I’ve already raved about Carla Rhodes’ vent act plenty, on this blog, in my Villager column, and by booking her for my own variety shows, fer the love o’ Mike. I’ve been tardy getting to her monthly full length rock show at Arlene’s Grocery, though. But ask anyone — I always make good…eventually.
Carla is the hippest ventriloquist around, but she’s still old school. She may be the rock ‘n’ roll vent but the rock she likes is of the dinosaur variety, as witnessed by her adopted Milton Glaser Bob Dylan poster (above), The Beatles reference in the title of her show (Bungalow Bill), her use of Mick and Keith as vent dummies, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (among others) on the pre-show CD. The most modern reference I detected in the show was her cover of a beautiful Daniel Johnston song, though she may have changed the lyrics. Needless to say, I approve of her taste, but it does rather cement her credentials as a nerd. I was already considered way out of step for listening to this kind of music in the early 80s. By my calculation, in chronological terms, the equivalent of Carla listening to this sort of music would be my listening to…Chuck Berry and Elvis. Which I also did, and do, but it still puts me in a minority among people my age and younger. If you think about it, listening to actual rock and roll nowadays is kind of rare. As my idiotic schoolmates used to say, with no shred of comprehension of the oxymoron they were spouting, “You can’t dance to it.” In the future, I suppose, all teenagers will be Galvanically wired to a central machine that will cause their hearts to beat and legs to twitch in perfect rhythmic unison. That, by God, will be dancing.
At any rate, as I think I’ve just demonstrated, rock and roll is about alienation. And one of the few art forms even more about alienation is ventriloquism. Carla blends them both in the new show and while the mix isn’t seamless, the product is definitely promising. The whole thing purports to be about her leaving Her Old Kentucky Home (where the kids make cruel fun of her), and coming to the big city, where she encounters the likes of Mick and Keith, a rude New York pigeon named Herschel Ragbottom, and Cecil St. Claire, an old English music hall comedian and agent.
Carla, with that raspy Southern voice and no apparent self-consciousness, is, not surprisingly, a great rock and roll singer. (As she notes in the show, someone dubbed her “Shirley Temple on heroin”. Her cowgirl outfit seals the deal). That said, the show starts off slowly with some straight-ahead songs about not fitting in that could use an injection of something. An indication of what that something is can be seen in what is easily the best song in the show, “Under Bed Alligator”, which sounds like a 50’s novelty song, and because said Gator is one of Carla’s puppets. That sort of fun is missing in the earlier songs. And I don’t mean the songs need to be “light”. The “Under Bed Alligator” represents the singer’s fears and negative feelings but it still gets through to us because she’s made it come alive through the magic of theatre — effective music and puppetry. If she can find a way to make the entire show as magical as that number, she’ll have nailed it. As for the ventriloquism routines in the show — perfect-o, of course!
Carla and her three piece band the Extravaganzas will be returning to Arlene’s Grocery on February 20. Check ’em out!
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
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