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.