Patinkin, Mac Bring ‘Vaudeville’ to A.R.T. (4 Stars)

‘The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville’ – Starring Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac; Direction & Choreography by Susan Stroman; Musical Direction by Paul Ford. Presented by the American Repertory Theater in association with Staci Levine Groundswell Theatricals at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge through May 31st.

With climate change (thankfully) emerging as a topic of everyday conversation just as it appears to be getting dangerously close to being too late to be able to do anything about it, the producers of “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville” (now playing at the A. R. T.) must have thought it was high time for an environmentally-themed apocalyptic – musical. And they may be right, at least from an entertainment perspective.

Who needs another film with brain-craving zombies when we can celebrate the end of the world in style with a little soft shoe and some lesser known tunes from the American Song Book (and some newer ones too)?  And who better to be involved with such a project than musical theater icon Mandy Patinkin and performance artist Taylor Mac, along with five-time Tony Award winner choreographer/director Susan Stroman and musical director Paul Ford (pianist for the original Broadway productions of “Into the Woods”, “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Assassins”)? The collaboration of these heavyweights results in a production that focuses not on what lies ahead in a post-apocalyptic world, but instead as a damn fine excuse to watch two terrific performers interpret a collection of not-so-popular but nonetheless marvelous music that spans nearly a century.
The setting for the performance (designed by Beowulf Borrit) is the devastated planet Earth following a flood of the likes not seen since Noah built his Ark – which leaves Patinkin and Mac as “The Last Two People on Earth”. The Stan Laurel-esque Mac washes ashore and finds crusty companion Patinkin holed up in a trunk trying to stave off the elements, and an uneasy friendship blossoms as the two sing and dance their way to the end of the world. The show opens with Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t It a Lovely Day (To Be Caught In The Rain)” and the traditional Russian folk song “Song of the Volga Boatmen” (later popularized by Glenn Miller), before we see a clever curveball from the show’s creators with the opening stanza from “Bohemian Rhapsody”, delivered by Mac.

The show then ventures into an old school vaudeville show, which initially was a bit slapstick-y for my taste, and had me thinking that I was going to have to settle in for a pleasant but less-than thrilling evening of cute shtick. That is, right up until the duo broke into REM’s “It’s The End of The World as We Know It” and delivered a welcome burst of energy to the production, and the momentum just built from there. The pair followed up with a trio of songs by modern artists Patty Griffin (the charming “Making Pies”), Randy Newman and the Pogues, and I was pretty well hooked for the rest of the evening.
One would think that the lesser-known Mac would be overshadowed by Patinkin, but he more than holds his own, forging a nice counterpoint to the powerful tenor’s presence. And more importantly, the two mesh nicely in both the choreographed dance numbers and in their duets. The musical choices are as inspiring as they are curious. There aren’t a lot of shows where you’ll hear “My Country Tis of Thee”, “Another National Anthem” and Randy Newman’s “Ragtime Theme” strung together in a fairly coherent way to actually make a point, but this production manages to. The main takeaway for this show was the talent of the two performers (as well as cohorts Ford and Stroman) and their thoughtful selection of numbers that they wanted to perform. And it all adds up to a really fun show. For more info, go to: