Jay Johnson: The Two and Only
Thalian Hall •310 Chestnut St.
Sat., 9/15, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Tickets: $24 • www.thalianhall.org
Jay Johnson wears his history with ventriloquism close to the hip. Perhaps it’s part of his allure: to get people into a seat at his wildly popular show, “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only,” which lands at Thalian Hall on September 15th.
Johnson’s fascination with the art of ventriloquism grew as a 5-year-old boy where the marvel of throwing voices captivated him. His first professional “dummy” (or as Johnson says in a more politically correct fashion, “wooden Americans”), Squeaky, was carved by his mentor Arthur Sieving. Yet, the impetus and dream to follow in Sieving and his puppet Harry O’Shea’s footsteps are at the core of “The Two and Only”; one may even call it Johnson’s love letter to his mentor. From what reviews nationwide hail, it gives an otherwise theatrical and animated evening heart. “I love telling the story,” Johnson tells encore, “and I will perform it a couple of times at Thalian.” Actually, the Tony award-winning show, performed at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., will be filmed for cable and DVD.
In between the revelations of Johnson’s life, a mix of hilarity imbues a cast of puppets that revel in light-hearted and sinister romps. It’s not quite “Avenue Q” territory as seen in last year’s City Stage production; however, according to The New York Times a “foul-mouthed wooden tyke” does make an appearance. Still, it’s family-friendly for the most part, as Johnson sets up jokes for his crew, which includes a monkey, a vulture, and even a doodle on a dry-erase board.
“Eleven characters play themselves in a story about finding your voice and throwing it,” Johnson says. “A bruised tennis ball, a severed head, a reluctant snake, a toy Nutcracker, a missing-link Chimp, and the Bird of Death all get their moment.”
Their spirited exchanges—from sweet and endearing to rambunctious and sinister—not only come through in Johnson’s vocal craft, but in the movements he adorns them. It all shows his masterful skill, perfected from years of work, which started during his debut on the ‘70s sitcom, “Soap.” Johnson played Chuck Campbell whose puppet Bob was so real, he insisted everyone refer to Bob as human. Attached at the hip, Bob would go everywhere with Chuck, and reveal things his “master” was too kind or composed to say. The story’s basic premise provides an interesting parallel into a ventriloquist’s art form of expression. Addressing the depths of one’s oddities and charm become accessible without judgement from a human.
“What’s not to love about giving voice, spirit and life to the silent beyond?” Johnson asks rhetorically. “I think humans have a basic need to anthropomorphize things in their life, from teddy bears to imaginary playmates. It is how we develop our complex human instincts. We imagine personalities, outside of ourselves; it is a child’s natural bonding to a doll. We role-play with these imaginary personalities in controlled experiences to lean how to interact with real ones.”
Johnson went on to star as an actor in other well-known TV shows without a sidekick. He did guest-spots in old-school classics like “Love Boat” and “Gimme a Break” in the ‘80s. He also played a killer in “Columbo,” a drug dealer in “Simon and Simon” and a disturbed detective in “Broken Badges.” Reprising his Chuck and Bob role in “That ‘70s Show” introduced him to a younger audience, as did his work on the popular “Reno 911!”
“I would guess that more than half of my acting on television has been without a puppet,” he admits. “However, if written well, a ventriloquist part can be the most fun to play. Those are the ones that stand out to me.”
This weekend Wilmingtonians will be able to see Johnson return to his dream: performing a one-man—errr, multiple-man/animal/object—show. The 63-year-old will bring Bob back, too, and wax poetic on Sieving.
“The closer you come to being an artist, the more you realize that no one masters art,” Johnson muses. “Art is always expressing larger and more extravagant concepts to contemplate. Art plays a very prominent role in ‘The Two and Only.’ Although it is a show about a ventriloquist, I think I say the word ‘art’ more times than the word ‘ventriloquist.’”