There are many reasons to adore Cynthia von Buhler’s latest immersive, absolutely brilliant theater extravaganza The Speakeasy Dollhouse Ziegfield’s Midnight Frolic. The production defies description. It is a sensational event which engages, informs, energizes, confounds, and delights. This “Midnight Frolic” pleasures even one’s sense of taste with the option of drinks and dinner and a complimentary absinthe to promote the muses of whimsey and encourage one’s imagination toward enjoying the heightened beauty of the detailed sets, costumes, the Ziegfield dancers, and the overall spectacle. This show is a glittering, rollicking, stunning, kaleidoscope of joy and darkness and the audience cannot help but become completely involved in the evening’s activities which offer some of the finest moments that I have yet to witness in theatrical productions.
As a experiential dramatic innovator, von Buhler is one of the most ingenious in NYC theater. She is an artist who others should be looking to emulate because she has anticipated the youthful direction of live theater. This is a trending direction which includes a younger generation of theater goers who have an expanded consciousness and the daring verve to enjoy “out of the box,” unique shows that take one beyond the sedentary and spur them to participate in the action. As with her previous productions (Speakeasy Dollhouse, The Brothers Booth), once again von Buhler has created the extraordinary. Ziegfield’s Midnight Frolic is a unique combination of stage show, real-life drama, musical cabaret, a “reveal” of the lives of infamous Roaring 20s celebrities, a social criticism, and an “in-your-face” playground where you can abandon your true persona and don a role Cynthia creates for you or one that you choose.
If you enjoy attending theater where you sit the entire evening, let the performances wash over you without caring to be stimulated to thought, and where you pleasantly nod off during a few dull moments, then Cynthia’s productions are not for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy a full entertainment experience that touches every part of your being and intellect, your senses, and even the sixth sense, you will love Ziegfield’s Midnight Frolic as pure entertainment that includes dark tropes about human nature. From beginning to end the production contains fascinating historical elements, glamor, mystery, murder, the razzle-dazzle fantastical, the delicious, the whimsical, the vibrant, the surprising, and the crude realities of show business. After I left, I didn’t know quite what to do with myself as I tried to “take it all in,” and then realized I should go back for another night of scintillating drama, music and comedy.
What I particularly found humorous and energizing was that I was not banned from taking pictures, tweeting, or Facebooking to share the delights, sights, and sounds with my online followers and friends. The show was très European, très chic, and très modern! That was a pleasure. Eventually, when the white-haired Broadway audience has moved to its timely repast, and expensive Broadway PR firms and Broadway producers realize those expenses are not cost effective, they will update their marketing approaches and the Social Media/mobile ban will end. Venues in Europe that I have attended recently and von Buhler’s productions have anticipated this with prescience.
At the beginning of the Midnight Frolic, audience members/players go to the entrance, whisper the code, Speakeasy-style, and pass through to the seductive inner sanctum. A luxurious setting opens to reveal The Liberty Theater stage and dining hall where you can enjoy a reserved Pre Fixe dinner (optional), and then relax on a banquette by the stage and ready yourself for your role or just watch. All the while, you are massaged by the electric atmosphere to take in the who’s who of the audience and watch the pre-stage show silent movies of the lovely and scantily-clad Ziegfeld girls. During this time you will also be looking for clues to the drama which is unfolding high up in the box seats and amidst the dining tables. Eventually, if you meander around and go backstage for a look see, you will peek into the personal hazards of the celebrity performers, i.e. Follies star Olive Thomas, promoter and producer Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., Marilyn Miller, Jack Pickford, and others.
The overriding frame of the production is a modern, updated recreation of a “Frolic” with tweaked musical numbers past and present. Some of the songs are modernized versions of classics from composers like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. There are also appropriate pop selections parodied into the past with cleverly adapted lyrics. All these songs underscore the themes of the production about intrigue, murder, love, and adultery and reveal that in life as in art, truth is aligned and remains timeless.
Concurrent and simultaneous with the revue on stage during the expertly sung and danced numbers is the drama happening in the box seats, on the dance floor, around the theater, and at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. To get to these venues, you must snake up flights of stairs in the heart of Paris (backstage at the Liberty Theater) which is absolutely fun. The real drama arcs the tragic story of Olive Thomas the celebrity Ziegfeld girl and former mistress of Flo Ziegfeld, Jr. who left the entrepreneur on the rebound for Jack Pickford. During the intermission from the “Frolic,” audience members travel to Paris to witness the macabre at Montmartre’s Cabaret du Néant, stopping for drinks at the bar. Then guests move on to the sumptuously outfitted Hotel Ritz just in time to see what transpired during the last moments of Olive Thomas’s life as Jack Pickford frantically attempts to save her.
