Laurence Carr's "Vaudeville", rings with passion and compassion in the Willow's Cabaret Theater in Martinez!

The boarding house cast pleads with Landlady Kit Turner (Sally Hogarty) for her permission to add her daughter's neophyte singing talent to the opening number in the Willows Theatre production of "Vaudeville" !
Photo by Judy Potter

The Willow’s Campbell Cabaret Theater at 636 Ward Street in downtown Martinez is currently playing a delightful and engaging production about a day in the life and times of “on stage” theater performers in Laurence Carr’s delightful comic and poignant musical entitled simply, “Vaudeville”. This theater is the perfect venue because, as live theater evolved, variety shows” were born in concert saloons, cabaret theaters and variety halls. Gradually they moved into more sophisticated and less provocative, less alcohol serving venues. As time passed and audiences became more educated towards live theatre, the entertainment business became more family oriented and gravitated towards a more “genteel” theatrical environment. The Willow’s Cabaret Theater is a wonderful cross between modern theatre venues with a legitimate stage, full stage lighting and stepped seating, but complete with little cabaret tables and independent chairs. The theatre even offers a minor selection of food and drinks so that you can sip or munch while you soak up the theatrical offering for the evening. Carr’s “Vaudeville” takes you back to a time in the early 1900’s, just after the ending of World War I, when jobs were scarce, money was tight, and the “talkies” were in tight competition with live theater for America’s entertainment expenditures. In many respects, the scenario is very similar to our own times, finding us emerging from a decade of war, tight finances across the country and mega-movies in heavy competition with live theater! Regardless of the time, the constant, evident by this wonderful production, is the “heart of the performers” who win out over their ingrained competitive nature.

On the vaudeville circuit of live performance theaters, it was said that if an act was good enough to succeed in Peoria, Illinois, it would succeed anywhere. The question, "Will it play in Peoria?", has now become a metaphor for whether something appeals to the American mainstream public. The three most common levels of theatrical accreditation were the “small time” theaters (lower-paying contracts for more frequent performances in rougher, often converted theatres), the “medium time” theaters (moderate wages for two performances each day in purpose-built theatres), and the “big time” theaters (where possible remuneration levels of several thousand dollars per week were common in large, urban theatres, largely patronized by the middle and upper-middle classes). As performers rose in prominence and established regional and national followings, they worked their way into the less arduous working conditions and better pay of the big time. The capitol of the big time was New York City's “Palace Theatre”.

In this particular production, nine seasoned vaudeville performers are stuck in Philadelphia in Kit Turner’s Boarding house. It is in this boarding house that the play with music, “Vaudeville”, unfolds, introducing us to its short term theatrical entrepreneurs. They return to the boarding house following their afternoon show to share dinner with the other performers prior to their return to the theater for their evening’s live performance. At once, it becomes obvious that each of these performers are diversified, each uniquely different from the other, and are highly competitive, while at the same time supportive of each other’s craft and talent, as long as the other guy doesn’t steal their theatrical thunder. With acts that range from animal acts, acrobatics, singing, dancing, and comedy, we get a chance to examine a little of their theatrical wares as they rehearse impromptu in the boarding house parlor before they leave for the theater.

This particular group of vaudevillian entertainers’ world is generally the small to medium theatrical venues where their rugged performance schedules consist of split weeks and two or more shows a day, and a new venue practically every week in the somewhat less than well-known theaters. They keep their hopes alive for finding greater recognition and eventually locating a sweet spot theatre and the pathway to “The Big Time” theatrical circuit. Hopefully they will finally find their way to theatrical nirvana, a theater in New York City called “The Palace”.

The show people residing in this boardinghouse at this time include the entertainment team of Benny Cohen (Morgan MacKay) and Frankie Cobb (Johnni Lew); Mack Maxwell (Tom Leone) and his wonder dog, Maxie; Mademoiselle Yvette (Donna Turner) "Vaudeville's (Faux-French) Sweetheart"); Jackson Washington (Trevor Moppin); Billy Wiggins, a British war hero and entertainer extraordinaire; Paul Clayton (Michael Barrett Austin) the other half of the Cook and Clayton (Andrea Snow) duo, a song and dance team, and culminating with “The angry Mick” (Tiny), Tim O’Reilly, a salty and sarcastic Irish comedian. They represent a cross-section of this later generation of hoofers, comics and "novelty acts" who kept America entertained while Vaudeville was still king prior to being overtaken by the talking picture era.

Landlady Kit Turner (Sally Hogarty) and her daughter Kitty (Erika March) are in the midst of preparing the evening meal when they discover that one of their longer boarding house residents, Mack Maxwell, has come back to the boarding house and gone straight to his room, following the on-stage collapse of his longtime performing partner, Maxie, the wonder dog. Mack and Maxie have been the opening act of the local theater’s shows for a long time and with the looming crisis of not knowing who will open the show, suddenly thrust upon this passel of performers preparing to “hit the boards” in just a couple of hours, severe panic is setting in. Nobody wants to be the opening act, because the opening act cannot afford to flop while warming the audience up to the evening’s broad spectrum of performers. As with any tightly knit group of people whose world is a bit shaky anyway, the stress brings out the good, the bad, and the really ugly.

Vaudeville is a great show, with a great cast and a heartwarming message. I strongly recommend it. The acting is really quite excellent with long time local favorites, Sally Hogarty and Morgan Mackay, leading the way. The set, designed by Jan Zimmerman, is really quite amazing. Costumes, wigs, makeup, lighting and even the sound, all work very well.

This production plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., now through March 31st. Call (925) 798-1300 or visit their website at for more information. Tickets range between $25 and $30 each. Tickets for seniors are a very reasonable $25 each. Great acting, great voices, great fun - - don’t miss this opportunity to journey back to the wonderful world of “Vaudeville” in the fun-filled Willows Theater!