Issue No. 651, March 20-27, 2008

POOR BABY BREE (Bree Benton)

SHE LOOKS like one of those helpless, hopeless girls who wound up tied to the railroad tracks in silent-movie serials. She might also have stepped off a Depression-era breadline, with her shoeless feet, rag dress, and cloth sack tied to a stick. Poor Baby Bree is how she’s known, and by popular demand she’ll return to Don’t Tell Mama for the second reprise of Weary River, her almost-solo “vaudeville tragedy.” (TONY contributor Franklin Bruno accompanies on piano.)

Poor Baby Bree is really Bree Benton, 35 and a newcomer to cabaret. But her arresting characterization – unbroken for the length of her show – is worthy of a small theater. She drifts into view, worldly goods slung over her shoulder, and through vintage recitations and songs of woe she recalls every defeated wretch who traipsed through early twentieth-century America, looking for home and hanging on by a thread. Opening her bag, she pulls out her “babies” – antique dolls, to whom she sings. Is she insane, or just lonesome? Benton drew her laments from tattered sheet music and acoustic 78s. Her voice is the frail warble heard on those tinny recordings; her face the portrait of despair immortalized by Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and other silent-era waifs.

To hear of her incongruous family connection – she’s the stepdaughter of Richard Belzer, the cranky, politically-minded comic actor – makes one all the more curious: What led her to adopt this antique persona? So hauntingly does she inhabit it that you may conclude that Bree Benton is not of this time nor even this world. -James Gavin