Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic
Cynthia von Buhler is back with a new immersive adventure set on old Broadway.
There I was with silent film star Billie Burke (the ghostly Haleigh Ciel), sitting on a pink cushion inside a giant chandelier suspended high above the Liberty Theatre. "Let's make him jealous," she whispered in my ear, gesturing toward the box occupied by her husband, the legendary impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (Russell Farhang). Suddenly, she planted a big kiss on my cheek. Distracted by multiple showgirls, he didn't seem to mind. Or was it that he saw me, light in my red velvet loafers, as no threat to his virile dominance of the Midnight Frolic?
This detailed and immersive re-creation of Broadway past is the latest in the Speakeasy Dollhouse series of writer, director, and visual artist Cynthia von Buhler. The original (subtitled The Bloody Beginning) is a long-running cult hit that takes audiences inside a speakeasy on the Lower East Side. The Brothers Booth, about the famous family of actors (and one assassin), was the second installment, taking place at the Players Club in Gramercy Park. Von Buhler takes another step uptown with Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic, centered around the man whose Follies have become synonymous with Broadway spectacle. Deliciously, it plays right next door to the New Amsterdam Theatre, where so many of the events it depicts took place.
This is a world of flappers and showgirls, comedians and crooners. Part of the event is a cabaret hosted by Eddie Cantor (a crisp-voiced Chris Fink). We enjoy acts associated with Ziegfeld including Fanny Brice (Erica Vlahinos), Will Rogers (Bobby Underwood), and Josephine Baker (the limber and magnetic Delysia La Chatte). They perform some of these artists' greatest hits, like Cantor's signature "Makin' Whoopee" (Fink eschews Cantor's eye-rolling routine, opting for something that feels more like a possessed marionette). Perhaps as a way to show continuity in American culture, the standards of yesteryear are interspersed with Jazz Age arrangements of songs by Sia, Gotye, and Daft Punk, presented in a manner reminiscent of Jinkx Monsoon in The Vaudevillians. "I'm up all night to get lucky," a pepped-up Jack Pickford (Joey Calveri) sings with a maniacal glare in his eyes. It almost feels like being inside a Baz Luhrmann movie.
Behind the scenes we discover a darker plot afoot as we investigate the true story of Olive Thomas (Syrie Moskowitz), a follies girl who suspiciously died in Paris during her 1920 honeymoon with Pickford, the decidedly less talented brother of movie star Mary Pickford. Was she murdered or did she accidentally drink her husband's syphilis medication thinking it was booze? We have the opportunity to speak with members of the cast throughout the evening as we uncover clues to this century-old unsolved mystery.
Von Buhler (who also designed the sets) has created multiple detailed spaces within the cavernous Liberty Theatre: a hotel room at the Ritz, a gallery for painter Alberto Vargas (Frank Neuman), and even a nightmarish version of Paris, complete with Eugène Delacroix paintings whose subjects turn into skeletons as the light shifts, like in a haunted house. If you tire of the stage show, you'll always find more to explore.
Unfortunately, not all the performances are as well researched and fully realized as the design, with some actors committing only tepidly to their roles. Throughout the evening I heard numerous invocations of Florenz Ziegfield (it's pronounced Ziegfeld). As the eponymous producer, Farhang (who is married to von Buhler) looks far too baby-faced to be portraying a man who would be well into his 50s during the time of the play. In fact, the entire cast skews young, as does the audience.
The original Midnight Frolic, which took place on the roof of the New Amsterdam, was geared toward New York's high rollers, who often lavished expensive gifts upon their favorite showgirls in exchange for a bit of the personal touch. This 21st-century iteration seems to have attracted young denizens of the city's finance and tech sectors, who personalize the experience through myriad selfies to be shared on social media. (The production never requests that we silence our cell phones.) While Anya Sapozhnikova's aerial choreography (featuring beautiful girls swinging from the chandelier) is truly stunning set to live music, the splendor is somewhat diminished by the regular flash of iPhone cameras.
Still, there are worse ways to spend an evening than discovering the bizarre true history of 42nd Street through well-crafted song and dance and an old-fashioned whodunit that you get to experience up close. Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic offers that with thrilling and unique style.