If the chatty tennis ball doesn't get to you, the over-exuberant monkey (named Darwin) humming a Sondheim standard ("Send In the Clowns") will definitely make you a true believer.
The man who gives "voice" to both is a still boyish, shaggy-haired Texan who had a modicum of fame on the late 1970s TV sitcom "Soap," appearing with a cheeky puppet named Bob. Since then, he has played all over the country including a gig with this current show off-Broadway in 2004.
Now "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" has made the leap to Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre with those splendid ~ and often hilarious - voices intact.
Johnson is a champion of the often disparaged art of ventriloquism. Disparaged and often demonized, according to Johnson, who says the practice of throwing your voice could get you killed in ancient times. An instrument of the devil, perhaps?
His amiable, sometimes rambling show is part history lesson, part autobiography and part giddy entertainment, most notably when Johnson's puppets are allowed to take center stage.
They include Amigo, a sock-puppet snake; a vulture named Nethernore who sings his own roadkill version of "My Way"; an impish, moonfaced lad named Squeaky; the obnoxious Bob; and, of course, that showtune-singing simian.
There is something professorial about Johnson's lecture-like approach to the evening. He throws a lot of information at the audience as he prowls the small Helen Hayes stage covered by designer Beowulf Borit! with trunks where the puppets are stored. A little editing would give the production more zip.
Johnson gets personal, too, talking with respect and affection about a man named Arthur G. Sieving, a puppet-maker and ventriloquist who was his mentor. He idolizes not only Sieving, but the man's creation, a puppet (dummy sounds too harsh a word) with the quaint, almost vaudevillian name of Harry O'Shea. His sweet memories are contagious.
Johnson's spirited defense of ventriloquism as an art form is gallant, touching even, but then the man practices what he preaches. At the beginning of the show, he boldly states, "I was absolutely born to do this." By the time the last puppet has been lovingly put back in a trunk some 95-mlnutes later, you will agree most heartily.
Ventriloquism isn't for everyone. Most people who want to throw their voices can go ahead and throw them and, for all I care, leave them In the cloakroom, uncollected.
But Jay Johnson, who last night opened his oddly named one-man show "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only" at the Helen Hayes, is, by any reckoning, a very special ventriloquist and a very entertaining one, at that.
The secret to Johnson's sweetly diverting evening is his strangely diffident charm - you find yourself really liking the guy - and the sheer quality of his material.
I was reminded of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (best remembered these days as the father of Candice Bergen) and his puppet Charlie McCarthy, who 60 years ago were terrific on radio. (Radio, for God's sake! Who ever knew whether that guy's lips moved?)
Significantly, about Bergen and McCarthy, there was always a certain malice between puppet and his human sidekick. They seemed to hate each other.
It's a malice that obviously goes with the territory. In a wonderful old English movie, "Dead of Night." Michael Redgrave plays a mad ventriloquist who is murdered by his own puppet.
That demonic possession is something we secretly look for in ventriloquists, and Johnson's guileless, unwary charm makes this dangerous quality all the more compelling.
Ok, his animated tennis ball is a delight. while a cartoon face, which Johnson draws and brings to life before your eyes, is a feat of sheer virtuosity.
But it's when the puppets get nasty, such as with a singularly mean and obstreperous monkey called Darwin, that the creatures take on that deathly and fascinating life of their own.
Here and there, Johnson waxes too sentimental in his reminiscences, and while his fascination with the mystic history of ventriloquism is certainly interesting, his moments of autobiography - years ago he starred In the TV series "Soap" - are perhaps a moment or two too many.
Still, all in all, this is a surprising, and extremely funny, one-man show that has a character to it and more than a few characters in it
You couldn’t ask for a sweeter straight man than Jay Johnson, the one and only star of the new Broadway show “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!” By straight man I mean not a heterosexual, although Mr. Johnson happens to be married, but the long-suffering, punch-line-less half of a comedy act, the guy who sets up the gags and smiles affably as his partner knocks ’em out of the park.
Strictly speaking Mr. Johnson is the sole star of this genial if flimsy 90-minute entertainment. His name is the only one on the marquee, and presumably he doesn’t have to share a dressing room with any of his nonhuman, and sometimes a little inhuman, co-stars. But he cedes the spotlight for long stretches to this menagerie of ornery comic characters, all of whom are animated by his vigorously expressive right hand, and all of whom share the same set of vocal cords.
