What is it? A one-man ukulele operetta. From The Washington Post to the Adelaide (Australia) Advertiser, the reviewers have been raving. You can’t help but love a winsome, shirtless man in highwaters and a bowler hat.

Why see it? It’s not the kind of hokey Hawaiian thing you’re probably imagining. K. Brian Neel rules the stage as Cecil B. De Ukulele, a former vaudeville superstar who makes one bad business move, and is forever after consigned to a small-time troupe in which he meets and falls head over ukulele for the strongman’s wife, a little person. When we find him, he is singing to the rats in an abandoned warehouse, for unknown reasons.

Who should go? Anyone with the slightest appreciation for the originality of a man and a ukulele singing to rats. Plus anyone who appreciates the talent it takes to put it all together.

Piccolo Spoleto Theatre Series • $25 • 1 hour 30 min • May 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, June 1 at 7:30 p.m. • Circular Congregational Church, 150 Meeting St. • (888) 374-2656

The Ghost of Vaudeville: Cecil B. DeUkulele brings back a lost tradition

Deep in the heart of K. Brian Neel lay a 1930s vaudevillian just itching for his time in the spotlight. This particular vaudevillian had a ukulele in his hand and a song in his heart — and a stretch of very, very bad luck.

Cecil B. DeUkulele, as he’s called, used to be a big star and made one bad business move. Now, with the help of some ill fortune concerning his true love, Cecil is singing to the rats in an abandoned warehouse.

One might wonder whence came this ukulele-strumming star of Vaud Rats, especially since this show has been lauded as “funny, dark, and a little heartbreaking” (Washington City Paper), “riveting” (NPR), and many other things, all of them sounding as though they come from slightly shocked reviewers who were a bit apprehensive about a 90-minute ukulele operetta.

After working in several different theater forms, including improv, Neel was cast in a vaudeville show at an old theater in Seattle, where he lives. His preparation for the show was his first interaction with vaudeville and its history. “I became very intrigued by it,” he says.

On a whim Neel bought a ukulele and began playing it. Some songs emerged, and a few of the songs lent themselves to a character. It wasn’t “one moment of inspiration,” he says. “I put the songs together into the life of someone in the vaudeville era,” and after more fiddling around, Cecil B. DeUkulele was born.

Something that can’t help but come up in a discussion of Vaud Rats is, of course, history: Vaudeville is a historic form, truly the wellspring from which all of our modern entertainment has evolved. While Neel is most proud of his music and libretto, both of which he wrote, history is always gently present in the operetta.

One aspect that Neel was interested in was the anonymity of vaudeville; although it was one of the most important theatrical achievements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, most folks today know almost nothing about it.

So Neel started looking into it more, stumbling on to some fascinating stuff.

There’s the story of little Rose Marie, on whom one of the characters in Vaud Rats is based. She was a huge child star near the turn of the 20th century who was so popular that even though her father was jailed every night for forcing or allowing her to perform (it was considered child labor), he was bailed out every time by adoring fans and money-hungry managers.

While you’re watching Neel perform at the Circular Congregational Church, with its beautiful graveyard an ever-present reminder of who and what has come before us, take a moment to appreciate those vaudevillian ghosts of the past.

They just might be there, taking in a slightly shinier, slightly updated version of their master contribution to American theater.

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