The life of a teenage hoofer who runs away from home to perform on the vaudeville circuit is examined in “My Vaudeville Man!,” the second production of York Theater’s 40th season. The two-character musical has plenty of charm, personable acting and great tapping from Shonn Wiley, but overall the effect is more pleasantly enjoyable than rousing. Mark it as a respectable offering from the York, but without the crowd-pleasing hilarity of its recent “Enter Laughing” (which is slated for a return engagement after “Vaudeville” taps its last).
The show is taken from the posthumously-published “Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma” by Jack Donahue. Composer Bob Johnston and librettist Jeff Hochhauser, who collaborated on the lyrics, have come up with some impressive and well-devised songs. Sticking to their source material, however, leaves them hamstrung.
Donahue writes letters to ma (here called “Mud”); she writes letters back. This correspondence-in-song include samples of his act; hers discuss a drunken husband and two hungry kids. The authors manage to bring the pair together for a handful of numbers, but it’s mostly a parade of solo letter/songs.
Jack (Wiley) grows from a naive, teenage tap-dancer to a worldly, drunken teenage tap-dancer. Mud (Karen Murphy) simply sits at the kitchen table, complaining about her offstage husband, bragging about Jack to the imaginary Jewish ladies for whom she does laundry or confessing to an imaginary priest.
This becomes wearying as the first act trods on, although interest picks up in the second stanza. The songwriters keep piquing our interest, but then it’s on to yet another letter with Mud tied to her kitchen and Jack to his touring trunk.
Murphy does well with her mostly comic, Irish mother material, but it’s Wiley who is the find. Recently seen as the somewhat dull juvenile lead in the Encores! revival of “No, No Nanette,” the boy can dance. “My Vaudeville Man!” gives him a nonstop opportunity to tap, and tap he does.
Donahue was a famously eccentric dancer — he was called the man with the laughing feet — and Wiley has all the moves. His rendition of Jack’s vaudeville act, “The Shadow” (done in front of a light box on the stage apron), gets the musical off to a strong start that, unfortunately, it can’t quite sustain.
His second act spot, “The Tap Drunk,” borders on astonishing as Jack taps through the night with a bottle of rye, descending into oblivion.
Lynne Taylor-Corbett directed and choreographed the show, keeping things moving within the constraints of all those letters. Willey is billed as co-choreographer, which implies he devised many of his routines. York artistic director James Morgan’s set is spare but functional, and Doug Oberhamer’s three-piece band — upstage behind a scrim — works up some steam.
But “My Vaudeville Man!” falls victim to its reliance on its source material. Donahue was an interesting character; he went on to partner with Marilyn Miller, the biggest musical comedy star of the 1920s, and costarred in major Kern and Gershwin musicals before drinking himself to death in 1930 at age 38. But here his death is only touched on in the epilogue. The show restricts itself to Jack’s first months in vaudeville — months which ultimately don’t hold all that much drama.