I went to this show alone on 10/30. It was a collaboration between drag legend Joey Arias, burlesque artiste Julie Atlas Muz, and puppeteer genius Basil Twist. Twist created the show, inspired by the Neighborhood Playhouse at the Henry Street Settlement, the theater created in 1915 by the Lewisohn sisters, Alice and Irene. Alice was the older sister, and an actress - - Irene the younger, a dancer and designer. The three collaborators wrote the show together, Arias played Alice, Atlas Muz played Irene, and Twist was the director.
It's a bit of a trek to get there, it's way the hell over on the Lower East Side, on Grand and Pitt (thankfully the F train isn't too far away). I had never been there before, and it's the cutest little theater, sort of tired in an authentic way.
You know you're in for a treat when even the lights going down in the theater is a dazzling theatrical moment! The dimming of the lights was accompanied by spooky ghostly whooshing - - gave me chills, really and truly! The lights came up somewhat onstage, it was still rather dark up there, revealing Arias and Atlas Muz floating in the air (suspended in harnesses), wearing long ghoulish shmattes. They were the ghosts of Alice and Irene. They set up the structure of the show, that they'd be giving an overview of their careers and the history of the theater. And they sang - - what else? - - "Sisters", that dear song from *White Christmas*. But they wrote their own lyrics, so it was about the Lewisohn sisters. "Not even a twister / Could come between me and my sister." That sort of thing. Cute.
They did something smart with the transitions between scenes: Twist filmed the two performers doing dialogue between the sisters, usually exposition for the scene we were about to see, and he projected the film onto the Tragedy/Comedy masks at the top of the proscenium (which, judging from the photo above, must have been added for this show). A brilliant way to keep the show moving and still give the ladies time to change out of their shmattes.
The first re-creation was of the first show they staged at the Playhouse, *Jephtha's Daugther*. Alice, of course, was the title heroine, sacrificing herself on the pyre. And this being the kind of show it was, it happened to the strains of some fiery disco number I didn't know (I guess they thought "Disco inferno" had been done to death).
Let me talk a bit about the two performers. Arias played Alice, the grand dame of the Lower East Side. Arias first hit the big time in the early 90s, doing a show in which he channeled Billie Holiday. His impersonation of Holiday is uncanny. He delivered something different in this show, something more campy and fun. In the tradition of other drag performers of a certain age, he's learned that when you're no longer young and pretty you have to bring something else to the table, and as with those other ladies, his bag of tricks includes a big heaping pile of grandezza! Which we love!
Julie Atlas Muz is a wild-eyed blonde. I'd never heard of her before this show - - rather than write something myself, why don't I quote from her bio: "Julie Atlas Muz. one of the most proclaimed and prolific conceptual performers and choreographers in New York, sucker punches the boundaries between performance art, dance, and burlesque with dark, twisted, come-hither performances that have secured her place in the underworld of night life as well as a bastion of the art world." Tawk about grandezza!
Back to the show - - I'll skip the Egyptian number, that wasn't so impressive. The next number was a dance by Irene, and Atlas Muz got to show off her abilities as a choreographer, dancer, and burlesque artiste. The score was by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, who had written the score for the actual show they were honoring. The dancing was two parts Isadora Duncan, two parts Nijinsky, and five parts whackadoodle. It rode the line a lot of the show rode: it was over the top and hilarious, but then it was also beautiful and touching.
Atlas Muz and the male dancer, the delicious Jononthon Lyons, were almost completely nude by the end of the number, Atlas Muz so pale and luminous she made me think of how Truman Capote allegedly described a teenage Carol Matthau: "Your skin is made of moonbeams!"
The sisters took a cruise to Europe. Atlas Muz sang Jefferson Airplane's "White rabbit" - - "Go ask Alice", perfect for this show, and of course done with new words. She's not a great singer but she did a good job with this song. Arias sang "Michelle", the Beatles song, with new lyrics so it was about her sister Irene. This scene had the loveliest setting: the sisters were on a little boat that glided around the stage, and a starry sky against the backdrop.
The cruise must have ended up somewhere in the Middle East because the next scene had Atlas Muz and that male dancer kicking up their heels a la Arabe, like something from a Maria Montez movie. This naturally led to Arias making his entrance on a camel and singing "Midnight at the oasis." Put your camel to bed! He did some ear-splitting high singing at the end of the song, and the cobra came up out of the basket.
The final scene was a tribute to the last show the Lewisohn sisters did at the Neighborhood Playhouse, *The Dybbuk*. It featured the most beautiful ghost I've seen onstage, a tall black vision of billowing chiffon. Harry Potter movie fans will be interested to know that puppeteer Twist worked with Alfonza Cuaron on the third HP movie, *Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban*. The ghost in *Sisters' Follies* was actually a Dementor!
A quick shout-out to my friends Stephanie and Francesca - - they saw this show a few weeks ago and raved about it. It had been on my radar, but their recommendation gave it a little boost to turn an intention into a ticket. I'm so glad I saw it, I was grinning like an idiot throughout.