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Les Follies Bourgeois

[whitespace] The San Jose Follies Strikes Back They Don't Know the Way to San Jose: Jimmy Freeman and Stacey Bareilles play Biff and Bambi, two clueless tourists, in 'The San Jose Follies Strikes Back.'



A rambunctious new production pokes fun at an upwardly mobile San Jose

By Traci Hukill

MIDWAY THROUGH the second act of The San Jose Follies Strikes Back, the lights come up on a desolate scene: two frightened Southern Californians (they thought they were going to Great America) and a bulldoggish Susie Mallett, ex-mayor of San Jose, gather on a bare stage. A tumbleweed bounces across the foreground. Far away a coyote howls.

Shivering, a spooked Bambi glances around the deserted space. "What is this place where no one shops?" she demands in perfect SoCalese.

"This is the Pavilion," Mallett answers breezily. "You want roller-coaster rides? You'll love the 'Chapter 11 Spiral to Hell!' " The audience roars its appreciation for this wry treatment of Frank Taylor's multimillion-dollar boondoggle.

At least John Bisceglie thinks the audience will laugh, and he's probably right. The 28-year-old director, producer and co-author of San Jose Follies Strikes Back has pulled off a tidy little trick: a glitzy musical revue brimming with goofy slapstick and spiked with wicked topical satire that's smart without being vicious--and is consistently funny.

Loaded with young talent from all over the Bay Area, San Jose Follies Strikes Back, which opens this weekend, follows in the footsteps of a previous Bisceglie production, San Jose Follies, which ran as a dinner-theater engagement at Bella Mia three years ago and garnered comparisons to San Francisco's Beach Blanket Babylon.

The formula (at least in the rehearsal I attended) is simple: beautiful actors--triple threats who can act, sing and dance--sing corny lyrics and prance their way through cabaret-style choreography in elaborate costumes (200 of them for nine actors), all the while lambasting local institutions like Quetzalcoatl, Macy's and Maggi Scura.

The show's "hit list," obligingly typed up by the authors, is some 300 names long. "We try to be an equal- opportunity offender," Bisceglie cracks. But Follies resists turning truly mean. Bisceglie and writing partner Jason Tarshis, both native sons, actually like San Jose.

In spite of endless jokes about the city's inferiority complex ("San Jose is so boring ... boring ... boring ..." sing two visitors as they nod off to sleep) and countless jabs at San Jose's attempts to bill itself as a "real city," Tarshis insists that "it's not like it's an attack on San Jose. The show loves San Jose."

"I think San Jose has the reputation of being the bastard little sister of San Francisco," Bisceglie chimes in. "There's fun to be made with that." The fun starts when Biff and Bambi, winners on a Singled Out-inspired show called Mystery Date, learn that their grand prize is a trip to San Jose.

First they think they're bound for San Tropez. Corrected, they figure they're heading to San Jose, Costa Rica. When they finally learn their destination is San Jose, Calif., their response (these are L.A. types, after all) is a primal "Huh?"

"It's 50 miles south of San Francisco," their hostess explains hastily, and before they know it Biff and Bambi are captives of the recently unemployed Susie Mallett, who drags them on a historical tour of San Jose.

An amusing string of skits follows. Among the highlights are the story of the ill-fated and unbalanced Light Tower ("What this town needs is an erection!") and a tribute to the prune industry, including the early battles with a skeptical public ("No, thanks, I think I'd rather pass/Prunes can give a girl gas!").

Politically conscious but not politically correct, the brand of cynicism lacing these performances sparkles with intelligence but stops just short of scathing, though not short of a certain kind of joke. "If there's a boob or a crotch joke," says a knowing Bisceglie, "San Jose goes nuts."

THE SECOND ACT takes on contemporary issues with the same exuberance. The Jose Theater is demolished while distraught protesters reach out to each other for support. A businessman tries in vain to get through city governmental red tape. We meet Redevelopment Man ("I take from the neighborhoods and give to downtown!") and laugh repeatedly at the city of Campbell.

This is all great satire, and it's good to remember that very funny moments are sprinkled throughout the whole second act, because it does get long. The production's weakness lies primarily in the framing story, which drags on a bit toward the end. It involves magic stones and supernatural powers, plus the time-honored Straight Man Masquerades as Woman and Gets Groped/love-story combo. The love story works well as a vehicle for humor in the first act, when it's still a Yugo kind of vehicle, but in the second act it morphs into a Yugo-shaped Mack Truck--still absurd but now impossible to ignore.

Overall, though, the singing is fantastic, the costumes are great and the jokes are funny enough to make a viewer forget the cheesey plot line. And the venue, Bisceglie's Victory Theater, has undergone a complete makeover since its roughhouse days as J.J.'s Blues Nightclub. Cocktail tables, linens, beer and wine and upstairs seating all add to the quality of the experience. Yes, a night at The San Jose Follies Strikes Back quite rivals an evening of cabaret in San Francisco, a city about 50 miles north of here.


The San Jose Follies Strikes Back opens Saturday (Dec. 12) at Victory Theater, 14 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $20-$33; 21 and over. (408/286-6600)

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From the December 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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