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Jay Johnson's Puppets
Will Make You Laugh and Touch Your Heart
Jay Johnson and BOB. Photo by Carol Rosegg
"Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!"
Directed by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel
Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street, between 8th Ave. and Broadway
Opened Sept. 28, 2006
Tues. thru Thurs. 7 p.m. Fri 8 p.m., Sat 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 1 & 5 p.m.
$81.25 & $51.25 (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Oct. 5, 2006
Somewhere at the beginning of ventriloquist Jay Johnson's new show "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" Johnson says that art is skill that has been perfected. This alone would certainly qualify his amazing performance as art. But "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" is much more than a razzle-dazzle display of virtuoso voice throwing and puppet manipulation.
During the course of the show, Johnson relates the history of ventriloquism from the ancient Greeks, who thought ventriloquists had supernatural powers, to modern times when they've become entertainers. He explains the science of throwing one's voice by drawing pictures of sound waves. He traces his own journey from a kid with a talking ball named Spaulding to a sophisticated performer on a Broadway stage.
Most of all, he brings to life a variety of inanimate objects: a sock that becomes a snake, Nethermore; a vulture who sings "I Eat It My Way"; a severed head who puts a curse on a medieval village; a foul-mouthed, hyperactive monkey named Darwin; a face drawn on an erasable board that miraculously comes to life with eyes that move; and his two dummies, the kind-heated Squeaky and the wise-cracking Bob.
Johnson's routines run from the traditional puppet in a box to an unexpected exchanging of voices with the irascible Bob, or a telephone conversation with two imaginary friends.
Johnson is also adept at speaking for characters that don't even come on stage: his mentor and the emotional core of the show, Art Sieving who carved Squeaky, and Art's wives; and people Johnson has met during his long career (he's been a ventriloquist for 30 years).
Much of "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" seems autobiographical. Indeed, Johnson tells his story with so much sincerity it's hard to imagine how it couldn't be. It's not often that adults watch a puppet show and are moved to tears by the plight of these "wooden Americans," as Johnson says they prefer being called. But Johnson's puppets are so human they put Pinocchio to shame.
Johnson writes all his own material. His sense of humor is as fine-tuned as his timing. Often it rescues the show from the pitfalls of maudlin sentimentality. But surely Murphy Ross and Paul Kreppel, who directed and co-conceived the show, deserve credit for the smooth flow and the subtle changes of tone as well.
Beowulf Boritt's stage, strewn with boxes and suitcases, has the dual function of signifying the vagabond life of vaudeville-era ventriloquists and the place the dummies call home, and providing a clever way of keeping the dummies close-by until it's their turn onstage. And when words fail both Johnson and his puppets, Clifton Taylor's lighting comes nicely to the rescue.
There are some childhood pleasures one must give up upon reaching adulthood, like licking your plate and (hopefully) throwing tantrums. "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" proves that ventriloquism is not one of them. Far from a simple trick for children, which soon grows boring for all but the most gullible, puppetry, like all theater, is one more way of helping human beings understand themselves and their place in the universe.
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