Playwright Ralph Allen is a highly educated man. So it may seem ironic then that he has spent a large part of his life honoring distinctly low-brow forms of theater: vaudeville and burlesque.
"It's a contradiction that continues to bewilder some of my friends," says Allen, who is also a revered theater historian, skilled translator, and respected teacher with a doctorate from Yale. "I've just always loved low comedy."
Allen's passion has proved to be a fruitful one. He created the show "Sugar Babies," which opened on Broadway in 1979 and ran there for 7 1/2 years. Credited with reviving the career of Mickey Rooney, this vaudeville revue has played nearly continuously since in regional and international productions.
Now Allen is preparing another dose of old-time comic hijinks with his new play, "Scandals," which will have its world premiere at TheatreVirginia this November. And another familiar name will headline this show: Dick Van Patten, best-known as the dad on the popular TV show "Eight is Enough."
"Scandals," jokingly referred to by production insiders as "son of 'Sugar Babies,'" returns us once again to the sketches of the burlesque era. "There is a similarity, it is the same sort of show [as 'Sugar Babies.'], Allen says, "but I think it's better, funnier, and there is some high-energy dancing."
Allen has enlisted the help of legendary choreographer Danny Daniels (Broadway's "The Tap Dance Kid" and the film "Pennies From Heaven") to put together the dancing; Daniels will also direct the Richmond show.
So why has Allen chosen our sleepy Southern burg to open a highly anticipated new play that seems destined for the Great White Way? Credit George Black, TVa's artistic director, who invited Allen to deliver a lecture on the history of vaudeville and burlesque as part of the opening of TVa's production of "Gypsy" two years ago.
"[TheatreVirginia] did an impressive job with 'Gypsy,'" Allen says. "It's really a first-class operation. The design shop and the people who work there are really good. And George is a terrific guy."
"Sugar Babies" was also well-received in two previous tours in Virginia so, when Allen's New York producer asked where he wanted to test his new show, the playwright suggested TheatreVirginia.
When asked about the prospect of premiering such a high-profile show, Black admits that, "It's a little scary. It's enormously complicated, and there are many competing interests at work." Black's trepidation may be attributed in part to TVa's last world premiere, 1992's "Scaramuche," which he describes as "not a rousing success. It was a fine effort, but it just didn't come together."
Black believes having Van Patten as the lead actor will help draw people to the show. "A star of his caliber will add even greater appeal to the extraordinary talent coming to Richmond for this world premiere," he says. He is doing everything he can to ensure success with "Scandals," including scheduling "The Sunshine Boys" as the opening play of TVa's season to get people in a vaudeville state of mind.
"'The Sunshine Boys' is a bridge between the contemporary world and the world of 'Scandals,'" Black explains. "The doctor's sketch in 'Sunshine Boys' could have been in a show like 'Scandals.'
"The challenge is trying to communicate how this kind of [burlesque] show worked," Black continues. "There are some examples from television: Rowan & Martin's 'Laugh-In,' 'Saturday Night Live,' 'The Carol Burnett Show.' There's no plot, a lot of quick sketches."
But Allen finds distinct contrasts between "Scandals" and the comedy of today. "Burlesque comedy is unsentimental," he says. "It's tough-minded without being mean or cynical. Sitcoms today are sentimental. Black comedies and absurdist comedies like Ionesco are mean. In vaudeville shows you have characters trying to get into trouble, but you root for them anyway because they are charming scamps."
Allen also notes the similarity of "Saturday Night Live" to vaudeville, with a couple of important differences. "[On SNL], the comedy is hip and topical," he says. "Burlesque is about the things that are timeless: money, sex, greed. Also, they can start out with a great premise [on SNL], but there is no finish. It's easy to come up with a good premise, but the best joke has to be at the end."
The title of "Scandals" comes from a generic term used for burlesque shows early in the century. But if those shows were scandalous, it was by a standard unfathomable today. "In the early days, you could get fired for saying 'hell' or 'damn,'" Allen explains. "Burlesque had nothing to do with striptease dancers, it was all about the comedians. Burlesque didn't get dirty until the '30s." Only when faced with fierce competition from radio and movies did burlesque resort to being racy.
Comedy is certainly the focus for director Daniels. "So many shows these days have such serious themes; I end up being bored," he laments. "This show will be one where the audience comes in and spends the whole show
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