AISLE SAY Philadelphia


by Vartan Petrossian
Directed by Edward Keith Baker
Bristol Riverside Theatre
120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA 19007
Box Office: (215) 785-0100

Reviewed by Claudia Perry

In the world of show business probably the most difficult thing to be is consistently funny. And the only thing one could imagine to be harder than this is to be consistently funny in another language other than your own. Hence, it is rather astounding that the most successful parts of Vartan Petrossian's original one-man show, "Between Two Mountains" are the clever puns and word play throughout his monologues of political satire. For you see, Mr. Petrossian is Armenian and was brought here by director Edward Keith Baker for the inaugural presentation of the recently established USA-Armenia Theatrical Exchange Project. (US-ATEP). Spearheaded by Bristol Riverside Theatre, US-ATEP advocates cultural, diplomatic and economic ties between the United States and Armenia, chiefly through theatrical collaborations, according to Susan D. Atkinson, Founding Producing Director of Bristol Riverside.

Starring Vartan Petrossian, "Between Two Mountains" was written by him expressly for its US premiere and was co-produced with the Vartan Petrossian Cultural Foundation. Two film crews, one Armenian, the other American were on hand to document the opening night. The ensuing features, produced separately for English and Armenian speaking audiences, will include behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the various professionals who helped to mount the piece. The show is a melange of sketch material, songs and impersonations of the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Elvis. Mr. Petrossian plays many different characters, imitates the sounds of musical instruments and plays the guitar, the trumpet, the violin and the duduk (the Armenian flute).

Vartan Petrossian is one of Armenia's most beloved entertainers and it is easy to understand why. It can truly be said of him that he is certainly the hardest working man in Armenian show business. He is most ably backed up by a musical jazz quintet of the highest quality consisting of piano, bass, drums, guitar and trombone. Most notably, Martin Vardazarian, (Vartan's accompanist who "accompanied" him all the way from Armenia) stands out as a jazz pianist of the highest caliber who is also a composer in his own "write" (having composed music for over 100 theatrical productions, 40 films and five musicals). According to Paul Morris, the trombonist, there were no charts at the first rehearsals. The musicians were expected to improvise around Vartan and Martin who had obviously worked together many times before. When the material was finally set, Martin would sketch out a skeletal chart. So it was a great surprise and delight, and to the credit of the musicians involved, that the musical numbers and the incidental musical moments sounded as solid and well arranged as they did. One would have sworn they were playing an intricate Broadway score.

However, oddly enough, the least successful moments in the piece are ultimately the musical ones -- simply because of the material Mr. Petrossian selects to sing. He hops about the stage singing two songs from Disney's "Jungle Book" -- And because of Mr. Vartan's heavy accent, when he sings such comic material, we are, unfortunately, reminded of Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd's stereotypical "wild and crazy guys". And so it appears that even though he is standing in a tuxedo with spats to boot -- once that image comes to mind -- it is hard to shake. Mr. Petrossian is more successful at reaching out to us when he sings one of his own Armenian songs in his native tongue as he strums a guitar. The song, "Marina" is a pretty, upbeat melody and Vartan accompanies himself admirably. But his short tooting on a trumpet seems rather pointless as does his pizzicata stint on the violin. One can't help feeling that this would have gone over great in the old Vaudeville circuit, but we as theatre goers have come much further than this and we tend not to be impressed with the mere fact that somebody can play an instrument. We are more impressed by how well they play it. And so it goes with Mr. Petrossian's impersonations. His Satchmo is notable but his Ray Charles is mediocre and his Elvis plain awful. (I'm afraid we as Americans have the market cornered on Elvis. There are guys in the Poconos and Atlantic City who can sing circles around Vartan in this arena.).

It is unfortunate that in trying to do too many things Mr. Petrossian brought down the quality of his show to a dated third rate night club act. Had he concentrated on the sophisticated and witty monologues that make us smile as well as think he really would have a theatrical piece worthy of another incarnation. But perhaps this is a work in progress and will ultimately have another life. If so, I, along with many others in the audience, will be interested to see it.

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