Vaudeville, that old-time brew of slapstick humor and outlandish stunts, is making quite a comeback in Vermont.
Vermont Vaudeville, a troupe based in Hardwick will be juggling, joking, singing and dancing this weekend in a restored theater beside the railroad tracks that used to host traveling vaudeville shows at the turn of the century.
These youngish Vermonters — a few alumni of Glover’s Bread and Puppet Theater, others with Circus Smirkus credentials — have been rehearsing with their live combo.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Vermont Vaudeville,” Leo Lander yells to a drumroll, followed by a honky-tonk piano. He's one of the founders of Vermont Vaudeville, and he's practicing his opening shtick in front of a painted backdrop onstage in Hardwick House.
Looking on is Lander's partner, another trouper, Rose Friedman. She and her friends teamed up about five years ago to give Vermonters high quality, professional live entertainment suitable for all ages.
“I feel like we are bringing that to our neighbors and our friends and it also allows us — we are all professional performing artists of all backgrounds ... to do the work we love to do right in our one neighborhood,” Friedman says, cradling her baby. For both players and the audience, Vermont Vaudeville is a family affair.
It’s also full of surprises. The music Friedman and Lander make together on stage is not something you hear every day.
“I would like to play for you on this bicycle pump,” he says with a straight face. “This is a song called 'I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.'”
He squeaks out the tune, right on key, stretching out the highest notes for laughs.
Whether Lander is really playing the pump or if the tune is actually coming from his cleverly cupped hands is a well-kept secret.
But there’s plenty of talk in this show about other subjects. Maya and Brent McCoy like to take gentle jabs at neighbors with their country bumpkin act. They play a couple who seem pretty rooted in Northeast Kingdom soil, and yet...
“I have been into an IKEA,” Brent admits, in his thick rural twang. “It’s the truth, I couldn’t believe it either, but turns out they have wicked nice candle holders.”
“Number two," Maya adds, “we did live in Chittenden County for six months."
“Yeah,” Brent chimes in. “That was really difficult times but as soon as we got back across Route 100 things were right as rain.”
A line sure to garner applause in Hardwick.
The theme for this show, says Maya McCoy, is “auto-pilot.”
So instead of using canned music to accompany and link the vaudeville acts, a live band fills the hall, with Geoff Goodhue on drums and Otto Muller on piano.
The costumes are also attention-getters. For example, Leo Lander proudly says he had his emcee suit custom-made in New York City.
“It’s purple! It’s three pieces, I've got a purple tie and it nearly glows in the dark, wouldn’t you say?” he yells.
And that silly suit isn’t the only big city import. Vermont Vaudeville’s newest show includes three guest stars: a world famous juggler, a comic percussionist and a slapstick comedienne.
There is also a food truck on-site, though it’s not what you would have found in old-time vaudeville a century ago. In the foodie town of Hardwick, the vendor sells ramen noodles.
Vermont Vaudeville’s fall show opens on Friday, Oct. 16 and runs through Oct. 17. Tickets are available for Friday at 8p.m and Saturday, Oct. 17 at 2 p.m. Saturday's 8 p.m. performance has sold out.