The bygone days of early 20th-century vaudeville were exhumed during the formative period of 1950s live TV when hosts such as Ed Sullivan paraded an array of jugglers, knife throwers, acrobats, sword swallowers and other novelty acts across the B&W screens of America. In a series of loosely structured but endearing Friday-night-only perfs, descendants of these early showbiz troupers display a wide array of seldom-seen talent. Helmed by co-creator Amit Itelman, a revolving ensemble re-creates the relaxed, interactive performer-audience camaraderie that permeated these seminal footlight follies.
Co-creator and emcee Janet Klein (granddaughter of master prestidigitator Marty Klein) comes across as an understated Fanny Brice. Fronting an instrumental ensemble that includes Brad Kay (piano), David Barlia (guitar), Tom Marion (banjo), Ian Whitcomb (ukulele) and Dave Jones (bass), Klein gently warbles her way through such Yiddish-strewn Brice standards as “Ladies and Gents, That’s Love,” “Sheik of Avenue B,” “Becky! Boris Ain’t Coming Home No More,” and “Rebecca Went to Mecca.” The latter two numbers are enlivened by the hip-swirling hula-hoop gyrations of comely Keaton Talmadge (great granddaughter of Buster Keaton).
Overall, the musical numbers prove to be the most engaging aspect of the evening. This includes two hilarious odes to man’s elusive pursuit of the opposite sex: the Barlia-Kay close-harmony vocal duet on “Take ‘Em to the Door, That’s There Is, There Ain’t No More Blues,” and Brit show biz historian/performer Ian Whitcomb’s droll rendering of “Hungry Women.”
Singer-guitarist John Reynolds (grandson of Zasu Pitts) demonstrates the long lost art of “bilabial fricatation” as he buzzes his way through an adroit rendition of the Juan Tizol-Duke Ellington jazz standard “Caravan.”
Instrumentally, the banjo-guitar duo of Tom Marion (nephew of ’30s musician Nino Demagio) and Dave Jones offer a finger-flying outing on “Russian Rag.”
Interspersed among the musical offerings are smatterings of variety acts that offer more nostalgia than performance acumen. These include puppeteer Scott Land, plate spinner Robert Baxt, and height-endowed sword swallower George the Giant. Both Baxt and George wisely keep a steady stream of chatter going to distract the audience from the limited appeal of their shtick. Land is more successful with his poignant shy-clown routine.
Featured in the guest star spotlight is actor-comic magician Carl Ballantine (“McHale’s Navy,” “Mr. Saturday Night”), whose standup comic abilities far out distance his rudimentary magic tricks. Scheduled upcoming guest performers include thesp Teri Garr (daughter of song-and-dance duo Eddie & Phyllis Garr), Rubberneck Ballatore (son of Rubberlegs Lou) as well as such vets as comedian Emo Philips and tap sensation Chester Whitmore.
“Janet Klein and Her Borscht Belt Babies” is not going to bring back vaudeville, but it is a kind-hearted reminder of a much simpler, less complicated period in American show business.