Life has its ups and downs. It’s how life shapes you that counts. With ‘… And I’m Here,’ The Players Follies pays tribute to the idea through song, dance and monologue.
In a rehearsal room near the back of the Players Centre for Performing Arts, two old friends are reconnecting. It has been 10 years since they’ve seen one another, and they have a lot to catch up on — and reflect upon.
Together, they sing about old times — sharing secrets, planning their futures, calling boys, and where their lives are now. The song ends, and they’re quickly joined by 10 other women, tap-dancing and singing in unison.
The women are members of the Players Follies — a musical theater group for performers ages 55 and older. Twice a week, the 12 members meet in this room for a two-hour rehearsal, training with Berry Ayers and Cinda Goeken for seven months, all in anticipation of their annual musical revue.
This year’s performance, on April 15, was built around the personal stories of the women. Through song, dance and monologues, they reveal the personal struggles they’ve overcome — heartbreak, loss and other bittersweet life moments, and how they’re not only still here to tell the story — it’s part of what’s shaped the people they are today.
It’s aptly titled “… And I’m Here.”
Berry Ayers, who leads the group, says the Players Follies hadn’t even performed last year’s show before he came up with the theme.
“The title came to me before anything else,” he says. “I was fascinated by the idea of people having already lived full, rich lives and still taking the opportunity to try something new. You’ve experienced all of life’s ups and downs — and now you’re here.”
The idea was to use the women’s personal life stories to form the foundation for an intimate, heartfelt musical revue. After that, he says, ideas for the songs he wanted to use just started flowing.
A veritable human iTunes library of musical theater hits, deep cuts from Broadway productions —even pop songs — Ayers scoured his mental catalogue of songs, picking ones he felt were especially fitting. (His real iTunes library is home to some 50,000 songs, stored on its own terabyte hard drive).
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” he says, laughing.
Much like assembling the soundtrack to a movie, Ayers chose 15 songs that fit the theme of the six interwoven monologues. Onstage, the whole thing unfolds in the form of a cocktail party.
There is a wide range of stories, mostly upbeat, although a few are more somber. Topics include reminiscing about Woodstock, an unwitting first kiss at the bowling alley, and a former ballet dancer’s humiliating onstage moment.
“I raised three sons,” says Connie Farris, who contributed a story. “There was more than enough craziness. I think we were regulars at the ER.”
For the members, whose levels of experience vary, it’s an opportunity to participate in — or learn something — they love.
“When I was young, all I ever wanted to do was be on Broadway,” says Barbara Bostic. “I learned to dance at age 50. I’m happy I get to do what I wanted to do as a kid.”
“It becomes more than just a performance group,” adds Fran Hall. “At the end of April, I start to miss all my Follies friends.”
“Working with people over 55 is a whole different dynamic,” says Ayers. “They’re so eager to learn. They’re here because they want to be. For a lot of them, its something they never got to do, and now they have a chance to try it. There’s a sense of honor, of having made it through and still being here. We have cancer survivors, people who have lost loved ones, and any number of personal issues. And now they’re here, singing, dancing, smiling and having a great time. They have an absolute passion for what they’re doing.”
Whatever participants’ level of experience, Farris says Ayers strives for a professional performance.
“He pushes us to do things we didn’t think we could do,” she says. “We’re doing ‘The Montage’ from ‘A Chorus Line,’ which is a challenging piece. I hope the stories resonate with people. They’re all very personal to us.”
“Something happens in the last week of rehearsal,” says Ayers. “It all finally comes together, and I’m so proud to see how they’ve grown as actors and performers. When I see a new emotion come through in a monologue, or a tear roll down someone’s cheek during a song — it’s amazing. You can feel how personal this is.”