The title "Broadway Follies" conjures up a song-and-dance extravaganza with topnotch comedians, an abundance of lavish costumes for showgirls to show through, and other gay trappings. While the fairly modest variety show of this name that opened last night at the Nederlander is carefully labeled (in small type) "a vaudeville," the title implies something on a grander scale. Trimmed to a little more than half its length (and where the cutting should be done is painfully obvious), it might serve nicely as a two-a-day offering at half the price. But that's another form of show biz, under different jurisdiction, and this aspires to be a Broadway musical.
The producers, two of whom were markedly successful a few seasons back with "The Magic Show," a book musical with vaudeville overtones, seem determined to prove that vaudeville has not been dead all these years, just in limbo. With this in mind, they've assembled a number of variety acts headlined by the team of Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell.
Now there's no doubt that Shields and Yarnell are an attractive and talented pair. But I must say that I enjoyed them more in those few instances when they were singing and dancing than in the mime routines that seem to be their specialty. I have never much cared, except in special circumstances, for acts in which the players jerkily imitate wind-up toys, anyway, for the very nature of such a performance robs the actor of a personality. It's very close to playing dead.
Their best and most elaborate mechanical-toy number, which opens the second half, is a cleverly designed domestic scene involving a busy housewife, her oblivious pipe-smoking husband, a turkey cooking in a wall oven, and an unpredictable Murphy bed. But, as I say, they are an appealing couple of cutups, and obviously capable of entertaining us as themselves.
The evening's unmistakably solid hit is scored by a juggler named Michael Davis, a prepossessing young man who gets third billing and appears, with delightful patter, on three occasions in disarmingly and increasingly original and amusing variations on his timeless theme. Davis is a real find, though for all I know he may already be a household name to TV watchers.
Tessie O'Shea, rounder and more insistently cheery than ever, is back with music-hall routines capped by an awful barnyard number in which she wears a chicken costume while the show's few girl dancers scoot around her garbed like chicks emerging from eggs. The dancing girls (there are boy dancers, too) are, though pony-size, also employed as showgirls in the opening and closing numbers in which a stage-wide set of steep, retractible steps is used.
Other items include Milo & Roger, a sort of nutty Arabian Nights magic act just ended a six-year stint at Paris' intimate Crazy Horse Saloon; a terribly energetic gaucho act (Los Malambos); a tippling old cowboy and his drunken horse (Gaylord Maynard and Chief Bearpaw); a contingent of dogs playing a mock football game with balloons (Scott's Royal Boxers), and a fox terrier (Jack Smooth) who gets juggler Davis offstage by dashing on and nipping at his heels.
Walter Marks has composed some brisk and immediately forgettable songs, given circusy orchestrations by Bill Byers, to go with the busy stage action. Donald Driver is credited with both "concept and direction," and Arthur Faria with the dance routines. The minimal scenery was designed by Peter Larkin, and the costumes (a few, especially those worn by the two stars, are appropriately glittery; most of the other acts would seem to travel with their own) are Alvin Colt's. Roger Morgan has lighted the show skillfully. The sound system is dreadful.
Essentially, "Broadway Follies" is a fine show for youngsters. But at those prices? Who knows?
The show that called itself Broadway Follies, and turned up at the Nederlander Theater last night, was surely misnamed. It was certainly a folly, possibly a plurality of folly, but I would scarcely call it Broadway. Some title such as Saccharine Tots or Cyclamate Cherubs would surely have been more apt for this retread of old vaudeville. The show, which closed after last night's performance, looked too tired even to lie down.
However, not all was lost - for out of these ashes a new phoenix-star is born. The show had little enough to boast of but it could fairly boast of the most clever and funny juggler-comedian, Michael Davis.
Davis is an enormous nightclub talent, or, if you like a vaudeville star some years after vaudeville. He is a superlative juggler, although his wry and non-chalant wit is to persuade us otherwise. His understated humor is every bit as important, and as well-timed, as his nimble juggling.
His impersonations, for example, of extroverted, introverted, masochistic and sadistic jugglers were wonderful, and his finale, "the bowling ball/apple/egg juggle" was as comic as it was adroit. The man has a smidgen of genius to him and - preferably in another show - he should not be missed. Perhaps some room can be made for him in Sugar Babies.
The show also had a fairly decent horse act (if you like fairly decent horses), some performing dogs performing, a trio of Argentinian gaucho dancers dancing gaucho in triplicate, and some jolly good magicians, called Milo and Roger, who did clever things with a water-jug and a live duck. This latter - perhaps it too could be incorporated into Sugar Babies.
There was also Two-Ton Tessie O'Shea, who seemed as genial and warm-hearted as ever, and still had her sweet, little banjo which she intermittantly strummed while grinning with manic fervor. (Possibly no easy feat.)
Here she tried to persuade the audience to imitate the sounds of mass banjoes by strumming on special paper-bags thoughtfully provided by the management. (Earlier I had suspected that the bags might have been more practically intended, and I was frankly relieved to discover their musical function.) The preview audience I attended with did not prove to be great paper bag players.
