Broads could not be more timely. Under 1812 Productions director/curator Jennifer Childs, this delightful revue (alas, it runs only through Sunday, Feb. 24) follows the rise of embattled women from risqué vaudeville into mainstream culture.
For 70 minutes, three Barrymore-nominated actresses hold you in thrall as they march through time. They open by defining a “broad” in broadly unapologetic terms, and end on a declaratory note with Lesley Gore’s 1963 pop hit “You Don’t Own Me.” But in the middle, their humor pulsates with bawdy mirth.
The faded grandeur of the Plays and Players historic main stage is the ideal venue. With the piano of accompanist Owen Robbins, the set has a retro nightclub feel. You sense every show must be different as performers engage the audience, eager to pounce on any chance remark.
But mostly the trio celebrate grand and sassy women. Jess Conda masters Mae West’s suggestive innuendo and double entendre. “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted” is one of the few quips I can repeat (the Inquirer being a family paper). West’s notoriety led to stardom in the ’30s, especially in the movies, for which she wrote her own dialogue.
Joilet F. Harris shines as diva Ida Cox. Her full-throated version of Cox’s “One Hour Mama” is a fine example of the “dirty blues” in African American vaudeville. Mary Elizabeth Scallen hits her stride later with “Rindecella,” a clever and indelicate spoonerism rendition of “Cinderella” by Canadian-born Saucy Sylvia Cadeski.
By midcentury, some vaudeville women had made it to TV. The inimitable Sophie Tucker became a regular on Ed Sullivan’s show, but the performers of Broads prefer singing her earlier songs, in which Tucker praises being fat, middle-aged, and sexually independent. Harris plays picturesque Moms Mabley, who challenged racism on prime-time TV. (Stopped by a traffic cop in South Carolina, Moms explained to him: “All the whites went through green lights, so I thought the red ones were for us.”)
On a parallel track, a group of lusty Jewish comediennes segued into party albums. Patsy Abbott, Belle Barth (basis of the musical If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends), Pearl Williams, and Rusty Warren (“Bounce Your Boobies” and “Knockers Up!") brought ribald sexuality and take-no-prisoners irreverence to their recorded acts.
There are no weak sisters in this show. Performers rejoice in the off-color humor of trailblazing stars, some of whom openly applauded the suffragettes. And it is pretty much a straight shot from the pioneering courage of these women on stage to modern-day feminism.