Bree Benton, alias Poor Baby Bree, is a one-woman vaudeville revival machine, and I for one am glad it’s in good working order. Her latest show features her for a solid hour, accompanied only by a few props and dolls and three ace musicians, sewing together a batch of more-or-less unrelated vaudeville-era songs into a charming, funny, sometimes emotionally raw musical narrative that shines a welcome glow on 15 delightful and sometimes delightfully silly old songs.
The character of Poor Baby Bree begins as a little girl sent to her room without any supper and longing to join the circus. Vaudeville’s palette included songs written for child impersonators, such as “Ain’t It the Limit?” from 1921, which give Benton ample opportunity to portray a young girl. The song that gives this show its title is even older, published in a sheet music magazine way back in 1896, and it’s the focal point of the first half of the narrative, in which Bree resolves to leave her unhappy home and strike out for the great big world. “Yeah, I am going to run away,” she sulks after singing the number. “With the circus! Just as soon as I catch up with them…” “My Little Doll” (1917) and “The Sneak” (which I heard as “The Snake” but it seems to work either way) with words and music by Nacio Herb Brown (composer of “Singin’ in the Rain”) are more charmers from the early part of the show.
Mugging in an overdone accent that wobbles between Tough New York Broad and Southern Belle and suggests the kind of blowsy speech you can hear in old Hollywood movies, she morphs into hardbitten city-streets scrounger, and even vamp, but always retains the innocent rosy-cheeked Poor Baby Bree sheen established at the top. Benton has mastered the focused vaudeville vibrato and the mincing overacting associated with that milieu, and thus her carefully staged show retains a loose, winking feel. With her, every note and step of the way, is a small but superb band. Musical director Franklin Bruno on piano, Karen Waltuch on viola, and Jacob Garchik on trombone and tuba aren’t just good musicians, they turn their instruments into character-drivers too, with perfectly placed swoops and wails and thumps and ritardandos illustrating the action, along with straight-ahead musicianship.
Highlights from the show’s closing section, in which (sort of) grown-up Bree makes comedy and tragedy with her dolls, include “Laugh! Clown! Laugh!” (1928) and the aching “Just Like a Butterfly That’s Caught in the Rain” (1927). But while a few individual numbers may stand out, it’s the cleverness and sweetness of the whole narrative, the effective evocation of a long-gone era of entertainment, and Benton’s tidy, winning performance that land this show on the winners’ toy shelf.
Poor Baby Bree in I Am Going to Run Away runs at La Mama weekends through April 29.