Last but by all means least were the two nominal stars of the show, Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell. One is at a loss to know what to call them - mimes perhaps. However Marcel Marceau need not shiver in his greasepaint. The competition is negligible. Shields and Yarnell specialize in imitating wooden, mechanical dolls. Or possibly they are wooden dolls who occasionally imitate people.
Miss Yarnell, marginally cuter than her husband, Mr. Shields, can also tap-dance a little. It seems that they were discovered entertaining on the streets of San Francisco. They were less entertaining at the Nederlander.
The show had music and lyrics by Walter Marks. I can't say I particularly noticed either - although there was certainly a band in the pit, and people were definitely singing words, on both of these propositions I would take an oath. I would use a rather different oath to describe the all too noticeable settings by Peter Larkin and costumes by Alvin Colt - both men have known better nights.
The show's concept (what concept?) and direction were by Donald Driver, and it was choreographed, the program said, by Arthur Faria. Broadway Follies, while offering new dimensions to the idea of mediocrity, may provide a small footnote to Broadway history as being the only show where the audience came out hymning the juggler.
P. T. Barnum would have blushed at the flimflammery of ''Broadway Follies,'' a small brash vaudeville show that opened last night at the Nederlander Theater. The title tune labels the evening an ''extravaganzicle,'' which elasticizes the English language and leaves the show open to charges from a Bureau of Standards and Practices. The producers have searched the globe for top-flight variety talent and have come up with, as headliners, the Ken and Barbie dolls of pantomimists and a supporting cast that features six boxer dogs chasing balloons and wrestling with a roly-poly woman.
This is not a show with a theme or a concept, but an unconnected series of seven vaudeville acts: one stellar attraction, another that can be greeted with nostalgic affection and five that, with extreme politeness, one could call limited. In the high-powered, top dollar ticket, spotlight of Broadway, one and one half out of seven won't wash, which is regrettable since Michael Davis, making his Broadway debut, deserves to be seen.
Mr. Davis is a comic juggler. He appears on stage with the disarming timidity of a Charles Grodin and kids about his craft. In juggling, it is not what you do but how you do it, he says, as he calmly tosses one ball up and down in one hand. By the end of the evening, he has juggled three vicious-looking weapons - a machete, an axe and a meat cleaver - and if you wonder why the act is going on so long, he will tell you: it is a very difficult one to finish.
With cutting humor, he also demonstrates that a bowling ball is sharper than a knife and then he tosses the bowling ball, an apple and a raw egg into the air. As he juggles them, he takes a bite out of the apple - narrowly missing the bowling ball - and ends, hilariously, with egg on his face. Whether he is juggling nine balls (there is a trick to that one) or juggling water (anyone can do it), Mr. Davis is an inspired deadpan comedian. I was as close as I have ever been to rolling in an aisle with laughter. Very wisely, the director, Donald Driver, has given him the closing spot. Nothing could top him, certainly not the show's putative stars, Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell.
Shields and Yarnell, to give the team its aggregate name, are street performers turned television celebrities. On stage in ''Broadway Follies,'' they begin by effectively simulating the stiff-jointed, expressionless movements of toy soldiers. This is, as it turns out, their major talent. Later, Mr. Shields does a solo pantomime as a frog prince that will not give Marcel Marceau or Kermit cause for insomnia. Miss Yarnell does a tap dance and manages to recede into the chorus.
Easily the most extraneous act is entitled Los Malambos. Three young men in gaucho costumes play three tall drums and then race around the stage on their knees while keeping their long hair in motion. Their real talent, it seems, is for twirling the bola, the Argentine version of the lasso. Each takes turns twirling the bola; it is not only how you do it, but what you do. Los Malambos twirl very well, but it is about as exciting as watching six boxers battling balloons.
Tessie O'Shea sings a few of her so-called ''silly'' songs, makes faces at the audience and leads willing theatergoers in crumpling paper bags (enclosed in the program) and ''playing'' them as if they were banjos. This is one of many nonmusical sounds in the evening. Miss O'Shea does her final number in a chicken suit that could clothe an ostrich. Backed by a chorus of dancers dressed in feathered shells, she sits on a nest and pretends to lay an egg. No comment.
There is also a man and horse act. In looks and attitude, the man resembles Bruce Forsyth, the English vaudevillian who unpacked the Winter Garden two seasons ago. The horse can walk on his knees. With a little practice, perhaps he can become Un Malambo.
Brightening the doldrums, along with Mr. Davis, is a team of magicians, Milo & Roger. They do ancient tricks, but they do them expertly and with an appealingly offhanded manner. They look something like Stan Laurel and the movie producer Joseph E. Levine. The Levine half of the team wears a large satin pillow as hat and it seems to bounce in time with his eyes.
As the self-appointed census taker of animals employed on Broadway, I must note that in ''Broadway Follies'' there are six boxers, a fox terrier, a horse and a disappearing duck named Spiro. The duck is imported from France. Presumably a star of international magnitude, he must be here through a special dispensation from Animal Actors Equity. Hermione, the acclaimed American duck in ''Scrambled Feet,'' need not be a-quack with envy.