By Dale King
The comedy Butterflies are Free, which opens the 2014-2015 season at the Broward Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs, is not a musical. But music is key to the flow of the action and the meaning of the characters’ lives, particularly Don Baker (Britt Michael Gordon), the central figure in this quirky, slightly dated, but certainly entertaining and worthwhile production.
Don is a young, blind man who has fled his overbearing and overprotective mother in Scarsdale, N.Y., to try and make a life for himself in a Manhattan apartment. Next-door neighbor Jill Tanner (Gina Marie Jamieson), a free-spirited young lady who’s just as quirky as this “groovy” late-‘60s comedy, quickly – perhaps too quickly – becomes a love interest who does much to both hurt and heal the vulnerable Baker.
A guitarist who hopes to land a job in a local club to pay his new living expenses, Don composes a song with the lyric, “Butterflies are free/And so are we.” But the tune that kept going through this reviewer’s head was the Elton John song, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, with the lyric, “Butterflies are free to fly/Fly away.” As one blogger interpreted it, John’s song means “being torn between living life for others or living the life you know you have inside you.” That’s certainly à propos for Don, and, in a way, for his mom and Jill.
Butterflies are Free, written by Leonard Gershe, won a number of awards when it hit Broadway in 1969. But the 1972 screen adaptation that starred Edward Albert and Goldie Hawn is perhaps better known. Albert, who died of lung cancer in 2006, won a Golden Globe for the film. For Hawn, it was her third movie after breaking loose from the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In stable.
Broadway-steeped director Michael Leeds and Broward Stage artistic director Derelle Bunn assembled a talented cast of four local and New York actors to inhabit Gershe’s characters. “What drew me to ‘Butterflies Are Free’ was the way it highlights how deceptive our perception of people with disabilities can be,” Leeds said. “His problem is not how he sees the world but, rather, how the world sees him.”
Gershe has crafted a snappy script, and the cast — Gordon, Tanner, Mrs. Baker (Brook Packard) and Ralph Austin (Andy Quiroga) — deliver their lines with just the right timing. Austin, the producer of sordid plays, nabs would-be actress Jill during an audition and entices her to star in a nude play — to the chagrin of Don and his mother.
Act I is kind of fluffy, with a lot of talk and references to “groovy” things. The witty banter prevents the dialogue from becoming too ho-hum. At one point, Don notes that the bed, which sits atop stilts, was “built by a hippie. He liked to sleep high.”
Mom arrives at the end of Act I, so Act II is more confrontational. The action moves faster and the changing situations pique the audience’s interest. The on-stage mix gets a boost from Austin’s arrival and references to Don’s former girlfriend, Linda Fletcher. Though she is never seen, it is clear through comments by Don and mom that she done him wrong, big time, and he never got over it.
The ending is no big surprise. And it’s also difficult to conceive that so many things — and particularly so many powerful emotions — could have all taken place in a single day.
Thankfully, Gershe and the cast do not overemphasize Don’s blindness, and actor Gordon keeps his staged disability within respectful bounds. The Florida State University-trained player easily runs the gamut of emotion, from anger to happiness, grief to joy. His blindness only becomes an issue occasionally.
Jamieson comfortably sails as Jill, whose stage presence is impeccable for a young actor. She’s a natural performer, and the chemistry between her and Gordon is particularly noticeable.
Packard portrays Mrs. Baker with motherly charm and concern. She’s not quite as over-the-top as Don portrays her, and mom and son combine for a touching, even tearful cease-fire in their hostilities as Don finally discovers the importance of their relationship.
Quiroga, seen last season in Moon over Buffalo and God of Isaac on the Broward Stage, returns as Ralph, a particularly unlikeable character who may or may not be a show producer. This shallow, one-trick role belies his extensive résumé and 20 years of experience in theater and film.
The action takes place in a hippie-esque apartment with a door that opens to Jill’s space, making the stage one gigantic room. Set designer Michael McClain even found a yellow rotary dial phone and a 1960s-style stereo and painted a peace sign on the ceiling to make the place more “mod.”
Butterflies Are Free runs through Sept. 14 at the Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 Sample Road, Coral Springs. Tickets are available by calling 954-344-7765 or visiting wwwstagedoorfl.org.