‘Mélange’: vaudeville with a modern twist
October 3, 2005
Kent Reed laughs when asked if he has actually seen a vaudeville show. “I’m not that old,” said Reed, who is in his early 60s.But Reed, a veteran stage director and actor, has seen enough film to know what vaudeville is, and what it is not. And he has gotten enough of a taste for the old theater format to have developed a long-lasting interest.
When “Mélange” hits the Wheeler Opera House stage Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14-15, Aspen audiences will get a sense of vaudeville, and something distinctly removed from vaudeville. Most notable in its absence will be the master of ceremonies, an icon of vaudeville. And there will be a definite Latin twist, something probably not present during vaudeville’s heyday in the early 20th century.Standing in for the master of ceremonies will be a feint narrative thread that relies more on lights and sound than on the acts themselves. “There’s no emcee, no one introducing the acts,” said Reed, who is presenting “Mélange” through his Hudson Reed Ensemble, in association with Aspen Stage. “The acts just evolve, one from the other. And because there’s no emcee, to have each performance meld into the other, a great deal depends on the sound and light. Loren and Gordon Wilder, who do the lights and sound, then, are like performers themselves. They’re a very important part of the show.”What the Wilders’ light and sound connect are standard components of vaudeville, which is to say, almost the entire range of stage entertainment. There are dancers and singers, ventriloquists and comedians. There are touches of the exotic, the unusual and the downright odd: Heather Morrow’s indoor kite-flying, Susan Nicholson’s abstract interpretation of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and John Goss’ pun-filled poetry recitation revolving around the theme of the sea.To Reed, director and producer of the show, what makes “Mélange” akin to vaudeville is not only the variety, but the quality of the acts. “Vaudeville presented the best entertainment they could get at the time, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” said Reed. “It’s a very professional level. It’s not amateur hour. It’s definitely not ‘The Gong Show.’ That’s not what we’re doing.”Reed has been thinking of putting together a vaudeville-style show at least since 1983, when he founded Theatre Under the Jerome (which became Aspen Theatre in the Park and, now, Theatre Aspen). Theatre Under the Jerome consumed his time back then, but even in his days in Chicago, through much of the ’90s, Vaudeville remained on his mind. When he finally returned to Aspen, in the summer of 2004, Reed saw, in the century-old Wheeler Opera House, the ultimate stage for his project. “It seemed the right time to see this finally manifest,” he said.
From his backstage perspective, Reed is finding “Mélange” a different sort of endeavor than a narrative drama like Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which he directed at the Black Box Theatre last spring. “Doing theater, you come together three or four nights a week, you become an ensemble, and you bind to the director’s vision,” he said. “With this, there are over 30 performers involved, all rehearsing their particular acts by themselves. Saturday before the show is the first time we get people together, have the acts see one another and start coalescing.”When “Mélange” – which is subtitled “a New Vaudeville Revue” – was launched two months ago, Reed had not a single act in mind to serve as a foundation. Instead, he had faith in the concept and a belief that the talent would surface. Through word-of-mouth, it did. Jimmy Yeager, owner of Jimmy’s Restaurant, signed on to do not one, but two tango dances, with two separate partners. Youth is represented in the brother-sister singing act Talitha & Obadiah Jones. There is a Mexican singer, a ventriloquist, a waltz and more – 16 acts in all.While Reed mines a stage format that is perhaps 120 years old, he is guided by an entertainment philosophy that is even more ancient.”I’ve tried to make every act so that, when it ends, people want more of it,” said Reed, who hopes to make “Mélange” an annual event. “Some of them are only two minutes. The Charleston is only one-and-a-half minutes, because the woman, Rickie Newman, would pass out if she went any longer.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com