Three scenarios between Olive and Jack evolve during the course of the evening, while the backdrop of entertainment romps along downstairs and audience members and actors seek oblivion in the fun to forget their troubles and drown their sorrows and tragedies in alcohol and other things. On the profound level where human nature resides, von Buhler reveals how the volcanic upheaval of human emotions explodes. Then we understand the extent to which we can only put off truth for so long; and we see reality unfold in all its splendid harshness. Through this, we must deal with the pain. But, Roaring 20s style and 2015 style, “In the meantime, in between time, ain’t we got fun!”
With each scenario of Olive’s last moments, we are brought closer to a possible understanding of what might have happened to her. Did she victimize herself intentionally to elicit Jack’s sympathy? Was Olive’s death an accident? Was she murdered, a great possibility for there was a motive? Thomas’ death was investigated but never yielded an indictment for foul play. Though there were rumors of murder, there wasn’t enough evidence and, with her status as a racy Ziegfeld girl and little better than chattel (women’s status was still threadbare in the 1920 though the 19th amendment was passed), there was no one to advocate her cause. Furthermore, by the time the rumors implicating Jack Pickford were fiercely parading through the tabloids, Jack Pickford had married Margaret Miller, another Follies star. Miller loudly championed her husband’s innocence in the press and trounced all notions of his being a murderer. The investigation was cold cased.
The action onstage is concurrent with the action and events happening in the box seats, on the dance floor, and in Jack’s and Olive’s hotel room in Paris. The Jazz Age music is presented peppered with eclectic musical arrangements. Josephine Baker sings and dances in sexy, gorgeous costumes for which she was noted: one in particular, of fringed bananas that liberally show off her assets is typical a la Baker. Dance numbers and songs are seamlessly performed by Will Rogers, the versatile Marilyn Miller, the “innocent” and baby-doll-like Olive Thomas, a brilliantly soulful Fanny Brice, with the singing and dancing Ziegfeld girls, cheeky vaudeville comedians and sylph-like female acrobats wildly cavorting from a fabric ball-like chandelier suspended from the ceiling. The acrobats’ prowess, energy and style are jaw-dropping. The ramped up “Frolic” is hosted by Eddie Cantor and together with the band and pianists create a stirring and entertaining presentation with cast and musicians most probably more talented and mesmerizing than the original Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic which was held at The New Amsterdam Theater rooftop.
Because von Buhler’s production reflects and memorializes Broadway history of the early 20th century as a suggested facsimile, for those who might not know, Flo Ziegfeld Jr. produced his first Midnight Frolic in 1915. After being entertained at a Follies show at the New Amsterdam Theater, patrons took an elevator to the rooftop where they enjoyed drinks and food and eventually waited for the revue which began at the “witching hour” and was more “over-the-top” and racier than his Follies. Ziegfeld established his “Frolic” because he was frustrated that his Follies audience was lured away to NYC night clubs and supper clubs after enjoying his superb Follies.
A genius promoter and forward thinking entrepreneur, Ziegfeld continued the “Frolic” through WWI up to prohibition. Ziegfeld knew he couldn’t make much money during prohibition, so he closed it down, realizing that a Speakeasy atmosphere was impossible because his productions were amongst the most talked about in the city and because the “Frolic,” which had been dubbed “the meeting place of the world,” was without alcohol. His venue emptied as once again, former patrons of his Follies were seduced by the secret, alcohol fueled Speakeasies around the city.
Cynthia von Buhler and her team of artists, musicians, singers, dancers and designers steep the audience in Roaring Twenties atmosphere and merriment for the first half of the revue and move the production toward the darker, deeper elements of dissolution in the second half. The synchronized silent puppet show that elucidates the songs and manifests the undercurrents in the relationships between the players behind the scenes is a superb counterpoint.
Fittingly, the production begins with a heavy reminder of the subterranean dark currents of the Roaring Twenties and the dangers to come with the song “Ain’t We Got Fun.” As the evening concludes and we view historic newspaper clips of Olives Thomas’ death, von Buhler also reveals what happened to the other players and the Ziegfeld girls. It is then we come to understand the cost and sacrifice the Ziegfeld girls made for their audience’s fun and their brief moment of glory that turned into bitter gall as their lives became shattered in the aftermath of the crash on Wall Street and the Great Depression.
For all of the players von Buhler chronicles that the Midnight Frolic was the fantasy and illusion that they helped to create and then became entangled with to their detriment. But they fulfilled the audience’s desire to stave off the knowledge that our lights will burn out soon enough. It is the frenzy to escape this truth that von Buhler captures and presents in her production. Hers is a cocktail of delight mixed with the seedy and the sorrowful. At the end though we discover that reality must have its due and though just around the corner may be folly and destruction, there will always be time for one more drink for the road. Is it not better to live life to the fullest in the moment? The macabre is just below the surface of our skin. We are that close to destruction. “Ain’t we got fun!”