The racy, funny show “Broads” from 1812 Productions has an unlikely title for a cabaret that celebrates feminism. But this is no ordinary call to action. It’s a look at the women comedians who cut a path for themselves by making people laugh the way they saw fit, social conventions be damned. That almost always meant using their femininity and stomping on taboos for laughs.
Some people might think that the first rule-breaking woman to step up to the microphone was someone in the ‘50s like the raucous Mrs. Maisel, the fictional stand-up comedian captivating TV audiences in the current Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Not so! She’s a compendium of many who went before and came after.
They’re fully on display in “Broads,” a constantly delightful 75-minute cabaret developed and directed by Jennifer Childs, who runs 1812 Productions and is a keen creator of shows that, among other subjects, celebrate comedians. This one’s especially bawdy, just like the comedians whose work it illuminates. The show’s three spirited performers – Joilet F. Harris, Mary Elizabeth Scallen and Jess Conda (all backed on the keyboard by Owen Robbins, clearly game for the enterprise) kick off with “Let Me Entertain You.” They proceed to do just that, through a fabulously rendered “You Don’t Own Me” near the end.
Those two numbers define the arc of “Broads,” which recalls the high spirits of comedians like Mae West, Sophie Tucker, Moms Mabley and Belle Barth and subtly – as subtext – shows how they pushed boundaries in front of microphones where male comics usually stood. These gals were broads – defined by the show as a woman who knows who she is, doesn’t ask for our approval and reaps rewards from being a maverick. “Good girls go to heaven but bad girls go everywhere” is among the show’s defining lines, from Mae West.
“Broads” also salutes the work of less-remembered comics (and unknown to me) like Rusty Warren, Pearl Williams, the Miami-based Patsy Abbott and the Canadian Saucy Sylvia. The show, for me, has had a lasting effect since Thursday’s opening — I’ve been surfing YouTube to learn more about these comics, and laughing a lot.
It takes only a few minutes for the three women in “Broads” to get you feeling as if you’re conspiring with them on an expedition to find outliers. Jess Conda leads the others in “Bounce Your Boobies,” Rusty Warren’s song that may be the oddest call to patriotism you’ll hear. Mary Elizabeth Scallen performs three of Sophie Tucker’s musical declarations of freedom, including “I’m Living Alone and I Like It.”
It’s a tribute to these two women that they’re not the least intimidated by Joilet F. Harris, an actress and singer whose mere presence can overtake a stage. The show’s sweetest moment comes with Harris’ moving rendition of “Abraham, Martin and John” – the tribute to Lincoln, King and the Kennedy brothers. Moms Mabley, we’re told in the show, sang that song in support of civil rights.
“Broads” is the sort of evening everyone needs. You get history. You get saucy performances. You learn stuff you never knew. And you laugh a lot. Now I’m signing off, to hit the Internet and laugh some more.
“Broads,” from 1812 Productions, runs through Feb. 24 at Plays & Players Theatre on Delancey Place between 17th and 18th Streets. 215-592-9560 or 1812productions.org.