The one-man show is a delicate dance. No cast mates to pick up the slack when you fall flat on a line. No graceful exit to the wings while others take the lead. And no one to point the finger at if the crowd doesn’t respond.
The flip side is that a well-written, high-energy solo performance can be among the most invigorating types of theater you’ll ever see.
For University at Buffalo graduate Tommy Koenig, his one-man show “Baby Boom Baby” falls firmly into the latter category. Koenig, who began his career in theater in the mid-1970s in Buffalo, brought his comedic take on five decades of life for the American baby boom generation to Shea’s Smith Theatre, opening Thursday night to a crowd modest in size but certainly not in appreciation for his efforts.
For 90 uninterrupted minutes, Koenig paced the stage using both song and story to navigate the waters from the 1950s to today, revisiting America through the lens of popular music.
If you like impressions, Koenig offers plenty. He plays four presidents (Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy and an absolutely hysterical Ronald Reagan), all four Beatles, and musicians ranging from Elvis and Billy Joel to Tina Turner and Lady Gaga.
Koenig pulls off playing dozens of characters through a seamless series of costume changes, primarily utilizing a collection of wigs, mustaches, mutton-chop sideburns, and a stick-on soul patch. Through it all, he offers a mix of keen insight into pop culture, and the influence of music on us all.
Koenig is Jewish, a fact that plays heavily into the show, at times a bit too much. His impressions and musical parodies stand alone, and it isn’t because of his Jewish heritage; it is because he has a wonderful stage presence, and most importantly, he is very funny. You could watch a lifetime of live theater and never see an impression of rocker Neil Young morphed with 1970s television housewife Edith Bunker. It’s the type of shtick that makes “Baby” work – likewise when he imagines Reagan and Reverend Run from the rap group Run DMC as a single person, “Ron DMC.”
There is a sweet spot to be found when both paying tribute to, and simultaneously skewering, some of America’s greatest musical talents, and Koenig nails it.
Though he is a one-man tornado on stage, part of what makes “Baby” work so well is the production behind the man. Rosemary Ponzo deserves a tip of the wig for her work on the costumes that play such an integral part of the show. Likewise to his team of producers who build the perfect backdrop to support Koenig’s efforts. From the lighting to the music, it all comes together to bring out the most in every impression, parody and observation, and leaves the audience wanting more.
“Baby” is not for everyone. The opening night crowd was an older audience, and the humor, while a bit crude at times for grandma, was largely aimed at the silver-haired set. Still, who can’t find a chuckle in a man in his 60s donning a platinum blonde wig, bright red lipstick and stockings while writhing around on the stage singing a parody of “Like a Virgin?” It’s just a good time, as is most of “Baby Boom Baby.”
The intimate Smith Theatre is the ideal venue for this wacky, one-man assault on the American music scene, and Koenig is worth every penny of admission. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe and you’ll be amazed at how much one man can pack into a single, 90-minute performance.