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On the Scene: Not Your Grandfather's Vaudeville

July 14, 2005 By:
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Cindy Marvell and colleagues juggle the past and present in “Lazer Vaudeville” in New York.
“Lazer Vaudeville” is light years ahead of the old “slowly I turn” turntable that played to record crowds generations ago.

Vaudeville … void and old hat — a porkpie one at that? Bag the baggy pants image; this show goes better with wine and cheese than cheese and crackers.

The mind-meld of the old and new worlds of vaudeville, which has been called “Cirque du Soleil meets Laurel and Hardy,” is hardly a newcomer to the boards; it has been playing worldwide since 1987, celebrating its chai times this year with an open-ended run at the Lambs Theater off-Broadway

But did company member Cindy Marvell — someone, quick, make her into a comic-book hero — need laser eye surgery to see who she was actually performing in front of on a Mideast tour?

No, marvels Marvell. She knew full well that she and her husband — company founder Carter Brown — as well as the rest of the troupe were appearing in a command performance before the Saudi royal family in a Mideast midrash that boggles the mind.

How did this Jewish juggler balance her own feelings as a Jewish woman with that of performer entertaining a family whose country doesn’t veil its contempt for women … and Jews?

“Well,” answers the entertainer, who honed her skills early on as a teen at her temple doing Chanukah shows, “that country’s anti-Jewish sentiment was brought home to me.”

Yet she was so far from home. “It put me in the position of being scared; you know, after all, that something could happen. But they didn’t know we were Jewish,” she says.

She wasn’t disguising her heritage, but in those pre-9/11 times — the company played Saudi Arabia the summer of 2000 — “I had to wear a veil around my head — but it wasn’t a facial veil — while in public.”

Slowly, she turned inward to examine her own feelings, which were “a mix of emotions. You want to respect their culture, but there is a repressive side to that culture and you don’t want to be a pushover.”

When push comes to shoves, says Marvell, Judaism dons a mask for no one.

These days, she also can’t mask her enthusiasm for the new kind of vaudeville show that she and her husband are doing, as demonstrated on two PBS specials and a performance at the Smithsonian Institute.

Vaudeville may be a museum piece, but “Lazer Vaudeville” is certainly not — it doesn’t burlesque vaudeville; it pays it homage. The off-Broadway production is hip and hot, a light show of enlightened entertainment that mixes science and sass.

That’s some equation.

“It’s an unusual skill, juggling, yes,” for a Jewish woman to manage, “but I was inspired by my father, a physicist. A lot of math- and science-oriented people go into juggling.”

Is her father — Mr. Marvell — proud of her onstage work, and the fact that she was the first woman to earn the International Jugglers Association Championship, back in ’89?

Oh, that name: Cindy may look mah-velous, but she’s actually a … Friedberg. “That’s my real name. I took Marvell when I was looking for a stage name. I used to juggle while reading poetry as my routine, and Andrew Marvell was one of the poets I juggled to.”

She also makes it clear that she didn’t want to change her name just because it was a Jewish one.

Indeed, she looks to a future of further poetic license.

Who knows, she says, “maybe someday I’ll find a Jewish poet I can juggle to.”

Cindy Amichai, anyone?

Info to Go
“Lazer Vaudeville,” featuring juggling, slapstick, acrobatics and lasers, is performed Wednesdays to Mondays at the Lambs Theater, 130 W. 44th St., New York. For ticket info, call 212-239-6200.

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