Which happen to be located in Mr. Johnson’s throat. You see, the apple-cheeked Mr. Johnson is actually the most exotic if least cranky creature onstage, even though his fellow performers include a vulture who sings “My Way,” a foul-mouthed wooden tyke, a talking tennis ball and a monkey purveying some of the corniest shtick this side of a Friar’s roast.
He’s a real live ventriloquist, folks. Remember them?
Possibly not, if you’re under the age of 40. Or maybe 50. This species of entertainer has mostly vanished from the show business landscape, where the wondrous capabilities of plain-old human beings are increasingly being enhanced, if not replaced, by the prodigious gadgetry of the digital age. The halcyon days of the voice-throwers were long past even by the late 1970’s, when Mr. Johnson gained minor fame as a star of the television comedy “Soap.”
But Mr. Johnson, still boyish at 57, has managed to forge a career of about four decades plying this dying showbiz trade. His aim in this production, which was seen Off Broadway two seasons back, is to reacquaint contemporary audiences with the delights of the craft, and to ennoble it a little by giving us a friendly tour of its long and interestingly disreputable history. There’s life in the old act yet, Mr. Johnson wants you to know, even if it’s been on life support for almost half a century.
When he is trading repartee with one of those chatty supporting characters, that contention is hard to argue with, even if much of the give and take is of the pleasantly harmless, joke-based kind light-years away from today’s more loosely structured and aggressive forms of stand-up comedy. Pulling from a basket the vulture named Nethernore, Mr. Johnson tells him, “Don’t be shocked by the crowd.” Comes the rejoinder: “I’m shocked you could draw a crowd.” Ba-dum-bum. A bit later Mr. Johnson asks his feather-bedecked arm, “What do you call a group of vultures?” “A law firm,” quoth Nethernore.
That vulture has terrific timing, as do the tennis ball, the snake, the chimp and the two wooden fellows — the sweet-spirited Squeaky and the bilious Bob (also a star of “Soap”) — that Mr. Johnson brings to flavorful and various comic life with his antic arm and magic voice box.
But it’s that little bit of magic that makes the difference. The crack timing is really nobody’s but Mr. Johnson’s, and yet, when it’s time for a comic payoff, his lips remain set in a placid if slightly rigid half-smile, and your eyes are trained on the yapping bird or the monkey or the beady-eyed wooden kid.
The nifty trick of talking without appearing to is what raises Mr. Johnson’s act above the level of mere puppetry to something stranger and marginally more fascinating. (Before I get hate mail from the felt-covered, highly opinionated cast of “Avenue Q,” I should add that I have nothing but respect for plain old puppetry. Really. Some of my best friends are socks.)
When he’s not catering to the temperamental egos of his laugh-hogging co-stars, Mr. Johnson takes the solo spotlight in the roles of friendly professor of ventriloquist history and stand-up memoirist. He has a naturally perky demeanor that lends his stream of anecdote a sunny sparkle, but his recollections of his early years are short on dramatic incident, and despite the unusual nature of his calling, this tale of a starry-eyed kid making it in showbiz feels oddly generic.
Ventriloquism’s vaunted creepiness is all but banished from the stage in “The Two and Only!,” as Mr. Johnson cheerfully debunks or dismisses the whispers of mystery and hints of psychological disorder that once clung to it. In movies like “Dead of Night” and “Magic” it was entertainingly depicted as a sinister predilection possibly signifying serious mental illness. But it’s hard to imagine anyone more sane or sensible than Mr. Johnson.
Skimming happily along the surface of his life, he never stops to ponder the possibility that the anger famously said to fuel comedy has a place in his psyche, or that an attraction to ventriloquism might indicate an interestingly complicated personality, a need to displace uncomfortable impulses. “The Two and Only!” would be a richer show if Mr. Johnson did admit some doubts or anxieties, or for that matter explore the tribulations of living a life on the far fringes of show business.
But Mr. Johnson is definitely not the type for broody introspection. The only squirm-inducing moment in the show is a tenderly sentimental one, when Mr. Johnson is forced to break it to his beloved Squeaky that, well, he’s just too sweet for television, and the producers of “Soap” are determined to go in another direction.
