I smiled (slightly). I laughed (occasionally). I applauded (politely).
I sighed (heavily).
Sadly, that was the best I could muster watching Ja-Makin’-Me Laugh, the new, low-wattage afternoon hour-filler at The D, starring ventriloquist Patrick Murray and his Caribbean-themed dummy/doll Matilda (ergo, “Ja-Makin’”).
Vegas ventriloquism largely makes its stand at The Mirage, where Terry Fator stars opposite his cast of wooden wiseacres. Come late November, the genre gets a big-time bump when Jeff Dunham begins a Planet Hollywood residency with his fairly edgy shtick, such as his Achmed the Dead Terrorist dummy—the type of contemporary creative juice that keeps this honorable but somewhat creaky art form oiled up.
Unfortunately, Murray is a waaaay-back throwback to Edgar Bergen and his quaint patter with Charlie McCarthy that’s too retro and contained to generate any performance heat.
Resembling Ed Begley Jr., Murray is a likable, low-key fella with a technical virtuosity—the dude is a damn good ventriloquist. (Although the optics are odd: Murray looks like he just stepped off the set of The Andy Griffith Show, pairing with a very tiny Ziggy Marley backup dancer). Unlike Fator and Dunham, though, he fades into such a backseat role behind his Muppet-ish sidekick that the dummy might as well be doing puppet stand-up with a microphoned Murray throwing his voice from the wings.
Crafting a routine that casts himself as an extremely straight straight man, he’s barely more than a punch-line prompter for Matilda’s Jamaican-accented rants that are sometimes long, breathless and annoying to the point where you’re waiting for him/her to start gasping for air. During a recent performance, the 20 or so showroom patrons rewarded this effort with restrained applause that was more appreciative of Murray’s stamina than his material.
Very little of the latter has real punch. Jokes fall along familiar lines: marriage, airports, businesses with voice-mail jail and other technological irritants, TV drug commercials and familiar Vegas tropes about gambling and tourists (and a couple of curious, personal-sounding digs at Downtown competitor the Plaza, which suggest they’re driven by some behind-the-scenes grudge). Occasionally, an offbeat bit, such as using “squat toilets” in the Far East, breaks away from the standard checklist.
Nearly all the way through, Murray’s role as himself amounts to: “What did you think of that, Matilda?” “How did you respond to that, Matilda?” and “Why does that bother you, Matilda?”
Never do we forget that in their shows, Fator and Dunham are the headliners we’ve come to see, working with their clever props. Comparatively, Murray is splashing around in the kiddie pool—he can’t benefit by any Fator-style frills such as video montages and a sexy assistant—but the entertainment principle remains constant. And it’s violated.
The prop owns this show.
Rather than a zesty verbal tennis match between two comics—one of which happens to not be human—this is essentially a dummy monologue with a human facilitator whose voice does all the work but whose stage presence might as well be no presence at all.
That reduces him to a puppeteer and Ja Makin’ Me Laugh to a puppet show. And that feels as small as it sounds.
Got an entertainment tip? Email Steve.Bornfeld@VegasSeven.com.