From Jerry Herman's Parade to Martin Charnin's No Frills Revue to nights with Betty Comden, Adolph Green and The Revuers, the original song and sketch revue has been a favorite of downtown audiences for nearly a century. With The Greenwich Village Follies, a new show that takes its name from a legendary production from the 1920s, composer/lyricist Doug Silver and bookwriter/lyricist Andrew Frank not only capture the smart, freestyle irreverence that made downtown revues so popular, but they use the format to offer an eighty-minute lesson on the history of America's first haven for artists, free-thinkers and non-conformists.
The extremely tiny space at Manhattan Theatre Source is a square room with three rows of seats on two sides, allowing for maximum intimacy and minimal design flourishes. A makeshift banner that appears to be recycled from the Sullivan Street production of The Fantasticks and some minor costume pieces and wigs are the only design elements. Pianist Michael Harren and drummer Spencer Cohen (alternating with Bryan Bisordi) are tucked away in a corner and director John-Andrew Morrison doesn't have much playing space to maneuver his cast of four around, so the emphasis is squarely on the material, which, fortunately, is clever, tuneful and a lot of fun.
Eight actors alternate performances, and the evening's quartet when I attended consisted of Morrison himself, along with Meghann Dreyfus, Patti Goettlicher and Guy Olivieri; each possessing fine musical theatre voices and displaying the kind of energetic, youthful wackiness that makes this kind of show work.
Beginning from the days when the Lenape Indians called the area "Sapokanican" (meaning "wild tobacco"), Silver and Frank manage to find music in some of the most unlikely scenarios. The spirited march, "Resist The Grid," recalls how Village residents of 1811 protested the city's plan to destroy existing streets and replace them with numbered streets and avenues. "Splatter Me All Over" is a sexy vamp that has Dreyfus, dressed as a blank canvass, hitting vocal and orgasmic climaxes as she temps Olivieri's Jackson Pollack to have his way with her. The whispered offers of drug pushers ("Smoke, smoke." "Y'need any?") are presented as rhythmic scoring to an evening in Washington Square Park.
In more sobering moments, Morrison sings "The Eleven of Us," a beautifully simple request for freedom by one of the slaves brought to New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company, with touching sincerity and Goettlicher and Dreyfus are very effective as stunned witnesses to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Goettlicher is also very funny in a song that chronicles the rise and fall of an eager young woman's career studying at NYU, a number that cabaret singers should be fighting over any day now.
The Beat Poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Peter Stuyvesant and the drag queens who led the Stonewall Rebellion are also featured, and the evening concludes with a warm tribute to all the unsung artists whose names will never be famous, but whose drive and creativity is what keeps the spirit of Greenwich Village alive.
If I have one quibble with the authors, it's that their brief section on the creation of Off-Off Broadway makes no mention of Joe Cino's Caffe Cino, regarded as the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway and Gay Theatre. But hey, there's nothing like a free souvenir condom to settle any differences.
Photos by Peter James Zielinski: Top: Meghann Dreyfus, Chris French, Patti Goettlicher and Kevin R. Free; Bottom: Chris French, John-Andrew Morrison, Meghann Dreyfus and Patti Goettlicher.
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