Since an early age, I've been a neophile: a follower of the latest trends in technology and an early adopter of bleeding-edge toys. On the other hand, I'm fascinated with the decades before my birth, from vintage movie musicals to midcentury modern furniture. Until recently, I kept these opposing interests in balance, but two shows last weekend shoved me over the edge. My unabashed adoration of these theatrical throwbacks can only mean one thing: I've officially turned into a little old lady.
The Amazing Acro-Cats at the Venue
It's a shame that vaudeville and Ed Sullivan are long dead, because Samantha Martin's troupe of trained housecats would have been mega-stars in an earlier era. Instead, she and her purrformers (the pussy puns get worse from here) roam the continent in a kitty-faced RV, bringing the magic of catrobatics to the country one town at a time. It's all romantically old-fashioned, aside from the fact that these kitties have their own Twitter accounts. Ironically, the Acro-Cats arrived for their first-ever Orlando appearance during the same week that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey announced they were phasing out their performing elephants. Perhaps Ringling should recruit Martin's crew as their new animal headliners, because they certainly put on the Meowest Show on Earth.
Cat owners are probably scoffing at the suggestion of training felines to do anything other than sleep, but Martin's clicker-and-treat-based positive reinforcement method (which gets a hard-sell infomercial unfortunately early in the show) yields remarkable results. Not to say the cats obey all (or most) of Martin's commands on the first (or third) try, but that's no slight against her techniques; the cats in Universal's Animal Actors show and SeaWorld's Pets Ahoy can be equally uncooperative. The fact that Martin can convince them to do anything at all on cue – much less climb ropes, balance on balls and leap Guinness Record-setting distances, as her cats do – is astounding. And when they won't stick to the script, the show gets even better, turning into interactive theater as soon as an "actor" decides to explore the audience.
This isn't the show for anyone allergic to cat dander, kindergarten-level goofy humor, glitter-tastic homemade props or occasionally awkward pacing. The heavily hyped Rock Cats, advertised as "the only cat band in existence," didn't play until the finale, and required extensive coaxing before "playing" their instruments, with only the token chicken (named Cluck Norris, natch) displaying a sense of rhythm; their eventual atonal improvisations resembled "Jazz Odyssey" from This Is Spinal Tap. But I dare anyone with even a hint of "cat lady" to see this show without smiling like a Cheshire. Just be warned: You may feel compelled to take the adoptable orange tabbies in the lobby – both rescues, like most of the performers – home with you.
A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine
If you like your musical theater light and bubbly, with no existential aftertaste, there's no better venue for froth than the Winter Park Playhouse, which has advanced the expansion of its cozy lobby since my last visit (next step: raise money to install sprinklers and knock down a wall). Inside, their intimate main stage is overflowing with Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus' Tony-winning "double feature," which pairs two one-act comedies that pay tribute to the golden age of silly cinema. A Day in Hollywood is a nostalgic revue of 1930s-era movie musical showstoppers, with special emphasis on the songs of Richard A. Whiting ("On the Good Ship Lollipop," "Ain't We Got Fun"). Act Two re-creates the classic Marx Brothers farce A Night in the Ukraine (itself loosely adapted from Chekov's The Bear), bringing Groucho, Chico and Harpo back to life for an absurd plot involving a Russian lawyer pursuing a widow's riches.
This harmlessly charming diversion isn't exactly high art, but in the hands of director Michael Edwards and choreographer and star Roy Alan, it is irresistibly entertaining. Full use is made of the limited facilities, with set designer Catherine Colangelo's wall of rotating doors and elevated platform exposing only legs supporting some toe-tappingly smart staging. The core cast – including Jill Vanderoef and Zach Nadolski as the ingenues and Lourelene Snedeker as the operatic grande dame – are all polished performers, and are ably backed by musical director Chris Leavy's tight trio (with assistance from actor Bert Rodriguez on piano).
But it's Alan's embodiment of Groucho – a role he's perfected over years of impersonation – that makes this show such a treat. Shattering the fourth wall with a waggle of his painted-on eyebrows, Alan's comedic performance (aided and abetted by Rodriguez as Chico and BambiEllen Fadoul, a cross-dressing honking hoot as horn-happy Harpo) made my evening at Winter Park Playhouse comfier than curling up under an afghan with Turner Classic Movies. Now, where did my cat go?