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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Carol Lawrence Wows Them at
The Palm Springs Follies

Also see Richard's review of When Pigs Fly

Legendary stage actress and singer Carol Lawrence appeared recently as the headliner for the fabulous Palm Springs Follies. This energetic artist, who was the original Maria in West Side Story and star of numerous Broadway musicals, still has the professionalism that made her a star. The 68 year old lady can still wow 'em with her singing and dancing.

The Palm Springs Follies is famous the world over for it extraordinary review, which features dancers, singers and star acts of persons over 55 years old. Every chorus boy and girl are “senior citizens” with lengthy and amazing biographies in show business. All have been in Broadway shows, touring companies and Las Vegas revues, and they still can sing and dance with the best of the young talent playing in New York and Vegas.

The Follies have been seen by over two million people throughout eleven sold out seasons. From November through the end of May, four separate headliners take turns as the center attraction. Upon the conclusion of this year's show, auditions will be held for the new season. Last year, over 300 professional singers and dancers auditioned and only eighteen chorus girls and boys were selected. Most of these fine artists are returning year after year to entertain the audience. The oldest chorus girl is Maxine Asbury at 82, and she still looks good as she descends the steps in a Ziegfeld revue number wearing a large rhinestone headdress. Natascha Ahlborn, a former Lido and Follies Bergere chorus beauty, can still do the splits at the age of 62.

Riff Markowitz, the guiding light and master showman, says “We promise our audiences a production equal to anything they may see in New York, Las Vegas or London. Anything less simply wouldn’t do.” Mr. Markowitz, who is one funny Catskill type comedian master of ceremonies, has impeccable timing when telling his one liners. He keeps his monologues up to date, which recently included the war in Iraq and the current state of HMOs. He loves to poke gentle fun at the senior citizens who comprise most of the audience. His best joke is the senior citizen pickup line at a dance: “Do I come here often?”

The Follies is divided into three acts. The scenes have great sets and superb costumes. This year's themes are “Flying Down to Rio,” with the full ensemble shaking those hips and legs - an opulent Ziegfeld number that reminds me of the opening scenes of Sondheim’s Follies. The girls are dressed up in sumptuous costumes. Also featured are a baseball number, the great Stage Door Canteen number featuring the songs of the WW2 and, of course, a big patriotic number called, what else, “America.” During that number, Mr. Markowitz asks members of the audience who are veterans to stand up so that they can be saluted. Hokey, yes, but still it gave me a thrill to stand up.

The Follies also features some great old time vaudeville acts. Nino Frediani, a comedy juggler, has been doing his shtick in Las Vegas for many years, and still is great throwing round rings out to the audience and they toss them back. Sammy King (with Francisco, a puppet parrot) is wonderful with a droll sense of humor.

Carol Lawrence Headliner Carol Lawrence finishes the second act with a bang. She comes out in a gorgeous white gown and immediately sings a melody of songs from West Side Story. She still has the vocal power to put over the Bernstein and Sondheim songs. She then “disappears” behind a half screen to make a change into something more daring. She dances out onto the stage dressed in a brief, red sequined outfit to the song “Ballin' the Jack.” She most certainly has the legs, the dance moves, and the charisma to make the song a success. This is followed by the upbeat “Let Me Sing a Song, a Happy Song.” This gal has energy to spare. Carol ends the act asking six men from audience to help her with her final dance number. She gives each a top hat and cane and shows them a few simple dance steps, then asks all six to hold her up as she lays in a prone position to be carried from stage left to stage right, a Cleopatra exit.

Palm Springs Follies runs approximately three hours with two 15 minute intermissions. Some of the chorus girls and boys come out into the lobby to say hello to the audience. Carol came out and Eddy and I had a long conversation with her. She signed his program for New Faces of 52 (she was a chorus girl in that revue) and the original program of West Side Story. She was most gracious and she gave Eddy a kiss.

The 12th Anniversary Season ran from November 5 - May 25, featuring headliners Gloria Loring, The Four Lads, Jane Kean, and Carol Lawrence. At present, the headliners for the 2004 edition of the Follies have not been announced, but you can bet they will be top grade over 60 performers.


Photo: Eddy Chambers


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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