I Am Going to Run Away
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
April 15, 2012
Poor Baby Bree's vaudeville presentation I Am Going To Run Away is a show I wished would never end. Young and sprightly enough to recall a 1920s starlet, and endowed with an unstoppable voice, Bree Benton made me feel connected to the songs which my grandparents were too young to hear.
Vaudeville was and is a typically American form of entertainment that first thrived from about 1871 to 1930. Some say that the name is derived from the French "Vau de Vire," a valley in Normandy where song contests were held. Others say that the classy name "vaudeville" was applied to touring shows of rowdy, popular entertainment in America so that middle-class, mixed-gender, alcohol-free audiences would feel comfortable attending. This performance takes up a bunch of fascinating songs, composed between 1896 and 1946, from these variety shows.
Poor Baby Bree has selected a mere fifteen amazing songs from this art form. Many do have to do with the circus and running away from home, but the words are indeed polite. For example, the raciest lyrics from this show:
ON CIRCUS DAY, JUST SEE THAT MULE DRESSED UP IN PANTS
SEE SALOME DO THE HOOTCHIE DANCE
Kudos to Poor Baby Bree for molding these songs into a story that shows a woman succeeding, if barely, to retain her dignity on her own in a big city. My stereotypical impression of vaudeville is that women are sad, fainting victims who need men to rescue them. Whatever the reality/lies of the golden age of vaudeville (where, incidentally, racial segregation also prevailed) Poor Baby Bree asserts her strength, happily dancing around and striking tough poses. There is also a dose of humorous songs like "Oh, How I Love to Dunk Doughnuts!"
Some of these selections have historical footnotes in the program. For example, screen star Lon Chaney arranged for “Laugh! Clown! Laugh!” to be played at his funeral, while Mae Questel, the cartoon voice of Olive Oyl, famously recorded “I've Got a Pain in My Sawdust.” Some of these songs, such as “Just Like a Butterfly That's Caught in the Rain” were given the virtuoso jazz treatment by pianist Art Tatum.
Another striking thing about these songs is the universal longing for happiness and hope. Vaudeville was displaced by film at the start of the Great Depression, but you wouldn’t know it from the down-and-out mood of some of these numbers. This makes Poor Baby Bree’s persevering, triumphant vocals that much more impressive.
Keep in mind that she is singing over a band made up of Franklin Bruno (piano), Jacob Garchik (tuba/trombone) and Karen Waituch (viola). As in an early ragtime recording, the singer’s voice must rise above the high-quality syncopated noise. This succeeds, and yes, the tuba as rhythm section can get loud.
Director David Schweizer has cleverly put together the most recognizable features of the age, from melodrama to dolls who are a girl's best friend, and placed them in an all-purpose set: a tree with an owl who would rather sleep than listen to our heroine's pleas. Ramona Ponce's costumes contrast the innocent girl of the beginning of the show with the street urchin she later becomes. There is also some wonderful lighting from Sara Rae Murphy, which includes a shadow play.