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Ziegfeld Follies of the Air – The New 1934 Live From Broadway Broadcast Revue
The Ziegfeld Society’s first full-fledged fundraiser comes to us a live radio broadcast direct from Heaven’s WHVN. Replete with period microphones and an on stage sound effects man/announcer Arthur Nichols (Ian Whitt) brandishing an APPLAUSE sign, the star-studded revue features many of Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld’s top performers, some undoubtedly there on special leave from lower depths.
The 1934 Ziegfeld Follies Quartet: Jamie Buxton as Judith Barron, Taylor James Hopkins as Jack Pepper, Chelsie Nectow as Vilma Ebsen, Matthew McFarland as Buddy Ebsen
With Paul Whiteman (Mark York) at the piano, 1919’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” forever associated with the slow descent of Ziegfeld showgirls down an inevitably elaborate staircase, is offered by The 1934 Ziegfeld Follies Quartet: Vilma Ebsen (Chelsie Nectow), Buddy Ebsen (Matthew McFarland), Judith Barron (Jamie Buxton), and Jack Pepper (Taylor James Hopkins). The able, young singers intermittently deliver commercial jingles like Buster Brown and Atlas Elevator Shoes, as well as providing harmonized backup.
Our well turned out Host, actor Eddie Dowling (Walter Willison), introduces each vocalist with sweeping appreciation. All are attired according to character by Costume Designer Mitchell Bloom.
Walter Willison as Eddie Dowling
Ruth Etting (Candice Oden) and Marilyn Miller (a sparkling Erin Cronican) arrive in tandem with excerpts from too many songs, leaving a choppy impression. Billie Burke, Mrs. Ziegfeld (Carole Demas) sings:.. You can do any little thing that you’ve a mind to, but you must do it with a twinkle in your eye…with flirty class. Later Burke is inexplicably interrupted by Marilyn Miller while performing “Look For the Silver Lining” , at first infuriated and then reconciled during the number. Clearly the writers know something we do not.
David Giardina as Will Rogers; Lee Horwin as Libby Holman
“In 1934, the #1 female box office star was Shirley Temple, the #1 male was Will Rogers. As Rogers, David Giardina sings a couple of laconic western songs with a little patter between. Both look and vocal style reflect the original without imitating. During the Quartet’s evocative rendition of “Limehouse Blues,” we have the unexpected pleasure of dancers Renee and Tony DeMarco (Heather Gehring and Lou Brockman) giving the radio audience time to refill cocktail shakers. Tango-ish choreography designed for the small stage is a marvel of sinuous winding and draping. Ms. Gehring reminds one of Cyd Charisse.
As Helen Morgan, Shelly Burch excels at Morgan’s warble, unstable octaves, and drunken spaciness. (Does the audience know Morgan was an alcoholic?) Lee Horwin’s scandalous Libby Holman has the right, deep, almost singing style. “Moanin’ Low” and “Am I Blue?” emerge with apt cynicism. Enough biographical monologue for its own show, however, tips this event’s balance. “You’re all wondering if I did it. (murdered her young husband). I take Jeanne Eagels’s advice, Keep your trap shut and become a legend.”
Carole Demas as Billie Burke; Erin Cronican as Marilyn Miller
Sheila Wormer plays Mr. Ziegfeld’s secretary Matilda “Goldie” Glough at first passing through the audience reminding us about cell phones and then in a ba-dump-dump conversation with Dowling. Ms. Wormer is good, the material not so much. Fanny Brice (Loni Ackerman), with nasal tonality, sings the unfamiliar “Becky is Back at The Ballet,” a strange choice considering the star’s signature numbers. Her last purposefully awkward turn lands the vocalist in a decidedly humorous, Brice position from which she has to be hoisted up. Dowling/Willison’s excellent, infectiously happy “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” and tender reprise of “A Pretty Girl…” are highlights.
Heather Gehring and Lou Brockman as Renee and Tony DeMarco
Also, indisputably a highlight, is the appearance of Mistinguett (Liliane Montevecchi) whom Ziegfeld pursued for his extravaganzas but never secured. Head to toe in flame red velvet (with boa), Montevecchi launches “Je Cherche Un Millionaire” and “Mon Homme” (“My Man”, a 1916 French song, then popularized in translation by Fanny Brice in 1921) with bravado, showing her fabulous legs, sharing anecdotes. (She once dined with Mistinguett and later played the veteran on stage.) “I was a star of The Folies Bergère for 10 years. I was covered in feathers. This is what’s left,” quips the famously wry artiste.
