After six previous trips to Palm Springs, I finally managed to schedule a visit to what has become an institution unto itself: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies.
From the opening chords of the “conductor” Johnny Harris’ unerring cues to the phantom Plaza Theatre Pit Orchestra, I felt right at home. Having spent the last week being moved, entertained and defrauded by a vast array of films at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, this show was just the live “tonic” needed. Even at the half-century mark, being one of the youngest members of the audience made me almost feel like an eavesdropper on this three hour extravaganza that celebrates one of North America’s fastest growing commodities: old people.
“Flying Down to Rio” is the title of this 12th season’s offering. The first big production scene is awash in brilliant colours, bananas that could haughtily fill no one’s pockets, and Latin numbers (ably choreographed for visual interest and performer safety by Joan Palethorpe and Robert Duran) that keep the ensemble moving with pizzazz. OK, as would be the case throughout this matinée performance, the tap was just a tad off the mark, but, when considering that the performers range in age from the early 60s to well into the 80s, their dancing is, well, no mean feet!
The concept is the brain child of Riff Markowitz and Mary Jardin, with the former serving as our irrepressible and sardonic emcee. Using jokes that are older than time (Q: How do you stop an elephant from stampeding? A: Cut off his stampeder!—ka-boom) and a delivery that is drier than a James Bond martini (although occasionally a consonant or two short), Markowitz has his co-seniors in the palm of his hand and helps them all laugh at their foibles—“A lane on our nation’s highways should be just for old drivers so that they can go along at 15 mph in either direction without being honked at by young people!”
Telling us how tired he is of shaking hands with satisfied customers after the performance, whose most frequent remark is to “keep it up,” served as a subtle segue to the juggling antics of Nino Frediani and his well-balanced balls and rings. Ever the showman, Frediani’s comedy kept everyone roaring and generously ignoring the few that got away.
Next up,—really—from the pit!—were the duelling golden banjoists, the octogenarian Mercer Brothers who tossed off their vaudeville act as if it were yesterday—no “best-before” date required on this timeless material. They were cajoled into “tapping” by host-turned-tyrannical-producer Markowitz, only to have the last laugh by doing so with the aid of hastily produced walkers—tears of hilarity filled our eyes.
We were paraded into the first intermission with the show-and-shine segment of the legendary follies girls as each displayed her unique gown, jewels and curvature to the delight of the men and envy of their partners that filled the spectacular Park Plaza Theatre to capacity.
The highlight of Act II was ventriloquist Sammy King and Francisco, his wise-cracking parrot. The jokes came a mile a minute, but I near collapsed in hysteria and memory of the classic Laurel & Hardy “Who’s on first?” sketch when, asked for the key in which he’d like to render his song, the Spanish bird had but one reply: “Key of si!”
But the tonality joke of the comic duo turned into the nemesis of The Four Lads who followed. This original boy band has been in existence for over fifty years, but suffered from somewhat stiff stage presence, surprisingly flat patter, and numerous times when the group’s intonation (particularly the inner voices) gave their famous love songs more pain and angst than was intended. Still, those around me cared not, happily singing along down the quartet’s memory lane.
Markowitz kicked off the final act with a slew of clarinetist jokes, continued to lambaste fundamentalist traditions (“say Amen!”) and served up more corn than an Iowa farm during harvest (Q: Where do you live? A: A little beyond my means!”).
The Stage Door Canteen (with effective use of projections, as had been the case throughout) gave us a nostalgic dose of WW II and big band classics that had every toe a tappin’.” Kit Smythe brought the house down with her sensational delivery of “My Buddy,”—the lady can still wail!
But I wished the show had stopped there, although I suppose both my age and nationality prevented me from enjoying any part of the jingoistic finale, “America!!,” which saluted and celebrated war, the military and the U.S.’s continuing role as world protector. We even had the anthem—standing ovation guaranteed.
Like Markowitz’s mother stealing Sweet and Low from restaurants reported earlier, I felt robbed by the way this brilliant show ended in such a morass of over-the-top, saccharine patriotism.
But don’t take my word for it—when next in the neighbourhood, be sure to see it for yourself; they don’t make ‘em like this anymore! JWR