‘Flahooley,’ Anti-McCarthy Musical From Authors of ‘Finian’s Rainbow’

Clyde pup
Ben Harburg (grandson of Yip Harburg) plays Clyde, a puppet, in the song, You Too Can Be a Puppet, a satire of McCarthyera conformity. Rod puppets by Daniel Fergus Tamulonis. Photo by Tanja.
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Executives of B.G. Bigelow, Inc. anxiously await the arrival of their tyrannical boss. This photo is from Harlem Rep’s workshop production at Aaron Davis Hall, October 2009. Photo by Tanja.

“Flahooley” is an allegorical musical tale for audiences of all ages. It takes place in the fictional Midwestern city of Capsulanti, USA, where B.G. Bigelow, Inc., an aggressive manufacturing company, bestrides the toy industry like a colossus. An Arabian sheik has arrived to beseech the owner, Mr. Bigelow, for help in repairing a magic lamp, with which the kingdom hopes to revive its oil industry against competition from atomic power and sneak attacks from Communist oppressors. A puppet designer named Sylvester Cloud has created a talking doll called Flahooley, with which Bigelow intends to achieve domination in the toy industry once and for all. Cloud is struggling for money to wed his fiancee, but he is being exploited by the toymaker. Bigelow is struggling to maintain his grip on the market amid a business climate of anti-communist suspicion (even the doll cries “dirty red, dirty red, dirty red!”). The doll conjures the Genie out of its bottle; the spirit sides with Sylvester against Bigelow and chaos breaks loose. It makes for a zany and highly entertaining satirical musical with kooky plot twists and an enchanting score.

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ONE OF THE RAREST BROADWAY RECORDINGS- the 1951 Capitol Records original cast record cover. Cast was Edith Atwater, Bil Baird’s Marionettes, Barbara Cook, Irwin Corey, Jerome Courtland, Yma Sumac, Ernest Truex, Sara Aman, John Anderson, Andy Aprea, Bil Baird, Cora Baird, Lee Ballard, Vicki Barrett, Lulu Bates,Lewis Bolyard, Stanley Carlson, Ray Cook, Fay DeWitt, Carol Donn, Franz Fazakas and Clifford Fearl.

The formula was not destined for success in 1951, though. Reviews were mixed and there was stiff competition from “The King and I,” “South Pacific” and “Kiss Me Kate.” The show closed, supposedly to reopen in the fall. The following year, a nonpolitical version of “Flahooley,” adapted by William Friml and Burton Lane, renamed “Jollyanna,” died quietly after performances at the San Francisco and Los Angeles Civic Light Operas. The original Broadway cast recording of “Flahooley,” released by Capitol Records, is now one of the rarest of all Broadway records.

The Yip Harburg Foundation has planned this production closely with both TNC and Harlem Rep. Deena and Ernie Harburg live in the apartment building above TNC and have been fans of the theater’s work for many years, being especially drawn in by its Street Theater productions. Keith Lee Grant directed “Finian’s Rainbow” for Harlem Rep two years ago. He discovered “Flahooley” by reading “Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz,” co-authored by Ernie Harburg, Yip’s son and biographer. His adaptation is three years in the making. Grant describes being attracted to “Flahooley” by the passion of the piece. There were two small workshops in 2007 and 2008 and in October, 2009 the show had several workshop performances at Aaron Davis Hall.

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A professor puppet encourages everyone to be a puppet in a song satirizing McCarthyera conformity. Puppet by Daniel Fergus Tamulonis. Photo by Tanja.

Keith Lee Grant is Artistic Director of Harlem Repertory Theatre and an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Speech at CUNY. He holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, an MA from Penn State and a Certificate from the American Conservatory Theater’s Advanced Training Program. He has directed and/or choreographed over ninety professional and university productions from “As You Like It, Pinero’s “Short Eyes,” Inge’s “Picnic” the musicals “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music” and “Mame.” He has performed on Broadway in “Marie Christine,” “Showboat” and “Ragtime.” He has worked Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, the York Theater, the Jewish Repertory Theater, New Federal Theatre, AMAS Theatre, and The New York Theater Workshop. His Regional credits include The Connecticut Repertory Theater, Yale Repertory Theatre, Syracuse Stage, The Pioneer Theater, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival and The Indiana Repertory Theatre. His Harlem Rep production of “The Wiz” recently won two AUDELCO awards (Best Director of a Musical and Best Choreography of a Musical).

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Puppet manifestation of Najla, a visitor from Arabia, who arrives in a delegation to ask American help in repairing a magic lamp. Puppet by Daniel Fergus Tamulonis is a likeness of Colette Harris, the actress playing the role. Photo by Tanja.

Puppet designer Daniel Fergus Tamulonis also appears as B. G. Bigelow in “Flahooley.” He graduated from Penn State with a BA in Theatre and did extensive MFA work in Puppetry at the University of Connecticut. His thesis production, “L’Enfant et les sortileges” (The Boy and the Magic) won an UNIMA Citation for Excellence in the Art of Puppetry. He has appeared in Harlen Rep’s “Finian’s Rainbow” (as Finian), “Cabaret” and “As You Like It.”

The show is recommended for both adult audiences and young audiences (age 9 and up).

Performances are December 18 to January 3 in the Cino Theater of Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (at East Tenth Street) in Manhattan’s East Village. Following is the performance schedule. FIRST WEEK: Fri, Dec. 18 at 8; Sat, Dec. 19 at 2 & 8, Sun, Dec. 20 at 3. SECOND WEEK: Th, Dec. 24 at 8; Sat, Dec. 26 at 2 & 8; Sun, Dec. 27 at 2 & 8. THIRD WEEK: Th, Dec. 31 at 8; Sat, Jan. 2 at 2 & 8; Sun, Jan. 3 at 3. Tickets are $18 general admission, $10 students and seniors. The box office is SMARTTIX (212) 868-4444 and tickets can be purchased online at www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.