Mark York, Founder of The Ziegfeld Society and Artistic Director Walter Willison then surprise Montevecchi with its first annual Lifetime Achievement Award. The packed house erupts.
Mark York as Paul Whiteman; Liliane Montevecchi as Mistinguett
Mark York’s Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano are symbiotically with performers every step of the way. Treatment of classic material is authentic and appealing.
This is an ambitious show with failings and successes. Talent is a mixed bag. Research is impressive. The Ziegfeld Society celebrates a link in entertainment history which should be supported, preserved, and enjoyed:
“The Ziegfeld Society of New York City, a not-for-profit organization, aspires to enlighten, entertain and educate current and future generations of theatergoers and young artists about the legendary performers, songwriters and creators of our vast musical theater heritage.”
Photos by Steve Friedman
Opening: Liliane Montevecchi receiving her award from Mark York
The Ziegfeld Society presents Ziegfeld Follies Of The Air- The New 1934 Live From Broadway Broadcast Revue
Devised and Directed by Walter Willison,
Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano by Mark York
Broadway at Birdland
315 West 44th St. (With Thanks to Jim Caruso)
January 30, 2017
NEXT ZIEGFELD SOCIETY EVENT: Call On Dolly! A Celebration of the Broadway Hit Musical Hello Dolly starring Richard Skipper February 25, 2017 3:30 Hunter College email@example.com
FOR RESERVATIONS – Call Lucy 917-371-5509
From 1913-1929, New York’s Palace Theatre was arguably the Valhalla of Vaudeville. Among notable headliners Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and Ethel Merman was world famous magician/escape artist, Harry Houdini. This holiday season, the Palace hosts a third iteration of the Illusionists, bringing magic in its many forms back to a grand old house where the atmosphere eminently suits.
The show is artfully packaged. Angela Aaron’s attractive Costumes are those of successful nineteenth century entertainers. There’s no doubt mustaches look better below top hats or boaters and above frock coats. Women sparkle. (There are no equal time female magicians) Paul Smith’s evocative lighting and Evan Jolly’s buoyant, dramatic music add pizzazz. The band wears white tie. Sparklers add a celebratory aura. A large, framed video screen allows the audience to observe everything up close. (NICE Studios-Graphic & Video Design) Much of what one sees is familiar to magic aficionados (most of you are likely not) but performed with flair. The show is fun.
Thommy Ten and Amelie Van Tass (The Clairvoyants)
Thommy Ten and Amelie Van Tass (The Clairvoyants), 2016 runners up on America’s Got Talent, begin theatrically, by asking the audience to rise, watch a deck of cards shuffled on the screen, and secretly select one. 98% of us chose one of two cards they identify. Later in the show, presenting an iconic formula, Ten goes into the audience borrowing various objects his blindfolded collaborator must identify. Not only does Van Tass intuit a lipstick but the Dior brand, not only that paper money is a five dollar bill, but its serial number and the birthday of its owner. In Act II, she gleans the number of scooped jelly beans.
Rick Thomas (The Immortal)
Rick Thomas (The Immortal), who declares himself “not bound by the laws of nature”, presents the chestnut illusion of open boxes in which objects and people disappear. With little personal spin, this is less effective than it might be. He’s more fun with the classic fluency of endless doves emerging from handkerchiefs (and thin air) and hosts Act II’s “The Parlor” with brio. This segment employs volunteers gathered at intermission who are called upon to participate in short bits. Hapless human guinea pigs are humorously handled. Say that five times fast.
Audience Volunteer and Jonathan Goodwin (The Daredevil)
Self avowed “Daredevil” Jonathan Goodwin is interested in pain tolerance and escapes, not tricks. He convinces a volunteer to lay on a bed of nails-not as tough as it looks. Then he replaces 1000 with a single nail on which he lays (as hard as it looks), asking her (with aid from an assistant) to break a cinder block on his chest with a sledgehammer. This is likely more of an accomplishment than getting out of a pair of regulation police handcuffs (with a pick) while hanging by your teeth from a burning rope above a bed of spikes. Theatricality reigns.
