Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Two and Only - A Review

Once again I went to show at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center expecting one thing and getting something else completely. And what I got was definitely much better than what I was anticipating.

What I was expecting was more of a stand-up comic style of performance. Jay Johnson’s The Two and Only, however, is much more than that. It’s a Tony-award-winning show that Johnson is currently taking on tour across America. He and his “family” came to Appleton through the Boldt Arts Alive! Series and performed in the Kimberly-Clark Theater.

As usual, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house, and the smaller theater provided for a more intimate performance. It kinda made me feel like I was hanging out at Jay’s house… that the show was just happenstance, not something planned out. The show itself helped create that atmosphere as well. Johnson worked successfully to create an off-the-cuff, casual feel.

This show wasn’t a ventriloquist standing in the middle of the stage doing standup ala Jeff Dunham and Peanut (though they’re funny and entertaining in their own right). This show was so much more. The Two and Only is about the art of ventriloquism and its history, Jay Johnson and how he got started, the puppets and their history, and of course, making people laugh.

Throughout the performance, Johnson deftly maneuvers between giving history lessons on ventriloquism, to his personal life and his love for performing, to doing comedy routines with his “dummies.” Sometimes poignant and sad, other times laugh out loud funny, Johnson keeps the show moving with a delicate balance and seamless transitions.

As much as I enjoyed the history lesson (very compelling, really) and as interesting as his life stories were (Seriously? 917 shows in one summer at the age of 17??? That’s just crazy.), where Johnson excels is, of course, with his ventriloquism and the characters he creates. In this 95 minute show, Johnson brings out ten different characters:
  • Amigo, the Snake
  • Long John LaFeat, the disembodied head
  • Spaulding, the tennis ball with eyes
  • Nethernore, the vulture (or “Bird of Death!” as Nethernore reminds the audience repeatedly, though he doesn’t hunt or kill… he waits)
  • Jackie and Gaga, the imaginary friends on the telephone
  • Squeaky, Jay’s first “real” ventriloquist dummy
  • Bob, the dummy from Jay’s time on the sitcom “Soap”
  • Arthur Drew, the dry-erase board
  • Darwin the Jazz monkey (he’s a MONKEY! He tells MONKEY JOKES!)
Each has his/her own look, personality, and voice. And that Johnson can keep them all straight is quite impressive. Plus, three of them actually sing: Nethernore about waiting for people to die so he can eat, in a takeoff of “My Way”; Arthur Drew with “I Ain’t Got Nobody (he’s just a head), and a “very sad song” by Darwin the Jazz Monkey in his native tongue (lots of “Ooo-Ooo’s and Ah-Ah’s and other monkey noises… cuz he’s a MONKEY!).

The whole show was enjoyable, but my favorites were Darwin, Arthur, and Spaulding. Darwin because he was loud and obnoxious, and it was with his character where Johnson really seems to come alive and interacts with the audience. He’s also the character that is most animated. His habit of reminding people he’s a MONKEY! and that he does MONKEY JOKES! kept me chuckling. Arthur was cool because he’s essentially just a head and he sings “I Ain’t Got Nobody” (I never said my sense of humor was anything remotely close to high-brow). And Spaulding because there’s just something inherently funny about a tennis ball with eyes and a sad mouth… that talks.

The only negative I can bring up is that occasionally the voices of the characters seemed rushed, almost slurred together and a bit difficult to understand. This only happened a few times, and it was when the dialogue was moving very quickly. Nothing that took away from the performance really, but it did make me turn to my wife and whisper, “What did he say?” Had I not been asked to write a review of the show, I probably would have never even noticed those brief moments, much less given them a second thought.

Overall, the The Two and Only was an excellent show. It was fun and informative. If given the opportunity, I would definitely see it again. As with many comic performances, so many jokes happen so fast, you have a tendency to forget exactly what you were laughing at or why. But that’s not a bad thing. That just means there was a lot of material, and it was good.

The show made me laugh, it taught me about a subject I really knew nothing about, and it made me think back to the days when I was a kid and imagination, rather than technology, governed a child’s playtime. Nice work Jay.

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