The Ghost of Vaudeville
Not at the Palace directed by James Coco at the Charles Playhouse through Sunday
DURING the opening number of the opening night performance of Not at the Palace, a hooded fellow made his way through the dark to the Charles Playhouse's first tier and surreptitiously took his seat. At first, only the devout, well-weathered theater goers noticed him, but as the program wore on, even the most uncultivated picked up on his being there. By evening's end, it was clear that it was the spectral presence of the ghost of that late, great form of entertainment, vaudeville, which had made the show. Yes, the program contained lively music, and a captivating, even heroic, effort from Joe Masiell, but its recreation of a past era was what set it apart. For those in the audience who remembered vaudeville--The Palace, the lonely spotlight, that special rapport between individual performer and audience--this production brought all the images back. For those who post-date the vaudeville era it was a glimpse backward.
Like all vaudeville, Not at the Palace depends for its success on the personality of its spotlit entertainer--in this case, Joe Masiell, a lithe, practiced, crudely handsome Italian (his agent chopped the "o" off the end of his surname) with a contagious delight in performing. On stage for the entire production, he performs all but one of its numbers. Joe Masiell--as he himself emphasizes--has had a checkered career in show business. "It's been a push, a battle, a struggle for a long while," he commented after opening night. "I've been at it since 1960 and, let's see, I've been in 12 flops, count 'em folks, 12." Masiell, who starred for ten years in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, sang two songs from that play ("Madeleine" and "Amsterdam") with an uncanny empathy.
The intentional autobiographical bent of Not at the Palace brings dramatic continuity to a genre (vaudeville) which often suffers from the lack of it. The songs, the dialogue, and even the dancing help create a detailed and remarkably consistent portrait of Masiell. Born in Brooklyn, Masiell was raised in the shadow of his father, a lyric tenor, and adulates him to this day, calling him "kind of an early Italian Tom Jones." At least two songs, Io e Te" and Hey Poppa," reflect his father's influence, and while their sentimentality mars the fluency of the program a bit, Masiell's ever-emerging humanity and impassioned delivery thoroughly redeem it.
Joe Masiell's assessment of the peculiar fate of 20th-century man emerges unmistakably from this musical potpourri. A shameless and sincere romantic, he laughs defiantly in the face of the world's many troubles. "They'll only get you down if you let 'em," he seems to say, and in light of his professional struggles, and his father's chronic illness, his is the voice of experience. There is a sordidness and crudity in many of the renditions reminiscent often of Joel Grey in Cabaret. Furthermore, Masiell's carriage, and four husky, underdressed, female sidekicks make the whole performance seem almost to take place in a decrepit, dusky bar over bourbon. Like West Side Story, Not at the Palace acknowledges the world's callousness, and only then take an optimistic approach. Masiell embodies the 20th-century myth of the lonely, common man who in defiance of the world's many inequities, stubbornly perseveres.
The optimistic realism of Not at the Palace helps Joe Masiell accomplish the near-impossible--he holds an audience's attention, alone, for some two and one-half hours. As a stage presence he has many gifts: a well-controlled and expressive singing voice, grace as a dancer, and the knack of an accomplished professional. He knows when to smile, when to chat with the audience, when to casually sling his jacket over his shoulder--and all this helps. But above all, he knows how to make you feel he actually believes his message; perhaps, and this would be a rarity, he actually does.
Unfortunately, the songs themselves are not as good as the singing. Perhaps personal allegiance explains his reliance on mediocre music--many of the songwriters Masiell uses struggled along with him during his early years. Or maybe musical standards were sacrificed for thematic ones. Whatever the reason, we don't get Jacques Brel--well . . . only twice, and these are the two best numbers--but rather Leslie Bricusse, and Kander and Ebb. It's fine that we're not at The Palace, but a few more palatial songs would have improved the quality of the performance.
To bring this show off, Masiell and director James Coco should probably have tried for a bigger stage, better songs, a little less autobiography, and tighter dialogue. But they're forgiven. For there's a rare, healthy sense of humanity here, some cutting irony, a sizable dose of humor, and much well-considered social commentary. And besides, the ghost was there, and that alone is enough. Masiell's clearly not up there with Marlene Dietrich or Maurice Chevalier, and no, we are not at The Palace but I, for one, have never been closer.