James Kaplan and Jeffrey Herbst
Old Friends celebrates the music of Paul Simon, one of the most successful and prolific songwriters in American musical history. Having featured, in its various incarnations, such AFT favorites as Chris Irwin, Claudia Russell, and Scott Wakefield, Old Friends still stands as one of AFT’s most popular fall concert offerings to date. Old Friends features such hits as “Mrs. Robinson,” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” and “Homeward Bound,” as well as lesser-known songs like “Duncan” and “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Produced in 1997 & 2003.
Pictured: Don Thompson, Claudia Russell and Chris Irwin
Door County Advocate
“Old Friends” creates new Simon fans
You don’t have to be a fan of Paul Simon to enjoy “Old Friends,” the American Folklore Theatre’s fall Town Hall Concert Series show currently playing in Fish Creek and Ephraim. The presentation, almost exclusively music, encompasses nearly every era of singer/songwriter Simon’s work. If you are familiar with his body of music, you’ll love sitting back listening to the tunes. If you’ve never heard of Simon before, this show is a great primer.
It’s a good indication that the audience is enjoying the show when, after the performance, several individuals approached the reviewer—who was busy winding film and closing notepads—to say “We loved the show,” and “Please give it a good review.”
They needn’t have worried. The show, assembled by James Kaplan and Jeff Herbst and produced by Fred Alley, features a talented trio of musicians and singers, all new to the AFT autumn stage. The three—Chris Irwin, Don Thompson and Claudia Russell—present an entertaining, slightly nostalgic, evening that leaves uadiences humming all the way home.
The show starts with Irwin leaning against a wall just off stage on a set of steps, like a New York street musician, playing a soulful rendition of “Still Crazy.” Then Thompson gets things rolling by inviting Irwin on stage—“Hey! You’re pretty good!”—and a moment later Irwin, Thompson and Russell are pounding out a rousing “Homeward Bound.”
There are plenty of old favorites, such as “Cecelia,” in which Irwin beats out a convincing rhythm on a five-gallon plastic drum. “Love Me Like a Rock,” features Irwin’s buttery, lightly southern voice.
Russell’s “Sound of Silence” hushed the audience while songs such as “57th Street Bridge Song,” performed by Thompson, raised spirits. Between Irwin’s smoothness, Thompson’s Cat Stevens-like voice and Russell’s country touch, there is enough variety in this musical presentation to impress even Paul Simon who, in recent years, has stretched his songwriting to include styles and sounds as diverse as South African and South American.
While it was fun to hear the old familiars, some of Simon’s less known work is where the show particularly shines. Thompson’s performance of “Duncan” and Irwin’s “Only Living Boy in New York” are like new friends.
True to the show’s nomenclature, the trio performs “Old Friends.” And, while we don’t want to give away the encore here, we’ll just say that hearing “Graceland” is well worth bringing the trio back on stage after their set.
New this year to the fall concert series is a grand, three-dimensional set designed by James Maronek and constructed by Stewart Dawson and David Alley. The scene takes the audience to New York City, Simon’s stomping ground. All over the scene, from skyscrapers to gutters, from taverns to the Statue of Liberty, there are signs and hints of Simon’s song names—like the words of the prophets written on the subway walls…
Green Bay Press-Gazette
WARREN GERDS – October 1997
Simon’s songs glow in Folklore Theatre show
STURGEON BAY—Paul Simon from a folk music sensibility—hmmm. It works.
Graceland, Mrs. Robinson, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, Homeward Bound and many more of the popular pop tunesmith’s hits radiate nicely in different settings in a new show that carries the name of another Simon song, Old Friends.
The 80-minute show is the work of Door County’s American Folklore Theatre. Normally, the troupe deals in historical matters. This time, the subject is very much contemporary. Simon is nowhere near finished and at present is putting together a Broadway musical, Capeman, for a Dec. 1 premiere.
Old Friends gives listeners a chance to step back, listen to what Simon has brought us so far and appreciate his artistry.
Music director James Kaplan—who arranged most of the material and chose what would and wouldn’t go in the show—reports Old Friends is the troupe’s most-popular fall production. There’s good reason for that.
Simon is a household name. We know is [sic] songs. Those songs usually are engaging.
Now, put together 20 or so of his songs in a bundle, and you get the picture of a lively, creative, interested, exploring human being with a gift for musicality.
You come away from Old Friends feeling Simon indeed is an artist.
This you are not told; there is no narration. This comes from hearing songs roll from performers Chris Irwin of Tennessee, Claudia Russell of Los Angeles and Don Thompson of Door County.
Sometimes an exact mesh with Simon’s music is just beyond grasp, but most often the three envelop you in whatever a song offers—the tenderness of Scarborough Fair, the sheer happiness of Love Me Like a Rock, the gospel heat of Gone at Last—all over a rich and varied landscape.
Thompson is the epitome of Feelin’ Groovy, energetically jumping into songs with a twinkle in the eye and a wide grin beneath his cream-colored, wide-brim hat.
Russell ads [sic] sweet and lovely touches—a kind of vocal poetry—in Sound of Silence and many other songs.
Irwin has a smooth voice, peaking in Slip Slidin’ Away, plus his soulful saxophone solo in Still Crazy After All These Years is an attention-getting opener for the show.
In performances at Fish Creek and Ephraim, the cast performs in front of a painted backdrop of urban images inspired by Simon’s songs.
American Folklore Theatre creators already are thinking of shows for next summer. One may have an ice fishing theme and another may be about the Green Bay Packers and UFOs, Kaplan says. Sounds like fun.