Free To Be Friends
nytheatre.com review by Lisa Ferber
August 13, 2006
For everyone who remembers the '70s TV show The Magic Garden, the 45-minute musical parody Free to Be Friends is sure to promote conversation. This is a send-up of the hippie, self-esteem-improving children's programming of that era, with a brief nod to the TV special Free to Be You and Me. The show has two free-spirited gals (Betty and Joan, played by Sue Galloway and Julie Klausner, respectively) who adore each other (in this case they're lesbians—their flirting and bickering is the cause of quite a few jokes), an owl named Shylock, voiced by Neil W. Casey (a takeoff on The Magic Garden's squirrel Sherlock, and also related to a couple of pointless little anti-Semitic jabs).
The ladies have terrific timing together and are adept at writing and singing their songs. But Free to Be Friends feels like an extended skit that would be more effective if cut to 10 minutes. The two women keep the audience entertained with spacey, optimistic rants about how girls can be anything they want: "That vagina between your legs is no longer an albatross around your neck." They also bake self-esteem cookies, which are "as good as you think they deserve to be." They sing very funny songs with lyrics such as "boys and girls are different in the pants/where?/different in the pants/who?/everybody!/boys and girls are different in the pants, and later in the shirt part too." And they comment on war with song lyrics such as "pancakes, pancakes, Vietnam/one of these things is clearly wrong."
So we have two performers with good chemistry and plenty of funny songs. The trouble comes from the bits of meanness throughout. The women are needlessly hateful toward the owl, which ultimately leads to a dark, unsettling ending that feels jarring. There's also a very unfunny visit by Joan's mom, played by John Gemberling (though it's certainly not the actor's fault). In this, the mother is played by a man wearing sloppy house clothes in public, implying just how ugly women get as they age—the mom sits hairy-legged, demented, and with breathing tubes coming out of her nose. I'm not sure what is supposed to be funny about that, but I wouldn't call it good-natured parody, which is what this piece might be otherwise considering the talent behind these songs.
The question is, why make fun of something that made tons of kids happy? There's a way to lovingly satirize, and then there's cruel parody. I came to see this not knowing what to expect, and as, like so many of my generation, a fan of the original. When I was a kid, Carol from The Magic Garden visited my school and at that young age, I found this a true highlight of the year. I'd hate to see anyone tear down what was a magical memory for so many of us by adding pointless owl-hating and-old-people-bashing.
By removing these aspects, we'd have a fun, short piece where two delightful women sing songs about pancakes and Vietnam while dancing in front of brightly colored fake flowers. If that were the case, I know I wouldn't change the channel.