Vaudeville shows fell out of fashion in the early 20th century, replaced by the rise of movies and other entertainments. In Vaude d'Gras, set in the 1930s, five performers — more circus arts performers than vaudeville-style entertainers — put on a death-defying show to try to preserve their longtime troupe and livelihood.
Circuses might conjure images of elephants, lions and big tops, but this troupe features aerialists, knife throwers and glass-walking sideshow acts. The story is loosely centered on ringleader Guglielmo, a carnival barker and singer, and his burlesque dancing sister GoGo McGregor. She has a campy, sexy and funny act, but she is leaving to make more money in pictures. He's a lovable performer who does a charismatic rendition of Fiddler on the Roof's "If I Were a Rich Man" as he stomps his bare feet on broken glass. That act looks easy compared to the challenge of keeping the show going.
Vaudeville shows featured a variety of unrelated acts, but Vaude d'Gras maintained a narrative. The writing felt rushed, but the framework was rich as it showed how technology enabled a new medium to replace a once-popular predecessor. There also were funny moments, which endeared the cast to the audience. Some jokes seemed corny, underscored by the live band's punctuating "wah-wah," but the shtick worked because of strong delivery, especially from the goofy Clay Mazing. He nimbly cracked a bullwhip in his cowboy-inspired act and knew how to play the audience.
The humor and narrative, however, became secondary to the circus acts. If performers flubbed a line, they'd call attention to it or improvise, and the spontaneity worked well. Guglielmo called up an audience member to spin a wheel to determine the tattoo and piercing he added live onstage.
The show took place at the Happyland Theater, an old and rough warehouse space that amplified the show's sense of an era in decline. Aerialist Sarah Stardust was mesmerizing on ribbons hung from the rafters. She climbed the suspended fabric and spun and twisted in impressive acrobatic feats above the crowd.
Many of the performers realize they have new opportunities beyond vaudeville, but LadyBEAST (Arianna Pelullo), resists the idea of change and prepares a Harry Houdini-esque water tank escape as a final act.
The performers are trying to reprise the show following its Mardi Gras weekend run. Many of them have worked together in several short-run circus arts shows in Bywater and Marigny locations and are likely to create more such variety shows.