The legacy of the Follies

The Frantic Follies Vaudeville Revue is the longest running independent theatre company in North America. Or, at least, that’s Grant Simpson’s speculation. He’s also got an application in to the Guiness World Book of Records to affirm that the it’s the longest running vaudeville show.

In the world.

Simpson is into longevity.

The Whitehorse show is, among other things, slap-stick humour, can can dancers, ragtime piano, singing, banjos, leading ladies, skits about cabin fever, and reenactments of the Cremation of Sam McGee. Simpson is the show’s producer, director and half-owner. Lyle Murdoch is the other half-owner.

In two years it will be the 50th season of the follies. Simpson’s hoping that is the year he’ll pass up his role to his kids, and he’ll “be the old guy who entertains.”

The idea of connectivity and legacy is one of the reasons Simpson’s excited to have four former can can dancers back on the stage on August 26 for Yukoners’ Day. “The Follies has a family feel,” says Simpson. The younger, current dancers don’t know the past cast. “It’s really nice to do this, and pull it together.”

Allyn Walton grew up in Whitehorse. She started working at the door for the Follies in 2005. She joined the cast in 2007, and returned every summer until 2011. This summer she’s been filling in for Nicole Murdoch, who broke her toe. It’s been like coming home, she says. “These people and this show are family, no matter when you did the show, we are all family.”

Walton is also one of the four former can can dancers making an appearance for Yukoners’ Night.

The Follies stage is in the Westmark Hotel. It’s performed nightly through the summer, and its main audience is made up of visitors. Usually Americans on a tour package. The Follies is one place they hit. But there are Yukoners who’ve seen the show more than once. Since it doesn’t change much, Simpson likes to add twists on Yukoners’ Night as a way to show the community appreciation for its support.

Yukon icon Hank Karr has been integrated as a guest cast member. It’s “like a special occassion” when he’s on stage,” says Simpson.

Past Yukoners’ Night have performers like Dale Cooper and Graham Hartwich, who Simpson says are legacies of the Follies.

This year is the first time former can can dancers have returned. Michelle Fisher is another one of them. “We’re going to take over the stage as much as possible,” she says.

Fisher joined the cast in 2005. Talking over the phone from Calgary, she says when she was hired, “I didn’t know I was can can dancing. I just knew I was getting paid to dance.”

Her last year with the Follies was in 2006. She spent four years with the Gaslight Follies in Dawson City. Now, she’s in Calgary because she’s doing an intensive; she’s training to get her certificate for ballet studies, so she can teach it in Whitehorse.

She’s started a family there.

Fisher says Becky Reynolds was the third person she met upon moving to the Yukon, so long ago. Reynolds, originally from Alberta, was a can can dancer from xx to xx. Being back on stage to practice for the upcoming show is pretty nostalgic. “It’s like visiting your old house,” she says. “They were my family.”

The combination of being a cast member with the Follies and living in the Whitehorse, “opened me right up. It made me who I am. I’m so excited to go back and feel the lights on my skin.”

Hiring Reynolds was one of Simpson’s best moves, he says. “She just lights up the stage with her personality, and she lights up the cast environment.”

He says each of the four dancers returning for Yukoners’ Night bring a personality to the stage. “It’s nice to have them back.”

Dancing with the Frantic Follies was Nikki Swerhun’s first job, from 2000 to 2002, and then for a season in 2005. At 15, she was the youngest, but the cast “swept me under their wings and became my second family. It was very tightknit and I loved it,” she says.

It’s been 11 years, and she was nervous to return. But, “it turns out it’s like riding a bike. Everything came rushing back.”

Fisher noticed that, too: “It hasn’t changed much in 10 years. But I’m completely different.”

Along with taking over the stage as much as possible, the can can dancers will perform a new routine they’ve been practicing, that was choreographed by Reynolds.

Yukoners’ Night will include more guest appearances, but Simpson didn’t want to spill the beans on the surprises. He’s really excited, though.

So is Fisher — “everyone has to come see it,” she says. “It’s going to be quite the show.”

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