Kerry, Buddy and Ambien reign at Follies ’07

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

SWANSEA, Mass. – Even with Rhode Island’s hotly contested primary just a few days away, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told the crowd at the Providence Newspaper Guild’s Follies ’07 Friday night that most presidential candidates couldn’t make it to the annual bash at the Venus de Milo, a restaurant here.

The former Democratic presidential candidate joked that Republican candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee couldn’t find space to park his double-wide mobile home and that 71-year-old Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had too many bad memories – “he used to date Venus de Milo,” Kerry said.

Kerry was a surprise performer at this year’s Follies, an annual musical comedy show that skewers local politicians and news from the past year, put on by the Providence Newspaper Guild, the union representing journalists from the Providence Journal and other local papers.

Traditionally held just across the Massachusetts border, in Swansea, the show, now in its 35th year, is clubby and scathing, requiring a deep and wide understanding of local news and personalities to understand most of the humor. But in a presidential election year – and with the closely contested Democratic nomination process headed for a vital showdown in today’s primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont – national politics played a large role in the show.

Scott MacKay, reporter for the Providence Journal and one of the evening’s emcees, joked that if Hillary Clinton attended, she would have to be seated away from Providence Mayor David Cicilline ’83, who backs the New York senator for president but was banned from her events in the state because of a long-running dispute with the local firefighters’ union.

MacKay also took a shot at Clinton’s rival, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., saying that Obama took one look at the demographics of Follies guests and decided to go to Brown’s campus instead to sign copies of his new book, “The Audacity of Hype.”

Kerry made a surprise appearance early in the show and lit up the crowd with a series of one-liners mostly targeting Republican candidates, starting by noting that “I come before you as I always do – not as president.” The crowd, he noted, was 99 percent white, “very belligerent” and “angry that you paid so much for so little, which makes you just like Mitt Romney’s backers.”

But when Kerry’s speech veered into an all-too-serious plug for Obama, whom he has endorsed, some Clinton backers began shouting “Hillary,” and Kerry quickly wrapped up his act, as some attendees stood and clapped and others booed. Clinton’s daughter Chelsea also attended the show, though she did not take the stage.

Local politicians got into the act, too – the night’s “mystery guests,” Obama-backing Attorney General Patrick Lynch ’87 and his Clinton-backing brother, state Democratic Party Chairman Bill Lynch, sparred good-naturedly on stage at the close of the show. Their mother came out and ended the sketch by proclaiming her support for Oprah Winfrey as the country’s next president.

But the meat of the show was, as in past years, Rhode Island politics. MacKay skewered Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 for what MacKay termed his “reverse Titanic plan” for trimming the state budget – “you know, throw the women and children overboard.” To raise money, MacKay also suggested selling naming rights to the state to a well-known local philanthropist, changing the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to the State of Rhode Island and Alan Shawn Feinstein Plantations.

The many songs, performed enthusiastically by Journal staffers, had several high points, including a song about the state’s attempt to treat 17-year-old criminals as adults to save money. Singers in orange prison outfits crowed to the audience that they are being put in prison “when we’re still too young to shave … where we could be a sexual slave” – all to the tune of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.”

In a song poking fun at a recent bribery scandal involving former state legislators and Woonsocket-based CVS/pharmacy, three singers wearing CVS bags sang – to the tune of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” – that “No one knows what it’s like to be the bag man” and that, “My bags, they weren’t as empty, as my ethics used to be.”

State and Providence officials also came in for ridicule for their botched response to last December’s snowstorm, during which schoolchildren were trapped on the road in buses for hours, while Carcieri visited Iraq. “Even though we’re living in New England,” performers in parkas and hats sang, “we screw up when it snows.”

One of the evening’s best moments was the high-energy “Bald Ambition” two-song set, about the return of the colorful Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the former Providence mayor recently released from federal prison, where he served almost five years for corruption charges. Women in slinky silver dresses sang that Cianci, now back on the radio, made them “smile to know you haven’t changed, the only thing that’s missing is your toupee.” They were followed by a Cianci stand-in who sang briefly about how he is “popular and powerful,” as the women sang that he is “simply irresistible.”

Other local politicians didn’t escape ridicule. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., is reportedly on the Democratic short-list for vice president, MacKay said, but he noted that the diminutive senator is “not on anyone’s tall list.” Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., who in 2006 entered rehab for drug and alcohol addiction, is “getting almost as boring as Jack Reed,” MacKay said, adding that the Guild is filing a class-action lawsuit against him to get him hooked on Ambien again, presumably to glean more material for the Follies.

The show’s content was often cutting, but most Rhode Island politicians and other luminaries still made the trek to Swansea to be mocked. Why do they do it?

“The one thing worse than being mentioned in the Follies,” Guild administrator Tim Schick noted in the program, “is NOT being mentioned.”

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