Zohra Rawling was racking her brain, trying to explain all of the things that a recent beau had been doing to make her feel that special, warm tingly feeling from her nose to her toes, that flutter within her chest and stomach.
“I could say bella bella even / say wunderbar,” she sang. “Each language only helps me tell you/ how grand you are!”
But Rawling, happily married and the mother of two kids, was not swooning over a recent flame. Instead, she was playing the part she had wanted to for months, or perhaps even years: one of the performers in an old-fashioned vaudeville revue. One that would be returning every month.
With a troupe of musicians, magicians, and a gymnast at the ready, Madame Thalia’s Vaudeville Revue arrived in Westville Saturday night, where Rawling and a quirky ensemble performed their first of a monthly cabaret-style show. Despite a snowy evening, dozens packed the room, a few standing in the back to stay for both acts. The next performance, a carnival-themed Venetian odyssey with Le Tre Fenici, will be held on Feb. 25.
Conceived last year, Madame Thalia’s has been months in the making, with a sort of test run late last October. Then, a chilling, folksy storyline defined the performance, from its mournful vocal interludes and stilt walking to thrilling, experimental flute pieces. This performance remained closer to its vaudeville roots: Old music hall standards, Yiddish folk songs, and magic routines met Rawling’s flair for the operatic and theatrical. The numbers brought her out in flowing hair extensions, swirling black stockings, ruby red lipstick, and a matching, gem-colored corset.
But the final product Saturday exceeded what the group thought it would be able to accomplish — and the crowd it expected to draw — in the intimate space.
“Starting this venture has been exciting and exhausting,” said Rawling after the show, motioning to the stage as she spoke. “But I am so extremely lucky to be surrounded by remarkable musicians and circus performers ... who know their work and put in a lot of time.”
A lot of that is owing to an ensemble that is both willing to be silly and has serious chops. Playing a bumbling violinist with a knack for spilling her music, stopping and starting with an off-beat metronome, and dancing around the stage with her instrument, Gretchen Frazier — a professional musician and teacher who plays with the NHSO — warmed the crowd up to old physical antics with her skit “The Metronome,” digging into the idea of bad good music as dancer Priscilla Moore tapped circles around her.
She was just one, over nearly two hours of performance, to do so. Circus performer Allison McDermott, who made her debut with the troupe as a stiltwalking jester last October, delighted the audience as she again took the stage with a few new balancing and juggling tricks, lifting her face into the light as yellow bowling pins arced toward the ceiling, and came back down. Rawling rocked “Life on the Wicked Stage” with a voice big enough to swallow the room and sweet and humor-flecked enough to let it be, setting a certain tone for the evening. Even the “Yiddish only speaking” Tseital totally surprised with “Belz, Mayn Shtele Belz,” slowing (and quieting) down the evening just before rowdy magician Adam Parisi took the stage.
That balance is what Rawling is hoping to maintain for the next performances, she said. “We have a lot of fun,” she said. “I am extremely excited about the next one ... and then the one in March. Who knows how it will evolve?”