The banjo can be a very irritating instrument, especially when used more or less to create sound effects, or as background commentary to tall tales, as a good-natured young man named Stephen Wade employs it in "Banjo Dancing," a one-man show that opened last evening in the subbasement playhouse called the Century.
With all the goodwill I can muster, I am unable to label this friendly Chicago-born offering as anything more than polished parlor entertainment. Even in a nightclub, perhaps a more suitable environment for it, "Banjo Dancing" would begin to wear thin after 20 minutes. And there's two hours of it!
Wade, a loose-jointed fellow with a mop of black, tousled curly hair barely concealing a bald spot, and given to spreading his large, pleasant features in a toothy grin, can whang out country tunes, along with some Stephen Foster, proficiently enough on the five-string banjo, four or five different specimens of which work their way into his act. But he's more interested in using the instrument to punctuate stories ranging from Tom Sawyer's celebrated fence-whitewashing episode (probably the most widely circulated excerpt in the entire Mark Twain canon) to extreme examples of 19th Century journalistic flights of fancy, plus a ghost story he learned at summer camp and an amusing Leo Rosten story about an unusually inquisitive and deductive old Jew seated beside a young Jew on a train bound for Glens Falls.
I was grateful to Wade for wearing a plain dark suit and tie, open collar notwithstanding, instead of overalls. He did wear brogans, however, to aid his occasional forays into clog-dancing or train-acceleration sounds, exercises I found only slightly more jarring than most of his banjoing.
He works both on the stage apron and a wooden platform behind it, and above which are strung burlap banners proclaiming general-store articles, the whole backed by a painted cloth representing mountain pines. A friendly sort, Wade; he even passes out ballpoint pens to members of the audience for two bits apiece as he negotiates the aisles using a spiel he later reports was transcribed from a 1952 pitchman's line. He appears to have a mind like an old attic; not dusty, exactly, but not sorted out, either.
Apart from the fact that I dislike them intensely, I have nothing really against banjos as such. Indeed I prefer them to bagpipes and even harmonicas. But to me banjo-playing is to music what ping-pong is to sport - admired by many, skillful, with its own undeniable brand of virtuosity yet essentially unserious.
As a result the new show at the Century Theater, it opened last night, is not precisely a natural for me. The title, if memory serves is Banjo Dancing or the 18th Annual Squitters Mountain Song Dance Folklore Convention and Banjo Contest ... and how I lost. It is one of those titles that almost writes its own notice.
It is a one-man four banjo-show. The banjos look superb, and the man, a manic Chicago leprechaun called Stephen Wade is either uncommonly talented, or able to imitate the uncommonly talented. He comes on like a shy Al Capone afraid that he might have a violin actually in his violin case.
He strums his various banjos with a fearsome dedication, and his ingenuous grin, and air of nervous but embracing familiarity, while luckily not infectious - such wistful bonhomie might prove terminal - is engaging. You just know that if Wade had a tail to wag he would wag it - as it is he only has tales to tell and he tells them. And he tells them extremely well, giving us a break from the banjos.
All are more or less familiar - Wade is a collector of Americana lore, and he gives his sources for his stories - but the young man is a natural raconteur. A bizarre, almost gruesome, story of a dentist is relayed with gleeful good humor, and a tale of Anton Rubinstein at Carnegie Hall is made into a finely shaped histrionic set-piece. But what I liked best was an encounter between a businessman and a young man in a railway carriage on the way to White Plains, taken from Leo Rostin's book The Joy of Yiddish.
The setting by David Emmons - a fine landscape fronted by decorated sacks - is beautifully evocative, and perhaps more theatrical than the rest of the proceedings, which do, for all their qualities, savor more of cabaret. Still Wade is a pleasing fellow - and at least he doesn't play the bagpipes.
Stephen Wade, the star of a new entertainment called "Banjo Dancing," is a sweetlooking, lanky, rumpled young man with an unstoppable desire to please. During the course of his show, which opened at the Century last night, he tells stories, visits with the audience, makes jokes, sings, clog dances and, of course, plays the banjo.
Mr. Wade's efforts are protean; his enthusiasm knows no bounds. Just the same, "Banjo Dancing" never looks like anything other than a nice, old-time folk club act that has been unconscionably inflated to fill a full-length evening at a middle-sized Broadway house. After a half-hour, you may well find yourself searching for a waiter and a drink.
The scattered good sections of the evening occur when Mr. Wade does, simply and eloquently, what he does best - play the banjo. The very best moment comes when he sits in a spotlight on the edge of the darkened stage and picks away at "Dixie" without singing along. The rest of the time, Mr. Wade rather self-consciously tries to convince us that "Banjo Dancing" is a full-throttled foray into the heart of Americana. Dashing about David Emmons's large country fair of a set, he tells us more than we want to know about the history of his various banjos and the origins of his many, many homespun tales.
Those tales range from a lengthy, breathless recital of Tom Sawyer's overfamiliar whitewash prank to an extended, jarring ethnic joke plucked from Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish." As a raconteur, Mr. Wade is no Hal Holbrook or Sam Levenson. All of his characters speak in the same twangy, Middle Western voice, which raises itself to a neo-Woody Guthrie wail during his songs. Given the performer's smiling countenance and quaint ambitions, we keep rooting anyway for his act to catch fire. As it happens, good will alone is not enough to transform an energetic banjo player into a galvanizing one-man band.