If the graveyard at the Circular Congregational Church is the eternal resting place of any heroes of the original vaudevillian theater, then those lonely, theater-less ghosts must have halted their wanderings and hightailed it back to Charleston as soon as K. Brian Neel walked onstage Tuesday night. Vaud Rats, Neel’s one-man ukelele operetta which he wrote and stars in, is dynamic, engrossing, funny, heartbreaking, poignant, unique — all those things that make a night at the theater the thrillingly consuming experience that only a couple shows in a hundred can create.
I knew I was in for a spellbinding evening as soon as Neel walked across the theater (it’s just a room used by the church, but Neel turned it into all the theater one could ever wish for) and onto center stage, looking around at the warehouse he’d just entered. I could see it myself. He then scurried over the floor and jumped onto his tiny suitcase, shouting “Rats!” And here’s just one of the show’s many brilliant devices: we, the audience, are the rats. In this case, I’m sorry to say that it was an apt metaphor (please, people: I was embarrassed that this group of silent, stony faces was Neel’s very first Charleston audience.)
K. Brian Neel as Cecil B. DeUkelele is positively endearing, and his second musical number, “Travel Song,” evoked the kind of nostalgia and longing for the American road in its bygone innocence that I haven’t felt since reading On the Road and The Dharma Bums. His evocation of his rise to stardom, achieved by stealing more and more of his partner’s punchlines while they’re on stage, is the most creative use of a ukelele and a hat that I’ve ever seen.
Neel allows each of his characters to fulfill his or her true potential. He plays many; or, that is, he plays Cecil playing them, which means that Cecil’s a pretty darn good actor himself. Once Cecil meets his (midget) ladylove, Opal, things get a bit more serious: their plan to run away together is poignant in the way that only such lovers’ plans, which promise complete happiness and will never come true, can be. At one point, Cecil tells her, “Vaud’s dying, Opal,” and because you’ve seen that vaudeville and Opal are all Cecil’s got, it is a heart wrenching statement.
Vaud Rats is not to be missed; and since Neel’s based in Seattle, there’s no telling when he’ll make it to the East Coast again. He’ll knock you bowlegged with his wow finish — I gay-ron-tee it.—Elizabeth Pandolfi
Vaud Rats • Piccolo Spoleto Theater Series • $25 • 1 hour 30 min. • May 28-June 1 • Circular Congregational Church, Lance Hall, 150 Meeting St. • (888) 374-2656