Photo by Peter James Zielinski
There are times when a trip to the theater is more than just an evening out — times when there’s something in the air (fairy dust? a benevolent ghost?) that transforms a merely great performance into the kind that makes all your hairs stand on end. June 26, for those of us squeezed into folding chairs in a tiny brick room at the Manhattan Theatre Source, was one of those rare, goosebumpy nights.
It was two days after New York’s Marriage Equality Act had passed in the state legislature, and mere hours after the year’s particularly festive gay pride parade had sauntered past Washington Square. Bits of rainbow-colored confetti and stray streamers still littered the cobblestone streets. And there we were, in a funny old building on MacDougal Street — just blocks from the Stonewall Inn — watching a musical revue all about the history of Greenwich Village.
This, as performer and director John-Andrew Morrison often said, between saucy high kicks, was a “special gay pride edition” of “The Greenwich Village Follies.” The show, playing every Sunday night at 7 p.m. (whatever its edition), is the brainchild of Doug Silver and Andrew Frank, who took inspiration, in part, from a 1920s song-and-dance venue of the same name. I love an old-fashioned revue, and yet the unlikely premise of this one (a string of historical events, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to the Stonewall riots, rendered in a frothy musical format) seemed dubious to me, right up to the minute the performers walked out on stage.
Somewhere between the pre-show shmoozing (“I want to gay-marry all of you!” Morrison cooed) and the first entrance of George Washington (Guy Olivieri), crooning along with Andrews sisters-style back-up singers, my doubts vanished. Silver and Frank have resurrected all that was good about the early-20th-century revue: the sense of humor; the sweet harmonies and show-stopping tunes, and the ability to shift swiftly between many different moods. Within each vignette, the performers embody various characters from Dutch colonists to Jackson Pollock and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but between musical numbers, they interact with the audience as some version of themselves.
The four members of the cast I saw — all charming and especially radiant in light of the weekend’s cheery news — were wonderfully adept at negotiating those frequent transitions. The bright-eyed Patti Goettlicher was darling as a chipper freshman turned jaded bisexual chain-smoker in “NYU,” a cheeky ode to the peculiarities of college life on Washington Square. But she drew even bigger laughs during the group’s anthem in honor of Greenwich Village’s many sex shops, with her raunchy delivery of the line, “I’m looking for a dildo.” (Sexual liberation emerged as one of the show’s many themes; Morrison handed out condoms as prizes for audience members who correctly answered trivia questions about the neighborhood’s history.) Olivieri was appropriately seedy as Sneed, the hoodie-clad neighborhood drug dealer (peddling, on this special occasion, “marriage equali-weed”), and later, thanks in part to a misbehaving stick-on mustache, he nearly brought down the house as the protagonist in a melodramatic musical version of Village-resident Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Amidst all the jokes were a handful of genuinely moving stories from the neighborhood’s long history. Morrison, for example, was spellbinding as one of the 11 slaves working for the Dutch West India Company, who humbly asked for — and then received — land plots of their own, becoming some of the Village’s first residents.
When Silver and Frank really wanted to make a point, though, they brought out the big guns: the powerful vocal chords of Meghann Dreyfus. A song about the “grid protests” of 1811, in which Greenwich Village residents successfully prevented the city from bulldozing the neighborhood in the interest of making “rectangular plots” and “lots of lots,” switched from silly to soaring the moment Dreyfus starting singing about the “ancestry [that] lives in these streets.” By the end of the song, when the group joined in a stirring chorus of, “We like our triangles and curves / No squares in the village,” it seemed very important — no, downright revolutionary! — that we were in an old building on MacDougal Street, not 7th or 8th.
Dreyfus, in a duet with Goettlicher, helped make the Triangle Shirtwaist piece the unlikely heart of the work. The two women stood onstage gazing off at a spot in the distance, and began to sing, hesitantly at first, about the screams from “the factory on our corner.” It began as a spooky, melancholy piece (“everyone stopped / and everyone looked / and everyone cried when the first woman fell”), but as it went on, the two singers seemed to channel a kind of brilliant, transcendent rage. Their faces twisted in scorn as they sang about the factory owners who “locked all the doors from the outside,” and at the piece’s climax, their voices took on the raw, throaty sound of mourners keening for the dead.
In just 80 minutes, this delightful little show was over, but not before the cast sang a rousing song in praise of the Village’s many anonymous and unsung artists. “If no one will remember my name,” went one verse, “it will matter all the more that we were here tonight in this little brick room.” A sing-along version of “The Stonewall Girls,” based on the actual words a group of drag queens chanted at policemen during the 1969 protests, followed as a jubilant encore. In that moment, it did feel significant to be gathered together with strangers, singing that silly tune on what we’ll later remember as a historic weekend. When I stepped out onto the street after the show, I couldn’t stop grinning. The summer sun had not yet set, and the parade’s last revelers lounged happily in Washington Square. It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.