This is the first time Caesar - master of ceremonies at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 3's production of
Caesar's Palace O' Fun
- has performed in Philadelphia. But for roughly a decade, audiences at San Francisco's and Seattle's cabaret/circus/restaurant Teatro ZinZanni have hailed Frank Ferrante's alter ego Caesar as an impresario extraordinaire.
While Caesar is new to our town, Ferrante is a Walnut regular, both as performer and director, though he's perhaps best known for An Evening With Groucho, his touring show about Groucho Marx. But what to make of Caesar, this Latin lothario who accosts audience members with the honey-tongued tag line, "Look at yooou," and enters dressed in a suit shaped like a glitzy Ionic column (courtesy of ZinZanni costumer Beaver Bauer)?
He's somewhere between Philly's own lounge-lizard loverman Johnny Showcase and perennial Halloween host Henri David in terms of louche-ness and showmanship, sprinkling grimace-worthy jokes among variety show-style segments such as "Healthy Time With Caesar - Clean Living Through Dirty Martinis."
Thing is, Ferrante and director Stefan Haves must know that Caesar, colorful though he is, can't carry the show's 70 minutes. To this end, they've enlisted Jennie Eisenhower (winner of the 2009 Barrymore for her performance in Forbidden Broadway, also in Studio 3) as Caesar's long-lost daughter, Fern, and sideshow artist David Smith as sideshow artist Little Johnny.
Thus, Caesar's act is an odd mix of whip-cracking, cornball humor and song, which overall makes for a fairly entertaining, if off-kilter, evening, though far family-friendlier than expected.
The space is tight, and set designer Robert Kramer has stuffed it so full of colors and patterns that it's tough to resist Ferrante's madcap enthusiasm; it helps that he's sweating every round of applause, and even more that he's doing it while perched on a cheetah-spotted settee, surrounded by zebra-print, fuchsia, and gold everywhere else.
Smith is no actor, but gets the job done with skill and some danger, which is really all one asks of a circus performer anyway. Eisenhower brings her usual frantic energy to the party, and her numbers with Smith are the highest notes in an already high-pitched event.
There's no deeper meaning here, no Christmas miracle, other than Smith's getting that sword all the way down his throat. Ferrante, by way of Caesar, is really just going for truth in advertising. It's a palace of fun, all right, inhabited by an entirely benevolent king.
Through Jan. 2 at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 3, 825 Walnut St., Tickets: $30. Information: 1-800-982-2787 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.