As I was leaving the 36th edition of the Providence Newspaper Guild's annual Follies last Friday, a song lyric popped into my head. It wasn't from one of song parodies performed by the cast and excellent small band (led by Larry Berren), but a line from the late '60s classic "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" by the Band: the keening voice of the late Richard Manuel singing, "I'm a union man now, all the way."
While this might not have been the funniest or best Follies show of all time — it was pretty damned good, though — it has to rank as the most memorable for this regular attendee, due primarily to the circumstances of the world of journalism. That day, Colorado's Rocky Mountain News had shut down its presses, a pall and sadness hung over the entire newspaper industry, and the Journal had just announced another round of severe cutbacks and layoffs.
Page 34 of the Follies program was a full-page ad, created and paid for by the Providence Phoenix, that was entirely blank except for one line at the bottom: "This is what the world will look like without newspapers."
This was the atmosphere that hovered over the Follies from the opening of "Rhode Island's most star-studded cocktail party (that just happens to take place in Massachusetts)." What is happening to the Providence Journal and other daily newspapers is frightening and, dare P&J note again, a serious danger to the entire enterprise of a democratic republic. We suspect that most people would agree that we know too little about what is going on with our government, institutions, and businesses. How much less will we know if daily newspapers, staffed and informed by the work of seasoned and knowledgeable reporters, start falling like dominos? The answer is obvious.
So it was truly astonishing to witness an audience virtually in mourning, reacting to most of the skits and parodies with perfunctory applause, while the cast, crew, and band exuded a fighting spirit.
I'm a union man now, all the way.
As for the show itself, directed by the ever-more-sure-handed Andy Smith and co-MCed by the hilarious, recently Journal-departed/NPR-arrived Scott MacKay and the equally brilliant professional stand-up comic (read: "ringer") Frank O'Donnell, the pacing and laughs came fast and furious. Yet it seemed that the 1500 or so in the audience were too stunned and saddened to respond with the same level of vigor coming from the stage.
Longtime Follies veteran Rob "The Bob" Rainville, who is usually assigned to a few numbers where he gets to impersonate former Providence mayor, the Bud-I "Vincent" Cianci, roared out some of the funniest songs and gave a bravura performance. Among The Bob's best moments was "Bear On the Run," about the elusive black bear found roaming around the Ocean State last year sung to the tune of "Band On the Run." Another strong-voiced performance by The Bob was a song about Governor Carcieri, sung to the tune of "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" from South Pacific.
But the hit of the night, earning a partial-standing ovation (in a more upbeat year, the whole room would have reliably erupted), was Other Paper reporter Alisha Pina's delivery of a song sung from the point of view of an East Providence schoolgirl witnessing the public school meltdown to the tune of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." The combination of touching lyrics, moving tune (reminding one of the singular genius of the teenaged Carole King who wrote it), and Pina's great performance cut through the audience like a knife. The fact that the original hit was sung by Aretha Franklin, who Rolling Stone recently (and deservedly) called "the greatest singer of all time," didn't hurt. Anyone who can pull off a credible cover of an Aretha song has some great pipes and Pina met the challenge.
Another notable vocal performance from another longtime Follies vet was Steve Smith's take on Alice Cooper's "School's Out" (no explanation necessary for anyone who happened to be in the Biggest Little in December 2007).
This year's "Mystery Guest," a newsmaker who, at the end of the evening, has an opportunity to "give it back" to the nemesis press who has just spent an evening raking elected officials and other celebs over the coals, was Barney Frank. We were on Barney's turf (the Venus is in Swansea) and he dutifully thanked all the Vo Dilanduhs for coming out and spending their cash in the Commonwealth. Barney's brief remarks underscored his rep as the wittiest person in Congress.
Bravo to the Providence Newspaper Guild! In the face of great sorrow, the spirit that emanated from the stage at the Venus De Milo was an act of courage that greatly moved this audience member. And they promise the Follies will be back next year.
I'm a union man now, all the way.
IN THE RUNNING
Speaking of the Follies, there were nearly as many gubernatorial candidates on hand as bartenders, and they are becoming increasingly less bashful in letting their intentions be known.