Going every­where

1812 Pro­duc­tions presents Broads’

3 minute read
Singing the hell out of 20th-century comedy: Joilet Harris, Mary Elizabeth Scallen, and Jess Conda. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
Singing the hell out of 20th-century comedy: Joilet Harris, Mary Elizabeth Scallen, and Jess Conda. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

“Good girls go to heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.” As the title of 1812’s current cabaret suggests, Broads honors the woman comedic dynamos working blue in the 20th century.

Starting from Mae West, who is credited with the above quote, and moving through the women of the vinyl revolution, Broads brings the best from comedians who were paving the way for today’s favorites, like Ali Wong, Margaret Cho, and Sarah Silverman.

Celebrating the legacy of game changers isn’t easy, but Broads trio Joilet F. Harris, Jess Conda, and Mary Elizabeth Scallen meet the challenge with martinis in one hand and mics in the other.

Little black dresses

Scallen, Conda, and Harris, decked out in LBDs (a staple for any badass woman’s closet) and studded with diamonds , take us through the history of America’s favorite sass machines, stopping along the way to croon a number or rat-a-tat through jokes and one-liners that made the likes of Sophie Tucker household names.

As soon as these women get to take a bite out of a mic, the show comes to life. They embody Mae West, Moms Mabley, Belle Barth, and more, putting on the roles as if they’re slipping into a luxurious fur coat. These women can sing the hell out of a number. Conda is jubilant and brassy as Rusty Warren, and she tackles the ridiculous “Bounce Your Boobies” without apology. Harris is particularly affecting as Moms Mabley, belting a rendition of Mabley’s hit cover, “Abraham, Martin and John,” that was in tribute to the titular assassinated icons and to Robert F. Kennedy.

The dames who dared

Director Jennifer Childs has artfully arranged the content from the late female entertainers and curated a night with more ups than downs. But Broads takes time to gather momentum. Initial dialogue has the excitement of a Wikipedia page, and staging a cabaret in the proscenium space of Plays & Players has an alienating effect — cabaret thrives on intimacy, and performers are usually at close quarters with their audience for a reason. As captivating as Conda, Harris, and Scallen are, it is difficult for them to make up the distance.

Childs definitely knows her audience, and she picked material that was titillating and ripe for infectious laughter. However, some struck a sour note with me. Whether they were new jokes about pronoun usage or older ones that drag out old stereotypes referring to “gypsies” — a derogatory term for Roma people — I couldn’t help but cringe as others chuckled around me. Political correctness may seem like a scoffable need for the oversensitive, but the language we use underpins systems that mean life or death to others, so it doesn’t seem so laugh-worthy anymore. If Broads taught me anything, it’s that our comic predecessors left us with plenty of hysterical material to go around. We don’t need to rely on jokes that have overstayed their welcome.

Even if some bits don’t stand the test of time, I am grateful for the dames who dared before me. And to the women of Broads who are looking to the past and carving out new roads for us now, I bounce my boobies in salute to you.

What, When, Where

Broads. Jennifer Childs curated and directed. 1812 Productions. Through February 24, 2019, at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. (215) 592-9560 or 1812productions.org.

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