What happens to Hollywood’s C-list when they fall farther down the alphabet? Every wannabe and has-been was once an aspiring star. The original one-man comedy-musical-memoir revue “An Evening with Lillian Baxter” explores the life and longings of a woman who never lost touch with her glamorous (and not-so-glamorous) past.
Staged at Vault 1031 (1031 S. 6th St.), a new performing arts venue in Old Louisville, “An Evening With Lillian Baxter” stars show creator John Vessels as the title character, a fictional Hollywood variety show has-been mounting a musical comeback tour. It’s is a wry, campy wink at life just south of the spotlight. Anchored by Vessel’s powerful voice, the show features Baxter’s autobiographical musings woven between crowd-pleasing show numbers like “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and Cole Porter’s “Find Me a Primitive Man.” Vessels channels the classic cabaret style masterfully, hitting that sweet spot between Judy Garland and Bea Arthur with aplomb.
Born to Arkansas sharecropper parents, Baxter’s “long, arduous climb to the middle” began with an MGM contract as a film extra. She graduated to television as the narcoleptic sidekick on the sitcom “Life with Maureen” and as star of the Thrifty Vittles Happy Time Song Hour, which ran on television for six episodes in 1963. As Baxter, Vessels is irrepressible, maintaining that old-fashioned Hollywood grace and charm through admissions of failure and wistful regret.
Baxter’s personal history is as checkered as her professional past — a running gag is her tendency to marry men who turn out to be gay. (“Butch smelled like a man. In retrospect, he never smelled like the same man twice.”) Her third and favorite ex-husband is pianist Corky Weinstopper (Jay Schwandt, musical arrangements, who accompanies Baxter during her show. For his efforts, she serenades him affectionately with a gender-flipped rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema.”
Looking up at the theater’s unfinished beam ceiling, one might assume a song could wander up there and get lost during a vocal performance, but Vessels’ powerhouse voice sounded fantastic, sans microphone and belting to the rafters and back. While Vault 1031 management is still pursuing funding for a complete renovation of the theater space, the stage is functional and the padded chairs quite comfortable. The space has potential, and Louisville’s arts community will fill a stage once it’s available. As is, it’s a bit rough, but the rough edges of the space form a fitting environment for Baxter’s shabby career retrospective — during renovations, it might make sense to stick to minimalist shows that can make the spray-painted walls work.
“An Evening with Lillian Baxter” runs Thursdays through Sunday evenings through June 9. For ticket information, contact the producers at email@example.com or call (312) 316-8158.