“My Vaudeville Man” highlights unconditional love

“My Vaudeville Man” is a two-character show starring Matthew Fairlee, left, as Jack Donahue and Shannon Agnew as Mud Donahue.
“My Vaudeville Man” is a two-character show starring Matthew Fairlee, left, as Jack Donahue and Shannon Agnew as Mud Donahue. Photo provided

A two-character show that is sure to delight and entertain audiences is coming to Millbrook Playhouse in Mill Hall. The Poorman Cabaret Theatre will host the regional premiere of “My Vaudeville Man,” running July 31 to Aug. 9.

Based on the life of legendary eccentric tap dancer Jack Donahue and the mother who fights to keep her son home, “My Vaudeville Man” is a moving musical comedy and a mother-son love story about following your dreams, second chances and the sacrifices we make for the people we love the most.

“My Vaudeville Man” follows Jack, a young man born to dance and Mud, an Irish Catholic mother desperately trying to save her baby boy from life upon the wicked stage. Jack tries to prove to his mother that his passion lies in performing on the vaudeville stage.

When Jack runs off to play the small-time New England circuit, Mud is left with two children and a deadbeat husband, off on another one of his benders. The more success Jack finds, the more his mother is left to hold her splintering family together.

The musical is based on “Letters of a Hoofer to His Ma,” with book and lyrics by Jeff Hochhauser, and music and lyrics by Bob Johnston. This Millbrook production is directed by Joshua Kelley and stars newcomer Matthew Fairlee as Jack Donahue and Millbrook favorite Shannon Agnew as Mud Donahue.

Fairlee was first was introduced to the arts through piano and took lessons regularly for more than a decade. It was only when he entered his teens that he found himself in musical theater.

“I started working on school shows and took part in summer workshops,” he said. “Next year I’ll enter my senior year at Rider University, and I certainly feel prepared to enter the professional theater industry.”

Fairlee can see a number of characteristics he has in common with his character, but some differences as well.

“Jack Donahue is very much like myself in the sense that nothing can stop him from achieving his dream of performing,” Fairlee said. “I am lucky to have a very supportive family behind my theatrical goals, but for Jack the journey is always an uphill battle.”

Agnew grew up outside Philadelphia in a home where there was always music and dancing, creativity and an outpouring of love from her parents who supported her and her two sisters in pursuing their dreams and passions.

“My own real life ‘Mud,’ my mother Ginger Agnew, is a brilliant director and teacher, and her lessons and love are the core of my theatrical process today,” she said. “She helped me harness the creative process, and taught me how to trust my instincts, and to act.”

Agnew attended Pace University in Manhattan, where she met director Joshua Kelley, and graduated with a BFA in musical theater in 2011. Since then she has worked as an actor, writer and performer across the country. Agnew has been flexing her creative muscles at Millbrook this season, performing in four of the five shows in the Poorman Cabaret, writing the preseason show “Sleeping Beauty,” and writing parody songs and jokes for the Courtyard Cabarets every Saturday night.

The meaning of this play presented itself to the cast as they began diving deeper into the text.

“We found that this was certainly a mother-son love story, beginning with bereavement and ending with reconciliation, but we found that there was an overall theme of second chances as well,” Fairlee said. “Sometimes we don’t fully take advantage of our second chances, but perhaps we achieve a little more the second time around.”

“This has been a beautiful process, and one of the most thrilling, rewarding, and exhausting theatrical processes of my fledgling career,” Agnew said. “This show is truly something very special, and it has been gloriously rewarding to tell a story that shows people that second chances are possible.”

As a lower-class woman in 1910, Mud experiences moments of overwhelming tension between what she wants to do and what society expects of her.

“I think everyone can universally relate to the feeling of being stuck because of your circumstances,” Agnew said. “Mud is an exceptional woman, and makes strong choices through the show to help her son and her family in the best way she knows how, even if it’s not always the ‘right’ choice from the audience’s view.”

Fairlee hopes that people leave the theater with a renewed sense of love for their families and loved ones after this show, as there are quite a few toe-tapping sequences — both literally and figuratively — as well as some very dark moments.

“I hope people realize that the full picture of achieving healthy family relationships requires both the light and the dark,” he said. “Our director, Josh Kelley, told us, ‘Play the dark, and you get the light for free.’ That, I think, is the essence of what people should come away with. If you embrace the darkness of your loved ones, you get the light for free.”

Agnew hopes the audience will come away learning that even if things aren’t perfect in life, it can still be very sweet.

“We really do have something for everyone; amazing dance numbers, great songs that will stay with you after you leave the theater, and an incredibly poignant and touching story of families getting a second chance,” she said. “If people leave our production wanting to accept their children more genuinely or even go hug their children more tightly when they get home, I think we’ve done our job.”