Touchstone ‘Follies’ back for 19th year, and counting
Dancing hippos in pink tutus, a shopping cart ballet and singing Christmas trees are just a few of the unexpected delights in Touchstone Theatre’s “Christmas City Follies XIX,” a one-of-a-kind send-up of the Christmas season in the Christmas City, Dec. 6-23.
“We’ve been shaking it up bit this year,” says Emma Ackerman, Touchstone ensemble member and general manager. “And I think it’s fresher than ever.”
“Follies,” which Ackerman says has become a beloved tradition for many Lehigh Valley families to attend, is a holiday-themed vaudeville-style revue that includes original sketches; new, as well as familiar, characters; traditional and original songs, and lots of holiday cheer.
Past shows have tackled a range of topics, from cultural heritage to seasonal depression, exploding penguins to Black Friday shopping frenzies, and dancing ornaments to talking fish.
Ackerman says this year’s show will include a ukulele brigade, an original Christmas storybook creature, a lesson on how to be an effective holiday pickpocket, and how the toys really feel as they’re getting loaded onto Santa’s sleigh.
Returning are long-time favorites. Bill George is the curmudgeonly “Old Guy” with his shopping cart full of possessions and his whispered conversations with the Baby Jesus. Mary Wright is the often sad and always silent “Little Red,” who is searching for meaning in life.
And the ever-popular “Shopping Cart Ballet” returns, and Ackerman promises this year’s rendition is a “showstopper.”
She says “Follies” also is excited to welcome “new blood”: two new members joining the ensemble.
Ackerman says Touchstone’s new apprentice Alyssa Allen is a very talented singer and musician, as well as actor.
Also joining “Follies” is Lehigh Valley comedian Samantha Beedle, who has been hosting her “Secret Stash” improv-based events at Touchstone’s theater.
“We are so excited to have her,” Ackerman says. “She is becoming a part of the Touchstone family.”
Rehearsals for “Follies” began in mid-October.
Ackerman says the Touchstone troupe approached the show a little differently this year.
“Usually, we start with a big brainstorm idea dump,” she says.
Instead, Touchstone Theatre Artistic Director James P. Jordan challenged members to come in with games that would generate ideas.
Ackerman says one game had members create characters inspired by Christmas Carols and stuck them in a house party.
“There was this sense of chaos and the energy was fantastic,” Ackerman says.
Another game challenged members to write original Christmas songs. Several of the tunes will be included in the show.
Ackerman says the overarching theme that ties it all together is the idea of connection and being able to reach out and be with someone else.
“It goes to an interesting place emotionally,” she says.
Ackerman says there are lots of new characters and ridiculous costumes.
Of the hippos in pink tutus, Ackerman says, “They’re so darn charming. You have not had your Christmas complete until you have seen dancing hippos.”
She says there even is a nod to Einstein the Snow Camel, who infamously was seen along Route 309 during the Nov. 15 snowstorm.
Ackerman says while there are no pandas this year, there will be a rabbit and a raccoon in a “throwback to the old Rankin-Bass ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’ Christmas special.
“There’s music and laughter and people looking goofy and kazoos and ukuleles,” Ackerman says.
She notes that although this is the 19th “Follies,” the show has “technically been going for more than 20 years.” She says before 1998, Touchstone presented “Follies” on alternating years.
Ackerman sees “Follies” continuing for years to come.
“It will go on as long as we have stories to tell about Christmas time in the Christmas City,” she says. “There is so much that goes on, that is will never end.”
On display in the Touchstone Gallery during the “Follies” run is the work of painter Lynn Beedle. The exhibit features profiles of familiar Lehigh Valley landmarks and landscapes, as well as a few character studies appropriate for the “Follies” mood.
“Christmas City Follies XIX,” 8 p.m. Thursdays - Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays and Dec. 22, from Dec. 6-23, Touchstone Theatre, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem. Tickets: Touchstone Theatre box office, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem; Group rates available; pay-what-you-will ticket at the door, as available, Thursdays. touchstone.org; 610-867-1689