Asheville’s got talent far out of proportion to the size of its population. Our lovely town’s got the market in eccentricity pretty much cornered, too. Asheville’s also got a generous heart, and its audiences are warm and indulgent. Put them all together and Asheville’s got Asheville Vaudeville, the latest entry in a burgeoning world of live, variety entertainment.
Produced by Brian Sneeden and Thomas Butler, Asheville Vaudeville has already played two of its four scheduled monthly performances to sold-out houses at the intimate BeBe Theatre. The show was conceived as a benefit “for the hungry, and for hungry artists,” as Sneeden put it in his role as emcee, the tuxedo-clad, top hat-wearing, long-haired, leering, louche Baron von Sneeden. One-third of the ticket price goes to MANNA FoodBank.
The notion here is to attempt to revive, in Sneeden’s words, such endangered arts as “playwrighting, poetry and juggling.” To this end, acts more diverse than on The Ed Sullivan Show are assembled. Though the artistes may repeat from month to month, the material they perform must be fresh, making each enactment unique and unrepeatable.
Any variety show is necessarily a mixed bag, so let’s focus on the best of this month’s offerings:
Tom the Magician, purportedly from Wales and sporting the requisite accent, presented a couple of card tricks—one involving an unusual use of his mouth—and an injury-risking bit with a spike and three Styrofoam cups. The magic was well executed but nowhere near as amusing as Tom’s feisty, innuendo-laced patter, honed on the street, where he usually performs.
40 Fingers & A Missing Tooth — a four-person juggling troupe both gifted and humorous — manipulated clubs in astonishing, teams-in-motion patterns that delighted despite the occasional miss. See them when you can.
In the second half of the evening, Walter Beals, the largest member of 40 Fingers & A Missing Tooth, returned to juggle phosphorescent balls in the dark. The results were mesmerizing, and though this routine also resulted in more drops than one might have wished, the genial juggler and encouraging attendees turned such mishaps into mirth.
The multitalented Mr. Beals also presented Sophie the Wonder Dog, his unbearably cute, tiny dog who charms more with her personality than the tricks he’s taught her so far: rolling over, and jumping through hoops. (Tip to the estimable Mr. Beals: don’t upstage the dog. We’d like to see her face.)
Bretian, The Hungarian Accordionist, played what he proclaimed a Czech folk tune nicely, and a surprise act — The Carolina Music Band, an acoustic trio also featuring an accordion, as well as a violinist and a guitar-playing vocalist — played through the 20-minute intermission and were then invited onto the bill. They acquitted themselves admirably with music rooted in the Eastern European gypsy tradition, rather than the mountain music their name might imply.
Strings Attached is a rangy, red-haired, accomplished puppeteer, who presented four marionettes in sequence, including a cross between a man and a hare (who attracted an inadvertently frightened Sophie), a long-legged dancer and a rat who suffers from gastrointestinal distress (and who died after eating processed, albeit imaginary, cheese). Like Tom the Magician, Strings Attached seems to have honed his routines on the street, as all of his clever efforts involved interaction with the audience.
The long-running, brassy and politically incorrect drag artist, Cookie LaRue, brought the first act to a rousing, comic conclusion with an improbable prayer for love; one has rarely, if ever, heard the word “baby” brayed, repeatedly, in such a way. Cookie also made the best of a wardrobe malfunction: her breasts, hanging low and askew from the get-go, slipped, at the end, from the horizontal to the vertical, prompting Cookie to declare she’d use a better surgeon next time. (Hint for Cookie: as you doubtless know, the secret is birdseed.)
Less successful were Vendetta Crème, a would-be chanteuse with a narrow range, a broad vibrato, and questionable skills on the guitar and drums; The Amazing Britta Filter, an attractive young woman whose burlesque routine with a hula hoop was more athletic than erotic; the often wonderful Jim Julien, whose rendition of someone else’s poem concerning finches fell flat; and the comedic sketch by Thomas Butler, “Quit Your Day Job,” about a gay man seeking psychiatric advice from the otherwise unemployed, which was rendered as amusingly as possible by a mostly unnamed cast. Baron von Sneeden, himself, was a mixed bag: though his improvised intros and encouragements were tart and comical to the appropriate degree, his assumed persona was world weary, and his exaggeratedly measured entrance and exit between each act slowed down the proceedings to no positive effect.
In fact, length was the evening’s downfall. What would have been original and delightful at an hour, and mighty fine at an intermissionless hour twenty, verged on the intolerable at two hours forty-five minutes. Even without the interpolated Carolina Music Band, the night would have run roughly two hours twenty minutes, which would have been much too much of a good thing, even had all things been good.
But this, also, must be said: the Asheville Vaudeville audience left happy, and next month’s bill will be different. Here’s hoping the management concentrates on the best of Asheville, and learns to rein itself in.
Asheville Vaudeville, produced by Brian Sneeden and Thomas Butler. With Vendetta Crème, Tom the Magician, 40 Fingers and A Missing Tooth, The Amazing Britta Filter, Bretian the Hungarian Accordionist, Cookie LaRue, Strings Attached, Walter Beals, Sophie the Wonder Dog, Jim Julien and the Carolina Music Band. Shows the first Thursday of the month at the BeBe Theatre. Next performances are January 7 at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.