It probably is not often that a cultural group originates in an embassy. But that was the case with The British Players, a troupe now celebrating its 55th anniversary. Although they moved from the British Embassy in 2011 to Kensington Town Hall, the Players retain their British traditions.
The Players typically present British plays, known as Pantomimes, which combine song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, in-jokes, audience participation and mild innuendos. Performances happened at Christmastime and Old Time British Music Halls.
The British Players will perform their version of a Music Hall event for their 53rd time as a part of their tradition.
Music halls originated in the late 19th century in the saloons of public houses and mostly faded away after World War I. They incorporated popular songs, comedy and specialty and variety acts, as do The British Players version, said Joe Lilek, who is coming off the board because he is relocating. Lilek is performing in this latest Music Hall.
“It is exciting,” he said, “that our Music Halls audiences tend to draw both people that are very familiar with the songs being performed but also new people who have never attended a Music Hall before.”
A point of interest for the latter might be that the influence of American Vaudeville came from by British music halls, where such entertainment greats as Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin got their start. Jim and Jane Henson translated it into The Muppet Show, said Teri Klein Allred, who is directing the current British Players Music Hall.
Klein Allred has worked with the troupe for seven years. She trained as a ballerina — with her first teacher having been British — and now, she is staging a Players production for the first time.
“I had to do a lot of research to honor the British Music Hall tradition,” Klein Allred said, “but, at the same time, I wanted to bring my own artistic touch.”
Her job was made easier by the ability to rely on some long-time troupe members, who are experts in the art form, such as Malcolm Edwards, who plays the chairman.
“Every show has a mischievous Mr. Chairman,” said Klein Allred. Also participating are typical acts: The Bow Belles, Edwardians, soloists and Cheeky Chappie Albert Coia.
“Music Halls were sometimes bawdy, naughty, and sometimes just good fun,” she said. “These were not high-brow acts like Shakespeare.”
Unlike traditional theater, Music Halls do not have a written story or fully developed characters, who instead sing songs to the show who they are, Allred added.
Audiences get a chance to select songs in the second act, chosen to honor the artistry of specific players, she added.
There are also such crowd-pleasers as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “After the Ball,” as well as rounds such as Pack Up Your Troubles.”
Meanwhile, as Lilek prepares for his final Players performance, he thinks about how much he was going to miss them. Lilek drew an interest in British culture and studied abroad in England, where he saw a great deal of theater and his first pantomime.
“When I moved back to Washington and saw the Players were holding auditions, I said, why not?” he said.
Now, he performs “My Little Busy Bumble Bee” in the Music Hall as part of a trio.
Lastly, the setting alterations bring an authentic touch. Instead of traditional theater seats, audience members will sit at cocktail tables.
“It’s more of a cabaret setting,” Lilek said. “It’s a blast.”
Carol Strachan is the producer of the Old Time Music Hall. Arielle Bayer provided musical direction, to a five-piece orchestra.
The Old Time Music Hall takes place at the British Players’ performance space at Kensington Town Hall from June 7-22. 3710 Mitchell Street, Kensington. Admission (of $32 general admission) includes beer, wine, sodas and nibbles. www.britishplayers.org.