From the unmistakeable swampy bayou on the preshow track to the electric crackle that ends it, HERRINGBONE is a show which offers a rare opportunity for a close-up, intense enjoyment of the art of performance. There are several laugh out loud moments but much of the show is spent with a silly grin and a leaning forward concentration of amusement. If the later part of the show has some songs which slow the piece down, and there is little to whistle as one wanders out, the evening spent in George Herringbone’s company is superbly delivered and entirely spirited.
George is eight. He is taken over by the ghost of a diminutive, dancing daemon who was cut off in his prime and holds a serious grudge about the manner of his early departure. George’s family are down home folk in the depression era south who have been thwarted in greed. George’s dad will happen upon the idea of getting his shy and under-confident son acting lessons with a local ex-celebrity who was once the ‘chicken’ section of a vaudeville duo called ‘Chicken and Frog’. Guess who was ‘frog’?
Jay James-Moody is Chicken. And Frog. And George. And his father. In fact, James-Moody is everyone except the band. And he is brilliant. A one person show, subtitled ‘A Vaudevillian Ghost Story’, HERRINGBONE is by Tom Cone, Music by Skip Kennon and Lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh and the show is designed to be an acting tour-de-force. With so many characters across ages and genders, 14 songs and associated dance routines and characters who interact at lightning speed, it requires a particular set of performance muscles and James-Moody appears to flex up effortlessly. That’s the art. The art of crazy challenges.
James-Moody certainly can work up to frenetic but he can also slow to personal. His vocal work, both sung and spoken, ranges from gravel to whispish and his energy is unflagging for the whole 90 minutes. The direction from James-Moody and Michael Ralph gives the characters easily identifiable expression through delineation of shape, voice and intent. Louise absently smoothing an invisible hair away from her face to tuck it behind her ear gave me chills. The movement around the space is economical but detailed and a deceptively simple use of props and costume is requiring of next level skill. Especially all the leaping off the raised, growth ringed set.
The band or “principal players” according to George, are Natalya Aynsely, Amanda Jenkins and Tom McCracken and they are visible, interactive to an extent, just as busy as James-Moody and have a swinging, plucked double bass, wood block emphatic, deeply kick drummed, virtuosic keyboard feel. There’s a dash of Weill and a period gothic punctuation to the score which is orchestrated for gentle effect by Aynsley and co Musical Director Benjamin Kiehne. It sits nicely under James-Moody’s performance with a splendid audio mix. The touch of echo when they are hiding the body was elegant operation. (Operator and SM: Christopher Starnawski)
The lighting is also expertly operated with needle sharp cueing and a design that is neither showy nor shadowy. It ranges from frog green and luxurious purple to a delicious lavender that ghosts up the place and has discretely used themes for the individual voices. (Design: Benjamin Brockman)
If the play itself is not quite as good as James-Moody’s performance it doesn’t really matter. Offered by master craftspeople with an infectiously engaging joy in the presenting from an artist of personality plus, sit back in wonder or lean in with curiosity, HERRINGBONE is a show for the savouring.