Producers of the abandoned revival of Funny Girl struggled to find a new Fanny Brice, someone with the requisite comedic chops and rafter-shaking voice who could shake the ghost of Streisand. They might have done well to consider Bree Benton, who, in the persona of Poor Baby Bree, evokes the comic pathos of Brice and her contemporaries while putting her own indelible stamp on vaudeville revisited.
Since 2005, Benton has been performing in one-person shows as Poor Baby Bree, with musical director Franklin Bruno at piano—championing lost vaudeville songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Baby Bree, a street-smart waif with stars in her eyes and “not a plug nickel” to her name, provides Benton with the ideal vehicle for her repertoire of vintage comic songs, ballads, and patter. In Benton’s skillful hands, tough-talkin’, sweet-singin’ Baby Bree is part Bette Davis, part Fanny Brice, part Judy Garland with a sprinkling of Olive Oyl—a sassy comedian one minute, a heart-breaking balladeer the next.
Baby Bree’s latest adventure, “I Am Going to Run Away,” is now playing at La MaMa through April 29. In this outing, Baby Bree runs away from home to join the circus—only to find herself lost in the big city, with only her dolls for company. This provides the frame for such forgotten standards as the rousing “Oh! You Circus Day” from 1912—a lively celebration of big-top glamour—to the poignant “Laugh! Clown! Laugh!, ”a 1928 ditty about the tragic life of a circus clown. For the most part, Benton breezily walks the tightrope between funny and sad, as epitomized in her charming interpretation of the 1932 novelty song “The Angel Cake Lady (And the Ginger Bread Man),” replete with a dancing marionette, gingerbread man, and larger-than-life doughnut. In some places, however, she is still finding her comedic feet. Not all the jokes land, particularly in the awkward first 10 minutes. (A crack about a wild bear eating sauerkraut crashed with a thud). Under Bruno’s musical direction, the band provides lively accompaniment, driving the momentum while providing rich period sound. Consulting director David Schweizer has built a solid framework—though sometimes the transitions drag—particularly the long, unnecessarily complicated and literal shift from the “woods” to the city. (The action stops to a halt as two stagehands dismantle trees and put up a garbage pail and crates).
Still, this is charming evening—a celebration of old songs whose cleverness and emotional truth still resonate—and a showcase for prodigious performer. In all, “I Am Going to Run Away” is a delightful introduction to the forgotten songs of a century ago.
Poor Baby Bree in I Am Going to Run Away; LaMaMa Etc. Conceived and performed by Bree Benton; Consulting Director: Michael Schweizer; Musical Direction and Piano: Franklin Bruno; The Club at LaMaMa; 212-475-7710; www.lamama.org, www.poorbabybree.com