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Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic
Photo by ROAM Pictures

Entering the Liberty Theatre is like stepping back in time. The quaint, yet opulent design that speaks of an era when even the second-tier venues needed to prove something, the sense of peeling paint and forced dilapidation hiding behind a thin veneer of makeup that might be just enough to make it look presentable but isn't enough to fool you... This remarkable well intact, yet quietly decaying space may not have been in use as a Broadway playhouse since it closed at 29 in 1933 (though it's been used for movies and other events), but you can imagine it being pulled into service at any moment for an emergency revival of the James Goldman–Stephen Sondheim musical Follies.

That quality is especially apt given the new entertainment that has just opened at the Liberty, Speakeasy Dollhouse. Cynthia von Buhler's curious, approximate entertainment longs to summon exactly the era that Follies celebrated: of the real Follies, the Ziegfeld kind, with barely clad showgirls, teeming elegance, and an atmosphere of accepted naughtiness, where you can realize your wildest fantasies—if only onstage—provided your timing and your bank account are right.

Von Buhler has captured, in her dizzyingly elaborate production, the forbidden glory of it all. Seizing on the popularity of Sleep No More and the timeless appeal of environmental theatre à la María Irene Fornés, she's spun a spangly, slithering web of dreams that consumes every square inch of the Liberty for nearly four hours, from the house opening to the curtain coming down. She's technically recreating (or, rather, reimagining) a 1920 performance of the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, which played just next door at the New Amsterdam's rooftop theater. But when everyone you meet, from a poor woman selling face cream to the doting hostesses to the half-naked Ziegfeld Girls upstairs who'll offer you a hand (and, though they don't say it, you suspect quite a bit more), you won't want to question the authenticity too much.

It feels real, at any rate, thanks to the theater, costume designer Carmela Lane, and especially von Buhler, whose creating, writing, directing, and set design could not be more evocative as long as long as the evening—not the play—is the thing. It's when she switches over that the problems start.

Speakeasy Dollhouse attempts to use the Frolic as the background for telling the story of Olive Thomas, with whom impresario Florenz Ziegfeld had a rather torrid affair before Olive found and married screen star Jack Pickford, only to die under unclear circumstances during a trip with him to Paris. I suppose the point is to show how the frivolous, carefree nature of the Frolic, reflected in emcee Eddie Cantor and stars Will Rogers, Josephine Baker, Marilyn Miller, Helen Gallagher, and more, is an ironic counterpoint to the tragic life and mysterious death of the superstar Thomas in the making.

It doesn't come off that way. Because there's practically no plot, and what little you learn of Thomas (Syrie Moskowitz), Pickford (Joey Calveri), and Ziegfeld (Russell Farhang) comes by way of their heated ejaculations in between the numbers of Act I, across a solid three hours of playing time, you are confronted by—and I'm going to be generous here—15 minutes of action. The rest of the time is devoted to the Frolic or intermissions (there are three, all full-length), during which you may also visit the upstairs-backstage "Paris" to witness one or another interpretation of how Olive died. But your ghoulish tour guide there, not to mention the presence of yet another bar (I noticed a minimum of three), might distract you from absorbing any of the historical or emotional information that may be on display.

Though you're apparently only supposed to visit Paris once, von Buhler encouraged me to go twice, during which I saw Thomas and Pickford have one very public confrontation, and another (against an abrasive, lacerating number by composer Billy Butler) more private one that suggested Thomas's accidental death. Winding your way through the tortured hallways and into the secret lounges and bedrooms couched within the walls is fascinating, yes, but I can't say I learned much I didn't already know; Calveri and Moskowitz, though giving it their all, were not cutting magnetic personalities; and any connection with what was happening "onstage" was tenuous at best.

The aerial ballets, of which there are several, seem jaggedly wrong—all Cirque du Soleil swank rather than Ziegfeld opulence. But the real numbers are much better, counting such classics as "Ain't We Got Fun," "I'll Take Manhattan," "Makin' Whoopie," "Blue Skies," "My Man," and more, are well (if not exceptionally) performed, correct in their brash and almost taunting attitude, proficiency (the small band, under the direction of Alphonso Horne, is superb), and cast size. (The programs lists almost three dozen performers.) But only Chris Fink hinted at genuine star power as Cantor, with a scooping, enveloping tenor voice and an authoritative comic manner that tried to grab you and not let go. The other headliners, and there were plenty of them on display, were not done similar justice. Farhang, for example, alternately smiled and brooded, but evinced none of the real Ziegfeld's allure of power; he created all this, he's the Frolic's God, so shouldn't he act like it?

The only deity at work in Speakeasy Dollhouse is von Buhler, and her visionary pursuits are as impressive as her methods of executing them are faulty. Telling a story is one thing, establishing a universe is another, and getting them to meet in the middle is yet something else entirely. Just a traffic cop, who ensures you see what you need to, when you need to, would be an enormous help. But articulating the why behind the glitter, and thrusting you into not just the theater but the minds who bestowed it with the legendary status it retains yet today, would be a better way to honor a house and a species of showmaker they just don't make anymore.


Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic
Through June 6
Liberty Theater, 234 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix


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