Audience Volunteer, Dana Daniels (The Charlatan), and Luigi
The funniest artist in the group is Dana Daniels (The Charlatan) and his (live) psychic parrot Luigi. Impeccable comic timing and artfully botched effects delight his child volunteer and audience alike. Expectations of the feathered collaborator are repeatedly dashed- save that he removes a card from the deck with his beak- but then, as Daniels keeps reminding us, “He’s a bird!” (What can one expect?!) In Act II, it’s not so much that The Charlatan cuts a volunteer’s initialed dollar bill out of an orange (if you’ve never seen this, it’s a wow), but all that leads up to the reveal. A stylish, entertaining performance at every turn.
Justo Thaus presents an unexpected take on his new found craft with a marionette called The Grand Carlini. On stage, we see him manipulate the doll, while the screen shows only a diminutive conjurer. Though its movement is not nuanced, the charming Carlini does, in fact perform magic.
Charlie Frye (The Eccentric); Rick Thomas (The Immortal)
Decorative Jinger Leigh (The Conjuress) commands a floating sphere and acts as an assistant. “One of the oldest tricks in the book is cutting an object in half, then putting it back together.” In 1921, British magician P. T. Selbit was the first to publicly saw a woman in half. Creative Director Mark Kalin (The Showman) executes the illusion with panache. Charlie Frye (The Eccentric) is a fine juggler but in no way the clown he’s dressed to represent.
Director Neil Dorward offers a menu of acts and effects selected for successive variation. Pace clips along with only one parentheses, juggling by Frye, clocking long. Transitions are smooth. Audience volunteers are well chosen= game, and given time to respond= well handled. The big stage is used with aesthetic skill.Patter is engaging, especially that referring to the framing period (Writer, Historical Magic Consultant- Mike Caveney)
My only caveat is the last effect. The Clairvoyants end the show with an oft used crowd pleasing premise they fail to set up. The couple lower and open a box suspended above the stage which holds a letter ostensibly written by Van Tass entr’acte. It describes half a dozen things that happened after it was written. Alas, the audience is unaware of the importance of the box until it comes down. Many have, in fact, not noticed it. We’re deprived of the usual curious anticipation.
Photos Courtesy of The Illusionists Opening: Jinger Leigh and Mark Kalin
Actor/Author/“Marcel Marceau-card-carrying Mime.” Bill Bowers has performed and led workshops in all 50 states and 25 countries …in school gymnasiums, homeless shelters, parking lots and at The White House.
In St. Ignatius, Montana, he tried to bring the wonder of silent expression to a room full of uncomprehending Amish kids. In Warsaw, Poland, he offered a show about growing up gay to a population that for seven days set fire to an art installation comprised of a rainbow of flowers signifying peace and acceptance. In Atlanta, Georgia, he was stranded in his car 21 hours between shows during the city’s 2014 freak snowstorm – wherein he received a Kafkaesque overture of aid and was grateful for an empty coffee cup.
Bowers is the kind of man you’d value as a friend – creative, smart, curious, wry, and kind. When a crowded St. Louis bus is stymied by a confused passenger in a wheelchair, he not only gets him out of the vehicle, but serendipitously ends up sharing something of a mystical experience. Unpredictable communication with a 17 year-old Macedonian becomes something of an O. Henry story. (There are moments of sheer poetry.) In Billings, Montana, his workshop is attended by a 15 pound bunny rabbit named Rocky who emails after the event. He writes back. This wonderfully surprising chapter goes on several years.
The date and location of each show are projected onto three screens in a charmingly naïve manner (Projection Designer – Bryce Cutler) while Bowers uses only rearranged chairs as his set. There are moments of mime, but in this most recent presentation, the thespian acts as raconteur rather than full-out practitioner of his art. One of his shorter mime pieces would’ve been not only welcome, but for those unfamiliar, illuminating.
Bowers show has been produced in Amsterdam by The Happy Hooker – yes, that one – with a less than positive outcome except for the entertaining tale itself. An old codger in Choteau, Montana tells him “kids need to see there’s other ways to communicate than hittin’ and screamin.” His Worley, Ohio piece took place in a nudist colony.
There’s more. And every word is true. Stay a minute after Bowers’s bow and you’ll see photos of many of these events on the screens. The evening is warm and captivating, a reminder that in these difficult, cynical times, sheer humanity can, at least parenthetically, win. Bowers is a latter day Will Rogers.