Seth Rudetsky’s Big Fat 70’s Show
Amaturo Theatre, Broward Center for the Performing Arts
April 1, 2012
Review by Durrell Watkins
So tonight I went to see another one person performance: Seth Rudetsky’s Big Fat 70’s Show. I didn’t know exactly what to expect; I just knew that for years I have loved Seth’s radio show on Sirius XM radio (Seth Rudetsky’s Big Fat Broadway). He is a musical theatre historian and trivia expert. Well, by training (Oberlin) he’s a classical concert pianist. But prior to college he had been very active in school and summer camp theatre and so he soon returned to his first love, musical theatre.
According to his biographical monologue, he was the pianist in the orchestra of a few Broadway musicals, a comedy writer for the Rosie O’Donnell show, the musical director for various concerts, a composer, a stand-up comic, an author, an Off-off Broadway actor, a cabaret performer, and, of course, a satellite radio host. He was also a vocal coach on the MTV reality series, Legally Blonde the Musical: the Search of Elle Woods.
Seth’s radio program is fascinating because it includes interviews with working Broadway actors, songs from old and new, well known and obscure musicals (and sometimes, all the songs from an entire musical with commentary and synopsis thrown in), story-telling, and his natural, unforced brand of humor. So, I relished the chance to see his show live on stage.
Seth’s stage show is a self-described “deconstruction” of various performances. Apparently, his shows are often a deconstruction of Broadway shows or the careers of Broadway performers. But tonight’s show was very specialized. It was a deconstruction of one failed variety show from the 1970s!
The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, according to Seth, only lasted for 9 episodes and was born from a guest appearance the Brady Bunch cast had made on the Donnie & Marie show.
Seth’ set was super simple (and I always find that most effective). There was a piano (he played 4 measures each of 5 or 6 songs and that was all the piano was for…otherwise it was a prop…he never played a whole song, or more than a line of a song in the whole show). Other than the piano, there was a screen on which were played clips from the Brady Bunch Hour. Seth would set up each clip by giving some background (he apparently had done exhaustive research on this obscure failure from television history), playing the clip, commenting on the clip, and sometimes replaying the clip so that the audience could see more in/from it than they had originally.
Some of what Seth pointed out was the campiness of the show. A closeted gay man, Robert Reed, was in the cast, a flamboyant gay man, Bruce Villanch, was one of the writers, and the show was produced by Saturday morning children’s program producers Sid & Marty Kroft; this all made camp inevitable.
These were television actors (Florence Henderson had enjoyed a Broadway career before television), and most of them were child stars who never did much acting beyond their Brady Bunch series, so to throw them into a variety show format where they were expected to sing and dance throughout every show was obviously beyond their comfort zones if not their skill sets.
Then there was the premise. These actors were not doing the show as themselves, but as the characters from their canceled situation-comedy television series. But the characters (an architect, a house-wife, their children, and a housekeeper) are for some reason singing and dancing and telling bad jokes as part of a variety show! And the children are all adults now, and thrown in with this suburban American family who just happen to be singing disco versions of old songs and dancing badly to them are synchronized swimmers (without explanation as to why they are there).
Camp is the best the show could hope to be! But what made it tragic (well, other than the ridiculous premise, the bad singing, the bad dancing, the really bad jokes, and the gratuitous swimmers) was that it was not recorded in front of a life audience. Laughter and applause were all by pre-recorded tracks; so, what was aired was the final or best take of each scene. After who knows how much rehearsal and how many attempted takes, the best of what they could piece together to air was music where “Greg Brady” was often flat, where “Mike Brady” sounded like he was singing with a lozenge stuck in his throat, scenes were almost none of the male members of the cast showed any real capacity for dancing (and “Mike” was particularly awkward), and even one scene where a wayward background dancer crossed hurriedly behind the set from one side of the stage to the other for her next entrance . That the finished product was so shoddy (and surely much better than the many attempts leading up to the finished product) made a show that had little chance of being good into something that was actually horrifically bad.
However, the tragedy that was The Brady Bunch Variety Hour became comedic genius in the creative hands of Seth Rudetsky. He pointed out the flaws, made fun of them, mimicked some of them, and left us desperate to see the next terrible scene (one, or two, or three times!) just so we could explore with him (or follow his guidance to a predetermined discovery) the delightfully humorous failings of the short-lived variety show.
The final scene of the show was brilliantly interactive. He brought to the stage volunteers from the audience to re-enact a simple dance number from the variety show. He taught the steps (and chose the role of “Mike” for himself), and then led the dancers through a quick rehearsal and then finally the performance of the number (about 24 beats in all). He even had two volunteers shoot arcs of water from water pistols to create a special effect similar to the original variety show. The “dancers” were self-conscious and had a great time stumbling through the moves and playing with Seth on stage. And that frivolity ended the 90 minute performance.
Seth afterward very graciously posed for photos and signed autographs.
With virtually no set, and with no other performers (save a few volunteers from the audience at the very end), and with very little live music (though he is a musician), this Broadway expert spent 90 minutes showing clips from a television variety show that almost no one had seen, made fun of the scenes (without ever being cruel), shared a little bit of history about some of the cast members, and with that simple story-telling performance captivated an audience and made us love something that in 1977 absolutely flopped. It was genius. It was comedy. It was history. It was pop-culture. It was theatre. What could be better than that?