A Handful of Nickels and Dimes opened on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Indio Performing Arts Center to a sold-out house of appreciative vaudeville fans.
The attendees were mostly (very lively!) seniors, but this show would provide an education to any age group, as it deconstructs this fascinating segment of theatrical history, and analyzes the reasons for its success and eventual demise. The cast demonstrates the varied elements that created the wonder of vaudeville from the late 1800s through to the start of World War II.
The cast is equally varied. Musician/songstress Yve Evans leads the show, joined by magician Dean Apple, emcee and vocalist Justin Blake, wide-eyed blonde bombshell Cat Lyn Day, comedian Stephen Kauffman, and Jeanette Knight in dazzling assortment of roles from chorus girl to comedienne; similarly, Michael Seneca plays everything from a baggy-pants comic to a bratty schoolboy.
It’s all about timing. Vaudeville, of course, combines everything from the world’s corniest jokes to the split-second mastery of songs, dances, sketches and—most perilous of all—blackouts. In this show, we see samples of it all … and most of it works. The program gives credit to no director, and this might explain some of the less-than-snappy entrances and exits, things a sharp-eyed director would tighten.
The set resembles a rehearsal hall of some sort, with Evans and her piano (AND microphone AND sound system, which the rest of the cast unfortunately lacked) tucked in at stage left. The uneven sound shows up when Evans teams up with Blake on numbers such as “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” The pro that she is, Evans shares her mic.
The rest of the time, we sit back in contented bliss as we admire Evans’ exquisite professionalism on such numbers as “Handyman,” “Second Hand Rose” and “Skylark.” She backphrases as well as anybody—she’s so in control of her music that although we might quietly panic while she toys with the notes, stretching and delaying, she always comes out exactly on the beat, letting us breathe again and smile in delight. Her prowess on the piano is just magnificent, and her vocal range has never been greater. She’s a perfect example of how experience pays off in performance; young singers would do well to take advantage of this opportunity to learn from her. She whisks us through tributes to Bessie Smith, Fanny Brice and the black entertainers of that day—and she flashes some priceless facial expressions when she turns to comedy.
Justin Blake provides the intellectual gravitas of the show, leading us through interesting explanations of how vaudeville managed to collect such variety as Burns and Allen’s wit, the baggy-pants comics’ outrageous silliness, and the specialty acts—and how vaudeville all ties in with burlesque, musical-comedy revues and extravaganzas like the Ziegfeld Follies. He performs parts of Will Rogers’ routines—but not the rope-twirling, alas. He manages to combine the educational portion with his own personal warmth and charm, so it works.
Dean Apple is the bright light of the show. We don’t see him and his magic until Act 2, when he manages to be not only very funny, but fresh and original. In his homage to Houdini, he uses audience participation to keep us on the edge of our seats while he struggles hilariously with his handcuffs. He pulls a rabbit out of a hat. He does card tricks. But what makes him special is his boyish charm and his unique ability to laugh at himself along with the rest of us—most unusual in a magician! Apple is refreshing and delightful.
Cat Lyn Day adds an exotic hint of the burlesque, like those girls who added spice and sex to the mix. Blonde and leggy, she romps through sketches and skits, adding flair and color everywhere.
Stephen Kauffman takes the business of comedy seriously. He appears in a wide variety of roles and seems comfortable in each one, ranging in style from baggy-pants comic to slick comedian with ease.
Jeanette Knight is known for being able to tackle anything, as she does here, playing everything from a star radio comedienne to a school kid. She switches between roles with aplomb—gaining the respect of the audience and, you can bet, of her fellow actors as well.
Her real-life husband, Patrick, is billed here as Michael Seneca, and he handles more roles than anyone—or so it seems, making lightning-fast changes between outrageous costumes and attitudes. Fearless about appearing silly, he is a breath of fresh air.
I wish the show had more blackout sketches. They are discussed, and there are a couple of them, but they are best demonstrated rather than talked about. “Blackouts,” of course, still exist in theater, but not like they were used in vaudeville, which introduced the audience to freeze-dried comedy, performed often in front of a curtain with no help from set changes or costumes or any kind of setup. These are often hugely effective and usually hilarious jabs, often “running gags” which become funnier every time because of the repetition.
While vaudeville faded away, overwhelmed by the innovations of radio and then TV, we should not let it stay forgotten. Shows like this are historically important, whether for reminiscence in those who actually still remember them, or to introduce vaudeville to those who’ve never been exposed to it. A Handful of Nickels and Dimes examines America back in the day, and we’re glad for it.
There’s a warning in the program about the double-entendres that abound through the evening. As Yve Evans says, “It helps if you have a dirty mind.” These double-entendres were part of the genre, but for some, this might be a consideration when deciding to bring other people to IPAC to see this show. But then so are the awful groaner jokes—and nobody seemed to mind them. (Well, we didn’t mind them much. The pain is brief.)
There are many reasons for you to see this show, but most of all, you should see it because you’ll learn something about the amazing world of vaudeville—and you’ll have fun while learning it.
A Handful of Nickels and Dimes is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., Indio. There are no shows March 6-8. Tickets are $26 with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5200, or visit www.indioperformingartscenter.org.