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Vaudeville at the Shedd

Revival of musical Whoopee! is zany good fun
Stephanie Hawkins (left), Jim Ballard, Kaitlyn Sage and Trevor Eichhorn in Whoopee! at the Shedd
Stephanie Hawkins (left), Jim Ballard, Kaitlyn Sage and Trevor Eichhorn in Whoopee! at the Shedd

Set in 1928 Arizona, The Shedd’s revival of Whoopee! is populated by rootin’ tootin’ cowboys, rich tourists and the occasional hypochondriac.

Based on the 1923 play The Nervous Wreck, this goofball musical comedy by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson was made famous by both the Ziegfield Broadway production of 1928 and the 1930 Eddie Cantor film. 

In the vaudeville era, shows like Whoopee! cobbled together already popular tunes with a loose plot, peppering zany narratives with plenty of jazz standards and daffy jokes. And it’s still a winning combination. 

Peg Major directs this solid production, with staging that’s crisp and silly and pacing that plows ahead in fifth gear. 

Musical director Robert Ashens leads a fine 11-piece orchestra. Talented woodwinds, brass, bass and piano play these indelible songs with confidence and verve. Alan Phillips on banjo lends an authenticating twang, and Merlin Showalter charms with wide-ranging sound effects and percussions. 

Anchoring the performance is Trevor Eichhorn as the neurotic Henry Williams. Eichhorn sets the bar high with his singing, dancing and comedic chops. Equally impressive, Kaitlyn Sage as Henry’s nurse, Miss Custer, sings beautifully and brings a likable exasperation to every scene. 

Stephanie Hawkins as Sally Morgan captivates with expressive physicality and perfect comic timing. Hawkins shines in her duet with Jim Ballard, “Out of the Dawn.”

Mark Huisenga’s set, featuring Connie Huston’s cinematic painting, transports. Inventive props — a jalopy! another jalopy! a canoe! — are adorable. Jamie Parker’s costumes are detailed and plentiful, like a postcard from the 1920s come to life. 

Lively choreography by Caitlin Christopher and Jean Nelson brings out the best in this talented ensemble. One to watch is Rafael Batya, who at 13 is one of the strongest movers onstage, holding his own against dancers twice his age. 

The one challenge of the 1928 script is the work with indigenous peoples. Set in and around the pueblos of Arizona, First Nations folks play a vital role. Fair warning: You may wince to hear the term “red man” bandied about, but that was the time. There have apparently been a few tweaks to the original script but, overall, the native peoples here are presented as infinitely more educated and intelligent than any of the European-American interlopers. 

This is not highbrow stuff. It’s the kind of vaudeville-inspired show that sets up a whole transitional scene solely for the dumb punch line. I won’t give any of them away but, believe me, they’re groaners all, and hilarious.

Whoopee! plays 7:30pm Friday and Saturday, Aug. 7-8, and 2pm Sunday, Aug. 9, at The Shedd; $20-$36, tickets at 434-7000 or theshedd.org.