As Mr. Johnson re-enacts this tortured encounter, you may uneasily wonder whether this painful heart-to-heart between man and puppet, obviously not part of a public performance, is in fact a re-creation of an actual scene from Mr. Johnson’s life. And come to slightly disturbing conclusions. But you may also find yourself feeling for the poor wooden fellow, with his Hollywood career cut so brutally short. And longing to chuck him under his cute little chin, rumple his hair and tell him: “Cheer up, Squeaky. That’s showbiz.” Now who’s the kook?
Early ventriloquists were both feared and mistrusted for their seeming ability to rouse the dead - or at least to make the dead speak. Jay Johnson, today's preeminent practitioner of this ancient art, tries mightily, if rather meekly, to revive some moribund entertainment traditions in "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only." his new Broadway show.
It's not only ventriloquism but vaudeville shtick as old as the hills that gets dusted off here: When one of Johnson's signature arm pieces, a fluffy vulture called Nethernore, is asked to provide a "duck call," he caws out, "Here, ducky, ducky!"
It's a tribute to Johnson's lifelong seasoning in front of audiences, from arena crowds to private parties, that such rim-shot one-liners come off at all. There is undeniable joy to be had in witnessing this ineluctably theatrical technique onstage, as Johnson throws his voice not only Into puppets and dummies but into trunks, under the stage, and into unidentifiable middle distances.
One of his smartest tricks is to play with the conventions of the format so that his lifelike characters often seem to be little ventriloquists themselves: muffling their speech, offering asides, even trying to steal Johnson's thunder.
But Johnson and director Murphy Cross seem to feel that 90 minutes of straight-up vocal antics wouldn't make a whale evening, so they've added a solo show that's part-memoir, part-advocacy.
We've come out to see a man do amazing stuff with his voice. Do we really need a defensive lecture about the artistic merit of the practice? And while the man from Illinois who crafted then 17-year-old Johnson his first custom puppet, sounds lovely, the tear-jerking on his behalf is both overreaching and somehow Irrelevant. Must every art form minted before TiVo come with a self-pitying glaze of nostalgia?
The maudlin meandering is all the more frustrating because when Johnson IS on, he's riveting. Though he's a master with the traditional wooden dummy - he has a satisfyingly long bout with Bob. the self-involved meanie he worked with on the 70s TV show "Soap" - he does some of his best work with hand puppets and other improvised devices. He gives each a distinct character: A split tennis ball has a World-weary whine; a face drawn on a dry-erase board has Borscht Belt timing. A pair of gruff, big-mouthed talking animals. Nethernore and the gibbering monkey Darwin, evoke fond memories of Jim Henson's cackling ogres.
Darwin handily hits the shows high point with a series of self-amused "monkey jokes." ("You ought to see my family tree. Most of the family's still there.") His infectious Buy a link hare laugh, stiff-necked stare, and restlessly head-bobbing energy nearly make us believe he could leap off Johnson's arm and into the house, as he threatens to do.
Suspension of disbelief is what ventriloquism is all about. The best moments of "The Two and Only" show that to us; the lesser moments merely tell us about it.
Can a seemingly well-adjusted man find his soul mate in an inanimate object? And can that relationship then fuel a consistently entertaining 90-minute program?
The answer to both questions is, improbably, yes, as evidenced by Jay Johnson: The Two and Only! (* * * out of four).
Johnson, a veteran ventriloquist best known to TV fans for his stint on the '70s sitcom Soap, arrives on Broadway after a celebrated run at the Atlantic Theatre Company downtown. Still, there's reason to be skeptical that his show, which opened Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theatre, could sustain a rapt audience in a somewhat less intimate setting.
There are moments early on, as Johnson rattles off some of the more arcane details and historical tidbits about his art, that you may experience a certain wariness, as if you were trapped in a large room with a particularly avid stamp collector or video-game enthusiast.
But Johnson's unabashed fervor ultimately proves as engaging as his skill. Even his hokier lines — the puppet master refuses to refer to his colleagues as "dummies," he tells us, opting instead for the more politically correct "wooden Americans" — contribute to an endearing lack of pretense. Johnson's earnest refusal to fall back on the contemporary showman's knee-jerk weapon of choice, irony, is refreshing.
Granted, some of his friends, who are made of wood and other fabrics, offer slightly snarkier sensibilities. There's Bob, of course, the smart aleck who was his sidekick on Soap, and Nethernore the Bird of Death, a sassy vulture with a fondness for Frank Sinatra tunes. Darwin the monkey is even more hyperactive and hilarious, evoking a child in need of Ritalin, or perhaps a poster primate for anger-management therapy.
