years ago—Vaudeville. Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville is a delightful, energetic 90-minute sojourn through pre-radio\TV entertainment, good for audiences young and old.

Mark Jaster, Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Sabrina Mandell, and Gwen Grastorf. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.
Mark Jaster, Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Sabrina Mandell, and Gwen Grastorf. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.

With an average song-composition-age of 1919, Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville, is a re-creation of the kind of variety-show-style entertainment Americans enjoyed before film, TV and radio. Vaudeville’s hey-day was from approximately 1890 to 1930 and many towns throughout the country had Vaudeville houses that staged performances of the estimated 12,000 plus Vaudeville performers.

With Hansen providing piano, the show started with Jaster (Happenstance Theater’s Artistic Co-Director) and Alex Vernon singing “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” (composed in 1907), in early 20th Century swimming garb; the pace and energy of that number wasn’t indicative of the impressive numbers to come. There were many other superb numbers and skits the show could have started with, including “That Hypnotizing Man,” which featured the rib-tickling sleigh-of-hand magic of Vernon, and the black-hat-and-coat tails “Moxie One-Step,” harmonized beautifully by the cast, which included Jaster, Vernon, Mandell (Artistic co-Director), Hansen, Gwen Grastorf, and Sarah Olmsted Thomas. Many in the cast have clown skills that are ideal for Vaudeville and in past shows they have created and produced, like IMPOSSIBLE! A Happenstance Circus.

“Baby Sister Blues” (composed 1922) featured Thomas and Grastorf  in white, early-20th Century dresses, swinging on a two-seater swing and singing about a misunderstaning mother and Coca-Cola, evoking century-old soft drink print ads. Featuring Vernon on stilts and in a clown costume, “Jupiter” from English composer Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” orchestral suite was spectacular and Thomas and Grastorf’s “The Pussy Cat Rag” (composed in 1913) featured accordion playing and really hokey, so-bad-they-are funny cat-jokes (“I’m just kitten!”).

Mandell comically played a snooty Maître d’ in “O Sole Mio” (composed 1898). The cast harmonized beautifully in “Shine On Harvest Moon” (composed 1915), and I loved Hansen’s piano playing of “Clair de Lune” (composed 1905). Jaster, the only man I’ve ever seen play music with a wood saw and violin bow, nicely performed “The Calcium Moon” (composed 1910) with his additional lyrics added. Demonstrating superb physical comedy skills throughout, Jaster was the Master of Vaudeville in the show.

Gwen Grastorf, Karen Hansen, Mark Jaster, Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Sabrina Mandell. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.
Gwen Grastorf, Karen Hansen, Mark Jaster, Alex Vernon, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Sabrina Mandell. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.

Set Designers Vernon and Jaster created interesting, painted mini-flats, including mountain-range and city-scape backdrops. Kris Thompson’s lighting design, including projected moon and star-lit skies, was spectacular. The period costumes, by Costume Designer Mandell, from clown outfits to late 19th Century suits and dresses were spot on.

Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville is musical info-tainment, imparting smiles, laughter, and a little history for the entire family.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Moxie: A Happenstance Vaudeville plays through July 17, 2016 at Happenstance Theater performing at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

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