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Friday, 14 October 2011 11:34

Those old, sweet songs

Written by Andrea Braun
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westendplayers.org
westendplayers.org

Resplendent in top hat, white tie and tails, Chuck Lavazzi brought his intimate cabaret act to the Missouri History Museum for two weekends (this is the second). His performance is part of a series presented by the Museum in collaboration with local theatre companies, in this case, the West End Players Guild (WEPG), whose 2011-12 season the show also kicks off. He came to sing the Golden Oldies, and I’m not talking about the Beatles or even Bing. His material is straight from the Amercian Vaudeville age, and mainly songs from its peak shortly before and during the 1920s.

The History Museum’s auditorium seems large for an intimate show, but Lavazzi and his outstanding accompanist on piano, Carol Schmidt, made it work. I was surprised at the size of the audience on a Thursday night, so obviously his material still has a lot of appeal. Leaving the theatre, I heard people remarking on how many of his songs they knew. Of course, these were not Gen X-ers or even Boomers (to which cohort Lavazzi belongs), but still, these were composed before most of the people in the room were born. In fact, it may be because of the more romantic side of this music that some of them ARE around (“Shine on Harvest Moon,” Take Your Girlie to the Movies,” and “After the Ball”).

Lavazzi opens with “Love’s Old Sweet Song (Just a Song at Twilight)” and wraps around to close with an interesting reprise of it, wrapping the package up nicely. But Lavazzi’s strengths lie in the upbeat numbers like “Take Your Girlie,” “You Gotta Get Out and Get Under” (referring to the unreliability of the “horseless carriage” with some good double entendres) and Al Jolson’s trademark “Toot Toot Tootsie.” He’s also a fine storyteller, and his anecdotes about the period and the music range from the touching (his mother sang these songs as lullabies) to the risqué (the story of the Dolly Sisters, Roszika (Rosie) and Janszieka (Jenny) Deutsch, Hungarian immigrants whose “sybaritic lives” were a source of public fascination) to the gently political (again the Dolly Sisters’ sad ends because “after they fell, and we all fall, there was no safety net” and observations about the great black Vaudevillian, Bert Williams, and how he dealt with racism with good humor and grace).

It is, in fact, Williams’ story that is the highlight of the evening. Lavazzi talks about the indignity of his having to work in blackface (it was redundant too) and the difficulties in his career and life. He had a great champion in the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld, however, and he literally worked until he dropped, playing while ill until his final collapse. The audience laughed, and as he was helped off stage, he expressed his delight in literally leaving them laughing. His signature song was “Nobody,” obviously fraught with meaning, which Lavazzi skillfully wove with the verse from the musical Chicago (Kander and Ebb) originally from 1975 and a huge hit today in revivals, “Mr. Cellophane.” He uses these to convey the sense of invisibility endemic to the black experience in pre-racial America. Lavazzi’s sensitive tribute is well-acted and moving.

Like many cabaret artists, Lavazzi is an actor. This is not a medium that requires a great voice or range; rather the emphasis is on the material itself and its delivery. Lavazzi has a serviceable baritone and he can “talk-sing” effectively, but not the ability to sustain a note and occasionally has a tendency to reach higher than he is comfortable doing. But that matters little. The audience enjoyed the novelty songs the most, I think, and Lavazzi’s voice is more suited to upbeat rhythms rather than slower tempos. He makes a ballad out of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” for example, and it’s a weak point in the show. Carol Schmidt is a grand pianist (Lavazzi calls her “that Ragtime Gal” more than once, and yes, “Hello, My Baby” is in the repertoire). We can almost hear the familiar lyrics through her instrument when she solos. Her harmonies with Lavazzi are tentative, but it was nice to hear the sound of another voice.

As the evening neared its close, an enthusiastic sing-a-long to “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and the story that goes along with the origin of that title, energized the audience for the closing tunes and encore. Overall, this is an entertaining show, enhanced by slides of sheet music covers so we know what Lavazzi is singing and other projections, including one of Michigan J. Frog, whom Lavazzi calls his “inspiration.” In fact, he makes his exit in front of Mr. Frog’s picture, top hat at a jaunty angle, working his black cane, and kicking up his heels. One of the most engaging parts of this whole enterprise is what a good time Lavazzi has, and when a performer is enjoying himself, then the audience is sure to follow.

If you hurry, you can still catch one of the last few performances. Tickets are available at the box office just inside the main entrance to the Museum, on line at mohistory.org, or by calling 314-361-9017.

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