Other characters share more of their creator's sweet nature, particularly Squeaky, the apple-cheeked charmer who first auditioned with Johnson for the role that would make Bob a television star. Squeaky was specifically designed for a young Johnson by Arthur G. Sieving, an accomplished ventriloquist and puppetmaker who became Johnson's champion.
The Two and Only! is in fact dedicated to Sieving and his own signature puppet, Harry O'Shea. Not surprisingly, Johnson devotes a considerable chunk of time to the mentor who in effect came out of retirement to encourage him. We hear of a cookies-and-milk party where only two of the various revelers are human, and learn later of a sadder, more predictable occurrence.
These reminiscences aren't likely to change your life as the events they summon changed Johnson's. But chances are you'll be happy to indulge him.
If Martin Short hadn't already patented the definition this season, "a solo show with other people in it" might be a good way to describe "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only." OK, so the other people are puppets, a severed head, a tennis ball and a white sketch board brought to life with a Magic Marker, but Johnson so persuasively and lovingly animates the inanimate that the Helen Hayes' stage seems populated by multiple personalities. The performer's balance of historical and personal reflection helps make this rather slight show a charming dissertation on the vaudevillian art of ventriloquism.
Full disclosure: For this reviewer, ventriloquists are right up there on the creepiness scale with clowns, mimes, Victorian doll collectors and Tom Cruise. From the Vincent Price-type voice intoning the pre-show cell-phone announcement to the spooky strains of "The Teddy Bears' Picnic" heard throughout, Johnson seems fully aware this is a common attitude toward a skill once labeled "a wickedness lurking in the human belly."
Historically equating the art with demon possession and necromancy, he points out Satan was the first ventriloquist, throwing his voice to the snake in the Garden of Eden to condemn mankind.
The unassuming Johnson also seems to recognize that shoving your hand up the keister of a dummy (he prefers the P.C. term wooden-American) is a nerd's passion. Alternative acts have put a new spin on most entertainment forms, but ventriloquism remains stubbornly unhip (unless Triumph the Insult Comic Dog counts) -- perhaps trapped forever in an era that vanished with Edgar Bergen and Shari Lewis. Part of what makes "The Two and Only" engaging despite all this is Johnson's unapologetic defense of his arcane calling.
The writing is old-fashioned and the humor a little hoary, but there's a sweet, self-effacing quality to Johnson's unforced stage manner, magnified by his willingness to play second fiddle whenever he has a puppet in hand. Those co-stars are liberated from a jumble of suitcases, boxes and baskets spread across an expanse of blue that extends heavenward in Beowulf Boritt's simple set, which hints that the dummies have both a life and an afterlife.
Johnson's historical recap and his insights into the basics of ventriloquism (plosive consonants, particularly Bs, are a danger zone) are reasonably absorbing, but the show is at its best when he pays touching tribute to his mentor, Art Sieving. The Chicago ventriloquist and puppetmaker carved Johnson's first significant professional partner, Squeaky.
The producers of ABC's hit late-'70s comedy "Soap" cast Johnson but deemed Squeaky too benign-looking to be his character's belligerent puppet sidekick, Bob. The tender scene in which Johnson informs Squeaky he's been passed over for the once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough is a lovely moment. However, the rejected puppet's confinement to his case for the rest of the show seems at odds with Johnson's affectionate regard for Squeaky as his Stradivarius.
Bob gets an extended outing, smugly explaining that his job -- supplying the comedy -- is clear, while Jay's is more of a mystery. Also featured is Amigo, a faint-hearted boa constrictor from Johnson's high school years; Nethernore, a buzzard who grandiloquently describes himself as the bird of death; and Darwin, a frisky ape who does a shrieking simian version of "Send in the Clowns."
It's all agreeable enough under co-conceivers Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel's tidy direction and, at least from row F, there's no faulting Johnson's technique. But despite its low-key appeal, "The Two and Only" feels more like superior club entertainment than a Broadway vehicle -- a nostalgic nod to a once-popular variety-show staple rather than a convincing claim for its ongoing vitality. The open-ended New York engagement is planned as a prelude to a national tour; more intimate houses likely will prove a better fit.