My hunch is that "The Seven Little Foys"--Chip Deffaa's ebullient new musical, now getting its New York premiere in the Fringe Festival--will get lots of productions.
First, it is a family musical that works for both adults and young people. There simply aren't too many of those. Not everyone wants to see shows about angst-ridden teens, like "Spring Awakening." At least, not all the time. (Nor is "Spring Awakening" a show that you'd want to take young kids to see.) And most shows aimed at young people these days (like "The Little Mermaid") are dumbed-down too much to hold most adults' attention.
Second, "The Seven Little Foys" provides the best roles for sing-and-dancing kids since "The Sound of Music." And kids always seem to love seeing kids singing and dancing on stage. (Well, not just kids.... What was that old warning to adult actors? "Never share the stage with a child, or a dog!" Because the audience is going to watch them.)
Third, this is a genuinely moving show. Oh, it's funny when it should be. And there are some wonderfully exuberant, infectious songs--both old and new. But it will also make you cry at times, because it has characters you come to care about. And you feel for them. (Is anyone ever genuinely moved by shows like "The Little Mermaid"?) There is a sincerity to this show, and a good deal of heart, that is irresistible.
Based on actual events, the show tells the story of a great entertainer, Eddie Foy (played with just the right vaudevillian flair by Michael Townsend Wright), who in many ways acts more like a kid than a grownup. He avoids responsibility, lives only for the moment, and thinks he can talk his way out of anything.
His wife knows his flaws all too well. He gambles, he's unreliable; he strays. She loves him nonetheless, and works hard to keep the family together. Beth Bartley, as Mrs. Foy, manages to project both the needed strength and the vulnerability--as well as a terrific likeability. Tenderly crooning "Moonlight Bay" with her husband, and "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland," with her kids, she seems like the kind of mother anyone would want to have. (And did we mention that her voice shimmers appealingly in a Judy Garland-esque way?) We gradually become aware, though, that Mrs. Foy is dying. The other members of the family either don't realize that she is dying or don't want to face the reality. And in what little time she has left, she is trying hard to save her family so it will hang together after she is gone.
Act One ends with the death of the mother. That's a bold choice for writer/director Deffaa to make. First acts of musicals usually end on an upbeat note, to send the audience out into intermission feeling good. You may well be crying by the end of this show's first act. But an honest bit of crying can feel good in its own way. And Deffaa trusts--wisely, as it turns out--that his cast will be able to bring everyone back up over the course of the second act.
In Act Two, we watch Foy struggle to take his kids into show business with him. We see the rambunctious kids get better and better as performers. We see the challenges they face. And see the family bond together.
By the time Eddie Foy and his Seven Little Foys perform the big show-stopping numbers---Deffa's own "Struttin'" and "Someday"--the kids have united, and they are dancing with panache. Those buoyant, showmanly new numbers--high points of the evening--are utterly winning. Wright's the real thing, talk/singing his numbers with gruff, endearing authority. And you won't see more exciting dancing by teens anywhere than by this show's Eric Stevens, Rayna Hirt, and Dea Julien.
Lending authenticity to this "fable of vaudeville" is Ryan Foy--a real-life grandson of one of the original Seven Little Foys--portraying master song-and-dance man George M. Cohan. He's good-looking, confident, adds energy from the moment he strides onstage. And carries off this supporting role with great charm. It's fun seeing him do the jaunty, stiff-legged Cohan walk, followed by the kids, cheekily imitating him.
There is much to savor in this show, from the youngest Foy (Alexander Craven) writing an impassioned letter to Santa Claus about how terrible his brothers are, to young Charlie Foy (Eric Stevens) pouring his heart out to a gal who barely knows his name, to Mrs. Foy's decision to have Eddie's mistress get to know her family's style. Deffaa has picked vintage songs with exquisite care, written new songs that you will leave the theater singing, and has directed the show so it flows naturally from start to finish. And he knows how to bring out the best in his high-spirited kids. When several of them (Brandon Reid, Mitchell Schneider, Rayna Hirt) try to top one another, calling out, "I can do this!," it's fresh, spontaneous, and fun. Music director Richard Danley, we might add, plays the songs with great zest and understanding. There's much more to this new show, on a lot of levels, than there was to the 1955 film, "The Seven Little Foys."
The New York International Fringe Festival bills itself as the largest theater festival in the world, attracting some 75,000 patrons to see some 200 different productions. "The Seven Little Foys" is being presented in what is, by far, the largest venue in the festival (the Michael Schimmel Center, at Pace University). If you go, try to get a seat close to the stage. This production is being done without body mikes, and occasionally lines get lost in the large auditorium. Kids don't always project perfectly. Using body mikes in future productions would remedy the occasional current problems in hearing everything.
Not everyone, at present, is always perfectly together on all of the dance numbers. Some of the young actors have more polish than others. And if the characters refer on stage to the family having a dog, we ought to eventually see a real dog. (Remember the way kids in audience would "ooh" and "ah" when "Sandy" would appear in "Annie"? There's something fun about seeing a real dog on stage.) But those are the sorts of minor imperfections one expects to find in almost any festival production. Festival productions tend to have a certain rough-and-ready quality.
But there's good chemistry between the principals, everyone has a real feel for the vaudeville tradition, and this show certainly boasts the most talented group of kids gathered on stage in memory.
The show's storyline, incidentally, comes to a climax at Christmas-time. While this is a show will work any time, some regional theaters--tired of programming "A Christmas Carol" or "A Wonderful Life" year after year--will no doubt find this a perfect new Christmas vehicle. There's even a memorable new Christmas song.
"The Seven Little Foys" sure tugged on my heartstings. When, near the end, Eddie Foy strutted quietly, gently off into eternity, I hated to see him go.
I left the theater with the music of the finale ringing happily in my ears. The kids sang out with verve, "Someday we'll all be together again... " And I was thinking, "Yeah, I'd like that. These Foys are good company." There's a lot of attention being paid to this ambitious new show--one of very few full-scale, full-length musicals in the festival. And the lobby chatter was enthusiastic. "The Seven Little Foys" should have a bright future. --R. A.
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