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Multitasking on stage

Stage Struck, at the Society Hill Playhouse, is a light-hearted look at what vaudeville was, portrayed by R.J. Lewis, a true jack-of-all-trades.

Vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in North America from 1875-1932, and now it’s a word you rarely hear and that most people know very little about. Before the invention of radio, movies and television, most theaters around the country presented vaudeville shows.

Vaudevillians were skilled in comedy, juggling, magic, clowning, acrobatics, singing, mime, music and dancing. The reasonably priced, fun-filled ticket attracted equally diverse audiences.

Women found their highest-paying jobs on the vaudeville stage, often making 100 times more than what they’d earn in the sweatshop job market of the late 1800s. Vaudeville also was the first popular entertainment in America to have an African-American celebrity, Bert Williams. He was loved and admired by all races as a comical genius.

Radio and talking movies spelled the end of vaudeville. The last of the big-time vaudeville houses, the New York Palace, closed its doors in 1932 and ended an exciting era of American theater that soon would be forgotten.

Lewis, a former street performer, worked in Atlantic City casinos as a magician, juggler and stilt-walker. Stage Struck, he writes in the show program, is a culmination of his dream to bring "these unique skills to a theatrical format."

The action takes place in an abandoned vaudeville theater that is to be torn down the next day. Simon is a guard assigned to look after the theater for the night before its demolition.

Things go smoothly until Simon hears a noise that turns out to be a ventriloquist’s dummy named Wilson, who is locked in a trunk and wishes to get out. Simon and Wilson hit it off and begin to do Wilson’s old vaudeville act, trading shtick insults in a quick-tongued repartee.

Simon is so caught up in the show-biz thing that he agrees to do other vaudeville acts with the assistance of the spirits of bygone performers. Assuming different personas for each act, the guard becomes a ventriloquist, stilt-walker, an opera singer, a plate spinner, magician, dancer, juggler and numerous quick-change parts in a melodrama. It is something you have probably seen before, but it is all done very well.

Lewis is a competent ventriloquist who does a great job of bringing Wilson, his wooden sidekick, to life. However, the dialogue could be better. The dozen freshly written songs fail to give the show any special kick, and they don’t get much help from Lewis — singing being the least of his talents.

His bit-part helper, Christina Racek, is miscast for her role, minuscule as it is. The prerecorded music piped through the playhouse’s poor-quality sound system is another drawback.

The show had an innocuous effect on me. It struck me as worthwhile family entertainment. From the opening act, the show does grow on you and Lewis earns his applause the hard way — one vaudeville act after another.

Lewis tries hard to please and does well working the audience with his card and coin tricks. But when all is said and done, you’ve seen it all before, and probably with a little more excitement.

Stage Struck
Society Hill Playhouse
Through Sept. 8
507 S. Eighth St.
Tickets $15-$30
215-923-0210

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