True crime is enjoying a renaissance. The popularity of the podcast “Serial” and the addictiveness of HBO’s “The Jinx” are obvious examples. But at the same moment, New York City has seen an explosion of opulent interactive theater experiences, such as “Sleep No More” and “Queen of the Night.” So, it’s no wonder that a true-crime immersive theater experience would emerge on Broadway.
Enter Speakeasy Dollhouse: Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, the brainchild of writer and director Cynthia von Buhler based on the poisoning death of former Ziegfeld dancer and silent film actress, Olive Thomas, at the start of the Jazz Age.
Glittery costumes, wild dance numbers, raunchy burlesque and lots of stair-climbing await attendees as the tale unfolds on the elaborate three-floor set.
Here’s the skinny about what is “the bees knees” about the show and what wasn’t “the cat’s meow.”
1. The Joint is Jumpin’: To enter the show — held in a supposed speakeasy — attendees must go into the Liberty Diner, amidst the hustle and bustle of Times Square, and find a check-in booth in the back. Ticket holders are given a password — cloak and dagger style — and handed a passport with a card inside giving them a role or task to carry out during the show. They are ushered from “New York,” upstairs to “Paris” via a “boat ride,” where they drink champagne and sniff “fauxcaine” with the performers.
Overall, the sets are realistic and amazingly crafted. The first floor stage houses the primary acts of the show, but during intermissions guests are encouraged to roam to the other floors. The next floor, Montmartre’s Cabaret du Néant, houses a bar and seating area where a number of smaller performances occur, furthering the plot of the show.
Upstairs even further, one can view the hotel room and actually witness the death.
2. Glad Rags: Adding to the authentic Jazz Age ambience were the costumes. Feathers, tap shoes, sequins and fascinators add to the show’s flavor and about half of the audience is decked out. Attendees can even buy their own headpieces during the show “in a Parisian alley.”
3. Audience: It was a bit disconcerting that there was absolutely no dress code. Trying to buy into the fantasy of being in the 1920s is hard when some attendees were dressed like ragamuffins, wearing flip flops, shorts and jeans, which do not lend themselves to the overall luxe vibe that the show was trying to impart. There were a few children in the audience even though dancers were often scantily clad. In one scene “Josephine Baker,” clad in a G-string with a belt of bananas around her waist, humped the stage and twirled her pasties.
4. Seating: “Dewdroppers,” those with general admission tickets ($80), can stand around the stage during the 40-minute first act while those with VIP tickets ($155) are given seats around it. Those who pre-order dinner are given tables on the first floor. What was confusing is that while the VIP areas were reserved, there was no one from the show supervising or seating, so basically anyone could sit in a reserved area. Those with reserved seating didn’t always get a seat, or were overly crowded.
5. Libations: Food typical of the period can be ordered prior to the show separately. Guests at a table can get three courses for 65 “clams.” “Giggle water,” aka fabulous drinks, such as “The Midnight Frolic,” “The Showgirl,” and “Red Roses” kept the 1920s theme going. Pricing was a bit uneven – the first glass of wine we ordered along with a seltzer was priced at $12, but the second glass of exactly the same wine, sans additional soda, was $14.
6. Performance: To best understand what is happening, theater-goers should read up on the history of Thomas’ death provided on the show’s site, which has a section of “evidence.” Without knowing some background, the show is extremely hard to follow.
Actors were very committed to their roles and stayed in character throughout the evening, even when most eyes were not on them. While the main characters were performing, other characters would privately interact with guests. Still, some performances were spotty and a bit distracting — as was a mic fail in the first act.
One of the nicest surprises was the music, which included Roaring Twenties arrangements of modern-day songs by Sia, Gotye, and Daft Punk. The melding of musical styles nearly 100 years apart kept the show exciting and gave it a special relevance.
7. Organization: In theory, the idea for the show was brilliant, but in execution a bit chaotic. During intermissions, the audience would rush to one area at the same time causing crowding and making it hard to see crucial parts of the show. At one point – during one of Thomas’ death scenes (it is depicted differently at each intermission) — it was so crowded that the actors couldn’t exit the “hotel” area properly, making her death comical. To note: The show is supposed to be over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek so it actually added to the scene.
8. Trapeze: “Queen of the Night’s” trapeze acts have absolutely nothing on Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic’s! The true highlight of the whole shebang was the elaborate trapeze numbers and literal swingers. In the center of the main stage, acrobats dangled without nets or oftentimes without harnesses, in a sort of sky ballet. The bees knees indeed!