Sea foam

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  June 27, 2007

As Herringbone, he drifts into the WTF Centerstage’s towering black box along with the pianist (who doubles as a deaf-mute manservant), the bassist, and the percussionist who make up the band. Dressed in vest, bow tie, and saddle shoes, he introduces his hard-times history in a song that asks, “What’s life without a window ledge?” And the strange story of young George, his impoverished Alabama family, and the warring ex-vaudevillians who change their lives inevitably leads to just such a precipice. But first the son his parents hope will be their meal ticket is custom-suited in herringbone and taken to a retired entertainer for acting lessons. Somehow the spirit of the teacher’s former vaudeville partner — the amphibian half of an act called the Chicken and the Frog — invades George’s pint-sized body so he can wreak havoc on the man he blames for his death and realize his own show-biz dream. (“The Chicken and the Frog,” in which body snatcher Lou tells the tale of his hurtling demise, is one of several bravura set pieces, this one utilizing a yellow rubber glove and a green bouncing ball to represent the principals.)

The story is as fantastical and arbitrary as they come. But as a vehicle for a performer, it’s NASCAR-worthy (and should not be driven by an amateur), providing cheeky vaudeville opportunity, family melodrama, and a big hunk of Sybil. Wong — tenderly interacting with the little suit that stands in for George, defining the male and female characters through precisely mimed gestures, and carrying on interior wars between a Billy Crystal–like Lou and the vulnerable George — gives an extraordinary performance. You know who he is from his facial expression — before he opens his mouth to assert a Southern, sleazy, tough, or tremulous vocal identity. And he almost makes the co-opting of George seem not kinky and ridiculous but tragic. No small feat.

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