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A Stirring Revival of Vaudeville Theater

The history of popular entertainment is not the same thing as the history of recording. While the wonders of our digital devices seduce us into thinking we have instant access to everything, most performances in the first form of mass entertainment in America—Vaudeville—are lost to history. Astronomers tell us that we’re still receiving light from the Big Bang, but the sights and sounds of the first pop acts, Vaudeville stars, are all but gone. Or so I thought until this past Sunday, when I caught a miraculous and peculiar show at LaMama, the enduringly scrappy mini-mall of theatrical experimentation in the East Village in New York, now in its fiftieth season. There’s a cabaret-ish space-within-the-space called the Club at LaMama, and it’s home this month to a one-woman show billed as “Poor Baby Bree in ‘I’m Going to Run Away.’” I’ve never seen anything like it, as people have been saying on the way out of LaMama for 50 years now. In this case, though, the work is startling not for its radicalism, but for its cheeky, intentional archaism. The show is a gingerly stylized but loving—no, adoring—evocation of a Vaudeville performance from the turn of the last century.

I should emphasize evocation, as opposed to replication, because Baby Bree is a fictive conceit whose power lies in her seeming authenticity. The star of “I’m Going Away,” Bree Benton, performs here (as she has in various settings for at least five years) in the guise of a singing urchin from the cusp of the Victorian and modern eras. She talks and sings in a tough-goil patois that sounds like nothing other than the voice we imagine hearing when we watch the shoeless little roustabouts in silent movies.

With musical direction and piano accompaniment by the multi-talented Franklin Bruno (a first-rate writer of both nonfiction and songs, on his own), Baby Bree sings largely unknown tunes from the sheet-music era—unnervingly catchy and wholesome (if sometimes maudlin) curios such as “The Angel Cake Lady (and the Ginger Bread Man),” “Just Like a Butterfly That’s Caught in the Rain,” and “Ain’t It the Limit,” a song from 1921 written for one of the child-impersonator acts popular in early Vaudeville. I had never before heard most of the songs in the show, though they all have the ring of the familiar that Vaudeville songs needed to have when they were first sung. As Baby Bree, Benton plays this funny old material straight, with palpable ardor but without stultifying reverence. The world she conjures, with uncommon vividness and evident conviction, is a fanciful but strangely grim one of sawdust dolls and scary bears. It has nothing to do with the world we know, and it’s something more than a product of nostalgia. Poor Baby Bree, a transmutation of an imagined pop-culture past, is something new.