THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
August 13, 2008
Writer-arranger-director Chip Deffaa has concocted a charming homage to the great vaudevillian Eddie Foy and to Foy's family, who created a song-and-dance family act at the beginning of the 20th century that was hugely successful. Eddie Foy was himself a star on the circuit and in New York City, living in New Rochelle with his family of seven children, his wife and assorted foster kids—they had a big rambling home. After Mrs. Foy died suddenly when their youngest was around six, there followed a period of mourning and apathy that struck Eddie to his core. It was song, and especially dance, that got him out of his lethargy when he got his children into the act and created "Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys." A quote from the New York Herald written at the time, provided by the press materials, is worth noting: "Let the Seven Little Foys march straight into your heart as their father, Eddie, leads them into becoming a true red, white, and blue American Institution."
Deffaa's book begins just before Mrs. Foy's death and takes us through the creation of the act up until World War I. The story is told as a memory play through the remembrances of daughter Mary. These are loving memories of a loving family—no angst-ridden siblings here. It's a fairly predictable script—you can pretty much tell that Mrs. Foy is going to die by the end of Act One—but not annoyingly so. In fact, you know it's going to happen but your heart still breaks when it does. This is, after all, sweet nostalgia.
The set is simple and effective. Designer Tony Andrea uses period furniture, trunks, and props arranged on the stage and utilizes the theatre's own curtains for backdrops and for the stage curtains of the vaudeville houses the Foys ultimately play. Lighting designer Joyce Liao deserves credit for making full use of the Fringe repertory plot in effective unobtrusive ways. The lone pianist, music director Richard Danley, plays at a grand piano on the stage apron, not a part of the action but adding to the theatricality of the evening.
There are 46 musical numbers in the production. A daunting amount, except that many of the numbers are snippets of period songs. The music is mostly early 20th century American, but also includes some original tunes that echo the period and are written by Deffaa himself. The musical bits are geared to bring a smile to your face and a warm fuzzy feeling to your heart. Indeed, this tone is set at the very top, as the first song sung is the 1917 hit, "Smiles" ("There are smiles that make you happy. . ."). Sometimes the songs happen using that hoary device, "sing us a song, Papa. . ." but often the music comes out of the action of the play. Once the family act has been formed, in Act Two, many of the musical numbers are taken from the act itself.
There are a number of songs by George M. Cohan included in the score. This is certainly apropos as Cohan and Foy were great friends. In this production, Cohan is in fact a character, the only non-Foy character, with the exception of a disembodied voice of an offstage judge. In a delicious bit of casting, Cohan is played by Ryan Foy, the bona fide great-grandson of Eddie Foy himself.
The singing of the cast varies in abilities. Ryan Foy does very well as Cohan in both song and dance. Michael Townsend Wright, as Eddie, more or less speaks his songs (which is evidently the style used by the original Foy) but gives us some great soft shoe and is a real charmer. Beth Bartley sings beautifully as Mrs. Foy. Her voice is reminiscent of the young Judy Garland and it is a pity she doesn't have more to sing—she is after all limited by the story line and her impending demise. Of the children, Dea Julien, our narrator Mary, succeeds the best vocally, though the charming young Brandon Reid (Eddie Jr.) also shines. This is not to say the other children are bad, it's just that they truly shine in the second act when, as part of the Seven Little Foys, they break out the tap shoes and really show their stuff.
This is why I encourage you to stick through the intermission. It may seem kinda slow, kinda sappy and predictable, but the tap dancing in the second part is a big payoff. You will marvel at the choreography of Justin Boccitto, assisted by Cristina Marie, and you will be amazed at the obvious amount of work and energy the cast invested into making the period dance routines so successful and fun. So, Eddy Francisco (Bryan Foy), Eric Stevens (Charlie Foy), Mitchell Schneider (Richard Foy), Rayna Hirts (Madeline Foy), and Alexander Craven (Irving Foy) all need accolades too. Plus, Craven deserves extra mention as the youngest member of the cast, the youngest Foy, and just so darn cute.
This is a feel-good musical in the best sense of that adjective. So go see it to enjoy yourselves; don't expect great drama but know that you will be entertained. This show, like the opening song, is all about "Smiles." Sometimes, that's just all we need.