Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was born in 1869 in Chicago, the son of a German immigrant. Even as a young child, he showed a keen wit, creative promise and a knack for promotions; as a kid he sold his peers tickets to see “invisible fish” which as it turned out, was simply a bowl of water. Therefore it was no surprise young Ziegfeld would grow up to be a driving force of the vaudeville era. His famous Ziegfeld Follies was a mishmash of singing, dancing, and the bawdy, purposely groan-inducing humor that became synonymous with the vaudeville art form itself.
In 2002, the Hastings Street Ballroom hosted Zabaugh’s Follies, a mix of vaudeville variety presented in the form of play. Now, the series returns once again with a new show, Zabaugh’s Melodies ’04: For the Love of Zabaugh.
Zabaugh is a curmudgeonly nightclub owner, who verbally berates his singers and dancers (lovingly, of course) while he mills about in a bathrobe with a cognac in hand. His primary concern is finding funding for his latest show, which features a new starlet with a voice of gold, Grace. But troubles arise when the show’s leading man, Freddy, gets the googly-eyes for Gracie, but can’t quite figure out how to express his feelings to her. Matters are further complicated by a jealous, plotting prima donna, Jasmine, and the new musical director, Pete Pedro, who turns out to be a drunk. Wires cross, confusion ensues, and love triangles wreak a comedic havoc on the cast.
The flow of the show is narrated by the snappy pairing of Jonathan Navarre Schneider and Julie Yurconis, who have a great chemistry as they playfully insult each while competing for the spotlight. Matthew S. Gannaway is absolutely charming as the lovestruck sap Freddie, so adorable you simply want to pinch him. Joel Mitchell and Steve Sabaugh are also outstanding as Zabaugh and the lush of a music director, respectively. (Sabaugh also co-wrote the script — hence the twist on his name — with director Conor Draves). With a voice absolutely dripping with sarcasm and condescension, Christy Bonstell plays a fantastic bitch, as the conniving Jasmine, who thinks she should be the star of the show instead of Grace. The bouncy, perky, petite Ruth Crachiola and the lithe, elegant Elise Simon play delightful chorus girls, whose primary concern is figuring out who will sponsor their next shopping spree.
Interspersed among all the romantic comedy is singing and dancing in the true spirit of a variety show. Some numbers are classics, like “Ring-A-Ding Ding” which Frankie, Deano and Sammy made famous, and some are modern tunes, like Gershwin and Burt Bacharach ditties. Sometimes the modern songs work quite well — such as Jasmine and Gracie’s catty duet to "Just the Two of Us" — and sometimes they fall flat, as with the rather inexplicable Bee Gees song.
The show is extremely well written, and the vaudeville comedy is actually damn funny, which as anyone knows, is no easy feat. Gannaway and Mitchell really nail it as they lob zingers back and forth at a machine gun pace. The show has some great one-liners, like: "I love you — like I love scotch. No, I really love scotch!"
Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of Zabaugh is the atmosphere of its setting; the Hastings Street Ballroom has provided cabaret seating, where you can sip wine and smoke (such bliss) so it really feels as though you are sitting in Zabaugh’s club from a past era. It makes a fantastic place to take a date, for an entertaining evening that’s wholly different from the same ol’ dinner and a movie bore.
Zabaugh’s Melodies ’04 is playing this week on Friday, March 5, and Sunday, March 7, at the Hastings Street Ballroom (715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit) and next week on March 12-13. Call 313-873-2955, or visit the show’s Web site at www.zabaugh.com.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected].