A fanatically-worshipped leader is eventually revealed to be headless. A pair of clowns singing about hanging onto reality suddenly realize they may have already slipped out of it. An enthusiastic song titled "The Best is Yet To Be," performed with confidence and glee, eventually collapses into whimpering doubt.
These are just some of the irrational scenarios in "Ionescopade," a crazy patchwork quilt of surreal fantasy created from the works of Romanian-born, French-raised dramatist Eugene Ionesco. Billed as "A Musical Vaudeville," the off-Broadway York Theatre Company's amusing production, a revision of the 1974 original, opened Thursday night as a kaleidoscope of satire and smartly executed silliness.
Ionesco's dark, surreal view of the world was conveyed through his classic absurdist plays, the best-known being "The Bald Soprano," "The Chairs," "Rhinoceros" and "Exit The King," which was recently seen in a New York revival.
Originally conceived by Robert Allan Ackerman, who first presented "Ionescopade" off-Broadway, the York production features music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden, and direction and choreography by Bill Castellino. Seven musical theater veterans lend their considerable talents to multiple roles in about 20 swiftly-paced skits that reflect or expand on characters and ideas from Ionesco's plays and journals.
Samuel Cohen is outstanding as an impish magician called The Little Man, who cleverly introduces the audience to each scene with a silly magic trick or two. Cohen's playful attitude lightens the dark subject matter of some of the vignettes, several referencing wartime and fascism, and his interactions and reactions draw the audience into the performance.
Serious skits alternate with humorous ones. The funniest group number features a family of six entertainers in which everyone is named Bobby Watson. Each performs a mini-vaudevillian turn, starting with Nancy Anderson, as Daughter Bobby Watson, crooning a charmingly childlike rendition of the not-so-happily-ending "My Ginger Wildcat." Later, Susan J. Jacks is sweetly mad as Auntie Bobby Watson, who believes herself to be a prima ballerina.
Tina Stafford is toughly seductive, styled as a languorous cabaret singer a la Marlene Dietrich as she performs "Fire," a brief, increasingly grim dirge in which even "The fire caught fire." In similarly moving material, Paul Binotto sings the mournful "Madeleine," about a lost love and "the lies that held back the night/the lies that blackened our lives."
Leo Ash Evens is quite engaging, especially in "Surprising People," a baggy-pants clown duet with Stafford. David Edwards' French chef is pompously funny as he pretentiously outlines the boiling of an egg in "The Cooking Lesson," adeptly aided by Cohen as his amazing egg-producing assistant.
A sprightly three-piece band, led by musical director Christopher McGovern on piano, helps set the swiftly-shifting mood for each piece, as does Mary Jo Dondlinger's atmospheric lighting. Nicole Wee's costumes are colorful and imaginative, especially her creative black-and-white outfits for the Bobby Watsons.
As The Little Man repeatedly reminds us with his magic illusions, many things in life are not what they seem. Taken as a whole, "Ionescapade" reminds us that Ionesco's ability to create a surreal alternative out of ordinary events remains resoundingly resonant.