A light-hearted production with a heavy dose of love for the Village’s cultural heritage and Off-Broadway (and Off-Off and Off-Off-Off-Broadway) theater, The Greenwich Village Follies is high spirited and deliciously raunchy, offering an overview of the Village’s history in the form of an old-school musical revue.
Reviewed by Ilena George
Back in the early 1900s, the Greenwich Village Theater (long since razed and replaced with a commercial building) became famous for housing the Greenwich Village Follies, a smaller scale version of big budget Broadway revues popular at the time. The Follies made up in talent what it lacked in financing. But while the old Follies had the distinction of becoming the Village’s first production to transfer to Broadway, I highly doubt it had the pot dealer’s chorus line, the hilariously bad wigs and mustaches or the anthropomorphized painter’s canvas of Andrew Frank and Doug Silver’s current incarnation, playing at the Manhattan Theatre Source.
From Peter Stuyvesant to the Stonewall Riots, Poe to Pollock, pot to peaceniks, The Greenwich Village Follies brings the Village’s colorful characters and events to campy life. It’s a more self-aware version of Schoolhouse Rock meets the Ziegfeld Follies after being robbed and forced to replace all their costumes and props with cheap knock-offs. But the cheapness—put on display by having the set resemble backstage, with props carefully hung up or shelved and always completely visible—is part of the charm. The show and its performers are playful throughout, from the actors’ pre-show schmoozing with the audience, to the production’s self-deprecation (“Of course most of our theatrical tradition is filled with unemployment, anemic ticket sales, and scavenging closed shows for set pieces.”), to its inclusion of a Greenwich Village trivia contest. Just as playful and catchy is the music—just try getting the (absolutely dead-on) Washington Square Park pot dealers’ anthem out of your head. Although the performers—John-Andrew Morrison, Charlie Parker, Guy Olivieri and Patti Goettlicher—are all very talented, the production plays up its Off-Broadway status and avoids taking itself too seriously; weak spots and awkward transitions are pointed out and commented on for comic effect. The actors all address each other by name and at one point Patti segues from Guy’s recounting of various facts related to African-American history to her ode to NYU by saying, “Hey guys—not to be the little white girl who’s not interested in black history but I’m ready for my NYU song.”
Some of the material covered, especially toward the beginning, feels geared towards out-of-towners—what self-respecting New Yorker doesn’t know that Washington Square Park used to be a potter’s field, or about the misogyny and prejudice behind the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?—but the production really gains steam in its second half. Especially in “Splatter Me All Over,” where Charlie Parker as Jackson Pollock’s canvas urges the inebriated artist to cover her with what would become the artist’s signature paint drips. Parker’s captivating vocals and her ability to rock the hell out of the canvas costume (a sheet with a whole in it, stretched between two poles) makes this clever song astoundingly good. Beginning with a double entendre-laden ode to the Village’s sex shops, to a charming barbershop quartet-style homage to the recently-closed Chumley’s (the bar responsible for the expression “86 it”), to the completely brilliant “Splatter” and the surprisingly touching “Stonewall Girls,” Follies morphs from a varied and playful recap of historical events to a meatier and sleeker glimpse at the institutions and people that have shaped the Village. It’s still cheeky fun, but with a double shot of nostalgia and appreciation thrown in that just doesn’t come through in the same way earlier on.
The play ends with a musical version of former poet laureate of Brooklyn, Walt Whitman’s poem “City of Friends,” which begins: “I dream’d in a dream I saw a city, invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;/I dream’d that was the new City of Friends.” With this capping off an evening of sincere New York love, only the hardest of hearts wouldn’t melt a little.
The Greenwich Village Follies
By Andrew Frank and Doug Silver, original concept by Fran Kirmser
Directed by Andrew Frank
Manhattan Theatre Source (177 MacDougal Street)
July 6-28, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Saturday July 28th at 7 and 9 pm
Tickets: $18, Theatermania (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com
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