Vaudeville, from Danceworks and a real character
Kelly Anderson, director of Danceworks’ upcoming Vaudeville show, says it’s all Carol Burnett’s
Anderson, a dancer-choreographer known for her intense dramatic presence on the one hand and her readiness to do absolutely anything for a laugh on the other, grew up watching Burnett’s TV variety show. After Anderson graduated from UWM’s dance program, she started putting on variety shows in bars around town and as far afield as Portland, Oregon.
She went a little further than Burnett did on CBS.
“The things that come out of my head on a moment’s notice can be very scary,” she said, through her ever-present and irresistible smile.
For example: Kelly Zweirs, her partner in variety crime over the years, staged carefully choreographed fights to the death, complete with buckets of fake blood.
“Sometimes, we gave the audience squirt guns, so they could spray blood on us,” Anderson said brightly.
She started wondering where variety shows came from, which got her interested in vaudeville. Vaudeville, which thrived from about 1890 to 1930, when movies with soundtracks killed it, encompassed everything: acrobats, chorus girls, animal acts, skits, comedians, opera singers, pop singers, comedians, exhibition ballroom dancers, even ballet. You could take the wife or girlfriends to vaudeville, as it was a cleaned-up version of men-only burlesque. Vaudeville stars, Al Jolson being the biggest, made millions. Legions of other performers labored in the various tiers of vaudeville on well-defined circuits of theaters around the country.
Anderson’s research inspired the Danceworks show, which won’t be quite as outrageous as the barroom brawls Anderson has staged in the past.
“Inspired” is the right word. Anderson is not trying to recreate popular entertainment c. 1919 in Vaudeville! She is making a show about vaudeville that incorporates some of its elements. The music, for example, is mostly newer stuff with old-timey elements, though we’ll hear some vintage Bix Beiderbecke and Helen Kane. And a good part of the show attends to the backstage lives of the performers.
“We knew there was sadness behind the scenes,” Anderson said. “How could I take these characters from the past and make them modern and still honor them?”
The answer is a vaudeville show of sorts, one in which backstage dramas bleed onstage and onstage behavior seeps into the wings. And as characters return to the stage, we get to know them and their backstories. Melissa Anderson, for example, plays a grown-up former child star who remains perhaps a little too cute and juvenile for her own good. Melissa Anderson, along with Karly Biertzer and Chrystal Wagner, are the Boswell Sisters, who are in constant strife as to which one of them will be the act’s star.
Some of the many acts in the show refer to real vaudeville stars, without really imitating them. Wagner and Simon Eichinger, for example, echo Vernon and Irene Castle as the exhibition ballroom couple, but they’ll do Kelly Anderson’s new choreography rather than, say, a literal Castle Walk. As a subplot, Melissa Anderson, Wagner and Eichinger will play out a love triangle, with Anderson as the odd woman out.
Danceworkers Dani Kuepper, Liz Hildebrandt and Biertzer are former gymnasts. Naturally, Kelly Anderson pounced on that and made them Vaudeville’s acrobats.
Anderson fleshed out her online and library research with a long afternoon with one of the last living vaudevillians.
“My cousin Judy takes accordion lessons with Miss Vivian — that’s the only name she uses — in Chicago,” Anderson said. Judy told of the vintage pictures and playbills framed around the house, and Anderson made the call.
“The act was, Miss Viv and her husband tap-danced on these tuned drums,” Anderson said. “They could play melodies on them. She showed me all her scrapbooks and we talked all day. Miss Viv told me all her crazy stories.”
Just as, no doubt, Kelly Anderson will some day tell some young performer all her own crazy stories.
Vaudeville! performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18-20, and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday Feb. 24-27 at Danceworks, 1661 N. Water St. Tickets are $20 and $25, $15 for students and seniors. Order at the Danceworks website or call 414 277-8480 ext. 6025.
Performers and Details
“Growing Fins” swim duet Kim Johnson and Melissa Anderson…music Vermillion Lies “Global Warming”
“The Girl Who Posed For Ivory Soap” Ben Follensbee, drag solo…music Eartha Kitt “I Wanna Be Evil”
“Flash Act” duet for Chrystal Wagner and Simon Eichinger to Bix Beiderbecke’s “Since My Best Girl Turned Me Down”
“Tinseka, Valdez and The Illusion” acrobat piece with Karly Biertzer, Dani Kuepper, Liz Hildebrandt-Tesch. Music by Kitten on The Keys, “Circus Song” and Hawk and a Hacksaw’s “Foni Tu Argile”
“Coin-Operating Girl and Her Automated Toy” duet for Holly Keskey and guest Steven Zarzecki (ventriloquist inspired coin-operated boy act) to “Coin-Operated Boy” by The Dresden Dolls
“Sister Act” trio Melissa Anderson, Karly Biertzer, and Christal Wagner to Boswell Sisters, “Everybody Love’s My Baby”